Saturday, October 16, 2010

Meeting Edward Albee

Edward Albee is appearing as part of the MTC's 2010 Sumner Lecture tomorrow at 3pm. Last week I was fortunate enough to spend a few days with him in Sydney and wrote the following as a result. The piece first appeared in The Sunday Age.

 Image copyright - it's the one that best captures the Albee I met.

“Any play that doesn't hurt you in some way has something wrong with it.” - Edward Albee

THE SCENE: Afternoon. An esteemed Australian actor's home in Bondi, Sydney. A small, diverse group of artists and professionals are scattered around a large table; outside a tropical storm rages. Front, a journalist, JOHN BAILEY, sits with 83-year-old American playwright EDWARD ALBEE. The younger man has just called Albee's cat a c-nt.

ALBEE (squinting askance): What did you say?

BAILEY (less confidently): I... you have a cat named C-nt?

ALBEE: I'm going deaf. Say that again.

BAILEY: (loudly) Your cat is named C-nt.


ALBEE: I had a cat named Cunegonde, many years ago. Perhaps... that's what you are referring to.

This wasn't how I'd planned things would unfold out during my first meeting with the man regularly described as the “greatest living playwright.” It's just that I'd heard that his cat was so named and after his surprisingly firm handshake reminded me of a recent wrist mauling I'd received from a feline, it sort of blurted out. And there I was, having just said – yelled, really – a word I'd normally never use, in a roomful of strangers.

Albee played me. The next morning I recall that “Cunegonde,” from Voltaire's Candide, was a pun on the French slang for female genitalia. As for his requests that I repeat the question more loudly: when he later pleads deaf to another member of our gathering, he turns and gives me a small grin. “Selectively deaf,” he says. 

I shouldn't be surprised if Albee set me up during our first meeting. I'm soon to learn that this is his method: constant quips, contrariness and, usually, that conspiratorial smile as punctuation. As he points out over lunch the following day, “I'm observing you right now.” By that point I'm well aware of it.

Albee has long had a reputation as fiercely belligerent. In the 1960s he was became known for his “barbed, poised and elegantly guarded public press style”; of his last play, Me, Myself and I, he tells me that “the intelligent people received it very well, the imbeciles very badly. There's lots of things that people don't like in it. Too bad.”

 Albee in 1962

He shot to attention with 1962's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an uncompromising vivisection of contemporary mores. The play's Pulitzer Prize was rescinded by the award's board, who found the play obscene. More recently, in Australia, his The Goat: or, Who is Sylvia? dramatised the sexual and emotional relationship between an architect and the titular bovid.

Albee says that mere shock has never been his intention. “Did I sit down and think 'I must now write a play about something so outrageous that it will make people reconsider all their values blah blah blah'? Of course not. No. I may have been aware while I was writing it that this may shake some people up, but that's fine. Bring it on.”

But the Edward Albee I meet the day after our Scene One is a distinct counterpoint. I'm sitting outside the Bondi Pavilion, where he's spending the next two weeks mentoring a hand-picked group of Australian playwrights. “Have you been sitting here all night?” he asks, shaking my hand again.

In the morning session he makes jokes, sometimes at his own expense, and appears anything but threatening. When we take lunch nearby, he opts for a tuna wrap and Pepsi – sugar-free, on account of diabetes, but he does decide to indulge in a blueberry muffin. Every time he sees a dog he becomes animated and rushes to pat it. 

He seems anything but a hellraiser out to milk the teat of notoriety; if that were the case, why spend so much time teaching younger playwrights? This is Albee's third visit to Australia under the auspices of Inscription, a Sydney-based company advocating the development of local scriptwriters; the trip has resulted in Inscription's new Albee Scholar program, which will provide one local writer a six-week residency at the playwright's Montauk artist's retreat in 2011.

The firebrand Albee is still in there, though. “The two most important phrases a playwright can learn,” he tells his charges on their first morning, “are 'No' and 'Go fuck yourself'.”

In one of Albee's earliest plays, the 12-minute “The Sandbox”, there appears the character of a grandma in her 80s. She is the only figure in the piece not obsessed with appearing proper; the wizened old imp showing up the foolishness of the inane and vainglorious. “The Sandbox” was dedicated to Albee's own grandmother: “She was very lively. I liked her a lot. I suppose in some ways I tried to emulate her and stay alive. Not close down. Be an outsider. It always helps to be an outsider.”

This sense of being on the outside has been a constant throughout Albee's life. His biological parents gave him up for adoption at birth, and he suspects that his mother never knew his father (though “obviously they must have known each other for a few hours.”). Under US laws of the time, adopting families were forbidden any knowledge of a child's original parentage – apart from two rules aimed at social segregation. Babies could only be brought into families of the same ethnic and religious background as those giving up the “little bundle of child.”

“How you would manage to have a faith at two weeks old I do not know,” he says. “What preposterous rules that kept so many kids from being adopted.”

From the outset he was a stranger to his new family. The Albees were a wealthy clan who owned a highly successful vaudeville company. They were also committed racists and possessed by outrageous notions of class: the Irish, for example, were only fit to work as servants. Edward spent most of his youth in boarding schools or with nannies, while the rest of the family was “busy being social, busy being rich.”

“I'm the only one left of the entire brood who survived,” he says. “Because I'm evil.”

Albee was told early on that he was adopted – another way his parents hoped to distance themselves from him – and was delighted to learn it. “'My god,'” he thought, “'I'm not like these people.' One of the virtues of being adopted is that you create your own identity. You're not subject to the blood of other people.”

In contrast – indeed in opposition – to his family, he developed a highly liberal political sense from a young age. His rebellious streak carried through his teens, resulting in numerous school expulsions. He was never terribly good at running away from home, though not for want of trying. At thirteen he tried to buy passage to London but was returned to the family home. Neither party was particularly pleased with the outcome, and his mother couldn't wait until he was old enough to be kicked out.

The moment he came of age, he legged it to New York's Greenwich Village, at the time a hotbed of contemporary art in every form. For some time he attempted to write poetry (“we all begin by writing poetry, don't we?”), even confronting W. H. Auden on his doorstep with a bundle of his verse. “We got over a very difficult problem at the very beginning, because he wanted to get me to bed,” says Albee. “I didn't. But he was very gracious about that and we stayed friends until he died.”

He worked odd jobs, including a long stint with telegram company Western Union. This often saw him delivering death notices which required signatures from their recipients, and the real people he met as a result later came to populate his early plays. To this day, Albee takes the subway whenever he can, since it allows him to observe the actual characters he writes. “One day I'm going to get hit by someone,” he says. “'Why you staring at me?' 'Because you're so fucking fascinating!'”

Albee denies that he has ever written himself into his work: “I don't put myself in my plays. How can I be objective about me?” But his childhood has been replayed throughout his career – the family so excoriatingly satirised in “The Sandbox” reappeared in a longer play soon after (“The American Dream”). His mother was the focus on his acclaimed Three Tall Women in 1990, and was reconfigured once more in Me, Myself and I.

The way Albee recounts his own life is equally rife with repetition and variation. Some anecdotes, even particular ways of phrasing them, recur in different interviews. The two apocryphal novels he wrote as a kid (“the worst two novels that any American teenager could have written”) he now describes as 1500 and 3000 pages long. In 1966, the same works were 700 and “a couple hundred” pages.

Is it possible that the “Edward Albee” in the public eye is not just the author but the result of his writing? A fiction that has been built up over five decades of revision? Or even a ruse? Those dogs he appears so humanly fond of – before we'd even spoken, he had seen me patting a pooch that had appeared on the scene of our first encounter.

Contradiction has perhaps been the one constant in this life – challenging his parents, his critics, himself. The echoes that connect the rebellious child, the enfant terrible of theatre and the still-fighting Albee of today are a challenge to time as much as anything else. At 30 he was writing of 80-year-olds; now, he says, “half the time I still think I'm about 15. 80 is a fact. It's not an attitude. Whatever age you are, you're a different age really.”


Chris Boyd said...

Woke the neighbours at 4:30 guffawing over "Cunegonde". Great piece BTW.

richardwatts said...

Damn, he was cute in 1962!

Cameron Woodhead said...

I'm barging in on this ghetto of agreement to ... erm ... agree. Very funny opening. (I even shamelessly nicked your Albee quote, which fit in nicely with something I was writing at the time.)

Born Dancin' said...

Where did you use that quote, Cameron? It was something he said at the Inscription workshop, not something he's written down anywhere (that I know of). It's a pretty good summation of his methodology.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Hasn't been published yet. Used it in a Canvas about the MIAF as a kind of aesthetic boot camp. The piece covers art's desire to inflict pain and alter our perception of time. "Any play that doesn't hurt you in some way has something wrong with it" is a precise example of the former ... although it doesn't quite have the shock value of Artaud, also referenced, whose ideal theatre would cause the audience to commit mass suicide.

Fun times.