“It’s just a quirk of the brain that makes one a playwright,” says Edward Albee, a man who knows a thing or two about writing for the stage. “I have the same experiences that everybody else does, but since I have this quirk in my head, I am not content with that. I feel the need to translate a lot of what happens to me, a lot of what I think into a play.”
And that need shows no sign of diminishing for the playwright, who, at age 80, now seems busier and more productive than ever.
“I usually can remember about six months after I finish a piece what started it moving into my consciousness,” he says. “All art begins in the unconscious.”
Albee, trim and spry, sits in his spacious, art-decorated Tribeca loft in New York City, as Abigail, his frisky, 10-month-old half-Abyssinian cat snakes around video equipment and large pieces of sculpture and finally gets exiled behind closed doors to the kitchen.
“I think if a writer gets ideas, you’ve got to get them out of your head,” says the author of such plays as “A Delicate Balance,” “Three Tall Women” and his biggest popular success, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“Ideas come into my head since I am a writer. And since I’m a playwright, I get ideas for plays. They stew around in my head for a long time and finally it’s time to write them down and get them out … so I can write something else.”
The past year has been an extraordinarily fruitful one for the playwright, and not just because he reached that milestone birthday on March 12. Right now, two of his early one-act classics, “The American Dream” and “The Sandbox,” directed by the author, can be seen at the Cherry Lane Theatre, the historic Greenwich Village playhouse where New York theatergoers first got acquainted with the playwright nearly five decades ago.
Earlier this season, off-Broadway saw “Peter and Jerry,” Albee’s completion of “The Zoo Story,” to which he added a new first act called “Homelife.” And “Occupant,” his play about sculptor Louise Nevelson, starring Mercedes Ruehl and Larry Bryggman, begins performances May 6 at off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company where its sold-out limited run ends July 6.
And next season expect Albee’s latest effort, “Me, Myself and I,” which had its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., in January, to find its way to Broadway. It’s the story of, among other things, a mother and her identical twin sons, both named Otto, whom she can’t tell apart.
“It may be one of his best ever,” says Emily Mann, who directed the Princeton production. “There are certain artists who have this, although you find it more with visual artists, such as Picasso and Chagall. They are at their peak powers after … middle-age. It’s rare for a writer to be doing his best work” later in life.
“I think part of the reason why writers in the theater just worship Edward is that even when he no longer was the darling (of the critics), he kept writing,” says Mann, the McCarter’s artistic director. “He never lets anything stop him and he always challenges himself. He doesn’t repeat himself.”
Working with Albee
For actors, appearing in an Albee play, particularly when they are creating a role is a joy.
“I am always moved and sustained by the idea of a long line of actors before me and the list of people who have helped put flesh on Edward’s characters and stories,” says Tyne Daly, who originated the role of the mother in “Me, Myself and I” in New Jersey. “I am joining a really fancy list, and it feels really good.”
That honor roll includes such distinguished actors as Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard, Marian Seldes, Jessica Tandy, Colleen Dewhurst, John Gielgud, Irene Worth, Barbara Bel Geddes and more.
Among the Albee alums is Brian Murray, Daly’s co-star in Princeton and who also starred in the playwright’s “Play About the Baby.”
“Edward has his own specific, tremendously well-honed style of sparseness,” Murray says. “His use of words and punctuation is like nobody else except perhaps (Noel) Coward. His wit is abrasive and yet, at the same time, very funny. He’s the kind of playwright that other playwrights try to emulate but can’t because he has his own distinct approach to words. You keep on discovering the perfections of his choice of words.”
Where does that perfection come from? Albee himself dismisses questions about “inspiration,” a vague word he doesn’t particularly like.
“I don’t know when I start writing a play,” he says. “How long before I start writing a play … have I been thinking about it? I can’t answer that question. Obviously, this has been going on it the unconscious.
“But putting things down on paper. That’s fairly quick. Maybe two or three months. But writing a play could be going on in the head for five or six years without my knowing about it.”
Take the title “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” When Albee starting writing this fierce domestic drama, it was called “The Exorcism”; then “The Exorcism or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and finally just “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
The spark? It came in a Greenwich Village saloon frequented by writers and artists, according to the playwright. “Somebody had scrawled in soap, I believe, on the mirror behind the bar, `Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ Now this was some years before I started writing the play. It seemed very interesting, so I retained it,” Albee says.
“I have a very bizarre mind, by the way. I can read a book and forget about it. … And 20 years later, a character that I am writing can quote from the book. and I can’t even recall that I read it.”