Theatre yesterday and today



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Edward Albee's death Friday night has left me thinking about this great man and the work he leaves behind, but particularly of the man himself. I've studied his biography over the years ever since I first became acquainted with his plays. Delving into his life, I have been slightly obsessed by the nightmare of Albee’s adoption. It has always haunted me.

Young Edward (1960s)

I think it’s natural for all of us to feel, even if raised by the best of parents, that somewhere along the way a mistake could have been made. A feeling of possibility that we could have been raised by the wrong family.In Albee’s case, the nightmare was real. Having been adopted, he was picked up and dropped into the exact opposite set of circumstances that might otherwise have allowed his creative mind to grow in more positive ways, as opposed to negative ones. Yes, his creative mind still grew, but his outlook was grim and a direct result of the lack of nurturing he received as a child. It’s a fact that without the love and support, both physically and emotionally necessary to help build a whole human being, something remains missing in that child throughout adulthood and until they die. Everyone seeks out what they missed. They have to. It’s human nature. There are many ways to do it and, for a time, Albee sought it self-destructively with alcohol, as many do. But in the final result, he searched for solace through his writing. Yet the bleakness and despair of his world view persisted and never left him. His outlook was not that of an optimist (though of course, neither were those of Samuel Beckett or Albert Camus). Then again, did Albee’s particular slant make him the artist he was? Could he have written Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf if he had grown up in a happy, loving environment in his formative years? Could he have still invented the husband and wife that make up an imaginary child to heal their empty hearts? In the end, the question can never be answered and is solely a matter of conjecture. Still, it makes me “sad, sad, sad” that he had to pay for his art with the tears, shed or unshed, during what had to have been a very disturbing upbringing

For a full accounting of Albee’s childhood, you need only read Mel Gussow’s Edward Albee: A Singular Journey: A Biography, published in 1999. The unvarnished truth is striking; how wealth and privilege meant nothing set against his parents withholding of their love for any misconceived slights by Edward, especially evil when a child is involved. A child is innocent. What does a child know except what his parents tell him, either by word or deed? Albee had a keen and insightful mind from a very young age and instead of it being praised, it was ignored, nullified but (thank God) not destroyed. I find all the stories of Albee and his parents throughout Gussow’s book upsetting in ways that are singularly unique. I suppose it’s because I am so rooting for the young Edward to kill and supplant his parents, as all of us need to do, figuratively, of course. A person with anything close to an artistic soul who reads these stories which tell of the conflicts between Albee and his parents (his mother in particular), will empathize and share in his grief and despair.

With his passing, the obituaries that I have been reading tell Albee’s story well. He tried every kind of writing before turning to playwriting, which of course, was the engine that allowed him to deliver what he had to say better than with any other form. And that is because Albee’s works are theatrical, in the best sense of the word. The film of Virginia Woolf, having been directed by the cool and keen eye (and intellect) of Mike Nichols is probably as good as a four-person film will ever be, but it’s nothing compared to the power and intensity of the play when performed on a stage, especially with great actors. I’ve seen the play numerous times, with mixed results, never the “perfect” foursome, but thankfully there is the recording that was produced during its original Broadway run in 1962, which starred Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon. Released on CD only recently after many years being out of print and only available in its original form on a 3-record set, it’s all you will ever need to hear (and imagine) about how this play lives and breathes on stage.

George Maharis and William Daniels in The Zoo Story (1960)

There are so many anecdotes about Albee and his work, but with space limited here, I will share just one that was told to me when I interviewed William Daniels for my book Up in the Cheap Seats four years ago. Daniels created the role of Peter in The Zoo Story, the play and production that put Albee on the map in 1960. This is our exchange:

WD: You know they had to talk me into doing The Zoo Story.

RF: Seriously?

WD: Seriously. I mean, it was a guy sitting on a bench and the other guy does all the talking, for God’s sake! It didn't make any sense to me.

RF: And you wound up winning an Obie award for it, the Derwent Award ...

WD: Well, you just don’t know. We had a lot of rehearsing, but the producers got so nervous they fired the director. Then George Maharis [playing Jerry] said he would leave unless they brought him back. So they did. And we finally got the play on its feet even though there wasn’t much to do staging-wise.

The first time we were in front of an audience at the Provincetown Playhouse and I’m sitting there reading a book and George came by and said, “I went to the zoo.” All I did was turn my head… and the whole audience fell apart.

And we were shocked. I mean, this was a serious play, you know? So I looked down again and they continued to laugh so I thought, “What’ll I do?” And I thought maybe he’s talking to somebody else. So I turned my head this way … and we get another laugh. So what I found out soon enough, and I found this out wherever we played it all over the country, that the guy sitting on the bench is who the audience identifies with. They identify with him dealing with some stranger coming by and saying something strange to him (in New York) and the threat of that … well, this first night audience picked up on that right away.

And we had no idea.

The author, the producers, the director came rushing back afterwards. “Bill, this is a serious play what are you doing?” And I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “You’re playing it for laughs.” I said, “I’m not playing it for laughs.” They said, “You are. You’re playing to the audience.” And I said, “You have me sitting on a bench facing the audience. I live over there on Fifth Avenue. Do you want me to play it from here to here? There’s no way.” They didn’t understand how important those laughs were. Because they were legitimate laughs. They weren’t jokey laughs, they were just plain old legitimate laughs.

Though Albee's life may be "All Over," as he once titled a play he wrote, the legacy of the work will endure as long as there are people that read plays and actors who perform in them. Rest in peace.

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