Monday, November 21, 2016

R.I.P. 2016 Edward Albee

"Are we to be one of those bizarre civilizations that is on the way to its downfall without ever reaching its zenith?"
Edward Albee

Edward Albee was a playwright and a force in American theatre for nearly 60 years.  He pretty much was American theatre in the early 1960s, and stood practically alone between the generation of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and the explosion of late 60s/1970s playwrights like Sam Shepard and John Guare.

He shocked New York theatre with The Sandbox and Zoo Story in the late 50s, and was still shocking a much decentralized but once again timid American theatre with The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?) in 2002.  He wrote two American masterpieces in the 1960s--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance that are also remarkable for how different they are from each other.  He wrote many other worthy plays throughout his writing life.

He was a tireless advocate for theatre and truth.  The job of a playwright, he said, was to get people to pay attention to the things they should be paying attention to. When the film success of "Virginia Woolf" put money in his pocket, he put it back into developing younger playwrights, thus helping to create the late 60s generation that essentially supplanted him as the fashionably daring voices.

The quote above comes from a speech he gave at Carnegie Mellon University in the early 90s.  I was in the audience and wrote those words down.  I've remembered them many times since--especially quite recently.

I met him after that speech. The original production of The Zoo Story was still running when I visited New York in 1965, and it was the first play I ever saw in New York.  (In fact, it was the first modern play I'd seen outside of college theatre, so it was shocking in a way to see actors of the same age at their characters.)  We chatted about who might have been in the cast when I saw it--it changed many times.

It turns out that this was a singular and formative production in his life.  It was an evening of two short plays--Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape and Albee's The Zoo Story. They were first produced together in Germany when Albee was unknown, and Beckett not well known in America.  It was in fact Albee's first production.  "I saw my first Beckett play and my first Albee play the same night," he said much later.  "Both in a language I don't understand."

For those judging by the verbal violence of some of his plays, and the stringent integrity of his public pronouncements (or even his inflexibility with directors), his amiability and openness in person sometimes came as a surprise.  It did to me when I talked to him that day. He was patient and friendly and unpretentious.  In earlier days and in different circumstances he was known to be acerbic and merciless. And he could be contentious and dictatorial when it came to directing his plays.

Perhaps a key to understanding the apparent contradiction was something he said in several interviews I saw on YouTube shortly after his death was announced this fall.  For instance in the Theatre Talk in 2014 (in which he recounts seeing that first The Zoo Story, and mentions that Samuel Beckett was one of the funniest and gentlest people he'd ever met.)

"Participating fully in everything that happens to you is the exciting part of consciousness," he said.  Another quote to remember.

May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.  

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