RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The work of America's greatest playwrights include "Death of a Salesman," focusing on a father and his sons; a mother-daughter relationship "The Glass Menagerie" and the ultimate battle of the sexes between a failed professor, George, and his drunken wife, Martha. That last play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," is easily Edward Albee's most famous.

Interestingly, among the plays that have brought Albee three Pulitzer Prizes and three Tony Awards, none of them are about gay issues, which accounts for a bit of a controversy he got into a little over a week ago. The playwright was recognized as a Pioneer at the Lambda Literary Awards in New York, organized to honor lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender writers. In his acceptance speech, Albee said he was a writer who happened to be gay, not a gay writer. And went on to say...

Mr. EDWARD ALBEE (Playwright): Any definition which is going to limit us is unfortunate, and goes beyond that, and is deplorable.

MONTAGNE: Although he's expressed that view as far back as the '60s, his suggestion that writing solely about gay themes is a lesser form of literature raised hackles at the Lambda ceremony and within the larger gay community.

We wondered if Albee was surprised by that reaction and we reached him in New York.

Good morning. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. ALBEE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: When you're speaking, such as you were the other evening at the Lambda event, you were being honored as a Pioneer. It was the Pioneer Award which would make you, I guess, a pioneer gay writer, right - which is probably what sparked a debate?

Mr. ALBEE: Well, they're not going to call the award Pioneer for a writer who happens to be gay. Maybe I am just being a little troublesome about this. But so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers. And I find that is such a limitation and such a prejudicial thing, that I fight against it whenever I can.

You know, what - five percent of the people in the United States are gay or lesbian. Does that mean that they can only write about gay subjects because they happen to be gay? Should men only write about men? Should women only write about women? Should blacks only write about blacks? Should whites only write about whites? All of that is preposterous nonsense.

The whole function of being a creative artist is to transcend the self and the self-interest, and have something to do with the anguish of us all.

MONTAGNE: Although it's not invalid, right, to in fact do that sort of writing?

Mr. ALBEE: Well, the only valid thing about it is the prejudice that the majority community brings to all of these definitions.

MONTAGNE: Meaning that the majority community sees it as a specialized and lesser piece of...

Mr. ALBEE: Yeah, I mean I happen to mention the fact that whenever poor Tennessee Williams is referred to in a review these days, or in conversation, he is gay playwright Tennessee Williams. Nobody ever says straight playwright Arthur Miller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALBEE: And, you know, interestingly enough, Tennessee - who happened to be gay - wrote much more convincingly about women than Arthur Miller ever did, who was famous for his own point of view, for being straight.

MONTAGNE: Though when you speak of it being limiting, even from the point of view of the majority population, a number of other gay writers took issue with that. You know, you...

Mr. ALBEE: Yes, a number of gay writers would, because some gay writers make their careers and their incomes off of being gay writers, rather than writers who happen to be gay.

MONTAGNE: But you still would hold to that that's a big issue.

Mr. ALBEE: I don't think it should be an issue. I mean who goes around talking about the Abstract Expressionist painters and making a definition or distinction between those of them that were straight and those of them who were or are gay? Nobody does it. Nobody does it with composers. People only do it with writers and I find that so ridiculous.

MONTAGNE: Was there ever a moment when you wanted to write, expand on, say, a gay character and felt at all inhibited from doing that?

Mr. ALBEE: I have spent my life fighting for the civil rights of all people I can find who need their civil rights stood for. And this includes so many people - blacks, Asians, homosexuals - all kinds of people whose civil rights are being trampled upon. And it's our responsibility to do this, to be able to try to get a society that doesn't have these prejudices anymore.

But I'm not going to limit the subjects that I write about to the lives of five percent of the population. I'm not going to do it because that cuts me off from the woes and problems of 95 percent of the population. Why should I do that?

MONTAGNE: There was a time when gay themes were just not on, certainly took a lot of courage to be open about one's sexuality early in the game, I'd say the '50s and '60s. In that period, and you had one of the most famous plays ever in American theater - and this is "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Mr. ALBEE: Yeah, and you know that when that play came out, some critics knew I was gay and they wrote in their reviews that he's probably writing about two gay couples.

MONTAGNE: Really?

Mr. ALBEE: Isn't that extraordinary?

MONTAGNE: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALBEE: 'Cause I know the difference between men and women, and I know the college structure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALBEE: And that wouldn't have been allowed in college in those days.

MONTAGNE: So what are you working on now?

Mr. ALBEE: I'm writing a play - well, I'm writing a play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALBEE: And I don't want to even talk about what it involves. It involves a lot of our social prejudices about a lot of things, none of which oddly enough happens to concern being gay. But I do not begin a play with a thesis, an 'I must now write about this or that subject.'

I discover that I'm thinking about some people and I try to find out why I've been thinking about them. And the whole play evolves from people that I'm thinking about, which - whom I've invented. I mean I invented them, therefore they exist and therefore I can put them down on paper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Edward Albee, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. ALBEE: You're welcome. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, who last month was honored as a Pioneer at the Lambda Literary Awards in New York City.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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