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Albee at 80: Still Asking the Big Questions

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Albee at 80: Still Asking the Big Questions

Performing Arts

Albee at 80: Still Asking the Big Questions

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Playwright Edward Albee turns 80 today. Albee has won three Pulitzer prizes and is probably best known for his play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But he's not resting on his laurels, Albee's as busy as ever. He's working on new plays, directing revivals and visiting arts organizations that are celebrating his birthday.

Reporter Jeff Lunden spoke with the playwright and he has this profile.

JEFF LUNDEN: When Edward Albee's newest play "Me, Myself & I" opened at Princeton's McCarter Theatre in January, the first page of the program featured the playwright's letter to an audience.

Mr. EDWARD ALBEE (Playwright): I tend to become uncooperative and occasionally downright hostile when people ask me what my plays, quote, "are about," especially the new ones.

LUNDEN: He goes on to write.

Mr. ALBEE: My plays are infrequently opaque, only occasionally complicated, though, none of them complex and can be enjoyed to their full - unless you bring to a theater with you the baggage of predetermination. A play must go like this. So pretend you're at the first play you've ever seen, have that experience. And I think what the play is about will reveal itself quite readily.

LUNDEN: Edward Albee has been challenging, engaging, and at times confounding audiences and critics with his plays for 50 years now. He's written well over two dozen of them and first burst upon the scene with "The Zoo Story," an unsettling and ultimately shocking encounter between two men in Central Park.

Now, he smile benignly, wrapped a hamburger in wax paper and said, a bite for your pussycat. I wanted to say, no, not really. It's part of a plan to poison a dog I know, but he can't really say a dog I know without sounding funny. So I said a little too loud, I'm afraid, and too formally, yes, a bite for my pussycat.

Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Chief Drama Critic, The New York Times): I think Edward Albee is without peer among American playwrights certainly of his generation. But I would say, period.

LUNDEN: Ben Brantley is chief drama critic of The New York Times.

Mr. BRANTLEY: Among those living now, is there anyone else who dares to take on questions that are that big? And I'm not talking about questions of politics or immediate topical issues. Edward Albee ask questions - the most basic existential questions. He confronts death, he confronts sex with, I think, eyes that remain very wide open.

(Soundbite of play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?")

Mr. BILL IRWIN (Actor): (As George) Don't try to say it on your feet, that's all. These people are your guests.

Ms. KATHLEEN TURNER (Actress): (As Martha) I hadn't even see you, I wasn't able to see you for years.

Mr. IRWIN: (As George) If you pass out or throw up or something…

Ms. TURNER: (As Martha) You're a blank, a cipher.

Mr. IRWIN: (As George) And try to keep your clothes on, too, Martha…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IRWIN: (As George) …there are many more sickening sights than you with a couple of drinks in you and your skirt up over your head.

Ms. TURNER: (As Martha) A zero up.

Mr. IRWIN: (As George) Your heads, I should say.

(Soundbite of bell)

Ms. TURNER: (As Martha) (Unintelligible).

LUNDEN: The scene from the recent Tony award-winning revival of Edward Albee's most famous play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. If you ask Albee where his plays come from, he bristles.

Mr. ALBEE: Everybody's brain is differently wired. Some people are playwrights. Some people are axe-murderers. Now, that is because a certain twist in the cortex. That's where creativity comes from. That's it. We are not inspired. If we are a playwright, our brain takes the experience that everybody else has and turns it into a play.

LUNDEN: Bill Irwin has starred in two of Edward Albee's plays.

Mr. IRWIN: Edward's a different writer every time he sits down. He's actually not, he's the same guy with these same concerns and motifs and preoccupations. But he'll set himself these whole different notions like, this time, I'm not going to allow this and I'm only going to do this. And then next time he sits down, a different set of rules.

Mr. ALBEE: You know, if anybody wants me to say it, in one sentence, what my plays are about, they're about the nature of identity: Who we are, how we permit ourselves to be viewed, how we permit ourselves to view ourselves, how we practice identity or lack of identity.

(Soundbite of play "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?")

Ms. SALLY FIELD (Actress): (As Stevie) What's my name?

Mr. IRWIN: (As Martin) Pardon?

Ms. FIELD: (As Stevie) Who am I? Who am I?

Mr. IRWIN: (As Martin) You are the love of my life, the mother of my handsome and worrisome son, my playmate, my cook, my bottle washer - do you…

Ms. FIELD: (As Stevie) What?

Mr. IRWIN: (As Martin) …wash my bottles?

Ms. FIELD: (As Stevie) Not as a habit. I may have washed one of your bottles. Do you have bottles?

Mr. IRWIN: (As Martin) Everyone has bottles.

Ms. FIELD: (As Stevie) Right. But what's my name?

Ms. IRWIN: (As Martin) Stevie?

Ms. FIELD: (As Martin) Good.

LUNDEN: Albee's questioning of identity comes from a deep, personal place. He was adopted as an infant by Reed and Frances Albee. His father ran a chain of vaudeville theaters, and his relationship with them was chilly.

Mr. ALBEE: These people who adopted me, I didn't like very much and they didn't like me very much, I don't think. We didn't belong in the same family.

LUNDEN: But it did become grist for his mill. Marian Seldes has been in several Albee plays, including "Three Tall Women," a play all about Albee's adoptive mother.

(Soundbite of play "Three Tall Women")

Ms. MARIAN SELDES (Actress): (As Bertha) You are both such children, the happiest moment of all, really. The happiest moment coming to the end of it, I think, when all the ways cause the greatest woes to subside, leaving breathing space. Time to concentrate on the greatest woe of all. That blessed one, the end of it.

LUNDEN: Seldes says, as an actress, she appreciates Albee's precise, grammatically expressive language.

Ms. SELDES: I feel it's like a piece of music, a musical score. I think Edward's punctuation, the ellipsis, the number of periods, of dots after a line. If you allow it to go into you as you would if you were going to sing, you would follow what he suggests.

LUNDEN: Regardless of the style and the language of each play, critic Ben Brantley says Albee displays a rigorous clarity of purpose.

Mr. BRANTLEY: I think he believes that theater should hold up a mirror to society. But not just a mimetic mirror — not just to show us what we have, but to show us what's beneath, what's to the side, force us to look at things from another perspective.

LUNDEN: Edward Albee.

Mr. ALBEE: All art should be useful. If it's merely decorative, it's a waste of time. You know, if you're going to spend a couple of hours of your life listening to string quartets or being at plays or going to a museum and looking at paintings, something should happen to you. You should be changed, but most people don't want to be changed. They want to have an escapist entertainment. The whole notion that that which is entertaining must be empty is preposterous.

LUNDEN: Edward Albee is currently directing an off-Broadway revival of two of his earliest one-acts, "The Sandbox" and "The American Dream." And he says he's got a new play in the works, just don't ask him what it's about.

Mr. ALBEE: It's called "Silence," yes. Yes. That's all I will tell you at the moment about it.

LUNDEN: Happy 80th birthday, Edward Albee.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

NORRIS: To hear more from Edward Albee plus great monologues from his plays, go to npr.org.

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