Edward Albee: How Rising Costs Hurt Theater, and Other Trends
In His Own Words
By Steven Leigh Morris
The accolades for who was, until last week, America’s greatest living playwright, have been rolling in with a kind of wistfulness for the artistic principles that Edward Albee represented. Albee died Sept. 16 at the age of 88.
Those principles, which emerged from Albee in the 1960s, when his early plays were landing on the stages of the East Village, had to do with the primacy of the playwright in the creation of a play. This is anathema not only to the kind group authorship that would come to embody the ensemble-theater movement, but also to the primacy of the director in the creation of a play (when the director is not also the author). And, finally, it rubs against the grain of how teams of writers create television shows and movies as well as, in more subtle forms, how play development works in large swaths of our professional theater. To Albee, group-writing in the theater is an infraction, if not a felony crime, against what might be called the idiosyncratic excellence of the solo author.
In 2002, I interviewed Albee for LA Weekly at his Tribeca apartment. That was a heady time, when a print newspaper, even an alt weekly, had the budget to send a theater writer to New York for an interview with both Albee and actor Bill Pullman (who was preparing to star in the Broadway debut of Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?) Either the LA Weekly wasn’t yet posting its articles online, or that article came crashing down in the paper’s many web re-designs, but I couldn’t find it in their digital archive. My reflections below come from my memory, supplemented by a print copy I kept around.
The apartment building in which Albee lived had been converted from a late-19th century mercantile exchange. We had a 10 a.m. appointment. Standing on the former loading dock at 9:59 a.m., with the playwright’s reputation as a formidable interview subject in mind, I pressed the buzzer a couple of times and waited. Nothing.
Then, in a scene out of Around the World in 80 Days, a bespectacled man in an overcoat, with a shock of silver hair and a mustache, and a newspaper under his arm, strode up the street toward an elevator door on the other side of the dock.
Albee extended his hand. His grip was firm.
He had lived for decades in a cavernous two-tiered loft on the fifth floor. The main room was a broad expanse of polished hardwood floor, raw brick walls, and, all the way at the far end, a kitchen and a spiral staircase. When Albee slipped into the kitchen to get some coffee, I wandered through a small forest of primitive-looking sculptures (including the work of his friend Louise Nevelson) and abstract paintings. Sunshine poured in from above, warming the interior brick. Albee, was now wearing a leather jacket and a hearing aid. He returned from the kitchen, his shoes squeaking. We settled around a glass table. He spoke gently, softly, but with a twinkle in his eye, and occasionally he held out a crooked finger to accentuate a point.
Has the theater, I asked, even off-Broadway and in the regions, adopted the Hollywood philosophy, in which committees and dramaturges “develop” new theater works to their satisfaction?
“The Dramatists Guild contract protects us,” he replied. “Not a word of the play can be changed without the playwright’s consent.”
But what of “the subtle, real-life pressures that accrue. The playwright’s fear of being ‘difficult’ combined with the desire to keep working in a particular theater, or one in its network?”
His reply was what might be called “essential” Albee:
“You have to stand up for yourself from the very beginning of your career. The playwright doesn’t have to make changes, and the playwright would be wise not to. I never went into the theater to be an employee. If you refuse to be owned and refuse to be an employee, they’ll probably start to revile you. You’ll know what’s going on, and you have to laugh a little. You can’t get hurt and enraged by it, because that cripples you. And of course that makes them angrier and angrier, because they can’t cripple you, which is even more amusing. Sometimes the laughter is in the dark.”
But what if the playwright is wrong? What if the dramaturge or the director does know better, what’s best for the play, or for the reception of the play?
Albee revisited and expanded upon the same theme in a 2007 telephone interview, also for LA Weekly: “The big problem is the assumption that writing a play is a collaborative act. It isn’t. It’s a creative act, and then other people come in. The interpretation should be for the accuracy of what the playwright wrote. Playwrights are expected to have their text changed by actors they never wanted. Directors seem to feel they are as creative as the playwright. Most of these changes are for commercial reasons.”
For Albee, those “commercial reasons” echo an argument he made in 2002 that’s never been more relevant to L.A. theater in 2016, Albee addressed the soaring costs of presenting theater as a direct assault on the art form, on the very purpose of creating theater:
“The value system [in the 1960s] was all crap, and still is today; it just manifests itself differently. In an ideal world, Beckett and Chekhov would be much more popular than they are, and the theater would be properly funded. The only thing that has changed, unfortunately, is that commerce owns theater much more than it used to. The costs are preposterous, it makes cowards out of producers. When we did Virginia Woolf in 1962, our total cost to open the production was $42,000. Off-Broadway, we produced Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape with my Zoo Story for $3,000. It just means that as the ticket prices go up, it drives the audiences that you want out of the theater. And you can’t just turn your back and write for movies, because there you have no control of your work, and no protection from them simply dismissing you from it and hiring somebody else to take it over.”
Keep in mind that Albee started out as an experimental, off-Broadway playwright with one-acts such as The Sandbox (1960), Zoo Story (1960) and The American Dream (1961), until his first commercial hit (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) made it to Broadway in 1962, followed-up by his first of three Pulitzer Prizes for A Delicate Balance in 1966. It was about this time that “reality” in his plays grew increasingly ambiguous, his prose strategically more obtuse, in conjunction with his attraction to elliptical dramatic structures. Everything in The Garden Box (1967), Quotations From Chairman Mao (1968) and All Over (1971) demonstrates Albee’s deep-dive from the comparative shallows of marital discord in Virginia Woolf into the tangled depths of linguistic abstraction and symbolism.
Samuel Beckett was always his muse.
Albee’s forays into absurdism were driven to theaters in the regions and to university audiences by New York Times critic Walter Kerr, who couldn’t hide his revulsion for works, like Albee’s, that broke the fourth wall, and his desire for realism in new plays.
“Mr. Albee is still working in an ornately convoluted ‘literary’ style that has no conversational feel to it,” Walter Kerr complained about Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque in 1980. “By the time we get the syntax unraveled, the play has moved on to new difficulties.” Kerr never stopped complaining about Albee’s detachment and artifice until his successor, Frank Rich, pounded that gavel with even more fervor after Kerr’s retirement.
“I still have 29 plays,” Albee said in our 2007 interview, “and I don’t think more than seven or eight have been commercially successful. When nine of my plays had been flops, not returning their investment, it was hard to make a case for doing my next one. I think that the economics of theater are more destructive than ever before. The fact that the cost of producing serious plays has shot up, the fact that the movie studios are infesting the Broadway theater with dreadful movies, the attempt of the movies to corrupt the Dramatists Guild, getting playwrights to do piecework, makes it tougher now. The only person who has lost income percentages over the past 20 years has been the playwright. We used to get 10 percent of the gross. The most you can ask for now — if you have a reputation — is 5 or 6, and they try to put you in a royalty pool if it’s a hit. We’re the only theater artists who don’t have a union. We can’t become a union because we’re not employees. I don’t know what inflation has done in the past 40 years, but it hasn’t gone up as much as the cost of doing theater: Virginia Woolf cost $45,000 on Broadway in 1962. It just cost a million and a half in London last year . The cost of living hasn’t gone up that much.”
(Statistics compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis from the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Consumer Price Index support Albee’s assertion: In 1962, a $1 bill had the purchasing power of about 12 cents in 2006, when Albee made those remarks. At this rate, the $45,000 it cost to produce Virginia Woolf on Broadway in 1962 should translate to a budget of around $400,000 today. The $1.5 million budget for the London production represents more than triple our national rate of inflation in the years between 1962 and 2006.)
I was privileged to have three personal encounters with Edward Albee: There were the aforementioned LA Weekly interviews in 2002 and 2007. But the first encounter came much earlier, in the late 1970s, when I was a student at UCLA, and Albee came to speak to the graduate playwrights. I asked him one question at that time – on the relevance of language, not only in the theater but also in the culture. His reply was remarkable for such a fastidious wordsmith: He said he had almost no confidence in the value of language.
I reminded him of that question, and of his reply, in the 2002 interview.
“I was probably talking about the fact that people hear only what they want to hear,” Albee explained.
“And now, almost 25 years later,” I added, “how would you answer the same question?”
“I’d say that people hear only what they want to hear.” He smiled. “I do feel that in a serious play, people should be prepared to listen. Plays do come at you more through the ear than the eye. Movies come at you through the eye. A play is 90 percent an auditory experience. I don’t trust people to pay the attention they should, to listen to language in drama. So my lack of confidence then and now has to do with people’s reaction to their responsibility to language. Then there’s the issue of the reduced attention span. People used to be able to listen to and comprehend an entire paragraph at a time.”
Reflecting on (then) 40 years in the theater, is there anything he might have done differently?
He pondered the question for a moment: “Every new play I write, I think, ‘Well, this one will kill my career,’” he quipped, “but if you worry about fashion and reviews, you can’t do your work. I didn’t know so much about acting and directing as I do now. Probably what mistakes I make are more subtle and interesting. Every time I write a play, I remind myself this is the first play I’m writing. Someday I’ll write a play and I’ll discover it’s the same play I wrote 37 years ago, and I won’t remember.”
It would have been remiss then, as it would be now, not to ask him if he sees any hope for the American theater, and it seems a good as way as any to conclude reflections on and of a remarkable playwright, now floating up into the ether of history, his lips doubtless twisted, slightly, from chagrin, and his eyes still twinkling as he watches us recede through the vapors.
“We have no paucity of good young playwrights, and good older playwrights,” Albee opined. “We don’t have the happiest environment for them to work in. Like in the art world and in literature, the theater’s just as trendy, as dangerous and corrupt. . . I’m in the lucky position where I just say, ‘Go fuck yourself; if you don’t want to do the play I wrote, do another play.’ The forces of darkness would back down if everybody said that. Theater wouldn’t go away and Disney wouldn’t go away. It’s all because people believe that entertainment has to be superficial.”
I suggested that maybe we’re headed for a reincarnation of the Roman theater.
“Actors’ Equity would never allow for Roman theater,” Albee replied. “You can’t kill artists, not on the stage. You can destroy their talents, but you can’t kill them.”