“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 18, 2001, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression, the arts and America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today has written challenging and provocative plays over the past four decades, earning three Pulitzer Prizes, two Tonys, and a reputation for art with an impact. Please welcome Edward Albee.
Paulson: I was struck by the number of times people have objected to your work, and yet …
Paulson: … I’ve sat here with people whose careers had been marked by censorship and challenges. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone whose very first work at age 12 was censored by his adopted mother.
Paulson: What was that about?
Edward Albee: Well, you see, I started writing poetry when I was about eight. And she didn’t read poetry. But when she found out that I had written a three-act sex farce …
Albee: … at the age of 12 … or to be fair about it, probably twelve and a half …
Albee: … though still I didn’t know very much about farce and practically nothing about sex at that time, or at least my knowledge of sex was singular.
Albee: I wrote this three-act sex farce, very short acts, each act was about eight or ten minutes. And I’d like to think that she threw it away. I know I gave it to her to read, and it was not discussed after that. And I …
Albee: … I didn’t make carbon copies or anything in those days. So she became my first critic. But, you know, considering as I think back on that play now, she may have been a good critic. But I still disapproved of it.
Paulson: What kind of 12-year-old writes a three-act sex farce?
Albee: (Laughs) A playwright.
Paulson: And you went on. You weren’t at all discouraged by the total suppression of your work?
Albee: Oh, no, no.
Paulson: Not at all. You went on to write plays. And —
Albee: Oh, I didn’t write plays again, however, for about 17 years. I wrote novels and poetry and short stories. And essays.
Paulson: Did you share those with your mother?
Albee: No, no. Good God, no. No.
Albee: After that event with my three-act sex farce, I left home as soon as it was legally possible.
Paulson: And it did have a chilling effect on your playwriting?
Albee: It would seem to have, yes.
Paulson: What’s remarkable about your career is that even though you then for a period of time did not write plays, when you started writing plays again you were essentially, comparatively speaking, immediately successful. I mean, The Zoo Story, was that your first play since age 12?
Albee: The first one I ever finished. I made a couple of half-assed attempts at writing plays in my middle and late twenties, but I never finished anything. And The Zoo Story was the first thing of anything I wrote — the hundreds of poems, the two novels, all that other stuff — it was the first thing I ever wrote that sounded to me like me and sounded to me like I had any talent. That was the first thing that made me say, “Hey, you know, you are a writer.” But here’s the interesting thing about The Zoo Story. You’d think that a young American playwright would have the first production of his first play where he lived in America, right? But The Zoo Story had its first production in German in West Berlin, because there really was no off-Broadway at that time. And nobody was interested in — on Broadway, certainly — in a grumpy, hour-long play by somebody never heard of. And so it was done in Berlin in German on a double-bill with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. And I think that fact, which got picked up by The New York Times, you know, “young American playwright has to go to Germany to have his first work done and not even in English,” I think that instantly made the play producible in New York City. Because six months later it was done off-Broadway in English on the same double-bill and ran for four years. So I quit my job delivering telegrams for Western Union …
Albee: … and settled in to be a playwright.
Paulson: Now do you speak or write German?
Albee: No. No. It’s a very strange language. Do you speak it?
Paulson: (Laughs) No. No.
Albee: You know, the verbs are at the ends of the sentences. So you can go along, you know, for a page and a half not knowing what anybody is talking about. And then all of a sudden, bang, at the end there’s a verb.
Paulson: But you had this added advantage of sitting there the first time you watched it and not being able to say — or disadvantage — not being able to say, “You’re butchering my dialogue.” You didn’t have a clue, did you?
Albee: Well, I’d had somebody who speaks German read the translation to me. And it was good. And I knew what they were saying up there. But here’s something else interesting. My first time in front of an audience, or a play of mine in front of an audience, I spent less time watching what was going on onstage than I did sneaking looks to see how the audience was responding to what I’d written.
Albee: Which probably convinced me that I was a playwright.
Paulson: Well, that first play did not go unscathed. There were people who had reactions to it. I understand that in Rockport, Mass., it ran into some trouble. They didn’t want to show it locally, have it presented locally because a concern about violence and what they described as “homosexual overtones.” Do you recall that audience?
Albee: I thought those were undertones myself.
Paulson: Did that that surprise you, or was it just your Mom all over again?
Albee: No. From the very, very beginning of my career as a public writer, I’ve run into censorship, run into objection to my work. And curiously, with my work, a lot of it has been far more personal than anything else, and I don’t quite understand it. I seem to personally anger and enrage those people who prefer to be angered and enraged by what I do. And it seems to be me they’re after rather than what I’ve done. So I find it very, very curious. Though there’s one very, very famous American novelist who’s gotten better over the years — I won’t say who he is — who really lashed out at “The Zoo Story.” His own homosexual undertones?
Albee: He’s one of the most heterosexual writers we have. Really objected to that play, you know. Quivering with outrage in what I was doing. Philip Roth, I think his name was.
Paulson: His lawyers can call your lawyers.
Albee: I could be wrong. I don’t want you guys to get sued.
Paulson: That’s right, that’s right. That’s right. Statements of guests are theirs and theirs alone.
Paulson: You’ve never been deterred by criticism of your work, and in fact sometimes you strike back. And probably the most heavily censored work you’ve done is also the most famous, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Albee: Yeah, that was a fairly early play, my fifth play. And I ran into a bunch of trouble with that one. After the success of the play in New York — in English, by the way — they decided to do it in London. And back in those days, there was an organization in London called the Royal Chamberlain’s Office, which was there to look over the script of any play to be done in Great Britain and censor it on the odd assumption that Her Majesty might want to go to the theater.
Albee: Her sister went a lot. And so I went to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, where they had read the play and informed me very quietly — nice guy, with a necktie and an English accent and everything …
Albee: … said that they had 75 objections to my text. And I said, “Oh, dear, really? Well, what are they?” He said, “Well, let’s start at the beginning. The opening line of the play, ‘Jesus H. Christ!’ We can’t say that on the British stage.” I said, “Is it the H?” “No.”
Albee: “You can’t say Jesus Christ.” And I said, “Well, let’s put that aside for a while and I’ll think about that one.” Then they went on to some others, like there was a point in the first act of the play where George refers to Martha’s father, a president of the university, and says to the guests, “She is his right ball, so to speak.” They objected to “ball,” as a slang term. And this really, really puzzled me. They said, “However, it would be all right if you say she is his right ‘testicle.’ ”
Albee: I said, “But that doesn’t scan.”
Albee: “The rhythm is wrong there, so we can’t do that.” And on and on and on and on. They said, “Well, we have to come back to ‘Jesus H. Christ.’ ” And I was getting a little puzzled and annoyed by that point. So I said, as a joke, “Well, how about ‘Mary H. Magdalene?’ ”
Albee: He thought and said, “Yes, that would be lovely.”
Albee: And I knew there was not gonna be any real communication here. And so I took his 75 objections and I took them to the theater where the actors and the director were very, very patiently waiting for me. Not patiently, impatiently. And I said, “These are the 75 things that they want changed.” And I tore it up. And we went ahead and performed the play on opening night exactly as it had been performed in New York City. And shortly thereafter, within a year or so, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office collapsed and went away. Maybe it was because they realized Her Majesty was never going to go to the theater.
Albee: I don’t know.
Paulson: Over the years, have you seen a difference between reaction to your work in this country and reaction elsewhere?
Albee: I think there’s always been a slight difference in reaction. No, that … I hate to generalize. I have found over the years, ‘cause I’ve had a lot of my work done in Europe and other places, that European audiences, I think, are better trained when they’re in school as to the nature of theater and serious theater. And so that they go to the theater with more information and with more tolerance for ideas, I think, than, generally speaking, audiences do in this country. But that’s a generalization, and I don’t like it. There was censorship, by the way, of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Archdiocese of Boston, when we were doing the play in Boston, they had some objections. And I didn’t approve any of the changes. I think they wanted eight or nine minor changes. I am told that my producers went ahead and did it without telling me. And if so, shame on them and shame on me for not knowing about it.
Paulson: The opportunity then came, after the play itself was an extraordinary hit, to do a film.
Paulson: And this was at a time when film was less free than the stage, and perhaps that’s still true. Did you have some concerns about what might actually happen to your work onscreen?
Albee: Uh, sure. I’d heard all the horror stories. And so I talked to Warner Brothers. Well, no, there’s only one Warner left. I talked to Warner Brother about it.
Albee: And first of all, being concerned who was going to direct it and who was gonna be in it. He said, “Well, Mike Nichols is going to direct it,” and that interested me since Mike had never made a movie and therefore he had not been corrupted by Hollywood yet. And they said, “And we’re making it for Bette Davis and James Mason,” which struck me as a wonderful idea, you know. I mean, they were the right age. Bette Davis was 52, as was Martha, and James Mason had always been 46, you know.
Albee: So it was good. And so I said okay, knowing at the time that when you sell the rights of a play to be made into a movie you lose absolute control over it, understanding that. You write a play, you have absolute control over what is done to your play onstage. They can’t change a word without your permission. But you take a chance when you sell a movie. But that whole combination struck me as being pretty good. But then there’s a thing called movie magic, and Bette Davis and James Mason turned into Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. And oddly enough, Mike Nichols stayed Mike Nichols. And I sort of trusted Mike. I didn’t think he was going to allow them to really screw it up. And what happened, finally, by some great fortune, there was no screenplay. And there’s this guy, Ernest Lehman, who is credited with the screenplay. But then again, he produced the movie, too. But I think he changed two sentences of my entire script and maybe cut about five minutes. So the text was intact. And I am told all sorts of apocryphal stories about Hollywood and film. I am told, for example, that a screenplay was written in which the nonexistent child was changed into a real deeply retarded child that they kept upstairs somewhere. I don’t know whether I believe stuff like this or not. But anyway, I was quite amazed when I went to see a rough cut of the movie that it was what I wrote, very much what I wrote. Except those two dumb sentences — “Hey, let’s go to the roadhouse,” and “Hey, let’s come back from the roadhouse.”
Albee: Which destroyed the claustrophobia that was very important to me in the film. So I saw this rough cut of a very, very good, tough movie. It puzzled me a little bit when I saw it as to why it was being shot in black and white, since when I wrote the play I wrote it in color.
Albee: But I realized that back then a serious movie had to be in black and white. If a serious movie was in color, it wouldn’t be taken seriously. Very, very interesting. So I saw the rough cut without the music, and it was a good, fair, honest, tough representation of my play. When I saw it a second time, when they added the movie music, and the whole thing changed. All of its ambiguities and all of its toughness was softened by the movie score. You know, the score that tells you when you go to a movie how you’re going to — supposed to react and what’s going to happen. That got in there, and really did serious damage to the film. I wish people could see it without the film score. Much better movie.
Paulson: Did you object to the music?
Albee: Uh, no. It was a fait accompli at that time, and it won. You know, you can complain your head off, nobody’s gonna do anything about it.
Paulson: This is a film that was marketed as “over 18 only” and as a challenging film. Were you surprised that it did good box office and has held up so well over the years?
Albee: I think I learned very young not to be surprised by anything. Astonished, perhaps, but not surprised. No, that seemed nice to me. You know, I mean, it didn’t go and gross $800 million or anything like that. But yeah, it was nice. It was a big success.
Paulson: So now you could say at that stage in your career that you also can write film. And presumably long-term there could be even a more significant financial payoff for Hollywood work. Were you not tempted to say, “The next few plays, I’ll make Westerns or —?” (LAUGHTER)
Albee: No. I write Easterns.
Paulson: But any temptation to sort of court Hollywood?
Albee: No. But the horror stories are still there. You write a screenplay, or you write a play. You can’t write a play hoping that another medium is gonna pick it up ‘cause I think you probably do damage to what you intend, because you always have it in the back of your mind, “I better do this or I better not do this so that the movies will be interested.” No, you can’t do that. That is a form of censorship, self-censorship, which is far more dangerous in our democracy than outside censorship still. No. And I didn’t want to write screenplays because you don’t own what you write in Hollywood. You don’t own the copyright. You can be fired from your own screenplay. And so, you know, I’ve stayed away from that. The only other play of mine made into a movie that I will admit to — though somebody made something they called The Ballad of the Sad Café, but don’t look at it if you can find it — was A Delicate Balance, which was again a very good film made by the American Film Theater without any attempt to alter or distort the play. And Tony Richardson directed that with Paul Scofield and Katharine Hepburn, a really, really good movie.
Paulson: Is —
Albee: Again, no changes in the screenplay. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much. I don’t know.
Paulson: The only honor you did not receive for Virginia Woolf, really, was the Pulitzer Prize.
Albee: Well, there’s some controversy about that. Back in the days when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was up for the Pulitzer Prize, the qualified jury of theater professionals voted the play, that it should get the Pulitzer Prize that year. But there were a bunch of newspaper editors who sat on top of the jury, so to speak, and decided whether the jury’s recommendations were tolerable or not. And … editors and publishers, I think. And this group of 15, The New York Times, bless them, told us all, decided eight to seven that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was too what? Too controversial, too good, something, I don’t know, to get the Pulitzer Prize that year. And The New York Times went further and talked to some of the eight who had voted against it and found that half of them had neither seen it nor read it.
Albee: Which gave them a kind of objectivity.
Albee: So I don’t know whether that year I got the Pulitzer Prize and they took it away from me, or I didn’t get it. So since I got three later, I think I have three and a half.
Paulson: A lot of people apparently believe art can be dangerous.
Albee: It should be.
Paulson: And that provokes a response, though, as we know from the discussions surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts. If art should be dangerous, then perhaps people have a right to respond and say, “Let’s limit government spending.” What do you think?
Albee: The money that is given to support the National Endowment is not government money. It’s people’s money. And I wish the government would stop referring to it as its own money. It is not. It is the people’s money. The whole thing about subsidy for the arts in the United States comes down to the fact: Do we believe as a society that we should have an aesthetically educated population? Now I have a feeling that an aesthetically educated population is probably better able to vote intelligently than one that is not, ‘cause I think the arts are enormously instructive to us on how to live our lives. If whoever is running the government feels that people should not be aesthetically educated, then they will destroy the National Endowment. Which, you know, even the National Endowment — what, a hundred million bucks a year? The per capita support of the arts in the United States from all of the endowments and all of the funds that do it, public and private in this country, is about one-fifth of that happens in some European countries, that we do very, very little for the arts. And even the hundred million dollar money that goes to the National Endowment for the Arts in this country, only 10% of it goes to the support of individual creative artists. Every time the National Endowment gives out, what, five thousand grants, maybe some joker in the Congress can find one or two out of the five thousand to object to. And of course, that gets held up as the destructiveness of the funding for the National Endowment. There are some people in this country, and the majority of them, it strikes me, are in Congress, who are desperately afraid of the effect of the arts on our culture.
Paulson: What’s a bigger threat, though — government censorship or self-censorship?
Albee: I spent a lot of time going to the then-Soviet Union in the 1960s to learn more and more firsthand of what it was like to live in a totalitarian society. There are two kinds of censorship, aren’t there? There’s governmental censorship, censorship imposed upon us from without. And in a democracy, and we’re still a democracy, I think, for the most part …
Albee: … the censorship that we impose upon ourselves is more insidious and more dangerous. There are both kinds of censorship. I mean, censorship of our history books, for example. How many of our school kids are allowed to read about our attempts to … genocide of Native Americans, of Indians, for example? I mean, how many of our kids that go to school learn this stuff? How much censorship is there over what kids are allowed to learn in school? But that’s one kind of censorship. But the other is the choices we make as to what we’re willing to think about and what unpleasant things we’re willing to examine. Now that kind of censorship I find even more dangerous in a democracy. What you do about it, I’m not quite sure.
Paulson: If that self-censorship has led to theater in this country being less challenging, at least on Broadway and highly visible locations, and more escapist fare, you say you don’t know what you can do about it. But I do believe you’ve talked about the need for education for young people. Do you think that the next generation can embrace the kind of challenging work —
Albee: Well, I know what I would do about it. I’m not sure that anybody’s gonna pay any attention to me, of course.
Paulson: Well, let’s hear it.
Albee: We have to start educating young people in the arts before they’re aware of it. You know, once young people start accepting something as natural like the arts, then wonderful things can happen. You can’t start them at age 35 wanting to listen to string quartets if they’ve been listening to rock music all of their lives. They won’t do it. But kids in kindergarten should be — at rest periods, they should be listening to the Beethoven string quartets even before they know what a string quartet is or who Beethoven was. And there should be wonderful reproductions of the great 20th century paintings, the cubists, the abstract expressionist paintings, on the walls of these schools, so kids get used to hearing and looking at the arts as something … as an integral part of their lives. You need teachers who are anxious and capable of helping young people participate in the arts. I was very lucky. I mean, I didn’t like my adoptive parents, and that’s why I left. But they educated me very well in private schools. And so I was exposed much more and much earlier than other people, a lot of other kids were, to the arts. And I’m very grateful for that.
Paulson: If we invest in that kind of education, we may end up with 12-year-olds writing sex farces all over this country.
Albee: Welcome to the club, kids.
Albee: No, the problem is, you can’t have this kind of education unless you have parents who are willing to allow this kind of education to occur. I mean, there’s a lot of censorship in our school curriculum. How do we avoid that? How do we stop that? And also, you probably have to develop a nation of parents that are capable of taking up the slack of public school and educating kids at home. You have to do both of those things.
Paulson: I have one final question. I’ve enjoyed reading the various descriptions of you, and there are a lot of people who, in five or six words, like to encapsulate your career. One of the quotes was, “America’s most important dramatist still writing,” which has kind of a Roger Maris quality of it.
Albee: Yes, it does.
Paulson: An asterisk — “he’s good, and he’s still alive.”
Albee: Well, tell Arthur Miller about that. He wouldn’t be happy …
Paulson: That’s right.
Paulson: How would you describe your career?
Albee: My career? Or who I am as a playwright?
Paulson: That’s an even better question.
Albee: I don’t know. I’m a playwright. I hope my plays have something to do with how we live and how we could alter that, perhaps. I hope my plays are useful. I hope that my craft is getting better so that I can provide something that is both diverting and involving at the same time. But I don’t think about myself in the third person very much.
Paulson: Our guest has been playwright Edward Albee. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about free expression, the arts and America. Hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
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