Fresh Air Remembers Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright Edward Albee
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee. He died Friday at the age of 88. In his New York Times obituary, Bruce Weber wrote Albee was considered the foremost American playwright of his generation. His psychologically astute and piercing dramas explored the contentiousness of intimacy, the gap between self-delusion and truth and the roiling desperation beneath the facade of contemporary life.
Albee's plays include "The Zoo Story," "The Death Of Bessie Smith" and "Tiny Alice." His best-known play, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" was also his first to open on Broadway. It won the Tony Award for best play in 1963, but the play offended some audiences and critics. Albee said, I don't care if they like it or hate it as long as they're not indifferent.
"Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" was adapted into a 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who were married at the time and played an erotic bickering couple. When I spoke with Albee in 1984, he told me the title came from graffiti.
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EDWARD ALBEE: I remember once I was in a saloon on 10th Street, Greenwich Village. And it was a downstairs bar and people wrote things in chalk on the bar walls and wrote things in soap on the mirror behind the bar. And one night I was in there, and I saw a sign behind the bar in soap that it said Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Now, this was 10 years before I started writing plays. But it stuck in my head.
GROSS: Why did it stick? What...
ALBEE: Just good fortune, I guess.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why...
ALBEE: I like puns, I suppose.
GROSS: Why did that work as the title for the play?
ALBEE: Well, I originally called the play "The Exorcism" or "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" And then I got wise to myself, decided that "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" was a far better character. And I justified it just by saying that "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" means who's afraid of the big bad wolf - and the big bad wolf being living life without false illusions. So I justified it that way.
GROSS: Can I ask for a capsule?
ALBEE: It concerns a faculty couple, George and Martha, and their late-night visitors after a faculty party, another couple, Nick and Honey. While a great deal goes on in the course of the play, a great deal of yelling and screaming and carrying on, the play concerns itself basically with the exorcism of a nonexistent child that Martha and George have created to do battle with themselves with. And the play concerns the exorcism of that child on the eve of its 21st birthday.
GROSS: There is a lot of neurotic arguing within that relationship of...
ALBEE: I think it's pretty healthy. I do think they're neurotic people at all. Neurotic people are people - strike me as people who cannot vent their spleen. And these people get it off their chest quite nicely. And my goodness, they've had a relationship of 22, 23 years, and they do love each other very much. It's just that there's an awful lot of extraneous baggage that's got to be gotten rid of. So I've never found them particularly neurotic.
GROSS: But they don't really get it off their chests in that no matter how much they vent it, it still remains on their chest and...
ALBEE: I think by the end of the play, they've come to considerable understanding of each other. So it's a far more optimistic than pessimistic play.
GROSS: Did you see at that time a lot of relationships around you that reminded you of the one you created?
ALBEE: I would start going to universities and do readings or lectures. And the first four or five years after the play came out, every university I went to, some member of the faculty would take me aside and say, oh, you've been here before - haven't you? - because it's obvious you know professor so-and-so and his wife after whom you modeled. And of course, since I had spent no time at Trinity College when I was there and didn't know anything about faculty people, obviously it was another case of life imitating art.
GROSS: What did you think of the film adaptation with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton?
ALBEE: Well, since I had been promised Bette Davis and James Mason, I wasn't too happy.
GROSS: Is that true?
ALBEE: Yeah. Why I would I say it?
GROSS: I don't know (laughter). Let's see, I'd been promised Pluto and Donald Duck, that's not true.
ALBEE: What is true is I'd been promised Bette Davis and James Mason. And so that would have been nice.
GROSS: So you were disappointed.
ALBEE: Sure. Elizabeth Taylor was - what? - at least 20 years too young for the role. And I didn't think it was as good a movie as it could have been. It was odd that Mike Nichols, who'd directed it, who'd made his career as a standup comic, managed to take a very funny play and make a humorless movie out of it. I guess this was to prove that he was a serious director.
GROSS: Do happy relationships interest you for plays?
ALBEE: Personally, yes.
GROSS: For plays, though as a writer?
ALBEE: Plays - good plays are not made up of people getting along particularly well. There has to be conflict, people in conflict either with each other, themselves, society, whatever.
GROSS: Do you find that people assume that you must know a lot of unhappy relationships since you write about them...
ALBEE: They seem to assume that, yes. I'm merely fairly observant, and I can make things up as well as the next man.
GROSS: Do you go to theater a lot?
ALBEE: Oh, sure, far more than I want to.
GROSS: Well (laughter) then why do you go?
ALBEE: Because I'm always - I'm probably the most enthusiastic member of any theater audience. I go there expecting enlightenment and a miracle. And every once in a while it happens, and it's wonderful when it does.
GROSS: Do you ever read plays, and do you feel that you can really judge your life from reading it?
ALBEE: Oh, yes, goodness. A play is literature. Whenever I am - I judge number of - or am a judge on a number of play contests every year, and I'm very specific. I don't want to judge the contest unless I have either seen and read all of the plays or merely read all of the plays. I would not judge any play merely having seen it.
GROSS: Because it might be a bad production?
ALBEE: That's right or distorting production, a worse production. I think I can usually see the play through the production. But a play is literature, and it exists on the page. A good play is not proved - is not rather improved on the stage. It's proved. And I'd rather read them because I can see a production of a play in my head and in my ear when I read it. And I know exactly the way the play truly is on stage.
GROSS: It's really been great to have you here. I want to thank you a whole lot for doing it.
ALBEE: You've made it fun. You've made it nice.
GROSS: Edward Albee, recorded in 1984. He died Friday at the age of 88. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN")
DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Sam Chisolm) You tell Bo if he wants his town, come see me.
GROSS: That's Denzel Washington in the new remake of the 1960 Western "The Magnificent Seven." We'll talk with the new film's director Antoine Fuqua, who also directed Washington in the film "Training Day." I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.