His plays may be full of sparring vitriol and dysfunctional lives, but Edward Albee is rather sweet, thinks Simon Fanshawe
Edward Albee reminds me of an airline experiment that happened some years ago. The hostesses served passengers with raspberry-flavoured ice-cream. But it was coloured banana yellow. And no one could make out exactly what it tasted of. Albee’s most famous work is still Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Premiered in New York in 1962, it won the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes and in 1966 was filmed by Mike Nichols. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton played George and Martha, a pair of veteran marrieds armed to the teeth with intellectual savagery, emotionally stripping each other in front of a younger couple. The razor slashes of wit and extended alcoholic bouts of recrimination painted a husband and wife seemingly bent on mutual destruction. A-ha, the dull people thought, life imitating art. Albee the bitter chronicler of arid marriage.
But revived three years ago in London with Diana Rigg and David Suchet in the title roles, you saw two people flexing their wit and intelligence in a heroic effort to make sense of being together and in the world. Theirs was a marriage that worked in its own terms, despite the collateral damage. And while certainly raw and emotionally naked, it emerged as a very funny play. In fact a love story. That is what Albee thinks too. Banana ice-cream tasting of raspberries.
And if Albee himself, in London for the British premiere of two plays from the mid-Eighties, Finding the Sun and Marriage Play, didn’t have a twinkle in his eye and a not-too-buried sense of humour, you could leave after an hour or so in his company thinking he was a bitter, unco-operative, thin-lipped queen. Actually he’s rather a sweetie. Although he would probably hate anyone to know it. He hides it well behind the slight raising of an eyebrow. And meeting him leaves a nice taste in the mouth. ‘Nice’, oddly for such an intense writer, is a word he uses often. It seems an unconscious understatement, a very New England way to cap his emotions.
One could say that Albee spent the Seventies and Eighties in both New York and London in a kind of critical oblivion, only to be rescued in 1994 by Three TallWomen. He just describes his rediscovery as ‘nice’ and of the play’s success says only ‘One prefers a yes to a no’. He is being deliberately obtuse. But he smiles, so that’s OK.
At 73, Albee is considerably older than he looks. He is lean, only ageing slightly when he walks. He looks as though someone has lent him Donny Osmond’s teeth; they are too perfect. ‘I had them done because when I was very poor living in The Village there was no dentistry and they rotted. I think I’m going to take them back to the guy and have him imperfect them a little bit, make them ragged.’
For 32 years he has lived with a sculptor called Jonathan, who is younger than him. ‘Almost everyone is,’ he admits in an Eeyorish kind of way.
Marriage Play and Finding the Sun, both directed by Anthony Page, who was responsible for his two recent London hits Three Tall Women and A Delicate Balance, are peopled by Albee’s people. Men and women from his roots, the world of the New England American moneyed aristocracy which he so hated. They are the kind of men who cannot cry and the kind of women who wear sweaters on their shoulders so they cannot work.
As a baby he was adopted by a millionaire couple, Reed and Frances Albee. She was 23 years younger than her husband, a foot taller and his third wife. Albee says: ‘I did have a strong feeling of dislocation from the beginning. I never felt that I belonged to those people in that environment. They were deeply prejudiced and reactionary.’ They must have felt the same way about him as he was disinherited after he left home at 18. Because he was gay? ‘No, homosexuality was never discussed in the family. It was because I left. For God’s sake if you buy a child, give it a good education and take care of it all those years, how dare it walk out on you?’
Did they row? ‘The reason I left was so silly. I arrived home very late from a night out in New York and a friend had thrown up in the station wagon. But I went straight to bed. The next morning my mother said, “You arrived very late and someone left the lights on. They kept us awake.” And I said, “Well why didn’t someone get up and turn them off?” A conversation then ensued in which it was made quite clear that I should change my ways or leave. So I left. I knew I was going to. I do a lot of things intuitively.’ Did you clean up the sick? ‘No,’ he says with an acknowledging grin, ‘the servants did that.’
Yet for all his rejection of these people and their values – he is a fervent Democrat, describing Bush as ‘a heartbeat away from being President’ – he embraces them in his plays and is himself something of the gentle patrician. He is a Wasp in both senses of the word, turning his stinging intelligence on his own people. Three Tall Women he readily admits was about his domineering mother. And although it’s an excoriating portrait of the old girl, it feels not so much a revenge but a reconciliation after her death and with death itself.
The physical territory of Finding the Sun is similar. Two young upper class women are married to two rich young men who were previously lovers. They have buried their sexuality in convention. Endlessly weary about being asked to expand on what he is saying in any of his plays, Albee sighs and eventually acknowledges that this one is ‘about the responsibilities of being alive, of living fully and being your own person. What happens to poor Daniel and Benjamin is that they are trapped by social pressure.’
It is bleak. Yet there is optimism. There is Fergus, a 16-year-old, oh-so-good-looking and preternaturally intelligent boy who wanders in and out of the play, which is set – conveniently for those who like to watch young men in swimwear – on a beach. ‘He is a quizzical, sweet boy,’ says Albee, entranced by his own creation. ‘I like Fergus a lot. He’s like all those boys I went to prep school with… my first loves. The skin of those kids…’
Inevitably Fergus leaves the play after hearing a wistful speech by his mother saying that she doesn’t want to around when, as Albee puts it, ‘he will discover that all things are not possible.’ In as much as one can pin Albee down, this illustrates one of the great atmospheres of his work. It’s not bitterness or disillusion so much as that we live in danger of getting to the end of our lives and being disappointed. ‘What could be worse,’ he says, ‘than getting to the end of your life and realising that you haven’t fully participated?’
Or, as he says about Marriage Play, in which more bitterly but more quietly than in Virginia Woolf, a couple – played in this new production by Sheila Gish and Bill Paterson – battle it out on the matrimonial turf: ‘I suppose the conclusion of that play is that they have got to the stage where they realise that the final relationship in one’s life is a form of dying.’
Death is a great annoyance to Albee. ‘I enjoy participating,’ he says and continues in a typical quotable riff, ‘and I disapprove of death. The only two things you can write about are life and death. The dread of reaching a certain age is that it will be interrupted and that one may not finish life.’ It happens to the couple in A Delicate Balance who arrive at their friends’ house gripped by an inchoate fear, which is little more than mortality. Yet despite his age and being in what he presumes will be his last relationship, Albee rejects the strictly autobiographical take on this.
He fends it off sarcastically when you ask him why he doesn’t want to die. ‘Probably because I enjoy being alive.’ Thanks for that. It’s in a fairly long line of staccato put-downs that are only rescued by a sardonic smile, and which mask his warmth in the same way that first impressions of bitterness can overshadow the humanity of his work.
The marriage in Marriage Play is not a bad marriage, he says, ‘except for what’s happening’. Ha, ha. ‘They’ve had a good relationship, they enjoy each other’s company, they make jokes together. It’s better than a lot of marriages. They’ve just got to the stage where he has realised that in your last relationship maybe nothing has to be enough.’ Ow.
Does he see bitterness in everything? ‘Yes I guess I do. Except when the sun comes out.’ So are you sad and bitter? ‘Oh, no. Not at all.’ Edward Albee, raspberry and bananas.
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