When an American playwright with enough interesting insights to win 3 Pulitzer Prizes – 4 if you count the one not given to him because the advisory committee didn’t want to give a prize out in 1963 – dies, it’s best to allow him to write his own column. Especially for Edward Albee who always seemed to have something prickly – and honest – to say.
Like in this interview from 1978: “I never like to talk about what [my] play is about. I much prefer to get the misinformation from the critics as to what they’re about. And then make up my mind what they’re really about.”
Or this 2001 discussion specifically about playwrighting for playwrights. When it comes to film: “I’ve turned down many, many movie sale offers because they didn’t want to retain the integrity of the piece.” And when it comes to the theater: “I’ve turned down quite a few productions. If I think the actors are wrong and stuff like that. You have to. It’s your stuff out there… Every time you get involved with anything to do with one of your plays, remember: You take the credit and you take the blame. And don’t put yourself in compromised positions so that other people are going to be able to do that. You’ve got to be brave enough to take your own blame and your own credit.”
In this 2009 interview he explains the job of a playwright is “to make people pay more attention to the things they should be paying attention to. Like things like democracy, politics, government. Their own lives – whether they live their lives fully or not… All art to be any good has to be useful. Decoration is not enough.”
Here’s a 2009 masterclass where Albee talks about Samuel Beckett’s heavy influence on him. In particular, Albee focuses on Beckett’s precision in writing; how Beckett understood a play is “sound and silence.” Albee goes on to talk about writing with such precision that punctuation becomes notation. To know the differences in duration between a comma and a semicolon, and a semicolon and a period. And how “People think that a play is an approximation rather than a very, very specific statement of how it looks and how it sounds.” In particular, Albee believes it’s important to understand other art forms to improve one’s writing.
And finally, this 2013 CBS interview begins with Albee proclaiming he lives by a simple rule: “Yes is better than No.” But by midway in the interview, he is perfectly comfortable saying “no” to present-day Broadway where “it’s all about not doing the best plays but doing the ones that sell the most tickets.” And when asked what plays sell the most tickets today?
“Usually junk,” he says with a smile.
Originally published September 16, 2016 in Footlights.