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If Edward Albee had taken Fran Leibovitz’s advice (Why would you be a writer if you weren’t really good at it?) he would have never gotten around to writing the plays he is famous for: as he admits, he wasn’t a very good writer when he started, and he didn’t even begin as a playwright.
As a young man Albee wrote poems, and decided after a while that he wasn’t very good at them. Still, something told him that he was a writer. The two novels that followed when he was in his teens, weren’t very good either. And then, when he was 30, he wrote The Zoo Story and, as he simply puts it, “everything turned out better.”
Albee’s approach to playwriting is unique and reveals a markedly postmodern approach to the craft. While some writers don’t know what’s going to happen in a play before they sit down and write it, Albee has made all of the decisions and writing the play down merely reveals to him everything that he has decided. “The initial impulse is not particularized. It is a bunch of people who seem to wish to be in a play of mine, and I write the play to find out why,” he told me during a short interview I had with him recently over the phone.
I then asked him what he wanted us to know about sexuality in his plays:
“I want them to comprehend what their sexuality is and to work with it and live with it and accept it and stop fighting who they are. I don’t think that being gay means that you’re any different than anyone else. It’s merely a different brand of the same thing.”
Edward Albee is the author of more than 30 plays and is a three-time Pulitzer Prize recipient (for “A Delicate Balance” in 1967, “Seascape” in 1975 and “Three Tall Women” in 1994) and a Tony Award winner (for 2002’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?”). In 2005, he received a special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.
For the past 25 years, Edward Albee has been teaching each spring for the School of Theater and Dance at the University of Houston. About teaching, he says:
“If you have any ability to do anything and you have the opportunity to help talented people do what they do, it’s your responsibility to do it. And I like teaching. I learn a lot from it.”
Do plays get easier to write, or do they always feel mysterious?
“I suppose that doing them well is never easy. But, I’ve never been appalled at writing. I’ve always loved writing. There’s no pain in it for me—a lot of work, but no pain.”
What is the current state of affairs in American theater?
“The country is filled with important young creative people. The problem is that commerce—the dead hand of commerce—has made the creative arts much more difficult because people are being encouraged to sell out and do less than they can for commercial reasons.”
I asked him if we could ever expect to see his memoir to which he replied, “What I write is much more interesting than I am. Besides, you shouldn’t ever write about yourself, because that’s the one person you can never be objective about. You write through yourself.”
His thoughts on receiving his lifetime achievement award tonight: “There’s only one problem with this lifetime achievement award: it’s premature.”
At the end of our conversation I asked what he was working on now. Spoken like the humble master of the art he is, he replied: “Oh, probably the same old stuff.”