Edward Albee in Conversation

I popped into the Sumner Theatre at the Melbourne Theatre Company this afternoon to listen to arguably America’s greatest living playwright, Edward Albee.

Organised in conjunction with The Australia Centre at The University of Melbourne and The Melbourne Theatre Company, Albee was interviewed for about 90 minutes by Radio National’s Amanda Smith as part of the John Sumner Lecture series.

After reading in the weekend papers that Melbourne should be worried about the cultural renaissance occurring in Brisbane at the moment, if today was anything to go by, I don’t think Melburnians need to be concerned just yet. A packed house of 500 people on a cold Melbourne afternoon, a long waiting list and a standby queue in the foyer was testament to this city’s crown as still remaining the cultural capital of Australia. It was great to see the audience demographic range from 18 to 80 (Albee himself is 82 years old), including what looked like a number of university students in the house no doubt studying the theatre.

A three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, Albee has written 30 plays in his long career, including his latest play Me, Myself and I, currently showing on Broadway to favourable reviews. With plays like The Zoo Story and Three Tall Women to his credit, Albee is best known for his 1962 classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, of which the film version starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

I’ll admit from the outset, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, first introduced to me in a senior Literature class in high school in the mid-80s, has always been one of my all-time favourite plays. Add to this, every interview I have read of viewed over the years with Edward Albee has inspired me as a Drama teacher. Albee’s knowledge of theatre is frightening. He is understandably well versed on the classics and well read with all of the major plays throughout the centuries. He is living proof we learn from our past. Albee mixed intelligence and wit with ease during this interview, and his strong opinions on a wide variety of aspects concerning contemporary theatre in America and beyond were fascinating.

Here’s a run-down of some of Albee’s thought’s and observations from today’s interview:

  • The title to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was acquired some years prior to Albee writing the play, when the playwright first saw it scribbled in soap on a glass mirror behind a Greenwich Village bar he attended aged 17. By that time, Albee said, he had already read Virginia Woolf and knew then that if ever he was to write a play, this would be a good title.
  • In the early phases of writing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the play was also titled The Exorcism. Albee decided this was not the best title for the play and today The Exorcism is the title to Act 3 of the play, instead.
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nearly didn’t become the play’s title after all, as the marketing people on Broadway were concerned the title was too long to fit comfortably on advertising billboards. Albee told them bluntly then they’ll need to make bigger billboards!
  • After all its commercial success spanning almost five decades, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway to very mixed reviews. Albee said it very nearly closed after just its fifth performance. It went on to run for two and a half years and 664 performances.
  • The 1962 Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? cost $42,000 to produce. A recent Broadway revival of the same play cost $1.5 million.
  • Albee was never credited with his own screenplay for the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The credits went to the producer, instead, who Albee joked added about two lines of his own to the film for the characters to exit to and then return from the theme park in the middle of the night, the only part of the film not seen in the stage version.
  • Today, Albee is concerned that as playwright, he knows how long his plays will run on Broadway well before he knows whether they are any good or not, such is the commercialisation of Broadway.
  • I’ve quoted Albee before on The Drama Teacher as saying “Of the eighty or so plays produced on Broadway each year, only two or three of them are any good. The rest are just commercial junk”. Albee added to this theme by stating it is near-impossible today for any serious artist to get their work produced in New York City because the art is all about the money and producers won’t take risks, financially backing exciting new works.
  • Albee values the opinion of fellow artists far above those of critics. He reminds us all that theatre critics are merely carrying out their duties as employees of newspaper houses and that over the years he has read many “reviews” of his plays, but very few of these have been written by what he would refer to as informed, intelligent theatre people.

So Edward Albee fanboy as I am, there I was front and centre a mere metre from Albee on the other edge of the stage. Long shot as it was, I bought a new copy of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and carried it with me just in case. I will now cherish my signed copy by a man who will be remembered as one of America’s greatest playwrights.

1 Response

  1. Borbs says:

    Ah, too bad we missed each other mate! I’m sure some interesting discussions will ensue. Albee’s protectionist view of the sanctity of the playwright elicited a heckler … which was interesting. The comments: a) that theatre cannot exist without the playwright, and b) that the director’s duty is to recreate the intentions of the playwright, didn’t go down well with a couple of audience members. The winds are blowing from a very different direction down here. Some very entertaining one-liners and insightful anecdotes were the highlights. Good to see Albee still fierce and edgy … like Matha on her fifth glass of scotch.

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