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Wednesday, November 14, 2001 Volume 67, Issue 60


 
 









 
Words, wars and a winning career

By Tom Carpenter
Daily Cougar Staff

A cosmic twist of fate placed Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee at center stage in the swirling vortex of Ground Zero on Sept. 11. His works have provoked and entertained millions of people around the world because of his skill and expertise at exploring the depths and passions of the human psyche; that day he found himself caught up in the life-and-death drama of the new world order.
 

Photo courtesy of the UH Theater Department

Edward Albee, one of America's most decorated playwrights, now teaches in the University's creative writing program. Albee's prolific career spans nearly 40 years.


"I had just gotten off the subway in New York at Chambers Street at five after nine and I went upstairs. The plane had just hit the second building," said Albee, a
renowned playwright and UH faculty member. "I was about five blocks from it so I saw it all. I saw the buildings, the fires, both collapses. I was right there."

Born in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1928, Albee was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee two weeks later.

"I don't know where I was born; I was an orphan," Albee said. "I was raised in the Northeast, just outside New York City."

His adoptive parents were heirs to the Keith-Albee vaudeville chain, and the family raised young Edward at the Albee Tudor mansion in Larchmont, N.Y. By the
time he was five, Albee was riding in the family Rolls-Royce into New York City to watch Broadway plays.

Despite his family's opulent lifestyle, Albee was sent to a boarding school at the age of 11 because he was a problem for his parents. Albee's riposte was to skip
classes and refuse to do assignments or participate in athletic events. He was expelled 18 months later.

"I went to a lot of courses I wanted to study and didn't take the courses I was supposed to (take)," Albee said from New York City in a telephone interview. "They got
tired of me. I thought I was doing the right thing. I was the one getting educated. I thought I should do it my own way. They didn't like that."

The young man with a defiant attitude abandoned his formal education when he left Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in his late teens. Albee returned to
Larchmont, where he lived for a year, socializing with his parents' friends and commuting to Manhattan, where he worked as a scriptwriter for a New York radio
station.

The artists and intellectuals Albee met and befriended in New York caused major conflicts with his parents. At the age of 20, Albee packed his bags for good and
moved to Manhattan.

"I lived there for 10 years and sort of educated myself by being around an awful lot of very bright and talented people," Albee said. "I supported myself by doing odd
jobs."

Albee moved through a succession of jobs as a record salesman, waiter, copy boy, counterman and Western Union messenger during this period. He found himself
drifting away from writing. Desperate to end the depression that plagued him, Albee hurled himself into writing his first play.

"I didn't start as a playwright. I started where everybody else does, as a poet, but I wasn't very good there," Albee said. "I wrote two novels in my teens and they were
even worse. There wasn't much left to do. I wasn't any good at short stories either, so I started writing plays. I'm better (at) that than I was at the others."

Albee's early plays defended the poor and downtrodden who had been exploited by the prejudices and biases of the rich. The Zoo Story, Albee's first play, told the
story of a lonely young orphan who was shunned by society because of his mental problems.

"It sort of fixed everything nice for me," Albee said. 

In the following decade Albee was awarded the New York Press Association's Best Plays Award, the Lola D'Annunzio Award, the New York Drama Critics Award
and the Pulitzer Prize.

Albee's early works, like The Zoo Story, pounded his audience with themes concerning social protest and human conflict. 

"It played off-Broadway (in small theaters of 300 seats or fewer). I kept on writing them. I have 26 of them now," Albee said. "Some of them have been very popular
and some are very unpopular. Some of the very best ones have been very unpopular."

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he attacked the hypocrisy and corruption of the social elite in America and laid it bare for all to see. A Delicate Balance ventured
further into the realm of the mind and man's sense of isolation and separation from society and God.

Albee's works, regardless of the decade in which they were written, focus on the fact that every human being deserves to be treated with courtesy and simple
dignity.

Albee won Pulitzer Prizes for his plays A Delicate Balance (1966-67), Seascape (1974-75) and Three Tall Women (1993-94).

"Three and a half Pulitzers, really," Albee said. "Virginia Woolf didn't get the Pulitzer. Well, it did, but they took it away from me. Because the jurors voted it best play,
but then the newspaper publishers decided it was too controversial."

No playwright was awarded a Pulitzer that year, 1965-66.

The man whose plays are produced more than any other playwright except Shakespeare in colleges and universities across America siad he believes you can't
teach people how to write plays.

"I can teach somebody how somebody else wrote a play," Albee said. "But unless they're a playwright themselves, they'll never figure out how to do it."

Albee said he does think you can push people in the right direction so they'll have the right influences.

"You can encourage the bright people and discourage the others," Albee said. "That's the way you're supposed to do it, anyway."

Albee said he doesn't begin to write a play until he knows what he's going to write. The play takes shape in his mind and informs him why he's writing it.

"I discover I'm thinking about one," Albee said. "I get ideas because I'm a playwright. I get ideas for plays because I'm a playwright."

Albee said he hopes his plays enlighten his audiences and make them think, but they don't necessarily send a message to the audience.

"There's a very funny man who said if you want to send a message, call Western Union," Albee said. "I mean, any play that's any good is concerned about
something and it's meant to make people think. That's the only trouble with serious theater, it makes people think."

Albee makes no bones about viewing critics with a jaundiced eye.

"A critic owes his job to the people who's paying him. Sometimes that gets in the way. The rule is, if the critic likes your work but not what you do, he's very bright. If
he doesn't like what you do, he's not very bright. Every playwright feels this way."

The mood to write can strike at any time, Albee said. He enjoys writing on airplanes and ocean liners where he can work without interruptions.

"It's nice if there's not a lot of people around. It also makes it possible for me not to talk to the people in the seats beside me," Albee said. "I don't want to share
anything until I finish it. I have three or four people I show things to (while the work is in progress)."

Albee was lecturing at St. Thomas University in Houston when Sidney Berger, who runs the theater department at UH, asked him if he'd like to have a job.

"I said, 'Maybe. I'll only want to teach one semester and I want to choose my own students,'" Albee said. "He said OK. So I've been doing this for 13 years now."

Albee teaches two classes at UH. His production class has about 4 to 5 playwrights and his other class has about 10 students.

"There aren't many good writers around," Albee said. "You know, a lot of them find it a little too tough or too rough and go on and do something else with their lives.
But some of them are beginning to get there. There aren't any world-famous names yet."

Asked if he was satisfied and happy with his accomplishments and life, Albee replied, "I'm conscious, and I enjoy being conscious. I'm not unhappy, but I don't think
I'm idiotically happy. Satisfied is bad, because then you don't try anything. I'm hoping I'll get better."

Surprisingly, Albee said writing is not a passion or a hunger in him, it's just his job.

"I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it," Albee said. "I'm a very lazy person. I enjoy doing it and obviously I do it well."

When he's not teaching at UH, Albee lives in a big loft in Manhattan in an area called Tribeca, very near the World Trade Center. Will he write a play about the
attack?

"Things take a while to sink in. Whatever you end up doing has probably gone through some transmutations from the source material into something else, so you
never know," Albee said. "We're at war with a whole culture now. We're in very serious trouble as a nation. I think we're going to find that we're going to be subject to
terrorists for the next 10 to 25 years at least."

Albee contemplates retiring from teaching at UH in another year or two, he said, but he plans to continue writing plays as long as possible. He has three plays that
will be produced this year. In February or March, The Goat will run off-Broadway. In March he will produce a revival of All Over in New York and he has a new play,
Occupant, that will be shown off-Broadway in a 300-seat theater later in the year.

"I want to destroy a lot of preconceptions when I write my plays," Albee said. "I want to make people see the world the way I want them to see it. I want people to see
the world a little more carefully. Think about what being alive is all about just a little bit more. The goals shouldn't just be security and money. There's more to it than
all that."
 
 
 

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