Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Who's Afraid of Edward Albee? by Mel Gussow

Edward Albee emerged from the position of a silent witness to the Greenwich Village avant garde art scene through-out the 1950s to an acclaimed playwright after the Off-Broadway production of the one-act play The Zoo Story, which was double-billed with Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, first in German at the Berlin Arts Festival in 1959 and then at the Provincetown Playhouse a year and a half later.

Albee and his agent had some initial difficulties getting this play produced in America. For example, when the Actor's Studio read the play their verdict was 12 to 4 against taking it up, though Norman Mailer rose from his seat after the performance and called it the best fucking one-act play he ever saw. Eventually, however, Richard Barr who had a keen interest in producing new and adventuresome works on and off Broadway took the option for $250. After generally positive reviews from the critics in New York, a very positive response from the theatrical community itself – and of course its great popularity with audiences- The Zoo Story was soon playing in theaters across the nation, in Europe and was set to tour South America in a cultural exchange program arranged by the U.S. Department of State.

Albee's success did not occur in a vacuum. A seismic shift was occurring in American theater at the time. In the 1950s Off-Broadway was alive with new plays beginning with Circle in the Square and its revivals of Tennessee William's Summer and Smoke and Eugene O'Neil's The Iceman Cometh. They also produced Jean Genet's The Balcony and The Blacks. These successes even encouraged Broadway itself to be more daring. They put up Ionesco's Rhinoceros and proved hospitable to works by Brendan Behan, Harold Pinter and Arthur Kopit. Albee joined the later, along with Jack Richardson, Jack Gelber and Arnold Weinstein as the celebrated radical leaders of the new American theater. Albee, however, became something of a lightning rod for reaction and criticism.

Robert Brustein of The New Republic made his debut as a critic of Albee by calling The Zoo Story 'Beat Generation claptrap”. Later, Joseph Hayes of the New York Sunday Times would pose some heated questions about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

"Are all the children [ of the so-called 'serious writers' ] the braying monsters of those in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?. Is marriage itself the stultifying trap, the wasteland of illusion and cruelty and betrayal described in this play and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?...Does the waspish bitchiness of the dialogue in Virginia Woolf correspond to a recognizable pattern of speech in a marriage or to some other relationship out and beyond the experience of most of us? If we respond positively to these visions, then the forces of darkness and despair and destruction have moved that much closer.”

Naturally, there are always critics who will regard themselves as the indispensable guardians of theatrical virtue but the outcry wasn't confined to their front doorsteps. When The Zoo Story was performed with Strindberg's Miss Julie for a week in July at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, John M. Lupton, a state senator, compared the plays to “all the filth we export in our B movies and dirty plays.” These two plays, along with William's Sweet Bird of Youth and John Van Druten's I am a Camera were on their way to South America as part of a cultural exchange program. There was a great to-do in Westport. Ladies formed committees, sent telegrams to the Secretary of State (Dean Rusk), protesting that The Zoo Story was a disgrace, that “it falsified the America we all know and love, that it was, in fact, thinly disguised communist propaganda. At one point, Prescott Bush ( Dubya's grandfather ), got up on the floor of the U.S. Senate and denounced The Zoo Story as “filthy'- and demanded to know why it was going to represent America in Argentina.

In 1963, with the announcement that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf- which ran for two years on Broadway, giving 664 performances and earned a profit of $750,000- was going to be done in England, Albee immediately collided with the Lord Chamberlain, who at that time was still the official English censor. His role, Albee said, was “to make plays safe for the Royal family, if they ever went to the theater.” Producers Clinton Wilder and Donald Albery met with the Lord Chamberlain for a hilarious hour of absolutely filthy conversation in which the central concern seemed to be the use of the word “bugger”. But ultimately his Lordship requested pages and pages of changes. They couldn't say “screw baby” but could say 'hump the hostess" , because hump was in Shakespeare. They were allowed only three 'Jesus Christs” out of ten. 'Scrotum' was forbidden, 'privacies' substituted. 'Cheese' must be used for 'Jesus', 'bastard' for 'bugger', 'bowel' for 'right ball' and 'propaganda machine' for 'screwing machine'. In the end Albee told the actors to simply forget the Lord Chamberlain's requests, and for the most part that is exactly what they did.

On seeing the movie version of the play, Geoffrey Shurlock, the head of Hollywood's Production Code Administration, refused to give it a seal of approval, but he was overruled by the Production Code Review Board, which said that the film “is not designed to be prurient" and was “largely a reproduction of the play.” In its statement the board added that “this exemption does not mean that the floodgates are open for language or other material.” In fact, the ruling proved to be a turning point in the fight against censorship.

But the spirit of censorship and ad hominem criticism continued. Albee's adaptation of a novel by James Purdy, Malcolm , drew some incredible fire. Robert Brustein called the play “Albee's most deeply homosexual work... as Albee gets closer and closer to his true subjects – the malevolence of women, the psychological impact of Mom, the evolution of the invert- he tends to get more abstract and incoherent until he is finally reduced to a nervous plucking at broken strings.” His review was printed after the show had closed, coinciding with an infamous essay by Stanley Kauffmann in the Sunday Times. The headline on Kauffmann's piece was HOMOSEXUAL DRAMA AND ITS DISGUISES. In it he said that “three of the most successful playwrights of the last twenty years are reputed homosexuals and because of them postwar American drama presents a badly distorted picture of American women, marriage and society.” It was his charge that they invented “a two-sex version of the one-sex experience”; in other words, homosexuals were incapable of writing believable female characters.

“An absolutely preposterous notion- that gays were writing about gays, but disguising them as straights and writing about men, but disguising them as women. Tennessee Williams knew the difference between men and women as well as I do,” wrote Albee twenty-five years later. “ One of the reasons Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was so good and such a success was precisely because it reflected a deep understanding of women and insisted that marriage means something.” (A.R. Gurney Jr.)

At an Out Write conference of gay writers in San Francisco in 1991 Albee said that being a homosexual was one factor in his identity and personality and made a distinction between being a gay writer and a writer who is gay... "In my own writing I have a couple of gay characters, but I never felt the need to write about a gay theme. I want to write about our society in general- I don't think being gay is a subject, any more than being straight is a subject.” “Edwards configuration of qualities is individual,” said Martha Coigny. “He is a person who leads a political life in order to write plays about what he chooses to write about. If that makes him a bete noir to the political gay activists, so be it.”

But the controversy and 'fear' associated with the works of Edward Albee are largely the result of his style- an odd combination of the natural and the surreal, brilliantly written, which may sometimes appear to be 'empty at the core'- and his subject matter.

As he himself recognized, “The commercial theater is not a rational or even decent place to work in, its disappointments are real and its rewards slippery at best.” And he did not choose to write about the “happy problems” that dominate so much of the theater of his and to a large degree our own times. His subject was almost invariably about how we lie to ourselves and each other, how we try to live without the cleansing consciousness of death, about death and dying itself, about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, how they skid through their lives asleep at the wheel- not the stuff of a box office smash. In light of his subject matter the amount of commercial success Edward Albee did achieve is actually quite extraordinary.

Furthermore, Albee was a ferocious American, a curmudgeon; impatient and furious at what he considered stupidities. He was usually unable to approach a play from the view point of an actor , understand the problems of a performer. Most of the time he did not work well in the ensemble mode and insisted, as the writer, on absolute control over the production of all his plays. He nearly destroyed himself with alcohol, as epitomized in the notorious contretemps with Joe Papps in 1978 at a dinner party given by Mel Gussow in Greenwich Village. But he survived, came back with Three Tall Women and is still alive today.

1 comment:

  1. “Edward Albee; Singular Journey” by Mel Gussow; Simon and Schuster, 1999