I had thought Edward Albee had become immortal even before his passing. Maybe because his plays seemed like they were from the time of Tennessee William’s, Arthur Miller’s or Eugene O’Neill’s. They subjected you to situations where the familiar unraveled so preposterously that you were forever affected from them, and maybe ended up partly damaged like the characters in the play.
Even Albee’s titles, A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, connoted that something would be off. That people would not keep to their expected roles, providing stable ground for others to march forward from. But which of us has that? The plays were torture and therapy in one.
I definitely never thought I’d meet the person behind them, but I got the chance one day when I heard Albee would be speaking at the Players Club. I ran there, hoping even just to catch a glimpse of him. The talk, on Anne Paolucci’s book, From Tension to Tonic: the Plays of Edward Albee was the only book event I’d been to where the author’s subject was both alive and present, and I was beyond grateful.
However, I questioned why Paolucci brought up criticisms of Albee’s works in front of him, arguments about the static and repetitive nature of his characters, or the tendency of certain words and phrases to be repeated. It seemed imbecilic criticism, but Paolucci, ever the academic, corrected them, relating that even if characters didn’t appear to have changed a lot did happen between where they started out from and where they ended up, with loneliness being circular, and characters would rephrase things as they continued to attempt getting what they wanted.
It all made for a better segue into her analysis of the philosophy behind Albee’s works—each of the plays being like a section of instruments that provided a theme or melody that set the stage for the next works, which then anticipated the newer movement with others following that, all of which became entwined in creating the symphony of all his plays, conceiving a new synthesis of the world.
Albee shook his head and admitted that indeed he had been fortunate to have had an education focusing on literature and music. He added that he wrote standing up, with his plays taking place right in front of his head, where he saw and heard them being performed better than anyone, being the only audience that could go in it.
After saying that he had never written about himself as a character, but about “far more interesting” people, Albee tackled why he took back the Zoo Story and rewrote it after it’s being in the public’s hands for so many years. Five years after he’d written it, he started feeling the two characters weren’t fully developed, that Peter was at home with his wife before he went to the park and wanted to fix the problem, but 40 years transpired before he ended up doing so.
But in a room full of theater people the evening couldn’t help but turn theatrical, when someone asked if Albee knew that in one production of Zoo Story the two characters embraced each other at the end and inserted an electrifying kiss, to which Albee responded he hadn’t known about.
“Well, what do you think about it now?” the audience member continued.
“Something must’ve happened in rehearsals that brought them there,” he replied.
“You don’t have any further thoughts?”
“Only that I hope they’re still together.”
“So then, would you incorporate it in the script?”
“No, I’m afraid I wouldn’t…being that my policy is that if something happens during rehearsals and I don’t like it, I get rid of it, but if something happens that I do like, then I will take credit for it—“
Albee’s quick wittedness made everyone laugh. Saying afterwards he’d been the luckiest person in having had more great productions of his work than he could have imagined, half of which he'd had the chance to direct, Albee admitted it was a much tougher world for playwrights, and probably wouldn’t have had the same opportunities now, with the biggest problem today being that it was a critic’s world, which wasn’t the case then. And the harsh criticism was the reason American theatre stayed in an adolescent level, failing to go beyond to discover different forms in drama, and hence we have no Becketts, no Ionescos and no Pirandellos. “But perhaps there were, but the critics might have had something to do with that too.”
And then and there, Albee turned to face Paolucci, who sat beside him. Taking and holding her hand, he began to propose loud enough for all to hear his “Will You Marry Me?” Paolucci, all smiles responded, “Sure, I like your wit and your intelligence.” And the marriage of minds, of dialogue and analysis, theatrically or not occurred right in front of us, though it had happened a long time ago. Justifying his action, Albee said it helps in this world with tough critics, to have a friend, someone like Paolucci.