Nobody goes to an Edward Albee play expecting an evening of blithesome entertainment.
From the outset, his dramas have cut deep, touched raw nerves. The play that first earned him fame, "The Zoo Story, " written in the late 1950s, centers around a down-and-out wanderer who goads a respectable middle-class publishing executive into an act of bloody violence.
His best-known work, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is an excruciating journey through the tangled mess of the marriage of its two protagonists, George and Martha. In 1962, "Virginia Woolf" was controversial in part due to its raw language. While profanity no longer causes most audiences to squirm, there's enough raw emotion in the play that makes it painful to watch, even today.
And in more recent years, many
critics weren't sure what to make of "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" It tells the story of a seemingly successful married man who has fallen deeply in love. With a goat.
Albee, who will lecture Thursday at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, says his intention has never been just to shock.
"I never go to my desk to think up something that's going to shock people, " the 77-year-old winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and four Tony awards says. "That's cynical and opportunistic."
Rather, he hopes his plays open a dialogue with audiences about important issues - the nature of relationships, our reluctance to meet life head on.
That reluctance has never been part of Albee's makeup. Adopted as an infant by heirs to the Albee theater chain, the young Albee experienced a life of privilege, growing up in New York. But early on, he decided that elite society life was not for him.
"Just because they adopted me, they didn't own me, " Albee says of his wealthy parents.
Instead of conforming to their expectations, as a young man he headed to Greenwich Village, took on a series of low-level jobs and hobnobbed with the village's avant-garde arts community.
But even in New York, "The Zoo Story" was initially considered too outrageous to produce. It had to travel first to Berlin, then back to New York and the acclaim that has followed Albee ever since.
Albee spoke recently to The News Tribune, after returning to New York from London. He traveled there to oversee a production of "Virginia Woolf" starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, and directed by Anthony Page, that has received rave reviews.
You resist calling this new production of your play a revival. Why?
It's not a revival. That means bringing back to life something that is dead. It's performed all around the world all the time.
Does "Virginia Woolf" say something different to audiences today than it did in the 1960s?
That's hard for me to judge. I'm not a new person. I'm seeing it with the same mind, the same experience as when I first wrote it.
I hope it's still pertinent. I hope it hasn't become a historical artifact. It seems to engage people very much.
What inspired you to write "The Zoo Story?"
It was time to write a play. I had failed at every other branch of writing. I was 28. I'd been around New York for 10 years. I'd educated myself in the arts.
Did it make you rich?
I made $50 a week. Before that, I was working for Western Union for $38 a week. So $50 was a lot better. . . . It was the beginning of freedom for me. It meant I didn't have to be an employee of anyone.
Are most of your plays commercial successes? Do you care?
No more than a third of them. . . . I don't write to have hits. If people want to come see my plays, that's great.
If you write serious, tough plays, it's not going to be as popular as musicals, the escapist stuff. Whenever I get a new idea for a play, I have to say to myself, "You know, Edward, you're not going to get rich on this."
About "The Goat." You have said you don't like to explain your plays. But what is it about?
The play is about the limits of our tolerance - what we are even willing to think about. I want audiences to imagine how they would have responded if this had happened to them. . . . The play is not about bestiality. It's about falling in love with, and therefore having a sexual relationship with, a different kind of animal. It's not about lust.
At 77, you have been called America's greatest living playwright. In 2005, you received a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement. How do accolades make you feel?
I don't believe it, but I am 77. There must be some terrible mistake there. Sometimes I feel about 14, other times 40. . . . I haven't achieved my lifetime work yet. There are a lot of plays I haven't written yet.
You went through years of heavy drinking before you finally quit. How did alcohol affect your writing? What made you give it up?
I was still writing. You can't drink 24 hours a day.
Every person has a certain amount to drink in the course of their life. Some will do it over their entire lifetime, some in a 10- to 15-year period. I did it by the time I was 40. So I stopped. I realized it was me or it.
Does your sexual orientation play a role in your work?
I find being gay only one part of who I am. I'm male. I'm white. I'm educated. I'm intelligent. I'm creative. I live in a "blue" state. I belong to a lot of minorities. None of these things by itself defines my personality or who I am.
Do you believe in the legend of the suffering artist?
It's so tricky. I suppose sensitive personalities are going to come up against problems. How you handle it is up to your capabilities. I suppose it's a little tougher being creative and intelligent, than being Republican and stupid.
Your political leanings are well-known. Are your plays political?
They're all about the way we don't participate in our own lives.
I remain convinced that if we educated ourselves politically and socially, we'd vote more intelligently.
You've said that art should be dangerous. What do you mean?
It should make us think about things we don't want to think about - maybe even come to new conclusions about things.
Things like . . .
The difference between liberty and security, the fact that we should think before we vote, the fact that we should do so many things in our lives, participate fully.
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WHO: Playwright Edward Albee
WHAT: A talk on the creative mind and the state of American theater
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Schneebeck Concert Hall, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma
TICKETS: $10; 253-879-3419
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Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
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SIDEBAR: EDWARD ALBEE BIBLIOGRAPHY
"The Zoo Story, " 1958
"The Sandbox, " 1960
"The American Dream, " 1960
"The Death of Bessie Smith, " 1960
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" 1961-62
"The Ballad of the Sad Café, " 1963
"Tiny Alice, " 1964
"A Delicate Balance, " 1966
"Everything in the Garden, " 1968
"Box and Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, " 1969
"All Over, " 1971
"Seascape, " 1974
"Counting the Ways and Listening: Two Plays, " 1977
"The Lady From Dubuque, " 1977-78
"The Man Who Had Three Arms, " 1981
"Finding the Sun, " 1982
"Marriage Play, " 1986-87
"Three Tall Women, " 1991
"Fragments, " 1993
"The Play About the Baby, " 1997
"The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" 2000
"Occupant, " 2001
"Peter and Jerry, " 2004
Edward Albee's Awards & Honors
Tony Award, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" 1963
Pulitzer Prize, "A Delicate Balance, " 1967
Pulitzer Prize, "Seascape, " 1975
Gold Medal in Drama (from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters), 1980
Pulitzer Prize, "Three Tall Women, " 1994
National Medal of the Arts, 1996
Tony Award, "A Delicate Balance" revival, 1996
Tony Award, "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" 2002
Lifetime Achievement Tony Award, 2005
Source: Royce Carlton agency, New York