Edward Albee Albee, Edward - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Edward Albee 1928-

An acclaimed and controversial playwright, Albee is best known for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his first full-length drama. Although initially characterized either as a realist or an absurdist, Albee combines elements from the American tradition of social criticism—established by such playwrights as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill—with aspects of the Theater of the Absurd, as practiced by Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. While Albee's plays often portray alienated individuals who suffer as a result of unjust social, moral, and religious strictures, his works usually offer solutions to conflicts rather than conveying an absurdist sense of inescapable determinism. As Matthew C. Roudané has declared, "Albee's is an affirmative vision of human experience. His vision underscores the importance of confronting one's inner and outer world of O'Neillean 'pipe-dreams,' or illusions. In the midst of a dehumanizing society, Albee's heroes, perhaps irrationally, affirm living." In a career spanning more than thirty years, Albee has received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama three times: for A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and Three Tall Women.


Albee is the adopted child of Reed and Frances Albee, heirs to the multi-million dollar fortune of American theater manager Edward Franklin Albee I. He began attending the theater and writing poetry at the age of six, wrote a three-act sex farce when he was twelve, and attempted two novels while a teenager. Many critics suggest that the tense family conflicts characteristic of Albee's dramas are derived from his childhood experiences. After attending several private and military schools and enrolling briefly at Trinity College in Connecticut, Albee achieved limited success as an author of poetry and fiction before turning to drama. Although he remained associated with off-Broadway theater until the production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he first garnered critical and popular acclaim for his one-act dramas, which prompted comparisons to the works of Williams and Ionesco. In addition to the three Pulitzer prizes, Albee has received several other prestigious honors, including the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for his dramatic works.


Albee immediately established himself as a promising young playwright with his first mature play, The Zoo Story, which received its American debut on a double bill with a play by Samuel Beckett and which was favorably compared with the elder playwright's work. Albee continued to build his reputation as an innovator in the absurdist manner with such one-act plays as The Sandbox and The American Dream. Mainstream success came with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, produced on Broadway in 1961. This drama won a number of awards but, in a controversial decision, was denied the Pulitzer Prize. It was made into a film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1966.

Albee continued to experiment with a variety of forms, subjects, and styles in his succeeding plays; and while several of them failed commercially and elicited scathing reviews for their abstract classicism and dialogue, many scholars have commended his commitment to theatrical experimentation and refusal to pander to commercial pressures. The unorthodox Tiny Alice, Albee's follow-up to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was considered by some critics to be incomprehensible for the manner in which it deviates from realism with respect to setting, characterization, and internal time. Nevertheless, it has, in the years since its first performance, sparked a great deal of critical interest and commentary. While, for its part, A Delicate Balance was widely faulted for lacking action and cohesive ideas, it nevertheless garnered approval for its synthesis of dramatic elements and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Similarly, Albee's second Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Seascape, was regarded by some as pretentious but was commended overall for its lyrical quality and insights into the human condition. After several critical and financial disappointments in the 1980s, including The Lady from Dubuque (which closed after only twelve performances) and The Man Who Had Three Arms, Albee returned in 1991 with Three Tall Women, for which he received his third Pulitzer. His most recent work is The Play about the Baby, which was produced in 1998.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


The Zoo Story 1959

The Death of Bessie Smith 1960

Fam and Yam 1960

The Sandbox 1960

The American Dream 1961

Bartleby [adaptor, with James Hinton (libretto) and William Flanagan (music); from the short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" by Herman Melville] (opera) 1961

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1962

The Ballad of the Sad Café [adaptor; from the novella by Carson McCullers] 1963

Tiny Alice 1964

A Delicate Balance 1966

Malcolm [adaptor; from the novel by James Purdy] 1966

Everything in the Garden [adaptor; from the drama by Giles Cooper] 1967

*Box l968

*Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung 1968

All Over 1971

Seascape 1975

Counting the Ways: A Vaudeville 1977

Listening: A Chamber Play 1977

The Lady from Dubuque 1980

Lolita [adaptor; from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov] 1981

The Man Who Had Three Arms 1982

Finding the Sun 1983

Walking 1984

Marriage Play 1987

Three Tall Women 1991

The Lorca Play 1992

Fragments: A Concerto Grosso 1993

The Play about the Baby 1998

*These two works are performed together and referred to as Box-Mao-Box.

†This work was first produced as a radio play in 1976.

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Which Theatre is the Absurd One? (1962)

SOURCE: "Which Theatre is the Absurd One?" in The New York Times Magazine, 25 February 1962, pp. 30-1, 64, 66.

[In the following piece, Albee addresses the label, Theatre of the Absurd, that had been attached to his work. He argues that "The Theatre of the Absurd, in the sense that it is truly the contemporary theatre, facing as it does man's condition as it is, is the Realistic theatre of our time; and that the supposed Realistic theatrethe term used here to mean most of what is done on Broadwayin the sense that it panders to the public need for self-congratulation and reassurance and presents a false picture of ourselves to ourselves is … really and truly The Theatre of the Absurd."]

A theatre person of my acquaintance—a man whose judgment must be respected, though more for the infallibility of his intuition than for his reasoning—remarked just the other week, "The Theatre of the Absurd has had it; it's on its way out; it's through."

Now this, on the surface of it, seems to be a pretty funny attitude to be taking toward a theatre movement which has, only in the past couple of years, been impressing itself on the American public consciousness. Or is it? Must we judge that a theatre of such plays as Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, Jean Genet's The Balcony (both long, long runners off-Broadway) and Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros—which, albeit in a hoked-up production, had a substantial season on Broadway—has been judged by the theatre public and found wanting?

And shall we have to assume that The Theatre of the Absurd Repertory Company, currently playing at New York's off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre—presenting works by Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Arrabal, Jack Richardson, Kenneth Koch and myself—being the first such collective representation of the movement in the United States, is also a kind of farewell to the movement? For that matter, just what is The Theatre of the Absurd?

Well, let me come at it obliquely. When I was told, about a year ago, that I was considered a member in good standing of The Theatre of the Absurd I was deeply offended. I was deeply offended because I had never heard the term before and I immediately assumed that it applied to the theatre uptown—Broadway.

What (I was reasoning to myself) could be more absurd than a theatre in which the esthetic criterion is something like this: A "good" play is one which makes money; a "bad" play (in the sense of "Naughty! Naughty!" I guess) is one which does not; a theatre in which performers have plays rewritten to correspond to the public relations image of themselves; a theatre in which playwrights are encouraged (what a funny word!) to think of themselves as little cogs in a great big wheel; a theatre in which imitation has given way to imitation of imitation; a theatre in which London "hits" are, willy-nilly, in a kind of reverse of chauvinism, greeted in a manner not unlike a colony's obeisance to the Crown; a theatre in which real estate owners and theatre party managements predetermine the success of unknown quantities; a theatre in which everybody scratches and bites for billing as though it meant access to the last bomb shelter on earth; a theatre in which, in a given season, there was not a single performance of a play by Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, Genet, Ibsen, O'Casey, Pirandello, Shaw, Strindberg—or Shakespeare? What, indeed, I thought, could be more absurd than that? (My conclusions … obviously.)

For it emerged that The Theatre of the Absurd, aside from being the title of an excellent book by Martin Esslin on what is loosely called the avant-garde theatre, was a somewhat less than fortunate catch-all phrase to describe the philosophical attitudes and theatre methods of a number of Europe's finest and most adventurous playwrights and their followers.

I was less offended, but still a little dubious. Simply: I don't like labels; they can be facile and can lead to non-think on the part of the public. And unless it is understood that the playwrights of The Theatre of the Absurd represent a group only in the sense that they seem to be doing something of the same thing in vaguely similar ways at approximately the same time—unless this is understood, then the labeling itself will be more absurd than the label.

Playwrights, by nature, are grouchy, withdrawn, envious, greedy, suspicious and, in general, quite nice people—and the majority of them wouldn't be caught dead in a colloquy remotely resembling the following:

Ionesco: (At a Left Bank cafe table, spying Beckett and Genet strolling past in animated conversation) Hey! Sam! Jean!

Genet: Hey, it's Eugene! Sam, it's Eugene!

Beckett: Well. I'll be damned. Hi there, Eugene boy.

Ionesco: Sit down, kids.

Genet: Sure thing.

Ionesco: (Rubbing his hands together) Well, what's new in the Theatre of the Absurd?

Beckett: Oh, less than a lot of people think. (They all laugh.)

Etc. No. Not very likely. Get a playwright alone sometime, get a few drinks in him, and maybe he'll be persuaded to sound off about his "intention" and the like—and hate himself for it the next day. But put a group of playwrights together in a room, and the conversation—if there is any—will, more likely than not, concern itself with sex, restaurants and the movies.

Very briefly, then—and reluctantly, because I am a playwright and would much rather talk about sex, restaurants and the movies—and stumblingly, because I do not pretend to understand it entirely, I will try to define The Theatre of the Absurd. As I get it, The Theatre of the Absurd is an absorption-in-art of certain existentialist and post-existentialist philosophical concepts having to do, in the main, with man's attempts to make sense for himself out of his senseless position in a world which makes no sense—which makes no sense because the moral, religious, political and social structures man has erected to "illusion" himself have collapsed.

Albert Camus put it this way: "A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity."

And Eugene Ionesco says this: "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose * * *. Cut off from his religious, meta-physical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless."

And to sum up the movement, Martin Esslin writes, in his book The Theatre of the Absurd: "Ultimately, a phenomenon like The Theatre of the Absurd does not reflect despair or a return to dark irrational forces but expresses modern man's endeavor to come to terms with the world in which he lives. It attempts to make him face up to the human condition as it really is, to free him from illusions that are bound to cause constant maladjustment and disappointment * * *. For the dignity of man lies in his ability to face reality in all its senselessness; to accept it freely, without fear, without illusions—and to laugh at it."


(And while we're on the subject of Amen, one wearies of the complaint that The Theatre of the Absurd playwrights alone are having at God these days. The notion that God is dead, indifferent, or insane—a notion blasphemous, premature, or academic depending on your persuasion—while surely a tenet of some of the playwrights under discussion, is, it seems to me, of a piece with Mr. Tennessee Williams' description of the Deity, in The Night of the Iguana, as "a senile delinquent.")

So much for the attempt to define terms. Now, what of this theatre? What of this theatre in which, for example, a legless old couple live out their lives in twin ashcans, surfacing occasionally for food or conversation (Samuel Beckett's Endgame); in which a man is seduced, and rather easily, by a girl with three well-formed and functioning noses (Eugene Ionesco's Jack, or The Submission); in which, on the same stage, one group of Negro actors is playing at pretending to be white, and another group of Negro actors is playing at pretending to be Negro (Jean Genet's The Blacks)?

What of this theatre? Is it, as it has been accused of being, obscure, sordid, destructive, anti-theatre, perverse and absurd (in the sense of foolish)? Or is it merely, as I have so often heard it put, that, "This sort of stuff is too depressing, too… too mixed-up; I go to the theatre to relax and have a good time."

I would submit that it is this latter attitude—that the theatre is a place to relax and have a good time—in conflict with the purpose of The Theatre of the Absurd—which is to make a man face up to the human condition as it really is—that has produced all the brouhaha and the dissent. I would submit that The Theatre of the Absurd, in the sense that it is truly the contemporary theatre, facing as it does man's condition as it is, is the Realistic theatre of our time; and that the supposed Realistic theatre—the term used here to mean most of what is done on Broadway—in the sense that it panders to the public need for self-congratulation and re-assurance and presents a false picture of ourselves to ourselves is, with an occasional very lovely exception, really and truly The Theatre of the Absurd.

And I would submit further that the health of a nation, a society, can be determined by the art it demands. We have insisted of television and our movies that they not have anything to do with anything, that they be our never-never land; and if we demand this same function of our live theatre, what will be left of the visual-auditory arts—save the dance (in which nobody talks) and music (to which nobody listens)?

It has been my fortune, the past two or three years, to travel around a good deal, in pursuit of my career—Berlin, London, Buenos Aires, for example; and I have discovered a couple of interesting things. I have discovered that audiences in these and other major cities demand of their commercial theatre—and get—a season of plays in which the froth and junk are the exception and not the rule. To take a case: in Berlin, in 1959, Adamov, Genet, Beckett and Brecht (naturally) were playing the big houses; this past fall, Beckett again, Genet again, Pinter twice, etc. To take another case: in Buenos Aires there are over a hundred experimental theatres.

These plays cannot be put on in Berlin over the head of a protesting or an indifferent audience; these experimental theatres cannot exist in Buenos Aires without subscription. In the end—and it must always come down to this, no matter what other failings a theatre may have—in the end a public will get what it deserves, and no better.

I have also discovered, in my wanderings, that young people throng to what is new and fresh in the theatre. Happily, this holds true in the United States as well. At the various colleges I have gone to to speak I have found an eager, friendly and knowledgeable audience, an audience which is as dismayed by the Broadway scene as any proselytizer for the avant-garde. I have found among young people an audience which is not so preconditioned by pap as to have cut off half of its responses. (It is interesting to note, by the way, that if an off-Broadway play has a substantial run, its audiences will begin young and grow older; as the run goes on, cloth coats give way to furs, walkers and subway riders to taxi-takers. Exactly the opposite is true on Broadway.)

The young, of course, are always questioning values, knocking the status quo about, considering shibboleths to see if they are pronounceable. In time, it is to be regretted, most of them—the kids—will settle down to their own version of the easy, the standard; but in the meanwhile … in the meanwhile they are a wonderful, alert, alive, accepting audience.

And I would go so far as to say that it is the responsibility of everyone who pretends any interest at all in the theatre to get up off their six-ninety seats and find out what the theatre is really about. For it is a lazy public which produces a slothful and irresponsible theatre.

Now, I would suspect that my theatre-friend with the infallible intuition is probably right when he suggests that The Theatre of the Absurd (or the avant-garde theatre, or whatever you want to call it) as it now stands is on its way out. Or at least is undergoing change. All living organisms undergo constant change. And while it is certain that the nature of this theatre will remain constant, its forms, its methods—its devices, if you will—most necessarily will undergo mutation.

This theatre has no intention of running downhill; and the younger playwrights will make use of the immediate past and mould it to their own needs. (Harold Pinter, for example, could not have written The Caretaker had Samuel Beckett not existed, but Pinter is, nonetheless, moving in his own direction.) And it is my guess that the theatre in the United States will always hew more closely to the post-Ibsen/Chekhov tradition than does the theatre in France, let us say. It is our nature as a country, a society. But we will experiment, and we will expect your attention.

For just as it is true that our response to color and form was forever altered once the impressionist painters put their minds to canvas, it is just as true that the playwrights of The Theatre of the Absurd have forever altered our response to the theatre.

And one more point: The avant-garde theatre is fun; it is free-swinging, bold, iconoclastic and often wildly, wildly funny. If you will approach it with childlike innocence—putting your standard responses aside, for they do not apply—if you will approach it on its own terms, I think you will be in for a liberating surprise. I think you may no longer be content with plays that you can't remember half-way down the block. You will not only be doing yourself some good, but you will be having a great time, to boot. And even though it occurs to me that such a fine combination must be sinful, I still recommend it.

Text, Subtext, and Performance (1990)

SOURCE: "Text, Subtext, and Performance: Edward Albee on Directing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" by Rakesh Solomon, in Theatre Survey, Vol. 34, No. 2, November 1993, pp. 95-110.

[The following interview was conducted in January 1990, during rehearsals for a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that Albee was directing. He here focuses on the play from the dual perspective of playwright and director.]

"Who's afraid of the Tanks?" proclaimed the headline of the Lithuanian daily, Lietuvas Rytas, in its review of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Vilnius in April 1990, six weeks into the nation's tumultous declaration of independence that had brought Soviet tanks onto city streets.1 Seizing the fundamental point of the play—the need to destroy illusion and face reality without fear—Lithuanian audiences saw a distinct analogy with their national situation that demanded they forswear dreams of some painless future solution and confront the reality of Soviet military intervention. Their grasp of the play, despite cultural chasms and the vagaries of simultaneous translation, testified to the clarity of Albee's staging of this classic of the American theatre.

The production originated eight months earlier at the Los Angeles Music Center where Albee directed Glenda Jackson as Martha and John Lithgow as George. This Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre production, which included Brian Kerwin as Nick and Cynthia Nixon as Honey, played at the Doolittle Theatre from October 5 to December 17, 1989. Because Glenda Jackson's and John Lithgow's film commitments permitted only a limited run, Albee planned the production with first-rate actors as understudies so that they could capably take over as the new cast after the Los Angeles engagement. For this fresh cast of Carol Mayo Jenkins as Martha, Bruce Gray as George, John Ottavino as Nick, and Cynthia Bassham as Honey, Albee also arranged another full fledged four-week period of rehearsals and paid previews, from December 19, 1989, to January 10, 1990, at the Alley Theatre in Houston, where Albee has been an Associate Artist for Direction and Playwriting since 1988. The Music Center's proscenium setting, costume, and lighting designs were also retained: the Alley's resident designers, in consultation with their Los Angeles counterparts, made only minimal modifications for their thrust Large Stage. Following a four-week run at the Alley Theatre, the production proceeded on a short tour of the United States, a three-city engagement in Lithuania, and stints at the Sovremennik Theatre in Moscow and the Maly Theatre in Leningrad.2

Albee's comments about his text and production in this discussion are part of an ongoing dialogue that I have had with him for over a decade. Since 1978 I have observed Albee direct professional productions of ten of his own plays in New York and elsewhere—ranging from his first play, The Zoo Story, to his 1992 American premiere, Marriage Play. I have also seen Albee stage two of Samuel Beckett's plays, Ohio Impromptu and Krapp's Last Tape, and I have observed Albee work with his long-time director, Alan Schneider, when the latter staged the Broadway premiere of The Lady From Dubuque. Typically, I attend every rehearsal for a production—from opening day to final preview—and document and critique each day's work, while carrying on an intermittent conversation with Albee between rehearsal sessions, culminating in one or two extended tape-recorded interviews near opening night. At that time I also tape-record interviews with some actors, scene and lighting designers, and the stage manager. This exchange on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was taped at the Alley Theatre on January 6, 1990, concluding my observation of his Los Angeles staging and his Houston rehearsals.

In the following discussion Albee offers insights into the details of his rehearsal process, from his special perspective as both playwright and director. Journalists and scholars have sought and received more interviews from Albee than from most other contemporary American playwrights, both because he continues to provoke interest and because his frequent lecturing, teaching, and directing oblige him to grant interviews. My long professional relationship with Albee and my thorough acquaintance with the particulars of his rehearsals, however, allow me to press, persist, and probe much further. More than most subjects, Albee comes armored against the interviewer's probes: he brings deeplyingrained, almost reflexive interview habits of defense through deft deflection, shrewd rationalization, the too-simple explanation, or the opaque comment. His caution stems partly from his personality and partly from a distrust of authorial or critical paraphrase as substitute for the essence and experience of a work of art, a trait he shares with many writers in what Nathalie Sarraute terms the "age of suspicion." During our conversations over the years, however, Albee has become progressively less guarded, and I have had to nudge him less. It is still difficult, nonetheless, to elicit from him a candid, blunt, or spontaneous response, especially about matters of subtext, allusion, and interpretation—subjects about which interviewers have found him adroitly evasive or uncooperative.

This conversation on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains distinct from other Albee interviews, moreover, in its sustained attention to a single play and in its concentration on matters of rehearsal and performance. Albee ranges widely from minute details of setting, properties, and timing to broad issues of directorial interpretation. He reveals his rationale for crucial textual revisions made during the Los Angeles and Houston rehearsals and distinguishes between a script's dramaturgic refinement during rehearsal versus updating to suit altered audience expectation. He furnishes subtextual readings, divulges incidental topical references, and considers key problems of characterization, throwing new light on his conceptions of George and Martha. In addition, Albee discusses the appropriate time in rehearsal to address subtext, motivation, and rhythm; the necessity of discrete directorial strategies for different actors; the value of rehearsing durng preview week; and his reasons for shunning demonstration of business and too-detailed scene work.

Albee also explains what impelled him to direct the critically acclaimed 1976 Broadway revival of Virginia Woolf? with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara, and he compares details of his 1976 and 1989-90 stagings with those of Alan Schneider's 1962 premiere production. Moreover, Albee briefly touches upon his philosophy and method as a teacher of playwriting and directing.

Albee's comments about staging Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and about directing in general must be seen within the context of his extensive directorial experience. He has directed professional productions—revivals or premieres—of nearly all of his original plays. He directed a professional production of his first play, The Zoo Story, as early as 1961, only two years after its first production.3 Albee directed the Broadway premieres of The American Dream (1968),4Seascape (1975),5 and The Man who Had Three Arms (1983),6 besides the revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?7 He also directed the first stage performance of Listening (1977), the first American performance of Counting the Ways (1977) at the Hartford Stage Company,8 and the world premieres of Marriage Play (1987)9 and Three Tall Women (1991)10 at the English Theatre in Vienna. In addition, Albee co-directed the radio premiere of Listening (1976), broadcast on National Public Radio and the BBC.11 Albee has also staged plays by fellow dramatists Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard and David Mamet, as well as those by Beckett.12

Albee's views about rehearsal strategies and the dynamics of performance, moreover, are informed by his long experience in substantially influencing first productions of his plays staged by other directors. The New York Times pointed out in 1968 that unlike other playwrights—"new … [or] established"—"Edward Albee has managed to take control of virtually all of the pertinent aspects of the production of his own work."13 Vigorously exercising the prerogative ensured him by the Dramatists' Guild standard contract, Albee from early in his career has been actively involved in most aspects of production, from the choice of director, designers, and cast—including understudies—to the specifics of settings, costumes, properties, and lighting. Alan Schneider recounts in his autobiography, Entrances: An American Director's Journey, that halfway through the rehearsals of The Zoo Story, even though the playwright was receiving his first American production, Albee, together with producer Richard Barr, fired director Milton Katseals and took over the directing, a change not indicated in the program.14 During the casting of the Broadway production of A Delicate Balance in 1966, Schneider writes, "My dream of working with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne vanished" because "Edward was determined to assert his writer's prerogative."15 Similarly during the Broadway rehearsals of The Lady From Dubuque that I observed, Albee's preference for a simple set and minimal properties frequently prevailed over Schneider's desire to introduce small set pieces and properties to convey a lived-in feeling or to illustrate information.16

Albee's assertions in the following pages thus compel attention because they are grounded in more than three decades of broad practical experience in the American theatre and because they reveal the thinking of an eminent playwright about his most acclaimed work. The way Albee articulates his artistic concerns, moreover, offers a glimpse into his personal sensibility. Above all, without suggesting some naive intentionalism, Albee's views on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and its appropriate realization on stage constitute important testimony about his dramaturgical and directorial aesthetic, a testimony invigorated by the immediacy of dialogue.

[Solomon]: You have spoken of the importance of subtext in the rehearsal process. Did you re-examine the subtext in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? prior to your rehearsals in Los Angeles?

[Albee]: No. I don't prepare that. When I'm doing a play that I've written, I just say it, and the subtext comes to my consciousness. I'm already aware of it.

Did you work on the actors' getting to understand the sub-text?

Oh yes, of course, when they don't; but if they're very bright, they do to begin with. Subtext is more important than text even, sometimes. So long as they understand subtext. I'm trying to think of one specific thing with Glenda Jackson in Virginia Woolf that she didn't understand. Now, I can't remember the very specifics of it. One of the things that I tried to emphasize in the production and finally got Glenda to do—and I'm getting Carol to do here for the most part—is to understand that what they're doing is exorcising a metaphor. Something they both realize is a metaphor, and that it is not the death of a real child. There is a distinction between the death of a metaphor and the death of a real child. And the play for me is more touching and more chilling if it is the death of a metaphor. That's one of the things I'm trying to emphasize in this production. And I think I am getting the through-line of the exorcism of the fantasy-child metaphor a little clearer this time.

Have you seen productions where the intellectual experience is totally absent?

Yes, I have, and I don't like them at all. They're terrible.

Where was the emphasis in the original production that Alan Schneider directed?

I thought it was a little bit toward the emotional. Just a little bit too much.

Compared to your present production?

You see, that production got criticized by a couple of critics … I remember Walter Kerr said he couldn't believe that a couple as intelligent as George and Martha could believe that they had a child.17 They never did believe it. So, either he intentionally misunderstood, or the production led him to misunderstand.18 So that's one of the reasons I started directing this play: to correct that misinterpretation of the nature of the play. Now it may be the play that way—not my way—is a more wrenching emotional experience. I don't know. I tend to think not. I think the mind and the gut together are better involved than one at the expense of the other.

Compared to the 1962 production, have you cut the playing time much more here?

I don't remember what those timings were. I think this may be a little brisker.

Reviews of your 1976 production mentioned how much faster everything seemed.

Seemed. I don't imagine that the difference was more than two or three minutes in each act. But that adds up. This production is just as brisk as the one in 1976.

The 1976 production was much brisker than Alan's 1962 production.

Well, yes. That's true.

And funnier too.

But none of the lines were changed.

Talking of changes … you made several changes in your text for this production.

Oh very few. The major change that I made was cutting out the reference to the child in the first scene of the play, which is unnecessary.19 The other cuts I've made here—what? A word here, two or three words there. That's all. Just for rhythms.20

One change does seem to be a big one. Martha's "Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference" has become, "Truth and illusion, George; you know the difference." Correspondingly, George's "No; but we must carry on as though we did" has become, "Yes; but we must carry on as though we did not."21

Oh well, that's because I wrote it incorrectly to begin with.

How come you didn 't notice that earlier?

I don't know. A mind lapse.

Not a change of mind?

No. No, no. No. No, no. It's just that I mis-wrote myself—I didn't put it down correctly.

In your discussion with the actors about it, you kept saying, "That's a very minor matter. That's a very minor matter." Do you really think so?

No, it's a major matter. But what they meant by "major," they wanted to go back to doing it wrong.

Why did you cut George's comment, "What will happen to the tax deduction? Has anyone figured that out yet?" when he speaks of the time when people will make babies in test tubes?22

The playwright got better! Logically, couples with children would get tax deductions no matter how their babies were made.

You also deleted the exchange between George and Martha where she suddenly and flagrantly denies Nick and Honey's existence in their living room but then without explanation accepts their presence.23

It made Martha too unreasonable.

Did you wish to stress Martha's loquaciousness by substituting "mouth"for "nose" in George's retort, "In my mind, Martha, you are buried in cement, right up to your neck. No … right up to your nose… that's much quieter."24

Yes, and it makes it clearer and nicer.

Why did you cut one of George's two identical announcements, "Pow!!! You 're dead! Pow! You 're dead!" when he pulls the trigger of his fake Japanese gun?25

Once is enough. Besides, I didn't want the actors to get any ideas!

Did you think the cuts in Mike Nichol's film version of Virginia Woolf were major ones?

Yes, of course. They took out the whole historical-political argument of the play. They took out the business about science and a number of other things that the play happens to be about.

When directing this 1962 script in 1989-90, did you reconsider things?

No, I don't consciously do that. I've not tried to update this play. I don't think people walked in a different way in the sixties than they do in the eighties. Or even thought in that much of a different way.

In many ways, Nick's values resemble those associated with Yuppies in the eighties.

All good literature is supposed to anticipate the future. True; it does, you know. What I was suggesting was that people who are wise enough to untrick themselves may be better off. I think the least self-deception that people can live with, the better. Well, what does change is audience perception. But you can't go around trying to second guess audience perception, because you distort your work.

Because of changed audience perception, when I taught The Zoo Story at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I had to defend Jerry and his viewpoint.

Well, of course. We're a nation of conformists now. I find that self-deception leads not only to personal trouble but to political malaise and to social irresponsibility. The self-deception that this country has been dealing in for many years now is preferring to be lied to by political leaders, preferring to be conned by short-term values. We may find ourselves in a much greater state of decline than people realize now. Audiences, when they were a little freer with themselves, used to think The American Dream was very funny. But now you do The American Dream for a middle-aged audience, and they sit there in silent hostility.

Hostile towards the playwright?

They don't like examining themselves any more. They get very angry about it. Shocking to me.

Why is George so angry at Martha's story about his careermore angry than he is when she mentions the child?

Attrition. Time, time, time, time. It's something—the career—about him being a flop and a failure and not living up to … This is something that she—every time she gets a few drinks in her and a little audience—she starts on it. After twenty-three years you get fairly tired of it. You just can't stand it anymore.

Still, I was comparing that anger to the anger that I expected and the anguish I expected when Martha reveals the son to the guests.

Well, George's involvement with the son has never been as emotional as Martha's has. Neither of them literally believes it, but Martha slips into believing it probably because she's a woman. Women and their relation to children, their wombs, and the whole thing. Her involvement with the son is more personal and emotional than George's is.

But George's greater passion about his career throws me off because I thought the emotional focus would remain on the betrayal of the closely-held, private arrangement.

That's interesting. I must look at that. Maybe I'm doing something wrong.

The import of Martha's disclosure seems to get submerged under George's fury.

Mm. I'll look at that. Maybe I have changed my mind about a few things over the years.

In the opening scene when Martha mentions that Honey, the guest they are expecting, has small hips, John Lithgow used to add with some relish, "Oh, God!" It got laughs. It's a small joke, but I'm sure you didn't eliminate it without some reason. Why did you cut that out? Do you think there's a lack of logic?

I think it's a cheap joke. It's a cheap joke. And also it doesn't make any sense. Because George …

George says he likes "everything in proportion," and he is not attracted to Honey when she arrives.

Yes. And he does not like women without hips. Martha has hips. Martha's ample. It's illogical. John Lithgow and Glenda Jackson liked it. It was a cheap joke, and they liked it. John and Glenda also barked at each other "Woolf! Woolf!" on George's "You'll crack your big teeth."26 I hated that too. You have to give them little things every once in a while.

You were thinking aloud about how George knows that Martha has been talking about him, when he returns with the liquor from offstage. I think George knows because he comes in on Martha's line about him, "along come George."27

If he's heard that coming in, then it's all right. Let's see: "But then George came along … along come George," and George reenters. I guess he knows. I guess he knows. I guess it's clear. I believe in being my own devil's advocate from time to time.

If you want to be objective when directing your own work.


After Martha's great howl, "NOOOOOOoooooo," at the finality of George's decision to kill the child, in this production George tells Nick, "She'll be alright now" I think rather quickly.28

I gave him a note two days ago not to do that so quickly.

It kept happening.

Yes. I'll remind him. Thank you for reminding me.

Such a quick comment suggests much more premeditation on George's part.

Yes, it does. I should give him that note almost immediately.

I've often wondered about the reference to Crazy Billy, "some little boy about seventy," when George announces the telegram regarding their son's death.29

Oh, a friend of mine Bill Flanagan, the composer; he and I worked at Western Union together, and I used to always kid him about how much older he was than me. So, a "little boy about seventy." It's just a private joke.

Another question about a topical reference and possibly subtext. George tells Nick that the abstract painting in their living room was done by "some Greek with a mustache Martha attacked one night."30 Is that a reference to the Greek-American artist you know?

Theodoras Stamos.

Do you own any of his works?

Yes. A couple.

And what was the subtext you suggested to George? During a rehearsal you told him that one evening Martha went to that painter's home and kept…

Kept putting the make on him, and then he gave her a painting to get rid of her.

Why did you introduce a picture of Mahatma Gandhi?


Why Gandhi's picture on the living room bookshelf?

It occurred to me that George and Martha are two people who in their growing up in the the 1940s, in their innocent liberalism, admired both Roosevelt and Gandhi very much.

I sense a degree of pacifism in George. Though he doesn 't say it, it's probably because of his pacifism that he didn 'tgo to fight in the war. He stayed back and ran the History department.

I don't know why he didn't go. Maybe he was a conscientious objector. It never occurred to me. That's interesting. You do not find Gandhi worthy of admiration?

Oh I do, yes.

Yes. Well, I do too.

Certainly, I was just curiousafter all your Oriental jokes!

That Oriental joke is meant to be intentionally in bad taste.31

On George's part, of course.

Yes. It's meant to be a parody of the sort of barroom, you know, locker room talk that jocks do together.

How can Honey recite the Latin mass for the dead when she grew up in a fundamentalist home?

I don't understand that. I don't know why. There are depths to that girl that I haven't figured out yet.

All throughout the rehearsals, it seems to me, you gave many more directions to the actor who plays George than to the actor who plays Martha.

Well, George is on stage almost all the time during the entire play. He has many more lines. He also controls the psychological arc of the play. He is in control of the entire arc of the play the entire time. And therefore, I have to be more concerned with making sure that his performance doesn't deviate from my intention, more than I have to be with the other actors. Last night, the notes that I gave him I want to talk to him about again because I didn't do that quite as well as I might have. It's just that more can go wrong. And it has been more tightly controlled. I think the notes I try to give to all of them are fundamental notes as to the nature of characterization. And also I try to give people notes when I see danger signals. When I see they're doing things that I know are going to get them in trouble later in the play. Or distort the character. Now, Bruce Gray [George] is a highly inventive, highly shrewd, and highly skilled actor. And therefore he's more apt to go astray.

And Carol Mayo Jenkins [Martha], in contrast, is…

Well, no … There is less opportunity for Martha to go astray than there is for George. Let's put it that way.

It must be so since you are saying it, but it is surprising, nonetheless.

Also they're very different kinds of actors. Carol sets performance. We see the gold of the performance. Bruce is constantly shifting his characterization. And now he's gone to the point where I have to bring him back. He's gone too far. he's become baroque and mannered and artificial. And I have to bring him back to truth. And every actor—no two actors work the same way. No two actors work at the same speed. No two actors have the same way of working. So you have to work differently.

Why no rehearsals the last three days [i.e. before one evening technical rehearsal and two evening performances for invited audiences]?

There comes a certain point in rehearsal where if you think the actors know pretty much where you want them to be and what you want them to be doing, you have to let them play the role for a while. And play with the audience. And then after a few days of watching them with the audience, then you can see whether they're going in the right direction or not. You can over-rehearse in theory. I mean, theoretical rehearsal should stop at a certain point, and real rehearsal should start.

What are real rehearsals?


Rehearsals after they've played in front of invited preview audiences?

Yes. That's a different kind of rehearsal.

So you plan to do more work.

I'll do some work next week [with three scheduled previews]. I'll do some work after they open, too.

I haven't noticed you rehearse short scenes in painstaking detail, orchestrating every element. I know you like to give actors general intention notes, and you expect them to come up with the specifics. You used to do that in 1978 when I first saw you; these are more experienced actors by and large, and you can do that more safely. However, sometimes I wonder whether detailed scene work might not benefit this production.

All you tell an actor when you do that, ultimately, is how you would do the scene. That doesn't tell them how they should do the scene. Then you're asking them to imitate rather than be. That's a last resort. If you can't get it any other way, then you do that. But you've noticed that I am very specific, when they miss a beat, or I tell them to wait a beat before they say a line, or accent this word rather than that word. That's very specific stuff.

I understand you give specific notes as well, but I was thinking of sustained moment-to-moment work on selected segments. After the two invited audiences, too, you haven't addressed matters of tempo, speed, and so on.

I didn't find them shifting all that much. I did tell them that the top of three was slow, which it was again. I think they generally know what they're supposed to be doing. Generally.

You 've worked with other directorsAlan Schneider, Peter Hall, Franco Zeffirelliwhen they 've staged your plays. Did you come across closer scene work in their rehearsals?

No, not really.

Not really? Do you have an overall rhythm that you are working for?

I must. I must. Yes, of course. I mean each two minute section has its rhythms. And these rhythms combine to give the whole rhythm of an act, and the three acts give the rhythm of the whole piece.

Do you build towards certain tempos…

Most you establish at the very beginning. Now you must remember with these actors here, they sat in from the very first day of rehearsal with Glenda Jackson and John Lith gow. And I spent a lot of time with them the first week discussing character motivation. Everything that I didn't have to discuss here because those actors were there.

Yes, I am aware that they are even borrowing things. Certainly, they 're borrowing blocking and even characterization.

Sure. Blocking is fine. Let them borrow that.

Even sometimes rhythms and certain bits of business.

Yes. That's o.k.

So I'm aware that they got a lot of guidance from you in Los Angeles too. But are there some things that you would rather not see here in Houston?

A few of George's mannerisms.

I don't know what his mimicking the child is about.

It's that mimicking I want to remove. It's getting in the way.

While directing were you tempted to include a few asides to the audience?

In this play? No. It's an absolutely naturalistic play. None of my naturalistic plays has direct addresses to the audience. It's only the stylized ones.

I thought there was an aside phase in your career when you introduced asides into earlier texts while directing, as you did with a few plays I saw you stage a few years ago.

In some of my plays, maybe eight or ten of them, people speak to the audience. But those are mostly the stylized plays. It doesn't happen in the naturalistic ones. This is a naturalistic play. All the … classical … unities and everything. The whole thing.

Why don't you write another one with classical unities and all that?

I have. It's called Marriage Play.

Having directed it in Vienna, will you direct its American premiere as well?

Sure. I'll direct it on Broadway.

Do you have a Broadway producer for Marriage Play?

Michael Harvey, a young producer who's produced with Richard [Barr] and other people—somebody I've known for twenty-five years because he was very young.

From observing you rehearse Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I could deduce some of your directorial ideals. When you teach, what kinds of goals and principles of directing do you posit?

You certainly should have a vision of the way you think the play wants to be performed when you start directing it. Yet at the same time, you must also be ready to shift when you find that the play is somewhat other than you imagined it, or there are other values that you hadn't seen. But you must have an overall vision of the piece. With any production, ninety percent of it is casting. If you cast properly, if you cast correctly—intelligent, gifted actors—our job is so much easier. You don't have to do the line by line thing. Directing, of course, is a lot of knowing how to work with actors. The first two weeks are basically subtext work, so actors really understand why the character behaves the way the character does in a certain section.

What about visual matters? What about rhythm?

Well, there's always a visual thing. You have to stage pictures that you create in your mind. You do have rhythms that you're after. There's tension, release of tension, passive and active moments. And you've got to populate the stage properly in all of those, in all of those times. There's a tie-in between the visual picture and the psychology of the piece, of course, always. Who is moving? Who is standing still? Who's sitting? The tempo of the speeches. The intentions. All of that has to be put together. So it is a combination of music and painting and literature at the same time. You have all three of them.

How do you teach this in your directing class?

I don't teach directing as much as I teach playwriting. I don't teach playwriting, either.

There's an apparent contradiction: on many occasions, you have said that you can't teach playwriting, yet you do teach playwriting at universities.

You can't teach. No, you can't. I referee. I point out the way things … When I work with playwrights, I try to make sure that they are accomplishing what they want. And then we may discuss possibly whether it's what they should want. I don't try to make them rewrite a play according to the way I think a play should be written. I try to make them write the play so that it really is what they think they've accomplished. With a lot of young playwrights, there's a great difference between what they think they've written and what they have written. It's not only simple things like that great thirty-second silence that they all request for that important psychological moment, when they need five or four seconds at the most. They just don't think in stage terms. And I try to make them see the play and hear the play on a stage while they write it. That saves an awful lot of time.

In your directing classes, too, I assume you ask students to bring in scenes, and then you referee rather than say…

Yeah. Well, I like to look at them working with actors and see if they're working with the actors properly. Also, I like to see if they understand the shape of the play, if they understand the intention. And the why's: "Why did you do it this way?" "Why didn't you do it that way?" And I say, "Try it that way and see how different it is." Then they learn from the experience of doing things in different ways. The one thing I've never been able to accomplish yet in class, and I would love to do it, is to have a young playwright with his new play that he's never seen on stage before and have it rehearsed in two situations separately. One with the author and a young director and a group of actors working without any interference from anybody else. And then me directing the play with professional actors or with another group of actors. And then to do these two scenes one after the other and see the distinction and the difference. It would be instructive for the playwright, and for me, too.


1For further details see Everett Evans, "Alley's 'Virginia Woolf' to play in Soviet Union," Houston Chronicle (3 January 1990): Sec. D: 1, and Richard Coe, "Lone Star Over Lithuania," American Theatre (September, 1990): 22-27.

2Politics caused a last-minute cancellation of the engagement at the Sovremennik Theatre, where artistic director Galina Volchek had herself played Martha in a Russian production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Coe, 24.

3Albee has cited this production on several occasions; for example, see the account of his press conference in Barbara Selvin, "Albee directs Albee," Village Times (Stony Brook, NY: 24 August 1978): 7.

4Dan Sullivan, "Theater: Albee's 'Bessie Smith' and 'Dream' Revived," New York Times (3 October 1968): 55.

5Clive Barnes, "Albee's 'Seascape' Is a Major Event," New York Times (27 January 1975).

6Frank Rich, "Stage: Drama by Albee: 'Man Who Had Three Arms'" New York Times (6 April 1983).

7Clive Barnes, "Stage: 'Virginia Woolf,'" New York Times (2 April 1976): Sec. 2:1.

8Edward Albee, Counting the Ways and Listening: Two Plays. (New York: Atheneum, 1977), 4,56.

9"'Morning Report… Stage," Los Angeles Times (14 May 1987): Sec. 6: p. 2.

10David Richards, "Edward Albee and the Road Not Taken," New York Times (16 June 1991): 14.

11Albee, Counting the Ways, 56.

12Rakesh H. Solomon, "Albee Directs 'Ohio Impromptu' and 'Krapp's Last Tape'" Beckett Circle 12. 2 (1991): 1-2; "Notizen," Theater heute 26 (November 1985): 67; and John Ottavino, personal interview, 4 January 1990.

13Barbara La Fontaine, "Triple Treat on, Off and Off-Off Broadway," New York Times (25 February 1968): 42.

14Alan Schneider, Entrances: An American Director's Journey. (New York: Viking, 1986): 275.

15Schneider, Entrances, 374.

16For more details see my "Crafting Script into Performance: Edward Albee in Rehearsal," American Drama 2.2 (Spring 1993): 76-99.

17See Walter Kerr, "First Night Report: 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'" New York Herald Tribune (15 October 1962): 12.

18Like Albee, Alan Schneider also chafes at this critical misinterpretation more than twenty years later; unlike Albee, however, Schneider attributes the problem entirely to the reviewer's obtuseness. See Schneider, Entrances, 324.

19The largest deletion—a page and a quarter in the standard Atheneum edition of the play—contained George's six insistent warnings to Martha not to mention their kid when their guests arrive, and Martha's defiant claim to a right to bring up any subject; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (New York: Atheneum, 1962): 19-20. The second set of excised references consisted of two similar but cryptic exchanges after their guests arrive; Virginia Woolf?, 30. The simplicity of Albee's explanation for these deletions belies their inevitable dramaturgic and thematic import.

20Although Albee slights these changes, many of them serve to achieve dramatic economy, refine characterization, eliminate ambiguity, or correct faulty logic, as seen in examples below.

21Virginia Woolf?, 202.

22Virginia Woolf?, 40.

23Martha: "We're alone!" / George: "Uh … no, Love … we've got guests." / Martha (With a covetous look at Nick): "We sure have." Virginia Woolf?, 121.

24Virginia Woolf?, 64.

25Virginia Woolf?, 57.

26Virginia Woolf?, 14.

27Virginia Woolf?, 80.

28Virginia Woolf?, 233.

29Virginia Woolf?, 230.

30Virginia Woolf?, 21.

31According to Albee, public relations people in the Los Angeles production sought unsuccessfully to remove the Oriental references.

Interview with Albee (1991)

SOURCE: An interview with Edward Albee, in The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary Amer ican Dramatists, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp. 1-23.

[The following interview, conducted by Laurence Maslon, was held in the fall of 1991 as part of the "Conversations with Leading American Playwrights " series sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution's Campus on the Mall program. Albee here discusses his approach to play writing and offers his views on the state of American theater.]

[Laurence Maslon]: Why are you a playwright?

[Edward Albee]: Why am I a playwright? Because it's the only thing that I can do hallway decently....

(The entire section is 23082 words.)

Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Tom F. Driver (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "What's the Matter with Edward Albee?," in American Drama and Its Critics: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alan S. Downer, University of Chicago Press, 1965, pp. 240-44.

[The essay below contains a harshly negative assessment of Albee's work through Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and asserts that this play enacts "homosexual liaisons. "]

The nation's publicity media, desperately in search of a "gifted young playwright," and unable to practice that asceticism of taste which is the requisite of culture, have praised the mediocre work of Edward Albee as if it were excellence. They have...

(The entire section is 106586 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Amacher, Richard E. and Margaret Rule. Edward Albee at Home and Abroad: A Bibliography. New York: AMS Press, 1973,95 p.

Features primary and secondary sources from England, Germany, Switzerland, and other countries as well as the United States.

Giantvalley, Scott. Edward Albee: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987,459 p.

Comprehensive annotated collection of sources.

Green, Charles Lee. Edward Albee: An Annotated Bibliography, 1968-1977. New York: AMS Press, 1980,150 p.

Chronological listing of sources designed as a supple ment to the work of Amacher and...

(The entire section is 648 words.)