International Herald Tribune
Edward Albee: Keeping the threads of life and art separate
Monday, November 12, 2007
  Edward Albee in his home in New York. The playwright, who will turn 80 in March, says he has no intention of stopping writing. "I'll survive on pure orneriness," he says. The small, disintegrating painting - delicate flowers flaking off silk - is the work of a French master, but the story about it is pure Edward Albee. Hanging in his TriBeCa loft, almost unnoticeable amid a forest of African sculpture and walls of bold abstractions, it is, Albee said during a conversation there recently, a puzzle, or rather the key to one. He bought it ages ago, thinking it some kind of sketch or study, only to discover much later the existence of a larger painting with a hole in its middle, of which his flowers were clearly the missing, central piece.

"I should probably reunite them," he said with a smile indicating no intention of doing so.

Something of beauty, something of an enigma and something removed from its context too: not a bad précis of Albee's life and work. But if he remains a puzzle even to many who know him, he is a reassuringly solid one. Unlike the painting, he bears no marks of flakiness, and as for disintegration - he turns 80 in March - he has little but a pair of hearing aids and the death of loved ones to show for his age. He remains restless and protean, even in his fixity. When the digital recording of one of our conversations mysteriously disappeared after he examined the recorder, he invited me back the next day, impishly promising (and faithfully delivering) completely different answers.

Like someone who goes bald early and thus appears to stay the same age for decades, Albee has pulled off the neat trick of remaining an enfant terrible long after his terrible infancy balded him emotionally. Read all about it in "Three Tall Women": When you are adopted by parents who seem to regret their decision, the circuitry of rebellion gets hard-wired early. You drop out of school, go to live among the gay bohemians of Greenwich Village, make your name writing about dogs with erections. Even now Albee's eyes spark with satisfaction when he gives a contrary answer, makes an obscure reference, mystifies, illuminates, divulges, withholds.

Over the course of some 30 plays, he has at his frequent best done all of these at once. Better still, and unlike his more didactic colleagues, he has usually managed to be funny too. At the very least he is always interesting: "Theater should be a tough experience like anything else," he said, "but it also has the responsibility not to be boring." As such, he remains fearless in his embrace of any taboo, especially sexual. Though this can be a difficult pose to hold, he manages; recent works include fantasias on bestiality, anal rape, voluntary mastectomy and reverse circumcision. "I will go absolutely anywhere," he said, meaning perhaps that, sharklike, he must.

Of the generation of theatrical giants who came to international prominence in the 1950s with plays that not only won Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes but actually seemed to register in the culture as well, he is the only one, with the possible exception of Horton Foote, still going strong. On the heels of excellent Broadway revivals of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Seascape" in 2005, the current theater season includes four major New York-area productions of his work.

If it's an inadvertent retrospective (he said it happened by chance), it's still an apt one, sampling and in a way blending the earliest and the latest parts of his career. This is most vividly the case with "Peter and Jerry," which opened Sunday at Second Stage in a production starring Bill Pullman, Dallas Roberts and Johanna Day. In it, Albee performs a kind of vascular surgery on his 1958 debut, "The Zoo Story," suturing it to a new first act that enriches but does not explain the themes and action of the original.

Next comes "Me, Myself & I," a new play starring Tyne Daly as the not entirely sane mother of identical twins named otto (spoken with a quiet voice) and OTTO (with a loud one); it opens in January at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey. An identical twin also figures in "The American Dream," the 1960 one-act that Albee himself will direct on a double bill with "The Sandbox," starring F. Murray Abraham, at the Cherry Lane in New York in March.

And while he admits that the persistence of the theme of splintered identity in his work is probably biographical in origin ("Being adopted," he mused, "did I want to be an identical twin?"), that's the extent of his interest in the connections between life and art. The connections are there, he said, but are not terribly valuable: "They don't determine the limitations of your experience." It's no accident that in "Three Tall Women," the only one of his plays he considers at all autobiographical, his "mouthpiece" character is given neither name nor lines.

And yet the last of this season's four Albee productions explores such connections head on. In May the Signature Theater Company resurrects "Occupant," which was shut down before it officially opened in 2002 when its star, Anne Bancroft, became ill. Now Mercedes Ruehl takes the role of the sculptor Louise Nevelson, who, looking back from beyond death, tries to unweave (or possibly tangle) the threads of personality and art.

From his living room sofa or from the speaker's lecterns at which he frequently finds himself, Albee does much the same thing.

He explained that he looks at the world "with interest and objectivity," just as he has always ("except during the 10 years I was drinking so heavily") looked at himself and his writing.

"Creativity is magic," he said, "don't examine it too closely." Although he can, especially in recent years, be gracious in sidestepping or rerouting deeper questioning, he still appears to run people through what Ruehl called his "take-no-prisoners bull detector." The "jealous guarding of the inner life," she said, is an artist's necessity and instinct.

She was talking about Albee and also about Louise Nevelson as reimagined by him. "But Edward's cautiousness," she added, "can feel at times to the interlocutor like being put down. Once at a dinner, after speaking about the passing away of loved ones, I asked him what he thought about death and immortality. 'I never think about it,' he responded a bit sharply. I heard the door firmly shut on that conversation. Of course, over the years, that sound has become familiar to me and consequently not so threatening. Humbling, yes, but also informative, entertaining and sometimes touching."

Perhaps one effect of age on Albee is that some doors no longer close completely. He seemed to sense this, and even sadly welcome it, when he started to talk about "Me, Myself & I." While he was writing Act I, he explained, his companion, the sculptor Jonathan Thomas, was found to have bladder cancer. Albee put aside the manuscript to care for him as he underwent chemotherapy and surgery.

"I was expecting to die way before Jonathan did," Albee said. "He was 18 years younger than I was, and the whole idea was that when I got to be my age, he'd be taking care of me, you know? But life doesn't always work out the way it's supposed to." Thomas died in May 2005, at 59.

"I couldn't write for a long time," Albee went on. "I mean I didn't feel like it. One thing I learned was that grief is easily turned into self-pity. Yes, someone that you're with is fading, going out of focus. But, my God, if we ever lose sight of the fact that they have had the greater loss, then we're being selfish and self-indulgent."

We expect artists, at least in extremis, to admit if not wallow in their humanity. But Albee stands aloof from all that. He is amazed that people are more interested in Beethoven's deafness than in Beethoven's music, and troubled by the pervasive idea that one explains the other. Which is not to say his writing is unaffected by his emotions. It's just that there's a kind of air-lock system keeping the worlds separate.

Albee teaches extensively and turns honorary degrees into opportunities to lament "the destruction of democracy in the United States" and proselytize for change.

He is what used to be called a public artist: the kind whose eminence has given him, as he put it, "more than one vote" and who casts those votes as effectively as possible. At almost 80, though, he might be forgiven if he chose to cast only the plays he has time left to write. But he doesn't feel that pressure.

"I'm not in a hurry," he said. "I keep having ideas. The creative mind doesn't seem to have collapsed. I'll worry more about that when I'm 90. Meanwhile I take pretty good care of myself, and I have no enthusiasm whatever about dying. I think it's a terrible waste of time, and I don't want to participate in it."

Having been adopted (or bought, as he often says, for $133.30), he cannot guess what his genes have in store for him; in any case he's not depending on them. ("I'll survive on pure orneriness," he said.) Nor, as much as he mourns Thomas, does he feel unable to go on without him. Like the flowers in his small French painting - or, more likely, like the larger painting with the hole at its center - he's used to separation. It is the story of his plays and, though he might balk at the connection, the story of his life.

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