Just as potent as his work, Edward Albee the man appeared at BAMcafe’s live literary series last week for what was more of a performance than a reading. Clinging to their wine, the audience fell silent as he opened with a reading from his work Fragments, a scenario in which he asked those listening to imagine his 83-year-old self as a 16-year-old boy—a 16-year-old boy recounting a father’s sexual desire for his own young daughter.
It was a jump into cold water.
But to expect anything less from this writer of 30 plays (halfway through his 31st) would be to separate the man from the material, and if anything was clear that night, it was that Edward Albee’s persona has the same dangerous exhilaration as his work.
His reading was deeply animated with a biting sort of timing, delivering both punchlines and heartbreak in a natural cadence. This type of performance, so invested and real, was the best kind of shock; Albee knows the people he invents and the stage directions that guide their interactions. He insists on authoring every last detail, a rarity in this industry. Albee noted the pressure on playwrights to make alterations for commercial reasons, taking away all sense of “intellectual adventure.” His own uncompromising approach, he said, means “not as much money but less heartbreak.”
It’s interesting to contemplate Albee’s success in a world where social commentary is often spoon-fed, even in the theater. The intertwined themes of love and carnage in his work seem assess the various types of hysteria—sexual, religious—alongside the construction of family life. In The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia as well as in his perhaps most famous work Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, we are forced to reconsider and reconfigure the meaning of relationships, processing taboo in order to let some guttural truth ring out. Albee credited his status as an adopted child several times, maintaining that this perspective gave him a sort of objectivity about his environment. “I’ve been on to myself,” Albee said, seeming to make the point that the things he knows, he knows very well.
Speaking to this sort of loyalty to one’s own voice, the moderator, Michael Greenberg of the Times, mentioned Albee’s proclamation that “I am not an employee,” a mentality that feeds the honesty in his writing, giving his words the ability to as Greenberg says, “spill blood.” As professors of brutal truths, Albee’s characters and the scenarios they inhabit do a kind of work that has to be “played out,” or as Albee says of his plays, “letting it have its own head.”
Albee became, he said, a playwright by default, after failing at all other types of writing. And the actual writing of his plays is the very end, the final moment of his process. The ideas have lived much longer than the words and so when the words finally do come to the paper, Albee is “seeing it and hearing it when I am writing it.” No wonder, then, that when an audience member asked about his revision process he parroted back, incredulous: “Revision?!” That would make his work “safe,” he said with disdain. It was the end of the evening and I wondered what the “unsafe” question would be, and if I could ask it.
Instead, I waited in line. Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia, a play fraught with the devastation wreaked by our own animal nature, happened to be my first professional theater experience in New York. As I made my way to the front of the line and Albee signed my copy of the play, I briefly described how his work was my first art encounter in New York City. He sat for a moment and eventually said, “… Well?”
“I’m still here” was all I could think to say.
And thankfully, so is Albee. Keep an eye out for that 31st play.