Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Interview by Edward Albee with Jeffrey Goldman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
This section contains 3,390 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Edward Albee with Jeffrey Goldman

Interview by Edward Albee with Jeffrey Goldman

SOURCE: "An Interview with Edward Albee," in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1991, pp. 59-69.

In the following interview, conducted in 1989, Albee discusses his works, his artistic approach, critical reaction to his works, American theater, the arts, and contemporary social issues.

It was perhaps the most appropriate environment in which to interview Edward Albee: the rehearsal set for the Los Angeles production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). At center stage, a chipped wooden coffee table wobbled in front of faded green couch. Upstage right sat the play's ever-present bar, stocked with a variety of bourbon and whiskey bottles.

As the rehearsal broke up, and actors John Lithgow and Glenda Jackson exited the room, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright took a seat on the tattered sofa.

Albee was preparing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the opening leg of a tour that would take the play from the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood to Houston to London and beyond. This was the second time Albee had directed Virginia Woolf—the first being the much-heralded 1976 Broadway production with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara—and by the time the show left Southern California, it had garnered mixed reviews: an enthusiastic Newsweek announced, "the play hasn't lost its power to shock," while the lukewarm Los Angles Times complained that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "only stings us this time around, where once it stunned us."

But, then again, Albee has always had a precarious relationship with American theatre critics. Revered for such modern classics as The Zoo Story (1959), The American Dream (1961), A Delicate Balance (1966), Seascape (1975) and of course Virginia Woolf, he has also been vilified for writing Malcolm (his 1966 adaptation of James Purdy's novel), The Lady from Dubuque (1980) and The Man Who Had Three Arms (1982). The critical reaction to The Man Who Had Three Arms was highly representative. After a favorable response from the public in Miami, Chicago, and during its preview engagement on Broadway, the play opened to hostile reviews and closed soon thereafter. Subsequently, it went on to win a significant award and wide accolades at the Edinburgh festival in Scotland. Such is the life of a playwright who refuses to pull any punches with his potential critics.

The following interview took place on September 19, 1989. Albee was dressed in a simple black shirt, grey pants, and black Reeboks. He had salt and pepper hair, a greying moustache, and glasses, but his otherwise extraordinarily youthful appearance belied his true age—at the time 61 years old. The soft-spoken Albee offered intense, measured responses throughout the interview, although his infamous wry and subtle humor surfaced frequently. In the background, the stage hands broke down the set while a photographer snapped photos of the playwright, who is generally considered to be the finest American dramatist of the past three decades.

[Goldman:] What are the primary ways the theatre has changed since the 1962 premier of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

[Albee:] The theatre. Define what you mean by the theatre.

Okay, the American theatre.

The American theatre. What do you mean by that?

Well, how about Broadway?

There is more interesting theatre going on in the United States than you would ever know about if you only went to Broadway theatre. I mean, the best regional theatre, the experimental theatres, the university theatres, too—very, very interesting new work. I'm absolutely convinced that Broadway could vanish from the face of the earth and the American theatre as an art form would not be hurt at all.

And Broadway has become infinitely more difficult for valuable, useful, serious plays to get produced. When we first did Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, we brought the play in and it cost $45,000 to get it open and ticket prices were $7—that was 1962. When we did a revival in '76 on Broadway, it cost $300,000 to open it, and ticket prices were up to $20. If we did it on Broadway this year, it would probably cost $800,000 or $900,000 to put it on and ticket prices would be up to $45. In the past, producers and theatre owners were more willing to take chances on tough, serious plays and bring them right onto Broadway. Now, almost always, a serious play has got to prove that it is both serious and commercial. Being serious is no longer enough.

Is this due to economic considerations?

Part of it has to do with the economics—the value of real estate, taxes, etc.—and part of it has to do with the fact that an audience that is paying $50 for a theatre ticket does not want to be hit over the head with ideas. They want entertainment.

Do you think that the influence of Hollywood has anything to do with this?

Maybe audiences want our theatre to be more like television and film. I'm convinced that our society wants less social and political engagement and more entertainment.

Is there a difference between European and American audiences?

This is a generalization, but European audiences tend to go to the theatre more regularly, are probably educated more in terms of serious theatre, and are more interested in theatre as an art form than as merely entertainment. But that's shifting—European audiences are probably getting just as lazy as some of our American audiences!

Why do you think critics often say that your work has a European feel to it?

Well, I'm not a regionalist like Tennessee Williams or Sam Shepard or David Mamet. I guess my plays seem to translate very nicely into other cultures. But they are set in America, and I'm clearly an American writer and my characters are American. But they're not regionalized, they're not that locale specific.

How have you changed as a playwright since the premier of Virginia Woolf?

Apparently, considering the fact that I run into so much trouble, I haven't changed enough.

Trouble with …?

Oh, trouble with critics, management, audiences … I suspect that I haven't accommodated the way I am supposed to. I've always just written whatever's been inside my head, whatever came naturally.

Do you think that the initial popular support of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made the critics suspicious and even hostile towards your work?

I don't know what made those who became hostile hostile. Maybe they just disliked me, disliked the instant success, or maybe it was just dismay over things I was saying.

How do you deal with the reaction to, say, The Man Who Had Three Arms, which was lambasted by the critics when it first appeared on Broadway in 1983, but which went on to win a prestigious award at the Edinburgh festival? Do you just laugh off the initial reaction?

Oh, you have to in order to protect your sanity! If you know that the work you do is good and is unintentionally or intentionally misunderstood or shot down for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work, then naturally there's nothing you can do except to just go about your business and assume that in a more rational time people will say, "Gee, I wonder why the critics behaved so irrationally about that play?"

Did this attitude take a long time to develop?

Not really. I've never been surprised by the reaction to plays of mine. I've been disappointed sometimes. Sometimes a play hasn't been allowed to reach the audience I thought it should. But if you know you've done your job properly you can't worry about it too much—you'd go crazy if you did.

What do you think about all of the talk about Los Angeles becoming the major cultural and theatrical center of the United States—and possibly the world—within the next decade or so?

When I see as many good plays coming from experimental theatre out here as I see in New York, I'll be more convinced. Though I must say I am more pleased with Los Angeles than I am with other large cities. But I still think that going to the theatre is somewhat of an unnatural occurrence out here. It is not like New York where going to the theatre is as natural as breathing.

Why is that?

I don't know! It's not a theatre town! It's a film and television town! And most actors I meet out here complain about the fact that they are really being pushed into film and television and do not have the opportunity to do live work on the stage.

Do you direct differently in Los Angeles than when you are staging a play in a theatre town?

No, I don't think so. You have to direct the play to know its intention. Trouble comes with too much accommodation. I would never cut a play of mine to make it more tolerable for an audience. You must make the assumption that an audience will come to the play and is interested in being in the theatre, interested in seeing the play, immersing themselves in it, and maybe even having a complex experience.

You've directed work by such playwrights as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and David Mamet. Do you find directing your own work easier or more difficult than directing other playwrights' work?

It's probably a little easier directing my work because I know a little more about what the playwright had in mind. I have to invent a little bit more if I'm directing somebody else's work.

What do you think about the school of thought that says a playwright shouldn't direct his own play?

Well, I don't think anybody should direct a play unless they are a competent director. I've learned how to be a competent director. Lots of playwrights have directed their own work—besides Shakespeare and Moliere. In the 20th century, Brecht, Beckett, Gelber, Anouilh, Pinter, me. Lots of us direct our own work.

What do you consider to be your greatest play?

I don't know whether any of them are great.

How about your most satisfying?

I find this is to be true with every single one that I do. As I go on I find that the next one is always more interesting than the previous. You know, it would be an awful, terrible thing to think that you've done your best work. I like to think that maybe it's three plays down the line.

Who would you cite as your májor influence outside of the theatre? For instance, I've read that you collect art.

I've been influenced by everybody, and I'd be a fool if I weren't. I don't think that anybody in the creative arts can be a well-rounded, well-informed person in the creative arts unless they're conversant in all the arts. A playwright who doesn't know painting and sculpture and classical music—especially classical music since composing music and writing for the theatre are so closely allied—and doesn't know what's going on in fiction and poetry is probably not an educated man and will put terrible limits on himself. All of the arts feed on each other, all of them influence each other, and it's very valuable and useful to know everything that you can.

Do you have a deep interest in classical music?

I wanted to be a composer when I was 13, but I didn't become one because I was incompetent. So I started studying music on the phonograph, and I would dare say that I've probably listened to—very conscientiously—more classical music than anybody who is not a composer.

You mentioned the similarity between the theatre and music, between dramatic structure and musical structure. Can you explain this to me?

Well, a string quartet is a performed piece that is heard and seen—so is a play. There are great similarities—structural similarities, psychological similarities. There are voices speaking, instruments speaking …

Does it primarily have to do with the language of the play?

No, it's in the psychology. A good piece of music has a structure which gives it a psychology, proper duration, whereas a bad piece of music doesn't end where it should—it goes on too long, ideas run out. The relationships are very complex and intertwined. A composer and a playwright use notation in very much the same way—rise, soft; fast, slow … it's a profound relationship.

Have you ever written a play with a particular piece of music in mind?

No, but I am aware sometimes when I'm writing a play that this section is a passacaglia, for example, or a theme and variation.

Can you describe the process you go through when writing a play? For instance, do you, as Pinter has said he does, begin with two characters in a room?

Doesn't everybody? Didn't Shakespeare, didn't …

Well, I don't know. Is that the germ? Or do you pick up ideas from something you read in the newspaper?

No, I've never—with the exception of Bessie Smith—never known where it came from. Everything starts coming into focus at the same time: the environment, and the characters, their relationship to each other—it just starts coming into focus.

Do you use an outline?

No. I will think about a play for quite a while before I start writing it down. The best way for me to lose interest in a play is to write it down.

You have said that the unconscious is the most efficient part of your mind. Why is that?

It must be since my conscious mind is very inefficient! I seem to come to lots of creative and dramatic conclusions which I inform myself of; so obviously I am moving from the unconscious to the conscious. I rely upon the unconscious mind for creativity just as most people do. And the conscious mind is a kind of translator.

Do you believe that there is such a thing as the perfectly made play?

In which there is nothing missing and no excess?

Yes.

Oh, I've seen a few of them I think.

Care to name names?

A couple of Beckett's plays, one or two of Chekhov's … I see them now and again.

Do you still believe that, as you've once said, "a text is never dependent on performance and that no performance is as good as the performance the author saw when he wrote the play"?

I was talking about a good play. Now, a bad play … most performances are better than the play. For most good plays, the performance does not add anything to the play; it merely brings the play to its own life. You see, the better the actors you have, the closer the author's intention will be achieved. A great play is not improved by a performance, it is proved by a performance. The best actors in the world aren't going to make a Chekhov play any better than it is. Or a Beckett play. They're first rate! It's the responsibility of the actors to try to prove that they're as good as the play. In a lousy play, the actors have got to be compensated for the fact that the play is lousy.

Do you think there are many actors out there who would agree with you?

Yes. The professional and intelligent ones.

You once said that it was one of the responsibilities of playwrights to show people how they are and what their time is like in the hope that perhaps they'll change it. Do you still believe this?

Sure.

What other responsibilities does the playwright have?

Oh … to write as well as he can, to tell as much of the truth as he knows—as clearly and as honestly as he knows it. Not to lie, not to deal in half-truths. You see, all art is useful. There's no point if it's merely decorative. Art tells us who we are, how we live, our consciousness … The whole concept of metaphor is so important to the human animal, and that's what art does—deals in the metaphor. And so all good art is useful! And that's why the merely decorative, the merely escapist, is a big waste of everybody's time.

But you're not a great fan of social realism are you?

The only problem I have is that it limits its scope to accommodate the problems it addresses. I had a problem with a lot of the agitprop plays that were written in the 1930s—they just weren't very good plays. I have no objection to a first-rate play of social realism. But I don't think that you can justify writing a bad play just because it deals with social realism.

Do you see yourself as a social critic or as a writer interested more in metaphysical issues, interested in penetrating, as George in Virginia Woolf says, "the bone and the marrow"?

I don't see how you separate the two.

Really?

I mean, most of my plays do deal with people in the context of relationships, which is a microcosm and a macrocosm. If the play doesn't transcend what it is specifically about, it doesn't resonate and therefore isn't any good. It's got to be about not only how these couples live, but how we live as a society.

As a playwright, what do you think are the major issues confronting America today?

Too many people don't live their own lives, they pass through their lives half-asleep. I think that's a great waste of time. Most people do not wish life to be an adventure, they wish it to be a nice, slow descent. Most people are far more interested in comfort than they are in adventure, in escape rather than engagement.

What about on a purely social level?

How—how do, how do you separate these? A society is made up of people who run their society based upon their own needs, and how they wish to participate. If we have people who do not wish to be living in an adventuresome society, we end up with reactionary know-nothing dodos, which has been happening for quite a while in this country. You can't separate the two, they're desperately related!

What are your feelings on the current war on drugs in America? Are you interested in writing about this subject?

I'm less interested in addressing specific things than I am in addressing the kind of people we are that permit certain things to happen. Now, for example, there would be no drug problem in the United States if people did not want to take drugs. Right? So, really the way to address the drug problem is to create a society in which people do not want to take drugs. The people who take drugs are the people who are affluent and the people who are very poor. Right? People with money and people without money. That seems to be the division in our society, there being no middle ground anymore; people have money, people don't have money. People are enfranchised, people are disenfranchised in this society.

You have to make the people who have the money, who do drugs on a social level, want to participate so much in their lives that they don't want the escape of the drugs. Now, the people who are poor and desperate and are using drugs because reality is too hideous to tolerate—you've got to create a society in which they don't have to live in those conditions. If you accomplish both of those things there'd be absolutely no drug problem in this country.

The drug program the Bush Administration has put forward as I see it is spending infinitely too little money on alleviating the poverty in this country. You can take care of 9/10ths of the drug problem in this country by creating a society in which you don't have so many desperate, disenfranchised minority poor. The Bush Administration gives the impression that they are much more interested in solving the drug problems of the upper middle class white kids. And it strikes me as being ultimately, if not phoney, then certainly badly misdirected.

Let me ask you this since I think it ties in to what you've just said in a roundabout way. Your characters, versus those of a playwright like O'Neill or Williams, are always aware of the illusion they are creating around themselves. They admit that they invent an illusionary life. Do you think it is sometimes better to live life as a self-inflicted illusion rather than survive the day-by-day realities of it?

Well, obviously I prefer that people not have false illusions and that they participate completely in their own lives! The majority of my plays are about people who are deluded—consciously or unconsciously, in one way or another. And I want to say "Do it!" Shake 'em. "Stop it! Do it!"

Do you have any comments or predictions about the future of theatre and your role in it?

Oh, I don't know. I'm not a crystal ball gazer.

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This section contains 3,390 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Edward Albee with Jeffrey Goldman