Sitting in his Tribeca loft, Edward Albee, at age 77, is talking about his career. "I'd like to think," he says, "that maybe I've made people think about things a little bit, and question values that maybe aren't valid anymore."
Albee has, of course, done much more than that. He has been called the last great playwright that we have. He has, in his nearly half century in the theatre, set a standard of what the finest in American drama should be.
He also has clear and outspoken ideas about that standard — he has said that his goal is "digging so deep under the skin that it becomes practically intolerable," that a play is an "act of aggression against the status quo" and that "art is corrective in showing us how to lead our lives more fully."
"Why would anybody," he says, "want to spend a bunch of money to sit down in the theatre and have nothing happen to them? I don't understand why they'd want to go and have a safe, pleasant experience which they can forget about as soon as they leave the theatre. What a waste of this powerful thing called life."
Every time "I look at a painting, or listen to a string quartet, or read a book or a play, I want something useful and vital to happen to me," he says. "I want to have my values questioned. I want to be able to think freshly about things. That's the function of art." Albee has won three Pulitzer Prizes, for A Delicate Balance in 1967, Seascape in 1975 and Three Tall Women in 1994. (The Lincoln Center Theater revival of Seascape opened this fall at the Booth Theatre.) He was wrongfully denied one Pulitzer, for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1963, because of its brutally uncompromising language.
He also has three Tony Awards. Two were for Best Play: for Virginia Woolf and, in 2002, for The Goat or Who is Sylvia? Last year he was honored with a Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
Albee saw his first Broadway show when he was seven: Rodgers and Hart's Jumbo. Beginning at age 18, when he moved to Greenwich Village, he says, "I started really educating myself in the arts. I wrote poetry, two hideous novels, short stories, essays. I failed at every other branch of writing." He also "started seeing theatre. Being able to see Beckett and Ionesco and Genet and Brecht and Pirandello down in the Village probably pushed me toward theatre. I think I was by nature a playwright — I just hadn't figured it out."
His first produced play, The Zoo Story, burst upon Off-Broadway in 1960 and signaled that he was a playwright to watch, one of those newcomers trying to shake up what they saw as the staid and lethargic world of New York theatre. Two years later, Virginia Woolf opened on Broadway, shook that lethargy and established his career.
What does he think of theatre today? "The problem isn't the number of good playwrights. You've got a lot of good, serious playwrights. But are they getting the proper attention? Put together producers who value quality over profits, critics who want the theatre to be dangerous rather than safe, and an audience who wants to have an adventure, and you've got a fine theatre."
What about Albee's future? "I would just like to keep getting better as a writer."