It isn't every Broadway play that has two titles. Edward Albee's has three. The Goat or Who is Sylvia? is title plus subtitle — that's two. "Then there's a second subtitle which won't be used until the play is printed," says Albee over a 9 AM cup of coffee and hashed-brown potatoes. "Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy . . . too long for a marquee," he dryly observes.
Mr. Albee has borrowed from Mr. Shakespeare the Who is Sylvia? that does appear on the marquee of the Golden Theatre. "Who is Sylvia, fair is she . . . ," he hums into his coffee cup. But the song in Two Gentlemen of Verona starts out: "Who is Silvia, what is she," a conscientious interviewer feels obliged to point out . . . "Who is Silvia, what is she / That all our swains commend her?"
"Oh!" says a surprised Edward Albee. "I thought it was 'fair is she.' Then I've got to change one line in the play. Thank you," he says as he jots down a note to himself.
It is this triple-Pulitzer playwright's firm opinion that "any play should be able to be defined in a couple of sentences," and in the matter of The Goat he now utters just one sentence: "All you have to know is that there are four human beings and one goat in the play, and it involves interrelationships." Seeing that's a bit sparse, he adds: "There's this goat, she's called Sylvia, she's involved in the play, I don't want to specify how, let's just say she comes between a happy family, and in the end the problem is solved, so" — the Edwardian dryness — "I suppose it's a comedy."
Which is to say, a tragedy? "That's right." In a further burst of expansiveness, he sketches in the four human characters: Martin, an architect (played by Bill Pullman); his wife Stevie (Mercedes Ruehl); Martin's good friend Ross (Stephen Rowe); and Martin and Stevie's son Billy (Jeffrey Carlson.)
"Billy is 17, 18. Ross is Martin's age. Stevie is somewhere in her forties — who knows with a woman that age?"
How old is the goat? A stare. "I have no idea." Is the goat onstage?
Albee's hands swivel left and right, like a person sifting grain, as he declares with a certain intensity: "Stay away from that subject." Then, once again relenting: "Yes, we do see the goat." Picks up the thread: "Martin has won the Pritzker Prize, like a Nobel Prize for architecture; he's just been given the commission to design a $27-billion World City in the wheat fields of Kansas; and it's also his 50th birthday, so he's on top of the heap. Then the shit hits the fan."
Lightly but gravely: "That's what happens in plays, yes? The shit hits the fan." Afterthought: "I've got to tell my students that." The students are those he selects, from the scripts they submit, for Playwriting With Edward Albee — "sounds like a breakfast cooking show" — a class he's conducted for 13 years at the University of Houston.
The business of the fan would seem to apply to every single Albee play from 1959's The Zoo Story to now — doesn't the fellow who wrote them agree? Is there one where that rule doesn't apply?
"No, there isn't one," he affirms. "But there are so many ways it can happen. In Chekhov, it's so subtle," Albee says with an appreciative half-smile. "You know, some of my plays seem not quite as naturalistic as others — seem. But they're all just as naturalistic as Zoo Story or [Who's Afraid of] Virginia Woolf. Everybody tells the truth. Whatever resonance or metaphors there are, everything's clearly embedded in fact.
"I think there's one thing I'm doing with this play: testing the tolerance of the audience. Testing the limits of tolerance."
Well, hasn't he been doing that all his life, again beginning with The Zoo Story?
"Yes, but this is more so. I suppose some people will be offended and enraged. I hope more people will find it informing and involving." Undaunted, the tester of tolerance resumes his earlier humming: "Who is Sylvia, what is she, that all our goats commend her . . . "