From the Archives: Edward Albee On Soviet Union Theatre and His Writing Habits

From the Archives   From the Archives: Edward Albee On Soviet Union Theatre and His Writing Habits
Albee spoke to Playbill for the May 1964 issue about theatre in Russia and why it only took seven weeks to write Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Edward Albee
Edward Albee

Edward Albee, a lean, taciturn bachelor of 34, is one of today’s most respected and controversial playwrights. A few months ago, he visited four Iron Curtain countries (with Josh Steinbeck) at the request of the U.S. Department of State as part of the cultural exchange program. His reactions to the theatre in Russia and his own plans are set forth below in a recent interview with Walter Wager, Editor of Playbill.

PLAYBILL: How long did you spend on this cultural exchange mission?
ALBEE: A month in Russia, and then a week each in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I saw more than 30 different productions in the Soviet Union alone.

PLAYBILL: Were those Russian plays?
ALBEE: Mostly, although they do some works by foreign writers. I had a look at Bill Gibson’s Two For the Seesaw, and I saw the finest production of Brecht’s Arturo Ui of my life in Leningrad. They will be doing more American plays—selected ones.

PLAYBILL: How good were the productions that you saw in the Soviet Union?
ALBEE: The general level of production in Moscow and Leningrad—and in Warsaw—is very high. Almost all theatre in Russia operates on the repertory system, which gives the advantage of actors working together on a sustained basis. This generates an integration of performance we don’t get on Broadway. Even a routine or mediocre play gets a good production.

PLAYBILL: Are there many “routine” dramas on the boards?
ALBEE: Well, I’d say that there is a genuine question as to whether most of the new plays in the Soviet Union are as good—in writing and conception—as they might be.

PLAYBILL: To what would you attribute this?
ALBEE: With no disrespect to my recent hosts—who certainly take the theatre seriously as a government and as a nation — I’d say that I believe the whole concept of “socialist realism” doesn’t allow for much experimentation. There is a sad lack of avant-garde plays. These are rarely done.

PLAYBILL: Does this mean your own works are unknown there?
ALBEE: People employed in the Soviet theatre and students are familiar with Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Gibson, but they have little or no contact with my plays or those of other writers such as Pinter, Beckett, Ghelderode, Genet and the rest. My plays have not been “officially” translated in Russia.

PLAYBILL: What about “unofficial” or boot-leg translations?
ALBEE: Some drama and university teachers have read my plays somehow, which might be the reason that their students are not exposed to them. In general, it appears that there is little awareness of the entire off Broadway theatre in Russia.

PLAYBILL: What can you report on Soviet actors?
ALBEE: The acting level is excellent, often extraordinary. Theatre groups are subsidized in general, and many actors get a full subsidy. Playwrights attached to theatres also receive government stipends, which are linked to the acceptability, volume and success of what they write.

PLAYBILL: What about the theatres themselves?
ALBEE: There are 40 or 50 legitimate houses in Moscow alone. Some are very well equipped, while others are not quite as well equipped as Broadway theatres. There is never an empty seat in Moscow or Leningrad.

PLAYBILL: Why is that?
ALBEE: As I suggested, the Russians take theatre seriously. This applies to all levels of the urban population, not just the elite. They literally believe the plays. They don’t go to the theatre for escapist entertainment, as many Western audiences do. That may be one reason why the Soviet government can utilize the theatre for propaganda when it desires.

PLAYBILL: What do tickets cost?
ALBEE: They seem to range between 50 cents and $3.

PLAYBILL: I assume that makes the theatre more accessible to students and others with limited incomes. Did you talk to any Soviet college students?
ALBEE: Yes, through officially-supplied translators. I also retained some Russian from a U.S. Army language course that I took in service. The students were intelligent, but tended to talk in stock phrases and dialectics. They asked questions such as, “Don’t you agree that the playwright must be the servant of The People?”

PLAYBILL: What did you reply?
ALBEE: I told them that they were probably correct, but that The People must also be the servant of The Playwright. Frankly, I found the professional theatre people more stimulating.

PLAYBILL: Did you speak with Soviet dramatists?
ALBEE: Yes, with three of the younger playwrights. They were courteous and knowledgeable, but seemed a bit careful. They kept away from politics—perhaps out of politeness—and we talked theatre “shop,” as I also did with actors and directors.

PLAYBILL: Had you been briefed by the U.S. government on avoiding controversy?
ALBEE: Not quite. Ed Murrow, then head of the U.S. Information Agency, spoke to Steinbeck and me before we left. He told us to criticize our country or anything else. “Say what you please. Raise Hell!,” he advised.

PLAYBILL: Did you raise any Hell?
ALBEE: A little. We spoke out freely all the way, and when our hosts in Leningrad asked us to toast the Berlin Wall we flatly refused. That generated a few sparks. We were not looking for conflict, of course, but we found some as might have been expected.

PLAYBILL: Will you return to the Soviet Union?
ALBEE: I certainly hope to. The hospitality was generous, but next time I’ll go as a private citizen at my own expense. Russia, the Russian people and their theatre are extremely interesting.

PLAYBILL: I hear that you’re working on a new play since you’ve returned. How do you work?
ALBEE: I usually discover—yes, discover—that I have gotten an idea. I toss it around privately—in my mind—for anywhere between six and 18 months. When I am ready and it is ready, I go to my typewriter and work steadily. That’s four hours a day, five or six days a week. Perhaps in my place in Manhattan, or in my house on Long Island. Then I pencil in corrections and retype.

PLAYBILL: How long is this process?
ALBEE: I’ve written the short plays in about three weeks each, and Virginia Woolf took seven.

PLAYBILL: I’ve noticed dramatists hate to talk about works in progress—but what can you tell about your current project.
ALBEE: I’d rather not go into it. Well… it’s called The Substitute Speaker. Two acts, about an hour in length in all, seven characters. The toughest one on which I’ve ever worked.*

PLAYBILL: What is the difficulty?
ALBEE: It’s tough to write because I’m trying to join naturalism and considerable stylization. It is basically naturalistic—but with hallucinatory elements.

PLAYBILL: Do you rewrite much?
ALBEE: Very little. I cut a bit. I only took nine pages out of Virginia Woolf.

PLAYBILL: There are frequent articles about the ills of the American stage. Would you comment?
ALBEE: Everybody talks about the alleged illness, but there is more experimental theatre all over the United States every day. I believe that this is healthy. I’m disturbed by lazy audiences that only want to be assured that their lives and values are valid. For me, the theatre must be educating and upsetting as well as just plain entertaining. It is especially important to reach young people, and I’m pleased that young America knows me.

PLAYBILL: Finally, what about future developments?
ALBEE: The only real danger now that culture is “in” is that so-called serious theatre may become fashionable and settle for middle-brow works. If this happens, it may not hit as high as it could or should. That is the threat.

*This would eventually become The Lady From Dubuque and premiere in 1980.

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