“Hello? . . . Hello?” The first voice to penetrate the darkness of the August Wilson Theatre at the Edward Albee memorial December 6 was arch, authoritarian, unmistakable.
After its cellphone shutdown came the candy wrappers. “Get ‘em unwrapped now, and, if you want to cough, don’t do it during the show. Do it now. Everybody cough! One, two, three. We hope you enjoy the show, and we want those people around you to enjoy the show, too. Thank you. . . . Oh, I almost forgot: I’m Edward Albee.”
In a way it was unexpected—and in another way inevitable—that Albee, who frequently directed his own plays, would be calling the shots for his final act.
He got off the first word in this event and, two hours and 23 minutes later, the last word, too—a recording of him in some pastoral scene, drinking it all in, relishing it. “This is good,” he says. “Beautiful. Participate fully all the time, in case this is all there is. Don’t miss anything. Don’t close down. Listen to the bird sounds.”
That’s the way he lived it and wrote it. Theatre lovers—friends, fans, colleagues— packed the Broadway house to pay tribute to the life that ended September 18 at age 88, one that included more than 30 plays, including three Pulitzer Prize winners (A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and Three Tall Women). Judges actually voted him a fourth—for his Tony- and Oscar-winning masterwork, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—but the prudes in charge of the Pulitzers that year objected to the four-letter way George and Martha walked what was left of their wits and chose instead to present no Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1963.
There were 16 testimonials delivered from the stage, plus recorded anecdotes and praises from the late James Houghton (who gave Albee his season at Signature Theatre) and Marian Seldes (a Delicate Balance Tony winner and Albee’s favorite leading lady).
And of course there was beaucoup television footage of Albee, allowing him to speak for himself. One had him recalling Thornton Wilder’s review of his first stabs at poetry: “Have you thought about plays?”
Several speakers pointed up Albee’s two radically different faces. “As you can tell when you tell Edward stories,” said Bill Irwin, one of Virginia Woolf’s three Tony-winning Georges, “you ricochet and you rebound between the scary Edward—the rapier wit took no prisoners—and the really, truly, tender and generous Edward.
“He loved to tell the story of being flown to Stockholm to see the opening-night production of the Swedish National Theatre’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which they had decided it would really be better to have one intermission instead of the two for the three acts he had written. He built inexorably toward the end of the story when he said, ‘And they performed it that way. Once.’”
Two playwrights stepped forth with very moving and insightful testimonies—Will Eno, a relatively new writer that Albee took under his wing (as was his wont), and Tony winner Terrence McNally, who became a lover.
Albee and McNally met February 21, 1960, at the opening night party for the revival of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock at New York City Opera. They shared a taxi to the Village, and Albee offered a nightcap. “Oh, I’d love to, but I wouldn’t want to bother your wife or your family.” Albee explained he didn’t have either and told the driver this would be the last stop. “The word ‘gaydar’ wasn’t in use in 1960. Whatever we called it, mine was certainly out of whack the first night I met Edward.
“To this day, Edward Albee is the straightest gay man I’ve ever met. Edward and I lived together for four years. Marriage, of course, wasn’t permitted then, but we had a famous gay divorce. We were the Off-Broadway version of the Burtons.”
Charter members of The Edward Albee Stock Company executed various bits of Albee business on the program. Jordan Baker (Three Tall Women) created an hysterical listical of memos Albee never got, like ”Don’t experiment.” Maureen Anderman (Seascape, The Lady From Dubuque) read a message from his frequent producer Liz McCann. Rosemary Harris (All Over, A Delicate Balance) recited a poem Albee wrote in the voice of his dog that had passed on, Samantha. Richard Thomas (Everything in the Garden) delivered Albee’s famous “Art & Democracy” essay and co-starred with Jane Alexander and Peter Francis James in the final scene from The Lady From Dubuque. Brian Murray (Me, Myself and I) presented a monologue he originally did in The Play About the Baby and remembered a very young Albee with flowing, shoulder-length hair, “looking like an irritable Jesus Christ,” crossing swords and wits with Nöel Coward.
David Esbjornson, who directed the memorial and some of Albee’s later plays, admitted it was often a tightrope walk working with the playwright. “Nothing was as highly charged or more complex than being an interpreter of his writing,” he understated. “When Edward decided on you as a director, you felt like you had won some prize or honored position that might have been too hastily bestowed on you and could potentially be taken away at any moment. He believed that there was one way to do his plays—his way. Now there’s an irony in that comment because anything that you might do to successfully present the work would become his way, and he relished the double-edged position that he put you in.”
After staging the New York premiere of The Play About the Baby, Esbjornson got Albee’s OK to direct a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Guthrie Theatre, and the playwright went to Minneapolis to inspect the results. “We met for breakfast to discuss the production he’d seen the night before, and I expected a lengthy session, but he seemed genuinely pleased and very mysterious. And he pushed a manuscript across the table. ‘This is my next play. If you like it, I want you to direct it. It’s about a man who has fallen in love with a goat.’ In a time of perverse hubris, we decided not to try the play out regionally but instead, develop it on Broadway.
“Nothing could have prepared us for the roller-coaster ride we went on. The first preview of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? was like a rock concert. I sat with the audience, instead of the back of the house as usual. As we moved toward the end of the play, every audience reaction was on display—shock, anger, laughter, tears. Some people stood and applauded, their hands over their heads. Others just sat there stunned or walked out in disgust. It’s one of the happiest moments I’ve ever had in the theatre.”
Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl got award nominations for the play—and death threats.
“One night when Edward had come to visit—this was several weeks after we had opened the play—I was leaving the theatre with him and I mentioned something about the death threats,” Ruehl says. “I said, ‘Do you realize that every night we actors risk our lives in the service of your play?’ and, without missing a beat, he said, ‘Do you realize that every night I risk my play in the service of you actors?’”
The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? was Albee’s last hurrah. It got him the Tony Award and a nomination for that elusive fourth Pulitzer Prize. It gave his life a great third act.
“What I’ve always respected about Edward was his need to provoke, his sense of adventure, his unwavering courage and his loyalty in battle,” director Esbjornson said with some wistful affection. “Edward’s greatest gesture of love was to slide that next play across the table to you. Nothing mattered more to him than his work.”