Edward Albee (1928-2016): A Master of Audacious Protest

Friday, September 16, 2016

Edward Albee (1928-2016): A Master of Audacious Protest

When I was young, it was not unheard of for a young person to say, “I want to be a playwright.” In fact, the decision to focus on writing for the theater was a far more practical one than aspiring to be a poet sixty years ago. Back then, playwrights held a far more esteemed position within contemporary American culture. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were legends by the mid-1950s, and reading plays by the great European playwrights was considered an ordinary part of a liberal arts education. As I pointed out in my book, “Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992,” theater supplied far more momentum to the avant-garde in the 1960s and early 1970s than poetry. It wasn’t even a contest.

Edward Albee, who died today, did not begin as a playwright, however. He started as a poet and then turned to theater. In both of these cultural endeavors, Albee knew all too well how a comprehensive fashion show is hard at work; his advice about the stance that both playwrights and poets should take about this fashion show should be fervently adhered to: “Actually, the final evaluation of a play has nothing to do with immediate audience or critical response. The playwright, along with any writer, composer, painter in this society, has got to have a terribly private view of his own value, of his own work. He’s got to listen to his own voice primarily. He’s got to watch out for fads, for what might be called the critical aesthetics.”

In demonstrating the level of vigilance needed not to succumb to fads, Albee taught us how theater is the quintessential laboratory for discovering “the temper of the time, what is being tolerated, what is being permitted.” It is in protesting those limits that writers distinguish themselves in the manner that Albee sorted them into: “Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate.” (Tweeted by Ryan Adams). Great writers transmogrify those definitions of reality, and Albee belongs to that cluster of superb visionaries.

Along with hundreds of other writers, I owe Albee more than a nod of gratitude: he was one of the writers whose work helped wake me out of the stupor of the military industrial complex in which I had spent my childhood and adolescence. By the time I first read him, in the fall of 1966, he was already a superstar among the young playwrights. His one-act plays, “The Zoo Story” and “The Sandbox,” transfixed me when I first read them. I had the good fortune to act in a school workshop production of “The Sandbox” at Southwestern Community College in the spring of 1967, and this distant memory flutters within me as I find myself caring for 94 year old mother. And how can one overstate the extent to which the monologue of the story of Jerry and the Dog reverberated as a model for many young playwrights throughout the 1960s and 1970s? The monologues in Sam Shepard’s one-act plays, for instance, can hardly be studied apart from this progenitor. Albee most certainly redefined my reality; my own trajectory in shifting from theater to poetry could not have happened without that initial impetus to which the surplus of Albee’s corrosive writing made an enormous contribution.

I have continued to read Albee’s work throughout all the years in which I primarily have devoted myself to poetry; and cannot imagine my poetics having developed in their peculiar manner, in fact, without having had the guidance of Albee’s ear for the theatrical puncture point. In the entire history of theater, less than fifty playwrights have equaled his capacity for a shimmering clarity of self-examination made visible in imaginary people. Even more rare is how tirelessly the dialogue he coaxed out of his characters can coil and recoil within a stage’s “empty space.” He made the performance of a private vision an occasion of public urgency. In Albee’s case, I remember in particular a production of “Seascape” that I saw in Century City. The theater itself no longer exists, but the theater of my memory glows, and I remain spellbound.

One of the aspects of theater that makes the experience precious is its singularity: productions cannot be revisited like novels; yet that only makes one cling more closely to theater’s oscillating essence. Theater is the most porous art: it must be absorbed straight through the skin of one’s consciousness. This instantaneous envelopment marked Albee’s theatrical instincts. Even in plays that some regard as his minor work, his audacious imagination magnified the possibilities of what hides under the surface of contingency.

I have no doubt that Albee knew, in his final years, how much difference he made in the lives of so many writers whose work he never read a page of. What better reward can any writer hope for? Surely these are the unseen bouquets at any memorial service his friends will gather for in the days to come.

(See my blog entry on February 23, 2014 for a review of a production of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” by the California Repertory Company.)

This blog entry, originally written on the day of Albee’s death, has been revised on Sunday morning, September 17.