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Interview

Tim Sanford and Edward Albee

Tim: I usually start these interviews with biographical questions about how the writer got into playwriting and so forth, but all that information is readily available to anybody, so we don’t have to cover that.

Edward: No we don’t.

But I am interested in a few specific questions that pertain to Playwrights Horizons’ history. As I was rereading your plays, I noticed that your first producer, Richard Barr, had a partner, Clinton Wilder. And Clinton Wilder was the brother-in-law of Anne Wilder, who was the chair of our board for many years. When did Clinton
come on board with Richard? 

Well Richard as you know began as a Broadway producer before he went off-Broadway. By the 1950s he was getting very tired of Broadway. And so he sort of helped invent off-Broadway. He wanted to do serious plays with more serious  audiences in proper sized theaters. I mean, no serious chamber play should be done in a theater larger than 500 seats. So I think he got a copy of Zoo Story in 1958 before its premiere production in Berlin. And by the time it opened in Berlin and got great reviews he decided to make his major move to off-Broadway and bring the double bill, Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and my play The Zoo Story, into New York off-Broadway. In English this time of course. And so I got back from the Berlin premier in ’59 and discovered that I already had a New York production!

What theater did they use?

They used the Provincetown Playhouse.

Were there theaters to choose from for this movement?

There were a few. The Living Theatre was doing stuff, they hadmoved to 14th street which is where they did Jack Gilbert’s The Connection in ’59. The Poet’s Theatre. The Cherry Lane. 

And the Lucille Lortel has been functioning for a while hasn’t it?

I think that was called the Theater De Lys in those days, and I don’t think that Lucille was involved yet, no.

And Clinton Wilder?

I don’t remember the year Clinton got involved. I know he was involved by the time Richard decided to do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I think he was involved with The American Dream. I noticed that when I re-read it.

Was Clinton a person with money who liked the theater?

Yes, but he went a little bit beyond that. He was intelligent, and he’d been in theater on Broadway. And while he had a good commercial sense, he also shared some of Richard’s views that you are not in the theater as a producer just to make money. It would be nice, but you’re in there because you have a responsibility to do good plays. Clinton had the same feeling that Richard did, and that’s why they
worked so well together. 

Bob Moss has talked about the playwrights unit you had that he helped manage.

Yes, we did, Richard and Clinton and I started it.

How did that connection happen?

It came about for the same reason that I began the Edward Albee Foundation. I was making a little money with Virginia Woolf, and taxes were high in those days. 80% for the upper brackets.

Wow.

Really! During the Second World War it was 93%.

Double wow.

And I had a good tax advisor, he said, “Why do you want to give all this money to the government?” And I said, “I don’t,” and he said, Well, why don’t you start a foundation, start putting money into that and help other people.” I said, “What a good idea, and I don’t have to give it to the government?” And he said, “No.” “Good.” So I did that. We were all making good money on Virginia Woolf, and so we
thought why not expand, why not do more plays, why don’t we get a theater space (we ended up at East 4th Street), and why don’t we do season after season, world premieres of new serious plays, lowpriced tickets, 2, 3, and 4 dollar seats…

This was with Richard and Clinton?

Yes. I was reading a lot of plays, and I knew who a lot of the good people were, and Richard and Clinton were reading plays too, and we did a lot of good work. We did the first productions anywhere in our playwrights unit of, I think Sam Shepard, and Terrence [McNally] and Adrienne Kennedy of course, and a whole bunch of others. We did maybe the first productions of over ninety or a hundred new playwrights.
And we kept this going for seven or eight years and putting money into it to keep it going, it was a money losing proposition. Of course the plays were good, and they weren’t going to transfer to Broadway. We never had anything like that happen. But we kept doing good plays, for you know six, eight week runs, sometimes to
half empty houses…

So the focus of the group was mainly just production? Or was there any other kind of help?

Yes, it was production. With the assumption I’d be around to talk to the playwrights if they wanted to talk. I’m convinced that you learn more by seeing your play on its feet, and going through the horrors of production. I’m still going through that as you well know. You learn more about theater by doing. And you can talk theory until you’re blue in the face with people, but until they see it—I say give them the
space to make their own mistakes and correct their own mistakes. Another thing I’ve been telling playwrights for years—make your own mistakes, don’t accept anyone else’s mistakes.

That seems to have been Bob Moss’s philosophy when he started Playwrights Horizons. He described it as “fan every flame.” How long was Bob the manager of the unit?

We had a couple. Bob did it for quite a while, and then he went on, his career expanded and he went onto his own people. He says he left when the group disbanded. The way he tells the story is you had an audience that existed in index cards in a shoebox that got invited to things…

Probably, yeah.

And that when the playwright’s unit was disbanded, he kept the shoebox. What happened is that other people caught on to what we were doing. The Public Theatre started, and a bunch of other off-Broadway groups got started. They were maybe more organized, they had more money than we did, and they were more commercial in their enterprise.  And they started getting more audiences, and eventually we said, “They’re taking over for us. Ok they don’t need us anymore. We’ll stop.” 

So your time had come.

Yeah. We did what was necessary for as long as it was necessary for us to do it.

It’s been interesting for me to witness how the “learn by doing” maxim applies even to you even now. I think I half expected going into rehearsal that the script of Me, Myself & I would be pretty much inviolate. So it surprised me a little to see you making small changes and edits as you go in rehearsals and previews.

Allan Schneider used to love to come to me, with a little smile on his face, and I knew he was going to tell me he’d figured out a cut that I should make. And I would open the script and show him that I’d made it the day before! I’m very quick. We’re all fond of the sound of our own voices, all writers. We overwrite, we all overwrite. I don’t let a script out until I think it’s not much overwritten anymore. I always
have a few things to cut. And a couple things I usually leave in there to make the director happy and think that they’re creative. You know. I do that too. But, no. I’m very quick. If something is not working because it is incorrectly written, I’ll be the first one to change it. In spite of the protests of actors: “You’ve taken out my favorite lines.” If I know it’s got to stay out, it stays out.

You also made a change at one point when we were having trouble with the chariot moment. In the text it said the chariot appears and then it says the chariot leaves, But it was taking too long to get out so you changed it so that the father walks off and leaves the chariot onstage.

Well now that was a case where I had to accommodate to the exigencies of production.

In the published script will you leave it that way, or you would go back to…?

I think I’ll go back. You have a wonderful trap, but it’s slow.

Right.

There are exigencies that you have to deal with, you know. One of the trickiest ones with this play of course is in the casting of the identical twins. We interviewed, Emily and I, forty sets of identical twins over the past couple of years. But only a couple seemed close to being able to play them onstage. And so both in Princeton and here we ended up with two guys who, with suspension of disbelief, are identical
twins. It’s the same as I explained to an interviewer bout it. If you have a character onstage and he looks out a window and says, “Oh my god it’s forty stories to the ground,” you’re going to believe it. And when he jumps out that window you know that he’s dying. Obviously if you want to disbelieve because that’s a set and it doesn’t go down forty stories, you can. But you have to have suspension of disbelief for theater to work. It’s one of the great things about theater. Those people are identical twins. Oh, ok, they’re identical twins. Lovely about theater, suspension of disbelief. That and forward motion are the two most important things.

When you have been asked about the interpretation of your plays, you have talked about your resistance to self-interpretation with respect to the role of the unconscious as what governs the creative act.

Yeah. In the sense that I’m convinced that, even though I don’t know consciously anything about a play of mine when I write the first line of it, except I know who the people are, I’ve probably done the majority of the work that I have to do except hearing people talk. I probably know pretty much everything that’s going to happen. But I haven’t told myself yet. So I learn it as the characters do.  

And so you know on some unconscious level what you’re up to.

Oh yeah sure, of course.

Haven’t you said something similar about the forms of your work?  That you discover the form as you go?

Every play of mine is slightly different in structure, in degrees of closeness or distance from naturalism, some are highly stylized, some give more of the illusion of being realistic. Because form and content are supposed to co-determine each other.

And, is the form and content sort of equally planned if you will before you undertake it, or is there a discovery of form in process?

Both. I want people in the audience to have an emotionally involving experience and yet at the same time to stay intellectually alert while the play is going on. To get the surprises and not sink into passivity and let the play happen to you, you’ve got to happen to it and follow all the things it is trying to do stylistically and thematically to have a complete time at the play. People ask, “What is your play about?” And I say, “It’s about every single thing that happens from the minute the curtain goes up until the curtain goes down, plus everything that happened to all of the characters in their entire lives before the play started and after the play is over.”

And when the audience does that, they inevitably find their own  meanings. I read where you said if someone describes a meaning they have found in your work and it resonates with you, you will claim it as true.

Yeah sure. No two people see the same play anyway.

Well of course.

Since no two people bring the same intelligence, the same experience, or the same willingness to have the experience of the play. 

When I was in graduate school—actually the first time I ever saw you  in person was at Stanford University. You gave a lecture I attended. And one of my teachers at Stanford was Martin Esslin—

And a very good man.

He may have actually invited you for all I know, because you were in his book.

Yeah, we liked each other. Martin Esslin more or less brought the concept of theater of the absurd into public attention. As an existentialist concept, not as a stylistic concept.

True. Anyway, the reason I brought up graduate school was that there was a book by Roland Barthes called S/Z, about a Balzac novella, and it was close to unreadable, but there was a great underlying premise,

Roland Barthes, he was unreadable a lot.

But he talked about all the different levels of communication that were happening in that book, and it resonated with something I think is true in the theater which is that you can get something out of a play every time you read it or see it. One time you’ll think just about the story, another time you’ll see it in a social context, or think about its symbolism, or its resonances with other works of art.

In the same way that I said before that everybody sees a different play because of what they bring to it, you also see a different play the second and third and fourth time that you see it.

That’s one of the things I love about theater. And I only want to do a play that I enjoy and keep learning from every time I see it.

Which is one of the reasons, by the way, that I don’t think that critics should review plays until they’ve both seen them and read them.

I know! Once in a while they’ll read the play after they’ve seen it.

But they should read it beforehand.

I agree.

Because if you just see a production without knowing the text, you may not be seeing the author’s intention very clearly. 

Yeah, well they have this whole consumer advocacy thing that they feel they’re supposed to be doing.

Yep, review through ignorance.

Yeah. Anyway, let’s go on to happier subjects.

Do you encourage, do you send out letters to critics, we have the text, copies of the play for you to read? You do?

Yeah.

You do? You let them all know, in advance?

Yep. But usually they’ll only look at it afterwards.

That’s better than nothing, but not much.

But not all critics and scholars are bad. I think back to some of the teachers I had in school and can still remember the excitement I felt when someone really opened up a book or a play for me.

I’m still learning a lot of stuff from King Lear you know!

You are? And you’ve been at colleges a lot. Haven’t you been in residence at the University of Houston for a number of years?

Yeah. I took a few years off to take care of somebody who was dying, but I’ve gone back now.

So you’ve been comfortable in the scholarly community. Do you ever read criticism of your own work?

Absolutely. I love fiction!

Let’s talk about Me, Myself & I some. We were talking earlier about Martin Esslin and the Theater of the Absurd. And a lot of your earlier work fell comfortably into that category, at least stylistically. Other plays of yours have been more naturalistic. Me, Myself & I perhaps resembles some of these earlier works more.

Yes, but all theater being artifice, there are degrees of relative naturalism, yes.

Then plays like The American Dream or Sandbox are a little more stylized I guess.

Sure, of course. There are degrees of stylization, yes. There’s no such thing as absolute naturalism. The closest I ever came to that was in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where I was very specific that the times of the intermissions were exactly the same as the times that all of the actors were offstage.

Me, Myself & I may not be the least naturalistic play you ever wrote but—

Oh this one breaks every theatrical rule I can find, yes.

By chance or by purpose?

You’ve got to have fun when you’re writing plays. Now this one did not wish to be naturalistic. Or give the illusion of naturalism. It wanted to go fly wherever it wanted, do whatever it felt like doing.

I don’t want to overstate the case, but there are several aspects of it that feel like The American Dream; it has larger-than-life, archetypal characters, and the language is playful and self-referential, and the story feels more abstracted, and fun.

That’s true in a lot of the later plays though. That’s true in Marriage Play, that’s true in Finding the Son, a whole bunch of them.

Right. In many of these plays, you often have mommy/daddy paradigms, and in this one the daddy’s offstage.

Yes.

Which is different. And his replacement is a psychiatrist.

A crazy doctor as we refer to him.

Have you ever had a psychiatrist—?

No. No. I learned early on before I began writing seriously that creative people I knew who were having problems and went to psychiatrists, and unless they were terribly careful they were made whole, un-normal, and totally non-creative. I’ve never thought I’ve had anything sufficiently disturbing to me that I couldn’t, if I really took the time and thought about it, figure out for myself.

What I meant to ask was, have you ever had a psychiatrist as a character before?

No.

Are we making fun of them a bit here?

Well he’s not a very good one!

That’s for sure.

Anybody who can say, “delayed chaos is delayed chaos,” you’re not a very good psychiatrist!

Plus he complains about the mother as being crazy, but if he’s her
doctor whose fault is that?

What, fix that one, are you kidding? Who can fix that one in 28 years?

She was just as mad when she met him as she is now.

Well plus strictly speaking, you’re not supposed to sleep with your
patients, or move in with them either.

When she says Dad took one look and theoretically left because of
the twins?

No, he was ready to leave after a few years with her.

You mentioned Alan Schneider before, and in one of your articles
about him you talked about what a big moment it was for you when
he asked you to talk about your characters in rehearsal.

And I discovered that I could. That was very revealing to me, that I
knew far more about my characters than I consciously knew I did.
So let’s talk about these characters. Let’s start with the twins.

That’s the originating impulse, I assume, of the play.

Well no, it’s about the nature of identity, and the duality of identity.
The relationship of who we are to who we think we should be or who
we want to be, and those are quite often very very different things.
And then how far away we get from behaving like who we really are.
And I thought using identical twins as a symbol for that would be
interesting.

I’ve read you state that you’ve had a lifelong interest in twins. And
twins have made appearances in your work before.

I was an orphan. And I was adopted into a family that I did not relate
to and that did not relate to me. And I think probably I felt rather
lonely and felt the need to imagine a brother. And then I turned that
into an identical twin. Now the identical twin turns up first in the
American Dream, those are identical twins, the one who comes back,
we learn earlier that the mother had somehow destroyed the original
son, the original identical twin and the adopted one, and this one
comes back, replaces him, and kills the mother offstage afterwards,
after the play is over of course. But yeah, I’ve been involved with,
there are twins in a couple of other plays too, yeah. The duality of
identity has been interested me a lot, obviously. Turns up in a lot of
my plays.

The topic of existence also turns up a lot in this play. What does Otto
mean when he talks about existence?

Which Otto?

Loud OTTO.

It’s the mother says, “I don’t think that existence has much to do with
anything.”

But it’s OTTO who says, “My brother doesn’t exist.” What does he
mean by that?

Because he needs another one. This turns up also in my play The
Lady from Dubuque. This woman comes and becomes the mother,
because it is the mother that the daughter needs.

It’s interesting when that happens, and other characters begin to
accept her as the mother, the husband, Sam, responds as if this
threatens his existence.

Sure. It’s all there. It’s a recurring theme in my work, obviously.  Thanks for pointing that out, I hadn’t thought about that.

There’s another interesting thing in The Lady from Dubuque. The play starts with a game of Twenty Questions, and practically the first line of the play is “Who are you?” And in the first scene after the prologue of Me, Myself & I between OTTO and Mother, one of the Mother’s first lines is “Who are you?”

That’s interesting. Hmm. That’s another later play.

There’s also a resonance with an earlier play. When OTTO tells his mother he’s leaving, he says he will become Chinese and he is getting a new brother. “The old one is gone. He doesn’t exist. Poof.” In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that word, “poof,” also becomes a recurring motif, first with Honey’s hysterical pregnancy, and then about the “death” of their imaginary son. In both cases it’s used by characters that are changing their reality, their existence. Big OTTO wants a different twin. He wants his own identity.

He wants, since he chooses an identical twin that is really totally himself, there will be no conflict between the identical twins, since it will be him. It’s yourself, and he says to little otto, “Well you can’t get any more identical than that. We’re identical twins, you can’t get any more identical than a mirror image.”

It’s hard not to be tempted to talk about the metaphors of this play. 

Of course, but not during, not while you’re seeing it.

No, of course not. But to me, the metaphors don’t limit the meaning.
They expand it. Like when I experience theMother’s confusion about
her twins’ identities—since you’ve given leeway to your audience to
have a personal interpretation—and when she talks about naming
them, “They were Otto. My Ottos became Otto,” it so clearly sets up
the duality in any child that needs to break free, “the one who loves
me and the one who does not,” part of the child wants to break free,
part wants to stay the child, the infant at the breast.

Sure.

It sounds obvious when you say it, but to me it underscores the primacy
of the stakes for the characters.

But the search for metaphor can make things muddy. There’s not less
than meets the eye, but things are really more straightforward than
people think.

I wanted to ask you, in an article about The American Dream, you
talked about its echoes of Ionesco.

Well, that’s the thing that interested me about some of the critical
response to The American Dream, some people said the beginning of
the play was an imitation of Ionesco. It wasn’t an imitation of
Ionesco, it was a conscious homage to Ionesco, and weren’t they
bright to figure out that it sounded like Ionesco! Since that’s what I’d
intended.

I bring that up to give myself permission to ask this question…

You learn from the good people. You shouldn’t learn from the bad
ones.

In the picnic scene, when they walk in and the Doctor says, “Why are
we doing this?” and then later he refers to it as a wasteland, and he’s
there with his bowler hat, it seems a little Beckettian to me…

It’s meant to be, of course!

So it’s ok, that I thought that?!

Sure! That’s intentional.

In your introduction to Three Tall Women you talked about your own
adoptive mother in a really remarkable way. It really struck me
because over the years I’ve occasionally come across somewhat
alarming examples of Albee criticism that attempts to strain you work
through the filter of biographical details from your life. Now from my
perspective, when I was in grad school, interjecting biographical
details into literary criticism was considered completely off limits.

Well it should be!

The prevailing school of thought was called new criticism and you
were supposed to confine your analysis to the text itself.

I’ve never put me in a play of mine. I’m not in any of them. I’m in all
of them but I’m not in any of them. There’s no character you can say
that’s Edward. None.

Yes, and notwithstanding your introduction to Three Tall Women, it is
by no means a prerequisite to read that introduction to appreciate
what a great play it is. Still, I’m going to throw out something Emily
said to me early in rehearsals. She said this a bit sotto voce so I hope
I’m not giving away anything, but she said that while Three Tall
Women is a drama about the aftermath of leaving home, Me, Myself
& I is a comedy about the leaving. You have said that the Mother
character in Three Tall Women is probably more interesting and even
sympathetic than your adoptive mother. Is it safe to say the Mother
in Me, Myself & I is funnier?

Certainly. And more intelligent, etc..

I don’t think it ultimately sheds much light on a play to understand
its biographical roots. Considering what you said about the way
plays take form in your unconscious, all the seeds have been totally
transformed by the time they come out anyway. Some people think
that art can be decoded by discovering the formula that created it.
And some people think that art serves as some kind of psychological
exorcism for the artist.

One thing that very few people ask me, and it’s a very important
question. Some people think that you have to be suffering to write a
play. My characters suffer; I don’t. I enjoy writing my plays, no matter
how seemingly serious or funny they are, I have a wonderful time
writing them. I love it, I’m deeply, I find joy in writing, and this whole
notion that you have to suffer with your characters, how can you be
objective about them if you’re suffering with them? You can’t.

I guess there’s an implication that there is suffering inside of us, but
isn’t there suffering inside of everybody?

Yes of course, but you have to transfer. If you can’t transfer away
from yourself to the character, then you’re just writing about yourself.
And you’re not being valid about the character you’re creating.
And the feeling you have is of joy even if the subject is not joyful…
Oh of course. I love creating plays. It’s a wonderful experience.
Creating plays is a marvelous experience. When I’m putting a play on
paper, I’m seeing it and hearing it as a play being performed in front
of me while I’m writing it. So I have the extra fun that I’m at the theater
while I’m writing plays.