Play About the Playwright
You’ll be a mouse,” says Edward Albee to his apologetic visitor, allowed the rare privilege of watching an early rehearsal of Albee’s newest play. “Here, sit back here – you’ll be a mouse.” Only an hour and several scenes later does Albee’s sardonic joke arrive at its punchline.
Marian Seldes, as the Woman in The Play About the Baby, begins a monologue in which she recalls being a young journalism student, trying to persuade a famous writer to allow her to eavesdrop on his creative process for a few days, to watch him “move the words from his mind to the page.” When he objects to the intrusion, she pleads and insists, “I’ll be a mouse. I’ll be a mouse.” The writer considers the idea for a few tortured moments, and then responds: “I’d rather die.”
Playwright Edward Albee is a master of the suspended climax – building a joke, or a play, toward an emotional high point both surprising and inevitable. So it is with his newest work, The Play About the Baby, receiving its U.S. premiere this month at Houston’s Alley Theatre, starring Seldes and Earle Hyman. The play begins in a lighthearted atmosphere of delight and fecund celebration – the birth of a baby – moves through memorial and romantic reflection, and then abruptly turns foreboding, mysterious, even sinister. It is also very funny, full of the sort of sly jokes and wordplay that have been characteristic of Albee’s plays for forty years, beginning in 1959 with Zoo Story, in which a conversation between two men on a Central Park bench is by turns affable, witty, combative, philosophical, aggressive, explosive, and finally tragic. Albee also likes to have fun with titles: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) took a piece of punning barroom graffiti and turned it into both a corrosive family word game and a now-historic cultural judgment; A Delicate Balance (1966) suggests the uncertain limits of love and friendship as well as the delicacy of portraying them onstage; Marriage Play (1987) describes both a dramatic genre and the costly emotional games between man and wife. Now comes The Play About the Baby: a literal designation of the central subject, a declaration of stagecraft illusion, and a coy way of not naming the play at all. Albee told his biographer Mel Gussow (Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, 1999) that he enjoyed responding to questions about his current work in progress with that title, only to have people ask, “But what’s the title?” – like a snippet out of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”
Albee is master of the suspended climax not only on stage, but in life. Now in his forty-first year as a professional playwright, he turned seventy-two March 12, and shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to directing the Alley premiere, as a distinguished professor he is in the middle of teaching his annual playwriting seminars in the School of Theatre at the University of Houston, which means not only class time and script-mentoring but supervising the upcoming production of several student plays. He’s in the drafting stage of another play, which began as “The Goat” and has lately acquired the working title of “Who is Sylvia?” (Asked by a reporter if he’s mellowed over time, he answered, “With this next play, I feel I might even be thrown out of the country.”) It’s only one of several scripts to come, he told Gussow. “They’re like stacked airplanes above an airport waiting to land.… It’s nice not to be in the position of waking up one day without a play in your head.” Whether in the rehearsal hall working with distinguished actors who are also his longtime friends, or in the classroom using his own experience to illustrate both the nuts and bolts and grand inspirations of playwriting, Albee’s enthusiasm, humor, and engagement are infectious.
Although he dislikes such comparisons (“I don’t often think about myself in the third person,” he told me), Albee is on the very short list of great American playwrights – usually mentioned in a group otherwise limited to Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. Sidney Berger, director of the School of Theatre, says simply, “I think he is without question one of the two or three greatest playwrights of this century.… He stands in that pantheon internationally quite well. I’d put him in the same class as I would put Beckett or Pinter.” Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd echoes that judgment, adding that he considers Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “the greatest American play.”
A generation or even a decade ago, it might have seemed odd to find such a giant of the theater working anyplace outside New York, or perhaps London. But Albee (whose first play opened, in fact, in Berlin) has had a long history at the Alley. At sixteen productions and counting, his work has been staged there more than any playwright except Shakespeare, and he’s held a formal position as an Alley associate artist since 1989. For a dozen years, he has taught every spring semester at U.H., and he has directed a production (of his own work or others) at the Alley about every other season. From New York, the traditional and commercial center of American theater, it may look like exile – even in Gussow’s quite enthusiastic biography, there’s a melancholy undertone that Albee came in exile to Houston, as a sort of temporary refuge, until the enormous success of his partly autobiographical Three Tall Women (which won him his third Pulitzer Prize in 1994, three years after its initial Vienna production) made him popular among New York critics once again.
Depending on the source, Albee’s period of critical eclipse began either with the mixed reception to The Lady from Dubuque (1980) or the devastating response to The Man Who Had Three Arms (1982), and lasted until the early Nineties. But as Sidney Berger points out, Albee wrote, directed, and taught steadily during the intervening years, although largely away from the klieg lights of New York publicity. (In a pointed 1994 letter to screenwriter Ernest Lehman, Albee noted, “I wrote 10 or so very good plays between my second and third Pulitzers.…”) Berger remembers a New York journalist interviewing him about Albee during that period, and announcing breezily, “Well, you know we think he’s washed up here on Broadway.” “I just got livid on the phone,” Berger recalls. “That’s the height of a kind of arrogance, that suggests if you’re not on Broadway, you are not a writer. And yet here he was getting plays produced all over the country, was continuing to write, and I don’t think he was ‘in exile’ at all. He was very productive, never evincing regret, disappointment, any of that.… And in fact, when Three Tall Women opened to kudos on Broadway, I read these ads that said, ‘Welcome back, Mr. Albee,’ and I thought, ‘Where in the hell do you think he’s been?’ He’s not been away, he’s just not been on Broadway, for god’s sake.”
On the surface at least, Albee himself remains determinedly indifferent to the vagaries of popularity and fame. Asked if he felt that he had defied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s theatrical cliché, “There are no second acts in American lives,” he shrugged. “It’s amusing that everybody is revising their opinions of plays they didn’t like. Since I’m back in fashion temporarily, they’ve revised their opinions. They look back and say now, ‘They’re wonderful, why did I say they weren’t?’ I’ve been in fashion, and out of fashion. I don’t worry about it. I’ll be out of fashion again in a few years.”
Indeed, Albee’s institutional presence in Houston has more to do with changes in commercial theater, especially Broadway theater, than it does with the playwright’s own career. Although the New York press presumes that what’s happening on Broadway is what’s happening, from the rest of the country such a perspective looks more and more provincial, year by year. Texas, to take an outlying example, has had a burgeoning theater scene in its major cities for a generation, and at the School of Theatre, in addition to Albee, Berger has recruited a truly outstanding core of internationally distinguished theatrical talent: director José Quintero (who worked for several years there and at the Alley until his death last year), musical producer Stuart Ostrow, designer Kevin Rigdon, and most recently, director Peter Hall, one of the most important directors, especially of Shakespeare, in the world. Berger says that Broadway’s increasing reliance on blockbuster, big-budget spectacles aimed at tourists, coupled with the commercial pressure from film and television (and audiences trained on a steady diet of film and television), have increased the importance of regional theater companies and programs. “I’m increasingly cynical about Broadway’s emphasis on spectacular product. But I’m optimistic about serious theater, because it’s going to happen outside New York. Why is Peter Hall here, why is Edward Albee, Stuart Ostrow, Kevin Rigdon here? They felt they had to start again. Our program at the School of Theatre is about giving knowledge back to the next generation, about re-seeding the ground.”
Gregory Boyd, who in recent years has taken Alley-originated productions to Broadway (most recently Williams’ early Not About Nightingales), is similarly skeptical about the commercial theater. “New York’s about real estate: what theater is open, now. It’s not about the content or the meaning of the play, or of the staging – it’s all about what theater, how many seats: the real estate. Who’s the landlord, and how much money will it make?… Twenty-five years ago, there used to be producers who cared about what the play said, besides all those other questions. Now, if you put O.J. Simpson in a revival of Sweet Bird of Youth opposite Monica Lewinsky, you’d get a theater.”
“What’s changed,” said Boyd, “is that serious work used to be done in the commercial theater, and now no serious work originates in the commercial theater. Any serious work in the American theater comes from the not-for-profit theaters, or it comes from overseas.”
Albee, in a way, has come full circle. The Zoo Story premiered in Berlin in 1959, and his recent major plays have premiered in Vienna or London. Marriage Play, which opened in Vienna in 1987, had its first U.S. production at the Alley (also under Albee’s direction) in 1987. And now The Play About the Baby, which premiered at London’s Almeida Theatre in the fall of 1998, opened in Houston April 12. Albee is wryly unsentimental about the venue (“I’m getting a splendid production here … and there’s no reason it can’t go to New York where it belongs”) and the city (“I’ve taught here for twelve years. It’s not onerous, two days a week for three-and-a-half months, and I get out of New York for the bad weather. I don’t mind Houston, because I don’t have to live here”). In truth, although a couple of his plays comfortably originate in upstate New York – where he spent his childhood, and where he spends most of the year, at his home in Montauk – Albee is the least “regional” of the major American playwrights: no Southern belles, no Bronx longshoremen, no New England matrons. The Play About the Baby takes place everywhere and nowhere: four generically named characters (Man, Woman, Boy, Girl) engage in a contrapuntal conversation about life, love, spiritual endurance, and sorrow, and act out a bittersweet music of celebration, remembrance, and loss.
Although Albee has been intimately involved with productions of his plays from the very beginning, during a talk last year in Austin he said he only learned how difficult directing is when he agreed (out of what he then called “naïveté or megalomania”) to direct the first national touring production of The Zoo Story himself. He’s clearly learned the craft over the years, and has staged highly praised productions in Houston of his own plays and those of others, notably Beckett. A few years ago he directed Billie Whitelaw in a stunning School of Theatre production of Happy Days; last season at the Alley, he directed fortieth anniversary productions of The Zoo Story and The American Dream. As a playwright himself, he’s famous (or notorious) for his unstinting fidelity to the writer’s vision and his script. As a young man, he thought he might become a composer, and in talking about direction he’s fond of a musical analogy: the obligation of musicians to interpret, not to change, a musical composition. “Consider a composer,” he says. “Nobody in an orchestra plays different notes than what is written down. How people in the theater think they can get away with that, I don’t know.” He has been known to refuse permission to productions of his plays that take too many liberties with the text, most notoriously several attempts at all-male versions of Virginia Woolf. (In a historical irony, during the Sixties some straight critics complained that Albee’s plays were somehow surreptitiously gay; more recently, some gay critics demanded he more directly address gay life. Albee insistently rejects the “ghettoization” of gay writers, and adds, “I don’t think being gay is itself a theme. Nobody thinks of being straight as a theme for a play; no one has ever written a play about being straight.”) Concerning directorial interpretation, Gregory Boyd, known for his flamboyantly inventive productions of Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, remembers once asking Albee if he might consider a production of Virginia Woolf set “on ice floes,” to help suggest the titanic, civilization-shattering nature of the action. Albee replied, “I do not direct the metaphor.”
Gussow records that Albee’s principled insistence on the primacy of the text has occasionally led to conflict with some of his colleagues, particularly with certain actors who feel he can be too remote or insufficiently understanding of their own ideas about a play. But in this Houston production of The Play About the Baby, the cast seems utterly at ease with its director. His leads, distinguished actors Marian Seldes and Earle Hyman, are Albee’s contemporaries and have been in the theater since the Forties. They also are intimately familiar with Albee’s work. Seldes won a Tony for her performance in the original 1966 production of A Delicate Balance, and played in the New York and national touring productions of Three Tall Women. Hyman garnered a Tony nomination for his performance in The Lady from Dubuque (1980). Seldes is delighted to get a chance to work directly under Albee, saying, “That’s just made it all the more interesting to me. In the past, working on the earlier plays, I’ve always wanted to go to him and ask him things, but in the protocol of the theater that isn’t correct. You deal with the director. But now there’s no one in the middle.”
Seldes was born into the theater (her father was the critic and playwright Gilbert Seldes) and has been one of the busiest and most honored American actresses, most recently with a Tony nomination for her performance in the Roundabout Theatre production of Ring Round the Moon. She is a tall, strikingly elegant woman, long-limbed and animated, eager to share her thoughts and experience. She agrees wholeheartedly with Albee’s approach to a script. “The playwright does come first,” she says. “You don’t put other words into a classic text, in Shakespeare. Or in an orchestra, you must play the notes you’re given to play. Who else is there to insist, if not the playwright?” She’s followed Albee’s work “with astonishment, delight, and surprise” since she attended previews of the first New York productions of The Zoo Story. She finds Albee’s approach to direction instinctively empathetic. “He’s enormously patient, and as he is in his real life, he’s so aware of everything. He doesn’t miss anything. His direction is almost in shorthand, or just ‘zen-ing’ you an idea, because he knows what’s going on in your head, and knows why you’re slightly off the text or the intention of a scene. With the playwright, you might think there’d be more discussion, but there’s less … because you’re absolutely on the same path.”
Hyman’s career began with the groundbreaking American Negro Theatre company, and in his nearly sixty-year career he has played all over the world, in everything from the Greek tragedies to much Shakespeare to Driving Miss Daisy, although he is most widely known in this country for his role as Russell Huxtable, the grandfather on The Bill Cosby Show. He says he had just finished playing King Lear and was seriously considering retirement when Albee sent him the script for The Play About the Baby, and then surprised him by offering the demanding role of the Man. “I didn’t even think of it as a role for me,” he told the Houston Chronicle’s Everett Evans, but he has always felt a connection with Albee’s work. “There are certain plays and playwrights I just know.”
Playing opposite these legendary figures are two actors still in their twenties, David Burtka as the Boy and Rebecca Harris as the Girl. Burtka says that after the first read-through, Albee looked up and asked, “So, do I know how to cast a play, or what?” Even physically, the two couples seem to embody a Blakean opposition of Experience and Innocence. Harris and Burtka said they were privately concerned at first that they might not be able to achieve the standards the play and the company required, but that Albee and their fellow cast members have sustained them into confidence. “Sometimes I don’t believe I actually got cast,” said Burtka, who studied at the University of Michigan and whose previous stage experience has been in musicals. “I find myself asking, am I up to the caliber of these people? It’s scary and intimidating, wonderful and thrilling at the same time.” Harris studied drama at Trinity University in San Antonio and interned at the Alley several years ago before going east to Columbia University. She was in a production at the Signature Theatre when Albee cast her for The Play About the Baby. She and David look on Albee, Seldes, and Hyman with awe, and are obviously aware that this production is an extraordinary opportunity. “David and I joke that instead of the beginning, this may be the high point of our careers. We may meet in a diner fifty years from now, saying, ‘Remember way back when?’ But it would be just wonderful to build lives in the theater, like Marian and Earle.”
The Play About the Baby is similar in emotional structure to several of Albee’s earlier plays, in that an initially ordinary situation is steadily undermined, darkened, or set askew by increasingly unnerving or foreboding events. The play opens with the offstage birth of a child to the Boy and the Girl, and their blissfully innocent delight in the baby and each other marks the first few scenes. But the entry of the unrecognized and mysterious older couple steadily complicates the atmosphere, as the two elders recount engaging but increasingly disturbing stories, and then casually announce, as the first act closes, “We’ve come to take the baby.” The tension in the second act derives from the potential response of the younger couple to this sudden appearance of trouble and terrible sorrow in their lives; the conclusion seems devastating and inevitable.
Hyman’s character drives the action, as he moves from an affable garrulousness in Act One to an imposing, intimidating presence in Act Two. He and Seldes take turns delivering the recollections that shape the drama – comic embarrassments, lost love, bitter lessons – to the audience and to the increasingly uneasy young couple. Intriguingly, Albee’s Boy and Girl are trapped inside the action, while the Man and Woman shift easily between play, performance, and what appears to be casual conversation with the audience, even recapitulating for our benefit the close of the first act in the first few moments of the second. Throughout his career, Albee has shifted readily from naturalism to satire to allegory to abstraction to various experimental forms, and this play cheerfully reiterates the various possibilities of stage illusion, and unceremoniously expects the audience to keep up. Albee likes to recite as a dramatic principle, “Form and content codetermine one another,” and when I call attention to the play’s effortless movement between the illusion of realism and the casual breaking of that illusion, he describes it as “no different from the Greeks, with their choruses.” But the seams here are invisible, and the cumulative effect is to draw the audience directly into the play and its dramatic commentary on time passing, on the inevitable wounds of living, on the heroic necessity of acceptance. It’s also worth emphasizing that, as Albee insists, bare summary of the small narrative does not do justice to the play; in the contrapuntal structure of the dialogue, a careful listener may hear the verbal equivalents of the melodies, themes, harmonies, dissonances, and unsummarizable consolations of music.
A couple of weeks before the opening, Albee, cast, and crew are in a small rehearsal room in the Alley’s maze-like basement. The dress code is workshop casual, and the director’s coordinated shirt and slacks is the group’s sole gesture at elegance. The set is two plastic chairs, stage center, and since David Burtka is ill today the rehearsal focuses exclusively on the scenes featuring Seldes and Hyman, with Rebecca Harris and a crew member taking part briefly as needed. The dialogue is mostly there, but still uneven; a script assistant intermittently delivers a line or two at moments of confusion, or whenever an awkward pause lasts a beat too long. Albee, sitting at a table stage front, from memory quietly corrects a reading here and there, or steps up to offer a bit of business when something’s not quite right: the Man needs to be a step further front; the Woman needs to be a bit more bemused and attentive when the young couple run nakedly across the stage, giggling; let’s try the Watteau parasol closed, and see if that’s better (by dress rehearsal a week later, it won’t be); watch the comic pacing on “Now you need to know what I do, do.” Much of what’s going on for the actors seems quite interior: working and reworking the lines for precision, and trying to get lines and characters thoroughly down into their memories and spirits. It’s an almost choreographed but still very private conversation, and nobody’s worried about projection. In this workmanlike atmosphere, one quietly acerbic line delivered by Hyman garners a satisfied Albee smile: “I don’t see many of you [blind people] at plays. Deaf, yes. Blind, no.”
The casual atmosphere will change in the afternoon, when the cast gets its first opportunity to move upstairs, onto the Alley’s Large Stage. The finished set is still simple – now the two chairs are framed by flanking pairs of large, rectangular screens – but instead of seeming smaller in this cavernous space, the actors and the play appear suddenly larger. While Albee moves about the empty theater checking for sound quality, Hyman and Seldes move efficiently back into their scenes and seem to grow in assurance and authority – even memory. Their readings become more precise and assured, their movements clearer, and the speeches gain momentum. By the play’s final moments, which call for Seldes and Hyman to tower over the now terrified Girl (and Boy, were he here), the Man and Woman appear to be avenging angels, come to wreak havoc on these willfully unsuspecting innocents. Later, I ask Seldes how it is that moving onto the stage seemed to add immediate vigor to the rehearsal. “Oh, I feel so safe there,” she says. “And once you start to know Edward’s lines, they have a real power. His words are like bullets, like darts – or sometimes like caresses. You can’t say the wrong word, because there’s no other word to say. You can’t fill in your own word, even the same number of syllables. And if you follow his punctuation, which is so specific, the rhythms will come.”
Over an afternoon meal at another New York import, the nearby Angelika Café, Albee is cheerful and friendly, satisfied with the state of the production, although characteristically wary of imposing too much external interpretation on his plays. While no longer quite the golden boy of his Village youth, Albee remains compact, wiry, visibly fit and distinctively handsome. He has the calm of a man at ease with himself, and the alert air of someone always ready to be amused at life. There is also something bird-like in his mannerisms and his almost whispery speech delivered through barely moving lips, and in his habit of peering bookishly over the tops of his spectacles. Gazing across the table, with his gray mane and moustache, he can be impishly reminiscent of Merlin in the animated version of The Once and Future King. The glasses and his paired hearing aids are his only concessions to age; a couple of years ago, he says, he finally tired of asking friends to repeat themselves.
Albee bristles at over-literal as well as over-symbolic interpretations of his work, and at facile recent attempts to see every new play in terms of what he’s already written. Asked if the baby here might recall the blonde “bumble of joy” of The American Dream, he is adamant. “The baby in this play has absolutely nothing to do with any of the babies in my previous plays. Some idiot suggested it’s like the baby in Virginia Woolf. This play is about a couple that has a real child; Virginia Woolf is about a couple that has an imaginary child. Why is he drawing parallels that aren’t there? It’s sloppy thinking.” Yet he readily concedes that he finds himself returning to persistent themes. Noting that one of the questions addressed in the new play is whether “reality is determined by our need,” he says, “Go back to Zoo Story: what is the nature of our created realities, of our not wanting to be interfered with, in the realities we’ve created.… And my basic concerns remain: not lying to oneself, participating fully in one’s life, not closing down – these things have pretty much stayed with me throughout my writing life. And looking at behavior that will be tolerated and behavior that will not be tolerated: what society is all about.”
If he’s reluctant to be drawn into a game of explanation (“If I could restate the plays in a few sentences, there would seem to be little point in writing them”), Albee readily engages in conversation about the state of the literary culture, about the predicament of the commercial theater, about national politics. He is a lifelong and forthrightly self-described liberal Democrat, active for many years in national and international writers’ organizations, speaking out on behalf of human rights and against censorship. His theater colleagues point eagerly to his work with students, not just in his formal classes at U.H. but in lectures across the country. In a note struck by several friends, Alley managing director Paul Tetrault says that for him Albee is distinguished by “his kindness, and by his willingness to give back to young people.… I think he feels a responsibility about imparting some of what he has learned, and the knowledge and expertise that he has accumulated, to give that back. There are many great artists,” says Tetrault, “who don’t have that sense of responsibility.” To Albee himself, it is also a matter of principle: he insists that education which neglects the fine arts is inadequate, indeed dangerous. In speech last year at the Guthrie
Theatre in Minneapolis, he described contemporary culture as having devoted itself almost exclusively to the pursuit of money, and that amidst the self-censorship of American public life and “middlebrow” art, the function of the real artist is to challenge his audience. “A play is an act of aggression against the status quo,” Albee said. “All serious art must be corrective and instructive. It’s insufficient for it to be escapist or decorative.” He declared, “Unless we give people an aesthetic education equal to a twelfth-grade education, we will raise a society of educated barbarians.…” Describing the marginalization of the arts as a social ill akin to racism, Albee went on, “It’s probably harder to get an adult … to not chain a black man to a truck and drag him till he dies than to teach children to respect people.” Such respect, he suggests, should be a direct consequence of close attention to the substance and spirit of the serious arts.
In light of his oft-declared political principles, it may seem a paradox that only a few of Albee’s plays (e.g., The Death of Bessie Smith, The Lorca Play) deal very explicitly with so-called social issues. But in his work, he is wary of ephemeral “agit-prop,” and his artistic instincts are always to generalize from particular circumstances to the larger human constants. Of the new play, he says simply, “The Boy and the Girl have a baby, but they are dissuaded from having had it, because that much reality is too painful. So the play is all about the larger culture, although you might think in my perverse, indirect way.” The self-interpretation connects with Albee’s current lament that in his judgment, far too many young people seem to have abandoned permanent values for the pursuit of wealth. “There’s now a lot of the sort of ‘As long as I’m all right everybody else is all right’ sort of politics, which seem to be creeping into student attitudes, of everybody getting rich.… There is so much dollar stuff going on: Be Accepted, Make Money.”
Among the wry backstage jokes he shares with his playwriting students (“Yesterday we had technical rehearsal: that is, ten hours of absolutely necessary tedium, during which one removes all of the ‘improvements'”), there remains Albee’s permanent sense that the writer’s true life is one of dedication to the art, and that for serious work to survive, all other considerations must be secondary. He traces much of the trouble with the contemporary culture, specifically theater, to the discovery (“sometime during the first Reagan administration”) that there was “big money in the arts,” and that the secret is fiercely marketing the art to the consuming public. “The terrible fact – and everybody hates me when I say this – arts are not made for the consumer. Arts are made because of the need of art. Art itself. GAP clothes are made for the consumer. Serious art is not made for the consumer.”
For Albee, his work as a writer and his responsibilities as a citizen and a free man are identical. Acknowledging that many of his students increasingly see the only way to prosper as writers is to turn to television or film, he says bluntly, “That would be fine, I tell them, if you never want to be anything else but a field hand. You will not even own what you write. You’re an employee, who can be fired from what you have written. I didn’t become a writer to be an employee. I don’t want to be owned by a producer, by audiences, by critics, by any of them. Sure, if you want to be an employee, a field hand, go ahead.”
As from his plays, one comes away from a conversation with Edward Albee with a renewed sense of possibility, of a permanent purpose running beneath the surface of daily life and its confusions. After so many glorious years on stage, Marian Seldes still sees this particular opportunity as very precious. “I don’t take it lightly, at all – I really feel fortunate beyond words. And I also feel shy … a man with that quick a mind, you don’t want to bore him, you don’t want to talk about trivial things. I don’t mean he’s lording it over anyone; I mean he’s so deeply intelligent, you don’t want to simply go over the surface of things around him.” Sidney Berger speaks of his work with Albee, as a friend and theatrical colleague, as central to what Berger is trying to accomplish in the School of Theatre. “It’s actually simple. It’s my philosophy that the greatest artists of this generation need to teach the artists of the next generation. That was the way we functioned when we had Michelangelo and da Vinci and the other truly great visual artists, and I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that the great ones have to be in contact with the rising generation of artists. That’s really what we’re doing here.”
Albee is not inclined to place himself in such company, although he says he has a “private notion” of the permanent value of his work. But he insists it isn’t helpful to think in such terms. “I don’t think a writer should be thinking about that sort of stuff. You start thinking about the effect of what you do, and then about what people think of you. You can’t concern yourself with thinking about the way they think about you. You can’t do that. Because then you’re distracted from the work itself.”
“I just hope the plays are always a little instructive, a little useful,” he told me. “Art should be useful.”
Play About the Play
Edward Albee has called The Play About the Baby “a chamber play,” and watching the premier performance on the Alley stage, it’s helpful to keep that in mind. The phrase may refer partly to the play’s relative brevity (with intermission, roughly two hours), but more precisely describes the nature of its dramatic music: four instruments, several melodies, a series of repeated and interlocking themes, and a resolution that is simultaneously somber and exhilarating.
And since a couple of reviewers of the London production complained in passing about the apparent lack of a “plot,” it’s worth recalling as well that even literary chamber music shouldn’t require a straightforward narrative. What “happens” in Baby is yet quite comprehensible: a young couple (Boy and Girl) gives birth, and while they’re still emotionally and carnally caught up in the vivid pleasures of new life and new love (“We’re happy,” says the Boy, “we love each other, I’m hard all the time”), a shadow falls over them and their lives, in the form of two mysterious visitors (Man and Woman) who may or may not mean them harm. As the generic names suggest, the play’s central question is whether these blissfully innocent Youths can possibly be ready for the truly terrible sorrows – like the loss of a child – that Age and Experience will bring, particularly if those sorrows arrive without preparation or warning. The Boy’s initial answer is foreboding: “I can take pain and loss and all the rest, later.” Further along, the Man will have occasion to respond to the Boy’s bootless wish with brutal simplicity: “Time’s up.”
Which is not to say that this is a somber play; indeed, it is marked throughout by such highspirited Albeean wordplay and unapologetic horseplay that one of its particular pleasures is the way the dialogue maintains a remarkable tension between hilarity and terror until the very final moments. (The delicate balance is such that right before opening night, Albee the director was still tinkering with Albee the playwright’s ending. At the dress rehearsal, a small audience composed mostly of aspiring playwrights was quietly stunned by an enormous, puppetlike baby which crawled onstage, no longer acknowledged by its devastated parents. By opening night the puppet-baby was gone – replaced by briefly lamenting dialogue – in response to preview audiences which reacted with an inappropriate burst of laughter.) The exits and entrances have a vaudevillian quality, as the omniscient Man and Woman play directly and affably to the audience, and the occasionally naked hijinks of the Boy and Girl deliver moments of profane hilarity.
In addition to its wily septuagenarian director, the Alley production is abundantly blessed with wily septuagenarian actors, Marian Seldes (Woman) and Earle Hyman (Man). Embodying Albee’s mercurial histrionics, they share an uncanny ability to be simultaneously imposingly regal and convincingly ingratiating, each reciting delightful and fascinating tales that become the “past” of the play, and each moving back and forth with complete ease between the building tension of the internal action and their own avuncular admonitions to the audience. (“Don’t smoke,” cheerfully advises the Man following the intermission. “It’s subsidized murder.”) Trapped in their vitality, their youth, and eventually their fear, Rebecca Harris as the Girl and David Burtka as the Boy begin as unripened adults and end as bruised children.
With its hard-earned wisdom (“Without wounds, children, how can we know who we are?”), its keen attention to human self-delusion (“Reality determined by our need?”), and especially its amusing, disturbing, and finally consoling music, The Play About the Baby intermittently recalls the Four Quartets, late work of another master, T.S. Eliot: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” It is once again the triumph of Edward Albee’s work that The Play About the Baby makes it a little more imaginable, to do so.–M.K.
[Note: Earle Hyman collapsed during the April 14 performance and is being treated for exhaustion. Until he returns, his role has been assumed by James Belcher.]