Edward Albee published his first play in 1958. He was 30 years old. By the time he reached his 82nd birthday this past March, he had completed 30 more, and had won three Pulitzer Prizes in drama. In 2005, he won a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. He is unquestionably one of the most influential living playwrights. Today he continues to write, and also teaches a coveted seminar in playwriting at the University of Houston. His first Pulitzer Prize winning work, “A Delicate Balance,” opens tonight at the University Theater. While he’s in town, Albee will be delivering a talk at the Yale University Art Gallery at 3 p.m. October 22. During a lull in his jet-setting schedule, WEEKEND had a chance to talk to the playwright that asked the question, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Q. Hello, sir, how are you?
A. I’m fine, I just got back from Australia last night. I teach down there.
Q. Australia? Wow. Was this through the University of Houston?
A. No. It’s my third trip down there. I teach with a group that runs important play things in Australia. It’s an exhausting trip, 19 hours in the air.
Q. Well welcome back. This won’t be just your third time in New Haven, though.
A. No, I’ve been in New Haven many times.
Q. How do you enjoy it here?
A. I enjoy it variously. Depends on why I’m here.
Q. What advice do you have to give to student playwrights today?
A. That’s a very hard question to answer. Every time you write a play, you’re reinventing playwriting. You’re not an employee, you know? Every time you write a play, you revise the whole theory of playwriting. Any play that doesn’t change this is probably a waste of time; the rules are there to be broken. Like how long should a play be? However long it needs to be, not the usual two-hour junk. You’re not an employee, you’re not there to make an audience happy. You are there to engage an audience and change the way they think about things. Every play should leave you different than when you came in. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a waste of time for everyone.
Q. And how, if at all, has teaching affected your own process?
A. Well, I wouldn’t teach if I didn’t learn something. I learn how I think about things, and why I think that way. You end up focusing on what’s important. It’s also nice when I can help worthy people get closer to their intentions.
Q. What play, outside of your own work, do you think you could have written, or you wish you had?
A. I would be happy to have written anything that Beckett wrote, and I would be happy to have written anything Chekhov wrote. I would happy to have written some of Pirandello’s plays, or some of Brecht’s plays … there are so many good plays, but also a lot of junk. You learn from the junk too, though. I always tell my students to read some junk. Then you realize how much better your stuff is.
Q. What does it mean for you to see one of your plays on the stage?
A. It depends on how good the production is. If they stay true to my intentions then I’m usually happy with it. If there’s someone who thinks they have better ideas with what to do with it, I’m not too thrilled.
Q. You finished “A Delicate Balance” 44 years ago, how do you think it has fared over the years and how relevant do you think it is today?
A. The reviews seem to get more intelligent, so maybe the play is getting better, I’m not sure. There was a lot of misunderstanding when it first came out, which I never understood because it’s very straightforward. We all kids ourselves, most of the time, don’t we? The way we’re living, and how we think we’re living.
Q. What was the impetus for writing the play?
A. Well I guess I wanted to examine all those things.
Q. What is the last thing you read, or what author or playwright has inspired you recently?
A. Too many to answer, and too few good ones.
Q. Say there was some apocalyptic event, and almost all of the data and literature in the world was destroyed, but one of your plays survived. Which one would you want it to be?
A. Well that’s impossible to answer. If I didn’t think all 30 were worth it then I wouldn’t have written them. You know? It would make the others a waste of time.
Q. In 2005 you received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.
A. Too early! I don’t understand how they can give those to people who are still living. But it’s encouraging. I assume the award isn’t telling us to stop.
Q. So if you could receive any other award, what would it be?
A. I would like to receive an award in 15 years for my 45th play. That’d be nice. If they’re any good. Maybe by then I can get another lifetime achievement award.