In a 1996 retrospect on the 35th anniversary of his play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” opening he acknowledged that it is the play most quickly connected to his name. Although “Living playwrights bristle a little at this short of shorthand, for we all insist–hope?'”‘”that we haven’t written our best works yet, he expressed himself happy to have written it, to think that it is a fine play and to be grateful that its continued success has contributed to the freedom to pursue his career as he has seen fit.
I find a lot of humor — grim humor, scathing humor, painful ironies, but humor nonetheless — in most Albee plays (I wouldn’t vouch for there being any in “Tiny Alice,” but my memory of that is dim). In speeches and essays and interviews, Albee exhibits a fairly dry wit. In a 2005 interview he said that “All actors when they’re in a play of mine are startled when they first go onstage, in front of an audience, and discover that the play is fairly funny” and that ” I hate any play that’s humorless–which is why I prefer Chekkov to Ibsen.”
Chekhov, BTW, is on of the three most important playwrights of the twentieth century in Albee’s view; Pirandello and Beckett being the other two. (Elsewhere, I have seen his adding Bertholt Brecht as a fourth.) Albee was championed by Thornton Wilder and admires Wilder’s ‘signature works” (Our Town, Skin of Our Teeth). He pays tribute to Eugene Ionesco as a formative influence concerned with individual freedom, identity, rationalism, and the collapse of language. “As Pinter’s debt to Beckett can be found in much of his work, my own stylistic sources for ‘The American Dream’ and ‘The Sandbox’ are clearly to be found in Ionesco,” he wrote in 1992.
In the essays, appreciations, prefaces, and interviews, collected in Stretching My Mind Albee stays away from interpreting his plays. He is also vociferous in expressing displeasure of directors imposing interpretations and considering themselves not just arbiters but authors. Indeed, he challenges the common view that plays are to be performed rather than read. “Plays — the good ones, at any rate, the only ones that matter,” he wrote in 2004 are literature and while they are accessible to most people through performance, they are complete experiences without it…. Anyone who knows how to read a play can see and hear a performance of it exactly as the playwright saw and heard it as he wrote it down.”
“No performance can make a great play any better than it is, and most performances are inadequate either in that the minds at work are just not up to the task no matter how sincerely they try, or the stagers are aggressively interested in ‘interpretation’ or ‘concept’ with the result that our experience of the play, as an audience is limited, is only partial.”
Hammering his dismay home, he continues, “The killer is the assumption that interpretation is on a level with creation…. A production is an opinion, an interpretation, and unless you know the play on the page, the interpretation you’re getting is secondhand and may differ significantly from the author’s intentions.”
I find this argument very interesting, indeed, the most interesting section of the book. I can sympathize with his dismay at his words being cut or rearranged, but I still manage to wonder how those not only reading but memorizing his lines can be surprised at the laughter from the audience. I think that his “Three Tall Women” is interesting on the page, but riveting on the stage… and “Virginia Wolf” seems to me to have greater force on the stage than on the page (though it is far from being pallid on the page!)
There are recurrent expressions of dismay about the growing passivity of Americans both in regard to art and in caring so little about how we are governed: “The self-censorship, the abdication of participation on the part of so many people in the United States, is a form of death in life, a form of not participating fully in one’s own life” and tolerating the assaults on rational discourse. “Democracy is enormously fragile. Other countries have learned this, that democracy that is not participated in fully and totally is in great danger.” (And that was before the all-out rejection of empirical evidence of the Bush-Cheney junta.)
Stretching My Mind includes one review of a novel (Lillian Ross’s Vertical and Horizontal), tributes to two novelists whose works Albee adapted to the stage (Carson McCullers and James Purdy) and a memorial one to wood sculptor Louise Nevelson. Albee wrote a play in which Nevelson is interviewed about her life and work for Anne Bancroft, who became ill and died, to play. It has finally been staged with Mercedes Ruehl playing Nevelson.
In addition to the tribute to Nevelson, Stretching My Mind includes a number of other pieces on artists, particularly sculptors. Except for Milton Avery, most of these artists are unknown to me, so the chapters are of less interest to me than those about writers and his own writing.
I was not at all surprised that Albee reveals nothing about what he considers his private life beyond acknowledging that he did not like his adoptive mother. (He is bemused that the version(s) of her he put on stage in “Three Tall Women” was funnier and more interesting (to himself and to audiences) than the original: “Very few people who met my adoptive mother in the alst twenty years of her life could abide her, while many people who have seen my play find her fascinating.”)
The controversial OutWrite speech on resisting being a “gay writer” rather than a “writer who is gay” and writes about whatever he chooses to write about is not included. That is the only time I heard Albee speak (and my direct exposure to his wit and provocativeness; I don’t recall what I said or he said while he was signing my copy of “Three Tall Women”). Thus, I know that there is more that was not included. I’m not expecting another volume to appear preposthumously, however.