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Edward Albee

By John Guare

I’ll wager a fair number of us here today can remember the shock of that 1973 headline blaring out “Picasso is dead!” Picasso can’t be dead. He’s a god. He’s always been here. I felt a version of that when Edward’s talented assistant, the playwright Jakob Holder, sent me an email with the news. Edward had gone.

He’s been at the moral center of my life since January 1960 when this 21-year-old college senior, home in New York on Christmas break from his Catholic college in Washington, D.C., sauntered into the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street to see a double bill and two hours later stumbled from a hurricane out into the night.

You can’t imagine the shock of Edward’s debut. The gale wind of The Zoo Story.

As the ’50s came to an end, our great playwrights Tennessee and Arthur, with a little Inge thrown in, had written their flagship work sailing on the tides of the 1940s and mid-’50s. But it would soon be 1960. Where were our uncharted waters?

I wanted to write plays but I couldn’t find any charts on Broadway. Aside from the occasional Cat On A Hot Tin Roof or Sweet Bird, our hit plays were Diary of Anne Frank and Look Homeward, Angel and Teahouse of the August Moon and Auntie Mame. All adaptations of novels. English thrillers like Dial M for Murder. Godot had appeared on Broadway as an anomaly in 1956 but I was 18. The Times famously called it “an enigma wrapped in mystery.” I didn’t know what to do with it. Waiting? All I knew how to do was wait. Off-Broadway in the ’50s meant The Iceman Cometh, Summer and Smoke—a place to revive failed plays. Small musicals. Threepenny Opera. The Fantasticks. Little Mary Sunshine. The Golden Apple. What does Off-Broadway have to do with me? I was in a dead calm. Was it Eisenhower? Was it Miltown, the new tranquilizer? Don’t tell me Godot never shows up.

College. Ionesco—Anouilh—Beckett—remember Arthur Adamov? The future flowed out of them so effortlessly. Was it France? The visit by Dürrenmatt in 1958 made me ask if I’d have to move to Switzerland to find the future’s elusive oxygen, the water that would make me a playwright? Wait—London might be a better bet. John Osborne—Look Back in Anger a landmine that blew up English theater. Yes, blow it up! Clear the air. Start sailing. Get that wind blowing. I only heard about Edward Bond. Arnold Wesker. David Storey. Harold Pinter, who all made stunning debuts. But I hadn’t seen their work. Nor read it. Damn, if only I were anything but this damned American I could be a playwright. If only—I felt the bliss of being a victim. Where was my home port? Nowhere. Playwriting is not for serious Americans.

And then came January 1960. The Provincetown Playhouse—where O’Neill had found his future.

I checked the internet to see what was playing that Christmas break as 1959 segued into 1960. I must have seen Becket by Anouilh, starring Olivier. Irma La Douce, an English musical directed by Peter Brook. A Taste of Honey with Angela Lansbury by Shelagh Delaney, a Brit who was 19 years old. Great. Nineteen. American? Lucille Ball in a flop musical Wildcat. “Hey, Look Me Over.” Last night in town I’ll go Off-Broadway? Ernest in Love—musical version of The Importance of—didn’t see that. Living theater. Brecht Jungle of the Cities. No—a double bill—Samuel Beckett and some unknown playwright whose play had premiered in Berlin. I’ll give Samuel Beckett a second shot. It’s first. I can always leave.

Like I said I sauntered in, stumbled out, walking around the village for hours trying to decipher what I had seen, heard—The Zoo Story—an American voice speaking in a voice I recognized from the street, from my dreams.

I went back to my parents’ place. Where’s my key. I woke them up. They came to the door. I said, “I’ve been to the zoo.” They sat on the edge of their bed in terror as I told them the story of the play I had seen but they didn’t know it was a play. Was I confessing to them I had gone to the park? Had I killed a stranger? Had he killed me? Who’s Jerry? Who’s the dog? They were wide awake, ashen. Pity the parents of a fledgling playwright. I had to tell the story, to keep it in my bones.

I went back to my kiddie-pool college in Washington D.C. filled with the turbulence of the sudden expanse I had seen on my break. Who was Albee? He was 10 years older than me. He lived in New York in the Village. Not of Europe—but New York. Was I home? The prospect was terrifying. Knock knock. Enter Godot. If this is the future, all excuses are off.

1960. I graduate. Yale Drama school. Albee haunted all of us. Our playwriting instructor tried to persuade us that The Zoo Story was a perfect Ibsen play. We’d have none of it. Here was a new kind of theater poetry. Naturalism slipped away. Edward’s plays poured out. Sandbox, Death of Bessie Smith, The American Dream torpedo-ing into dark currents of who we were as Americans, as human beings. Forget Ibsen. This has nothing to do with the past. Here’s the future, courtesy of Edward Albee. Sail on at your own peril.

In my second year, the Yale playwrights were invited to a preview of Albee’s first play on Broadway at a theater just off the beaten track—the semi-seedy Billy Rose on 41st Street (now the Nederlander). Broadway? Was our master selling out? We came down from New Haven. It hadn’t even gone out of town. It was opening cold.

Imagine seeing Virginia Woolf without knowing the reality of George and Martha’s son. The play overwhelmed us—we reeled back to New Haven arguing, digesting its meaning. Edward had re-written the rules yet again. We were now out in the open seas.

1963. I graduated with a piece of paper that showed everybody I was a playwright. Thanks to my thesis play I even had an agent. The legendary Audrey Wood had signed me! I sit in my little boat waiting for the tide to rise and take me out.

But where would I sail to? Broadway was an impossible matterhorn. Even Off-Broadway was nosebleed high.

Enter Edward who did something unheard of. He used his royalties from his now-international hit to lease a theater on Vandam Street and develop new American plays. Plays would rehearse for 2 or 3 weeks, play 4 or 5 performances, and not be reviewed. It was a place to learn.

Thanks to Audrey’s recommendation, I became a member of the first group of the Barr-Wilder-Albee playwrights unit. Among its members were Lanford Wilson, Ursule Molinaro, Adrienne Kennedy, Leonard Melfi, a 21-year-old Sam Shepard. I still had yet to meet Edward.

Was I thrilled? Talk about getting stranded before the game begins. I got my draft notice. Two years!? I’ll kill myself. At the last minute I found an opening in a reserve unit and would serve 6 months in the Air Force. Forget the sea. I was Airman Guare.

I would leave for basic training on the morning of the first preview of Edward’s next play, his adaptation of Carson McCullers’s Ballad of the Sad Café. Certainly Uncle Sam would understand I couldn’t leave town without seeing that. First preview tomorrow? There must be a dress rehearsal tonight. I went to the Martin Beck Theater, now the Hirschfeld—could I sneak in? And I saw Edward Albee in the flesh coming out of the theater to smoke a cigarette.

I ran up to him like some madman out of Zoo Story—I’m a playwright in the unit, but the Air Force—can’t miss this—could I—I stammered. He looked at me with that bemused smile. Of course, he said. He took me in. It began. I could study Edward in the light of the designers’ tables in the audience. At the end he was involved with producers, the director. Colleen Dewhurst, Roscoe Lee Brown. I’d never seen a play like this. Talk about weird. I left New York at dawn, went to Texas, basic training, JFK was shot—life changed. But a theater existed for me to come home to.

And what a boisterous buoyant regatta of theater had popped up in the past six months—a New York bursting with new plays finding new ways to tell a story—or not rely on a story. The atmosphere was electric. I heard on a Thursday that Theater Genesis was doing new plays on Monday. I wrote my play in time. I wrote for Caffe Cino, saw Lanford at La Mama, Theater Genesis. The Open Theater. Jean-Claude van Itallie. America Hurrah. And the crown jewel the Barr/Wilder/Albee workshop. A friend was in a play called 4-T Club. It’s by the 21-year-old Sam Shepard. I don’t understand a word of it and it’s wonderful.

By 1969 Boys in the Band opened and with its success the unit closed. It had done its work, consciously or unconsciously spawning in 1965 with its spotlight on the playwright. The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford devoted itself to developing new American work, Joe Papp concentrated on new plays at the Shakespeare Festival, the creation of theaters like Playwrights Horizons, a group like the New Dramatists founded in the ’40s by Moss Hart to train playwrights to write for Broadway had to expand its mission to account for the new normal of a theater existing beyond Broadway—down to Jim Houghton’s Signature Theatre of today. One playwright. One season. Edward’s season had been in 1993 when the Signature Theatre season and Three Tall Women restored him to the pedestal from which the critics had toppled him. He had been unhappy. No longer. He had found his life partner, Jonathan. He had stopped drinking. He was a happy man.

When I had my season there in 1998, one of my plays ran up against obstacles. Jim Houghton asked if I could give him a new play but we must start rehearsals in the next six weeks. I remembered the play I wrote for the unit back in 1965. A very old married couple walked to the hospital. Since I wrote that play when I was young, now that I was old, I’d write a companion act about that couple on their first date 50 years before and make it a first act. We opened on time. The unit was still with me. Edward was around a lot that season as were Arthur Miller and Horton Foote. Had my notion inspired Edward a few years later to add a first act to Zoo Story? The vanity of playwrights. Edward didn’t need any ideas from me. I’ll take flattery from anyone—even myself.

Our paths had kept crossing for years now, thanks to the Dramatists Guild where Edward worked tirelessly to protect the playwright’s ownership of their work.

I took my Yale playwriting students to a matinee of The Lady from Dubuque. Edward and Irene Worth talked to us after—Edward saying with that bemused smile: “No, what do you think it means?” Irene telling us how she couldn’t have acted Albee were it not for her experience acting in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. How similar they were.

Another chapter. The Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. To make up for the ecological disaster of spewing hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil into Prince William Sound and devastating life in the small fishing town of Valdez, the president of Exxon, as a way of saying he was sorry, presented the town’s community college with just what it needed—a state of the art theater. Which sat there.

Until the president of the college wrote Edward and said if he came to Valdez, she’d honor him with a festival. He agreed to come if the college would honor a playwright every year. And it became an annual event with playwrights like Terrence McNally, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Horton Foote, Jack Gelber, Romulus Linney, Tony Kushner—myself—seeing their—our work done, acting in their—our—own work at night in the splendid guilt-ridden theater and working by day with dozens of young playwrights from around the world, all of us participating in a festival of new work.

Alaska was literally a dream. Did Tony Kushner and I actually lead a white water rafting trip down the treacherous Lowe River through Keystone Canyon, navigating the yellow raft full of fledgling playwrights and Liz McCann? It happened. Pictures exist. Liz can attest. We survived. What a memorial that would have been.

I was only angry at Edward once.

In his essential biography of Edward, A Singular Journey, Mel Gussow described a day in 1997 which was declared Edward Albee Day at City University of New York. It was a wonderful read until I hit page 395.

Mel wrote: “At a panel, John Guare and Lanford Wilson spoke about their various debts to the Playwrights Unit and to Albee himself who listened with obvious discomfort as, in effect, he was being eulogized. Later he said ‘I’ve never heard myself referred to in the past tense so much. I wanted to crawl quietly out of the auditorium.’”

I put the book down. Screw you, Edward. Couldn’t you hear the love? The past? We talked about you in the past because that’s where you hit us over the head with bottles of champagne, christened us and sent us sailing out onto the high sea. Didn’t you know we loved you? I’ll get back at you. If I ever do get to eulogize you, I’ll make you turn over in…

I remember the horrible time when Jonathan, Edward’s partner, his rudder, his mainsail, for so many years, died unbelievably a few days after Mel Gussow. To lose your love and biographer within days seemed too much. How would Edward bear up?

I went to Campbell’s Funeral “Palace” on Madison Avenue to pay my respects to Mel’s wife and son. As the elevator door to the 3rd floor opened, Edward stepped out. He said with that bemused smile, “As long as you’re here, John, do go downstairs and say hello to Jonathan. He’s nicely wrapped in plastic and would love the visit.”

Nine years ago in 2008 Edward came to my 70th birthday party. He raised a glass. “Here’s to John who is 70 today and in three short years will wake up to find he’s 80.”

I’m nearly one year away from hitting that milestone. Edward was right. It’s taken what feels like three short years to get this far. Damn. Everything is so precious. I think of all the people I wish were here to speak today—Lanford Wilson, Marian Seldes, Elaine Stritch.

Oh yes—here I am eulogizing him—Edward was a a a… I wouldn’t take back a word I said at that panel in 1997 on Edward Albee Day.

Talk about love. Before Edward, we were landlocked. Edward invented a whole new Northwest Passage, a Panama Canal for new playwrights to sail into the future. His plays gave us the charts and the craft we need to sail there. Staying afloat is not guaranteed. But the wind is high. Hold onto your rudder. Let’s keep the image going. More is better. Edward as the sea god Poseidon blowing up a gale that’s still propelling us on. What’s that ahead? Is it rocks? A reef? Don’t worry. It’s the future.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 4, 2017.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters