To most of the playwrights of my generation, Edward Albee was not just a great writer, but also a heroic figure.
Heroic because he famously didn’t care what critics thought. Perhaps this was the blessing of receiving mixed reviews from the start.
Heroic because he didn’t cater to audiences. As someone raised without love, he never expected it. That freed his writing.
Heroic because he was a relentless defender of civil liberties, for artists and others, going so far in his late 70’s as to appear outside in a blizzard to protest an injustice.
Heroic because he spent so much of his own money and his precious time supporting emerging playwrights, with his foundation and writers’ retreat, and in personally supporting playwriting conferences such as the Great Plains Theatre Conference with his time and his presence.
Heroic because he never knuckled under, never softened his beliefs, never caviled, and, as Jon Robin Baitz said, was more than willing to write a play wherein a man falls in love with a goat, and to do that as an old man: “A young man’s play written by an old lion,” Baitz said. This, to be sure, is unusual.
To say that Albee was an inspiration to many, many hundreds or thousands of us, is a vast understatement. Even if you never got to meet him, as many (most?) of us did, he still touched you through his work as a writer, or his work as a supporter of writers.
When I say he was a “supporter,” that doesn’t mean he was easy. Quite the opposite: He was notoriously prickly. He was prickly the one time I met him, and he was notoriously prickly to reporters, interpreters of his work, critics, audiences, close friends, and probably everyone else at some time or other.
In an odd way, I benefited 10 years ago from his prickliness. Albee had had a falling out with the Great Plains Theatre Conference; evidently, they’d asked him if he could please possibly be a little nicer in his feedback to the young playwrights, and he took umbrage, and quit the conference just a few weeks prior to its start. People close to the conference were asked for suggestions about teachers of playwriting, playwrights, or workshop leaders, who might be able to fill in for Albee for the week and give feedback, but be a little more, um, upbeat. The actor-director girlfriend of someone in my playwriting workshop who was and is an extremely talented playwright and who had been at the conference and who had visited my workshop suggested me — and I got booked. So, oddly, I got to fill Edward Albee’s role for a week.
But, subbing for Edward Albee, I got to hobnob with Marshall Mason and Doug Wright. (High honors. Marshall and directed the first play I ever bought a ticket for, when I was a teenager: Christopher Reeve appearing in Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” in New York.) I also got treated to steak dinners courtesy of Omaha Steaks (one of the sponsors of the conference; including a private reception where Marshall took pains to ensure that I wasn’t going to skewer playwrights as Albee had done), got to appear on local television, and was generally treated the way one would hope always to be treated. And, deliciously, I got to render input on some terrific new plays, including the thrilling play “Devil Sedan” by Kenley Smith, who has since become a friend, and to do it in the manner I practice to this day: to be helpful, and constructive, and goal-oriented for the play, rather than to be the guy who drops an anvil on someone’s head from the sixth story. I saw that other approach in graduate school, and since then, but I’ve yet to see anyone benefit from it.
If Albee wasn’t always kind or thoughtful in some situations, he nevertheless remains a lodestone. Very occasionally, when I might ask myself if I’m “really” going to do “that” or say “that” or set up “that” situation in a play, I think of Albee, the man who wrote the play about someone compelled to throw over his entire life for the love of a goat. And then I say, “Fuck it” and do it. And, always always always, that’s the right choice.
Thank you, sir. For the plays and for the example.