A few years back — more than I care to share — three mad teachers at L.A.’s Dorsey High decided to put on a play for their students: an English teacher (a gay guy long before it was permissible to come out of the closet), a short sharp-tongued Japanese science teacher who had been interned during WW II, and an English teacher in her first year, me, who had fallen in love with the plays of Edward Albee because they were shocking and different and made for great English lessons — something like: Figure out the meaning of this odd play we are about to perform…
The play was The Sandbox in which Mommy and Daddy are waiting for Grandma to die. Grandma has been welcomed into the house, a nice little bed made for her under the sink, and she’s been given her own feeding dish. Now calmly waiting Grandma’s death, Mommy asks Daddy if he has anything to say when she knows he has nothing to say, and finally, after a clap of thunder, she blithely remarks: “Well our long night of mourning is over.”
The play was a dramatic genre which we had taught then as Theater of the Absurd — odd, wonderful plays which were dramatic puzzles, amusing to watch, and then you figured out the meaning.
Plays like Becket’s Krapps Last Tape in which a philosopher, who has recorded his lifetime of intellectual ideas, now, at the end of his days, listens to his past, hopping around in his sad old age, eating bananas. Or Albee’s A Delicate Balance in which a couple knocks desperately at the door of friends, begging entrance since they are fleeing some terrible disaster (undefined), and the friends slowly begin to realize that the guests are never going to leave.
That was the ’60s. Through the years, Albee has always been performed — small theaters and large revivals of his older plays. The New York Times has called him America’s greatest living playwright. When I heard that Edward Albee was appearing at UCLA’s Royce Auditorium with its almost 2,000 seats here in L.A., where, despite the fact that myriad small theaters abound, there lacks the excitement of Broadway’s (off and off-off) theaters, I thought…hey, that’s a big theater for a Q & A with a playwright. Yet the house was sold-out, packed, even to the balcony to hear a slender 80-year-old man talk for an hour and answer questions. I knew then that theater in L.A. was still alive.
Albee spoke about the nature of theater — not to divert or entertain but to hold a mirror to life and to be a catalyst for change. When he first began to write, change was in the air. We were marching in the streets against an unjust war. We have recently gone passively undemonstrative though this current unjust war. Perhaps it was time for Albee’s words to resonate.
When Albee was asked about his age: I don’t feel it, he said. He’s active, he still has plenty of ideas, and two new plays are rumbling in his head.
Asked about how he shapes his plays, does he first try to decide the concept, what he’s trying to say? Not at all. First, something happens in the unconscious. Or subconscious. Something rumbling in there of which he’s not aware. Then suddenly, two characters begin to talk. And they talk and talk for a couple of years, and finally, when they demand to be heard, he writes them down.
What about his audience’s reactions to his plays? Doesn’t really care. Not his problem. He writes what he has to write, and if it works, fine. Of course he was without the familiar struggles of making a life in the arts. Albee was the adopted child of wealthy parents. Of course they tried, without success, to make a social conforming creature out of the man who wrote the wonderful convulsively violent dialogue of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf which, when it was first performed, had five very bad reviews. But audiences loved it. The play prevailed.
As for shocking his audiences: his play The Goat concerns a man who has fallen sexually in love with a goat. (What a great English assignment!) Yet, says Albee, the play is not about a goat. He remembers one irate patron who left the theater not because of the goatish love affair but because a father kissed his son in a sexual embrace. He writes it. You react. (Nothing to do with a goat? Symposium, please!)
Yet Albee says don’t just try to figure it out…just get involved with the characters. His plays are concerned with understanding life, relationships, the odd nature of man. He urges you (unlike my English assignments) not to think “What is this play about?” but simply to get involved with the characters, to think about human nature and its dilemma.
About critics: Albee warns, if you read a critic to tell you what and what not to see, you’d better know that critic and his tastes. Yours may be different. He suggests that reading a play is almost better than seeing it. Reading, you cast and visualize according to the playwright. What you see may be different. (Note the three versions of Doubt — one at the Pasadena Playhouse so totally different from the New York version with Cherry Jones, and yet a third interpretation on film with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.)
And why did he become a playwright? Because he failed at everything else. He was a bad novelist, a worse painter, a poor poet. Theater was the form at which he succeeded.
Art, says Albee, is a catalyst for change. We’ve just elected a new president who campaigned on change…but are we as ready to change now as we were back in the difficult ’30s and ’40s which brought a vibrant new theater? It’s so easy to sit back with HBO and watch Dexter kill and eviscerate a bad guy without considering the implications of the act.
Albee asks us to look beyond masks and surfaces to consider what life “is really like.” For most of us, that consideration is to be avoided at all costs. We pay premium prices for stadium seats and kill our hours with car crashes, we indulge in Blackberries and iPods to keep us away from a quiet think. Anything to avoid the recognition of the reality of life: We are born, we are allotted a certain number of days and nights in which we participate in a drama not always in our control, and then we die. Our days are spent in solid houses, sheltered from the elements, when actually we are living on a thin skin of a planet spinning in a space which we can only minimally understand. And during our days and nights of life, we are presented with countless choices, countess roads to follow which we believe can be determined by ourselves, when our genetics often design us, and we are susceptible to uncontrollable acts of Fate. Better to spend our bucks and our short time on this planet anesthetized for a couple of hours by comfy seating, big screen, and heroes who have terrific car chases, crashes, rollovers, and manage to emerge unscathed to fight again.
Yet The Sandbox, performed almost half a century ago by three mad teachers, will never be out of my head. We all welcome or avoid Mother, and if we invite her, we do often give her a little dish under the sink. We all, when the old ones die, are secretly thankful to let the mourning period be over and secretly rejoice that we are still here. And the absurdity of life itself…back then at Dorsey High: that in-the-closet English teacher died of AIDS; the little interned science teacher, so brilliant, lost her marbles to a kind of dementia; and the third one, that antique, is still here writing reviews and trying to figure out how to get an agent for her new screenplay, heartened that an 80-year-old playwright, with characters still rumbling around his subconscious, has two new plays to write.
It’s wonderful to see octogenarian Albee, still at it, top of his skills, asking us, while we’re still here, to look at our own mirrors and to have the courage, where it’s needed, to be catalysts for change.