Edward Albee on his new play

Edward Albee sits on a comfortably worn 1920s living room couch in his Montauk home on Long Island in New York state, the lawn stretching behind him reaching to the sea. “You’ve done all your research?” he asks me immediately, and with concern. “You know all the biographical information?” I concur. “That’s a pretty good starting point.”

Indeed, the playwright’s quick rise to fame began far away, in the Berlin of 1959, with the premiere of his first play The Zoo Story, about the animalistic nature of human communication and relationships. Following in quick succession with The American Dream, The Sandbox and The Death of Bessie Smith, his plays attacked the foundation of American optimism and our unwillingness to face the realities of the human condition. By the time Albee made his Broadway debut with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962, he had been lauded as the saviour of the American theatre.

But, just as quickly, the man who had translated the European-based theatre of the absurd to the American idiom was denounced for sensationalism, plotless naturalism, galling sophistication and salaciousness. On the heels of outraged critics, Albee suffered a string of Broadway disappointments that banished him from the New York stage for much of the 1970s and 1980s. It was not until the New York run of Three Tall Women in 1994 that he was embraced once again.

He has since received many laurels, including the 2005 Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, but those memories run deep. I ask Albee about the commercial theatre in New York today. “It’s much worse. There are fewer serious plays on Broadway each year.” He adds quickly. “And you’re not allowed to have good actors in plays on Broadway any more. You have to have movie stars who can’t act on the stage anyway. That’s why I prefer my stuff to be in the smaller theatres.”

Accordingly, his play Me, Myself & I will make its New York premiere this month at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, home to shows such as the musical Grey Gardens and Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, which, in spite of their unconventional nature, went on to have successful runs on Broadway.

It’s this recent work that resonates with the kind of comic absurdity that characterised his early plays. The story here is about a character named Mother (Elizabeth Ashley) who calls her twin sons OTTO (Zachary Booth) and otto (Preston Sadleir). Later, OTTO denies that he has a brother otto and creates another brother, Otto. In the play, it’s Mother who “strews confusion in her path”.

Albee indulges me with an elucidation. “Well, it’s very simple. OTTO is one’s public self. Otto, small otto, whose existence we don’t wish to talk about, is that part of ourselves we don’t want to admit to, and Otto is the third one we invent to disguise the other two. And we all do this.”

Identical twins appear in other Albee plays, notably The American Dream. Again, Albee is firmly, if uncharacteristically, generous about providing an analysis. “It relates to the matter of identity, of who we are and how we invent ourselves and lie to ourselves about ourselves. It goes through a lot of my plays, sure.”

And there is, I propose, always a missing half. “Always, yes. Certainly, we disguise ourselves from ourselves beautifully.”

An adopted child, Edward Albee grew up in a wealthy and privileged home. His adoptive father, Reed Albee, was the heir to the then famous Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. But family life was a story of parental indifference, of a young man’s estrangement and of his rebellion against the artificial values and bigotry he witnessed at home. “Being an orphan,” Albee quietly intones, “I imagined perhaps that I was an identical twin because there was something missing – not having parents or anything of that sort. I would have lots of conversations with me pretending that I was my identical brother and learning more about the way identical twins relate to each other.”

In the production of Me, Myself & I that will premiere in New York, revised from an earlier version performed at Princeton University’s McCarter Theater in 2008, there is a new beginning, a “Pre-Scene” that foretells the action and a finale that offers a more positive outcome. Still, it maintains Albee’s signature style – his playfulness with language and his “vaudevillian” banter. Mother abuses every conceivable cliché until each reverts to meaninglessness; OTTO invents words; and when the meanings of everyday words are split and multiply, the dialogue becomes farcical. As Albee puts it, “We all know that we use words to lie. To evade. To avoid. Of course, to misunderstand intentionally.”

When I ask him to connect his verbal antics to the mistrust of dramatic realism in the play – the characters continually break the fourth wall and address the audience directly – he explains: “It’s a different matter. I think I learnt the fourth wall thing from Brecht more than anybody. I like an audience to be confronted and have the characters talk to them, and sometimes even ask them to talk back. I don’t want them to be, you know, spies. I want them to participate in the reality of the play.”

In Me, Myself & I there are several such moments. Albee entertains me with one. “‘Any twins here in the house? Yes? No?’ And if there is one of two identical twins in the house then the actor who asks the question will talk to them. ‘Tell me how you like being identical twins,’ and things like that.” Beyond the verbal antics, there is a musicality to this new play – a recurrent element in his diverse works, which vary greatly in both form and content. The director of Me, Myself & I, Emily Mann, considers Albee’s plays to be musical scores.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a composer. Remember that?” he chides me warmly. “I discovered Bach. And I discovered that that was the way to go. But I wasn’t any good at music. So I started listening to it a great deal. Sometimes when I’m writing a scene from a play I think I’m writing a string quartet.

“If you’re directing a play of mine,” he continues, “you could conduct it [waving his arms] because the rhythms and the punctuation and everything that’s used is exactly the way a composer does it. Note duration, note intensity ... A play is a heard experience.”

Finally, venturing into my own impressions, I ask him, “Is this your homage to the playwright Edward Albee?” Albee leaps in, “Oh dear, I hope not. I just hope it’s a new play [for the New York audience]. I think that most of my plays are different from each other stylistically and thematically to a certain extent. If I ever thought that I was duplicating what I’d done before, I’d stop doing it.”

And he confirms there are new works in progress. “I’m working on two plays. One is very funny, I think. And the other is not. The very funny one is quite horrible and the one that is not funny is quite gentle and nice.”

It’s the second that involves the loss of Jonathan Thomas, an artist and sculptor 18 years his junior and his partner of 35 years, who passed away in 2005. When it comes to his own mortality, the 82-year-old Albee is not circumspect. “Why end up on your death-bed with a list of all the things you haven’t done, that you would have done if you had the courage? Think about that.”

‘Me, Myself & I’ is at Playwrights Horizons, New York, until October 10 www.playwrightshorizons.org

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