Memories of Edward Albee: A playwright who was not afraid of Virginia Woolf

(Photo above of Edward Albee in Sydney in 2009 by Renee Nowytarger, The Australian)
This blog post is a bit unusual as it’s been handed over to an old friend of mine, Dr Michael Nardacci. We first met fifty years ago as graduate students at New York University. Mike went on to get his doctorate in American Literature at NYU, I settled for a Master’s degree, teaching in Harlem and Sydney, and a long career in journalism in Australia. But this post is not about me, it’s about Mike and his lifelong interest in Edward Albee, the most influential American playwright of his generation. Mike interviewed Albee at his home in New York City in 1965 when he was a senior at Siena College near Albany, and the interview was published in the school’s literary magazine. Albee described it as “the best interview I have given,” and on his recommendation, it was published in The Playwrights Speak, a book by Walter Wager. Mike Nardacci (pictured below on the top of Sandia Peak, New Mexico) is also an accomplished caver, a veteran teacher of high school and college courses in English and Geology, and his column, Back Roads Geology, appears in the Altamont, New York newspaper, Enterprise. He is the author of a brilliant long poem about the celebrated cave explorer, Ghosts of Floyd Collins*, and an acclaimed play about the legendary Akhnaton, Fragments of the Pharaoh.
Here are Michael Nardacci’s poignant memories of Edward Albee:

I interviewed Edward Albee with a colleague from Siena College, Walter Chura, in 1965 shortly after his play Tiny Alice had a successful run on Broadway, confusing and fascinating audiences as it continues to do today. Albee had become internationally known on the basis of his early one-act play The Zoo Story and the great success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Albee received us in his elegant town house on West Tenth Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. He spoke of his plays, dismissed much of the commercial Broadway theatre, and held surprisingly conservative views of the political scene and the then-raging Vietnam War.
He then escorted us to his garage in which was parked a Lamborghini he had purchased on a trip to Europe, along with the miniature castle from Tiny Alice — a beautifully-crafted, intricate piece of work. I wonder what became of it.
He often sounded like one of his more complex characters: well-spoken, thoughtful, with broad cultural knowledge. I told him that I aspired to be a writer and that I expected to attend NYU, expressing hope we might meet again if my plans came to pass.
They did. In the fall of 1966 I moved to New York and as a grad student at NYU I was put up in the venerable One Fifth Avenue Hotel on the corner of 8th Street near Washington Square; the One Fifth was owned by NYU and had two suites on each floor reserved for students. As I had no morning classes, often at around 11 at night I would take a short walk around the area close to the hotel, and on several occasions I encountered Albee who was out walking his dog “Pucci” at an hour when he was unlikely to be recognised. But I did — and to my pleasure — he recognised me. We would chat about the obvious things: the theatre scene and his own work. (His play A Delicate Balance had recently opened to good reviews and was enjoying a healthy run with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in starring roles.) Once or twice I offered to buy him a drink but as he had his dog with him, that never happened.
After that first year in New York, I lived for a year on Carmine Street and then in the legendary Judson residence on Washington Square South and did not encounter Albee but followed his career as he completed such odd experimental works such as Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao-Tse-Tung. The summer of 1968 my historical drama Akhnaton (since re-thought as Fragments of the Pharaoh) was performed by a local theatre company in Albany. I sent Albee an invitation to the premiere, and though he did not attend, on opening night he sent me a congratulatory telegram wishing me luck in this new phase of my life. Rest assured it was displayed and read to the cast and crew of my play!
Soon, however, Albee entered a dark period in his life. The characters in plays such as Virginia Woolf and Delicate Balance had serious problems with alcohol — and their creator followed a similar path. Until then, his only real Broadway failures had been the inexplicably awful book for David Merrick’s musical adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s — which closed in previews — and a stage version of James Purdy’s twee novel Malcolm. Now he had a series of failures, culminating in the vituperative Man With Three Arms — roundly denounced by the critics as “a temper tantrum in three acts” — and the impenetrable, unpleasant Lady From Dubuque filled with what might be the foulest language from a major playwright ever heard on Broadway.
But following a number of extremely nasty incidents in which his drinking caused major problems with friends and colleagues — which are numbingly detailed in Mel Gussow’s biography Edward Albee: A Singular Journey — he began a recovery which revived both his talent and his persona. There may have been a number of factors that led to the turnaround. He was hit by a car in California, an accident which nearly cost him an eye. His increasing debt might finally have awakened him to his self-inflicted precarious situation. But it was also in this time that he took up with a young Canadian artist, Jonathan Thomas, with whom he began a decades-long relationship, which ended with Thomas’s death in 2005. Albee himself attributed his recovery to Thomas’s influence. Albee’s homosexuality had long been an open secret, and caused some critics — William Goldman and Robert Brustein among them — to read all kinds of double meanings into the relationships between the heterosexual couples in his plays.
Albee deeply resented these inferences. He remarked acidly, “I know the difference between men and women,” and used legal manoeuvres to shut down productions of his plays — particularly Virginia Woolf — in which the parts were played by all-male casts. He was criticised by a number of gay and lesbian writers for not writing plays with gay themes. But his politically incorrect response was: “I am a playwright who happens to be gay; I am not a gay playwright.”
Following his rehabilitation and vowing to abstain from alcohol, Albee’s career began to bounce back. His powerful drama Three Tall Women — written following the death of his adoptive mother, with whom he had had a difficult relationship — exploded on to the New York theatre stage and let the theatre world know that the much-admired playwright was back and in control of his medium. The play has since been performed in many countries and won him his third Pulitzer Prize. He followed this with three plays which were also critical and financial successes: the mysterious Play About the Baby, which ranks in its confusing storyline with Tiny Alice, and a comedy/drama The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?. After a long delay, his play Occupant about Sculptor Louise Nevelson was produced off-Broadway and provided still another powerful part for an actress.
It was around the time I went to see Occupant that I wrote Albee a letter. I re-introduced myself to him as the college-boy interviewer and expressed admiration for Occupant. I also told him that I would be honoured to take him to lunch some time when I was visiting New York City. To my surprise he wrote back, told me that he remembered me, and accepted my invitation, saying that spring was his least busy time (this was in the fall and he travelled a good deal lecturing.) I responded with a letter to which I attached a poem I had written about rafting through the Grand Canyon. He congratulated me on having written a “nice old-fashioned poem” — still not sure if that was praise or put-down! — and recommended a couple of changes in the wording which I gladly made.
But aside from a couple of Christmas cards which we exchanged, I never heard from him again. I wrote him a couple of lengthy letters, one after I had just seen a production of his The American Dream and The Sandbox at the Cherry Lane Theatre which Albee directed. I praised the production and inquired about new work he might be engaged in. I also sent him a copy of my play Fragments of the Pharaoh.
Some time after that I read about a New Jersey production of a new Albee play titled Me, Myself, and I which was allegedly headed for Broadway. But the production never happened, and for the last three or four years there has been little news about Albee or any new work.
And then he died on September 16 at his summer home in Montauk on Long Island following a brief illness. Broadway theatre lights were dimmed a couple of nights later in his honour and no doubt there will at some point be a star-studded tribute to the playwright featuring readings from his works.
While a number of his works including some clearly experimental ones will probably not pass time’s test, there is little doubt that plays such as The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women, and that tiny gem, The Sandbox, will be staples of the American theatre scene for many years to come. All of them contain sometimes extraordinary acting parts even though critics have quibbled over the internal logic of all of them. His more curious efforts, Ballad of the Sad Café, Tiny Alice, and Seascape among them, probably will be revived from time to time as works containing bits of overlooked brilliance. His more feeble efforts, The Lady from Dubuque, The Man With Three Arms, and his attempted stage dramatisation of Nabokov’s Lolita are perhaps best forgotten, being false starts in an otherwise highly interesting career.
But I will always regret that my invitation to take him to lunch, though accepted, never came to pass. The two hours I spent with him as an undergraduate and our brief conversations on Eighth Street in the late night were captivating. You knew you were in the presence of an intelligent, fiercely talented man whose long career –whatever its misfires such as the book for Breakfast at Tiffany’s — contained the work of a creative talent who was never afraid to try something new, never hesitant about exploring unknown territory, always willing to invest his work with his own singular sensibility. His passing leaves a sizeable gap in the American literary scene. But I will always be proud of the fact that Albee knew me by name, sometimes shared his thoughts and observations with me, and once critiqued one of my works. How many other aspiring writers can make that claim?
*I wrote a blog post about the Ghosts of Floyd Collins five years ago, complaining to the New Yorker and its then managing editor, Amelia Lester (now the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Good Weekend magazine), that they had never acknowledged receipt of the poem. It was their loss — Tom Krause.

2 thoughts on “Memories of Edward Albee: A playwright who was not afraid of Virginia Woolf

  1. Albee was truly one of the great American playwrights. His insights were powerful and most of us saw him as a mordant observer of the human condition. Addicted though we were to his portrayals of given relationships, we would invariably then seek light relief in one of the many Broadway plays offering a trip down the light fantastic.
    Dr. Nardacci’s insight into his life and how that life shone and reflected on his own, gives me pause that my own conclusions on Albee’s life may be somewhat askew. A worthy salute deserves a long lunch, offered in proxy of one deferred. Tie the dog to the lamp post.
    Ian M.

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