March 10, 2011

Meenakshi Ponnuswami, associate professor of English
Meenakshi Ponnuswami, associate professor of English.

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Meenakshi Ponnuswami, associate professor of English, talks about the role of drama in literature and the impact of playwright Edward Albee, who will give a talk at Bucknell on March 22 as the Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters.

Q: Edward Albee has been called the leading American playwright of his generation. What is it about his work that has earned him such distinction?

A: The range of playwrights that he's influenced includes people like John Guare, Paula Vogel, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, some of the major figures in modern American drama. He's been a huge influence on postwar American theater for a number of reasons. He is typically thought of as one of the angry young Bohemian voices of the 1960s but he's much more than that. We hear echoes of the great naturalists of the '40s and '50s — of plays like "Death of a Salesman" and playwrights like Noel Coward.

When we watch an Albee play, we don't immediately think of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill, but actually there's a kind of conversational idiom in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" for example that you would recognize from "A Streetcar Named Desire." Albee deals with similar themes and characters, similar passions.

At the same time Albee also creates startling images that are totally unnatural and unfamiliar. If you look at the work of the postwar playwrights in Europe, the writers associated with the so-called theater of the absurd — Beckett, Ionesco, Genet — Albee is usually associated with them because of the starkness and bizarreness of his stage images. He'll show you a perfectly normal couple sitting on the beach, bickering and moaning, and suddenly two lizards pop out of the water. And then there's a play in which a happily married man has an affair with a goat. These modernist, arguably absurdist aspects of Albee's plays are exactly the opposite of what you would encounter in something like "Death of a Salesman."

Q: How else does Albee stand out as a playwright?

A: There's one other thing that make him such an influence: Nobody satirizes the American family and American values quite so persuasively as Albee. Albee was adopted and he had a very bitter, unhappy relationship with his very wealthy parents. His father was indifferent, his mother was domineering, and it was a terrible home life. He finally left at the age of 20. They wanted him to pursue the proper path — and I'm sure this is something our students often identify with — but he went off to New York City and became a part of the radical counter-culture that was fermenting in Greenwich Village.

Albee took drama in new directions and opened up ways for people to think about the possibilities of the stage, both in terms of its imagery and its language and in terms of characterization. He is one of our leading dissidents; he takes all of our most cherished values and upsets them. He holds everything up to examination, and I think that's one of the reasons he has been such a force in modern American drama. He always challenges us to push our boundaries.

Q: Is pushing boundaries part of a larger tradition in drama and writing for the stage?

A: There's a long tradition of iconoclasm on the stage, internationally. There are the postwar absurdists, with their bizarre, frightening images. And of course it goes much further back, to the late Victorian stage. Really, most modern dramatists, like Ibsen and Strindberg and Chekhov, were all trying to push the limits of what their societies considered acceptable. We read a play like Ibsen's "A Doll's House" and it now seems very tame, but it provoked a huge outcry and scandal in its time, with actresses refusing to act in his plays, saying, "That's unnatural, I would never have left my children."

Sometimes the modern playwright is a reformer, sometimes simply a nonconformist; and sometimes a modern playwright is abusive and throws tomatoes at his audiences. Robert Brustein talks about the theater of ancient Greece as a theater of communion in which the playwright-priest presided over a spectacle that frightened but healed. He says that in the modern era we have a "theater of revolt." An audience approaches a playwright who is standing there in rags, hurling imprecations. He holds a mirror up to our reality, but it's a distorting mirror, it's a cracked mirror. The audience is very upset that he's presenting us with these images. We look at it and recoil, and run away in horror.

Q: Do you include Albee plays in your classes?

A: I use several early plays by Albee, including "The Zoo Story," one of his earliest and most influential plays, the play that established him as a major playwright in 1959. I also use "The American Dream," a satire of family values that is very deeply rooted in his own experiences of feeling unwanted by his family. It's a very scathing, very bitter kind of satire. Many people disliked it when it came out, but it's also very much a part of the modern American canon.

I also teach "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" which makes a wonderful companion piece with plays about domestic dysfunctionality like "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Death of a Salesman." I also have been teaching recently this provocative play ("The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?") about this man who has an affair with a goat. My students probably think I'm perverse, but it's a very important play, a very challenging play, and it's also very interesting to teach. I'm going to be teaching another of his plays in my feminism and theater class in fall: "Three Tall Women," which gives us a set of very unexpectedly Beckett-like images.

Q: Why is drama a universally popular form of literature and what draws an audience to a play rather than a movie or a book?

It doesn't. I'm afraid we've become a marginal form. Once upon a time everybody would flock to see a play. The films have, to some extent, taken over that function of drama as a primary entertainment for people. There's still a lot of very fine theater, it's just not very popular, and it's not a big mainstream thing, except of course for the musicals. 

I've invited Harvey Edward's (Class of '78) Tolerance Troupe, a group of high school students from Selinsgrove, who use theater for teaching purposes in little improvisational skits about tolerance. They've come to my class to perform. The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble has used narratives about the floods in Bloomsburg to create really moving community storytelling events. Jerry Stropnicky from BTE has talked with my classes to tell them how they've done that. So theater is still very much alive and well. It's not a dead art form. It can still be very communal; it can be relevant to all kinds of things. It's just not ubiquitous enough for people to be very aware of its rich offerings.

I want to say how enjoyable the student productions are on our campus. I require my students to watch many of them. I hope more people avail themselves of the opportunities to see these homegrown productions because they're quite wonderful.

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