By Julia Ferrante
LEWISBURG, Pa. - When Edward Albee writes a play, he "sees and hears" the characters in his mind and waits for them to tell him where his story is going.
He sometimes lives with a play for a year or more, developing and revising many times before committing a story to paper.
"I hear voices of characters of mine who want to be in a play I write," he told an audience at Bucknell University's Weis Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night. "I have some vague sense of their intention. I write the play to find out why I invented these characters and how they work together."
A three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Albee was honored as the 2010 Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters at Bucknell before his talk on Tuesday. He is the first playwright to receive the award. During the talk, Albee read from three of his plays, sharing with the audience how the voices of his characters were revealed to him. Professor of Theatre Gary Grant then interviewed Albee, who also answered questions about his work from the audience.
Great American playwright
In bestowing the honor on Albee, Bucknell President John Bravman described Albee as one of the greatest American playwrights of his generation.
Albee writes about difficult and sometimes uncomfortable subjects as a way of asking his audiences to examine societal morals, he said. In "The Goat, or Who is Silvia?," for instance, a respectable middle-aged man falls in love with a goat, and the life he knows is ruined.
"I think there are many worse things in the world than falling in love with a goat," Albee said. "There are many ways we lie to ourselves about what we believe and how we behave. I wanted to examine how people feel about their values. When your values are put to the test, how would you behave?"
Albee's first play, "The Zoo Story," was hailed in 1959 as the birth of American absurdist drama, a blend of the traditional and the avant-garde, with Albee considered a successor to American playwrights Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. Originally titled "Peter and Jerry," the play explores themes of isolation, loneliness and social disparity.
"The Zoo Story" was followed by a series of well-received, one-act plays, including "The Death of Bessie Smith," which explores racial discrimination, and "The Sandbox" and "The American Dream," both of which are linked by the theme of death. His first three-act drama, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," is the play for which is he is best known and one of his most controversial.
When its nomination in 1962 for a Pulitzer Prize was not accepted unanimously by the prize committee, two members of the committee resigned. The play, about a couple's turbulent relationship and undeniable devotion to one another, received the Tony Award and New York Drama Critics Circle Award and now is widely considered a classic of American contemporary theater.
Three of Albee's plays have received Pulitzer Prizes: "A Delicate Balance" in 1967, "Seascape" in 1975, and "Three Tall Women" in 1994. "Three Tall Women" also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award.
Albee has also received a Kennedy Center Honor and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1996. Following a revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" in 2004, the Academy of Achievement-the American Theater Wing presented Albee with a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, recognizing him as America's greatest living playwright. The only other playwright to receive this honor was Arthur Miller.
Deep, emotional conflicts
Albee's characters' deep moral conflicts and sometimes-squirm-inducing actions are fictional with few exceptions, he said. One true scene involved a middle-aged, nearly deaf silent movie actress who the narrator suspects was paid to come to a dinner party but drove guests away with her awkward stories about falling for a gay man.
"That was a true story," he said. "But I never put myself in my plays. I invent characters. I don't know that I have sufficient objectivity about myself."
Albee advised aspiring playwrights at Bucknell to be protective of their work and to resist changes from actors and directors. To accomplish this end, he suggested writing "so precisely that (the actors and directors) really have to be creative to go away from the author's intentions." He disagreed with the notion that actors and directors should change the play on stage in an effort to be creative and described a gifted actor as one who is able to embody a character as it was written by the playwright.
"If a dealer is having a show at a gallery, he does not hang the paintings upside down," Albee said, giving examples of how music and art are performed and displayed as intended by their creators. "Everything is done according to the creator. There's a difference between creation and interpretation."
Bucknell established the annual Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters in 2002 to honor and recognize individuals who represent the highest level of achievement in the craft of writing within the realms of fiction, nonfiction or biography. Previous recipients have been John Edgar Wideman, David McCullough, Derek Walcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, John Updike and Toni Morrison.
The Weis Fellowship was established through a grant from the Degenstein Foundation in honor of the late Janet Weis, who was an author, civic leader and philanthropist. Weis also was trustee emerita of the University. Her late husband, Sigfried Weis, was chair of the Bucknell Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1988.
WVIA air dates
Albee's talk and discussion will be broadcast on PBS station WVIA at 7 p.m. Monday, March 28; 8 p.m. Thursday, March 31; and 10 p.m. Saturday, April 2. Check local listings for details.
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