From The Big Read websiteEdward Albee is known as an iconoclast whose work is dark, often cynical, and populated by the disaffected. Thornton Wilder, on the other hand, was endlessly enthusiastic, drinking in life to the fullest. But the author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? has a deep admiration for the writer of Our Town. NEA media producer Josephine Reed sat down with Albee and opened the conversation by asking him about the first time he saw what he considers to be the best play ever written.
Listen to the full interview on The NEA's Big Read Blog.
Edward Albee: I remember the experience, and I was both moved and devastated, and amused and all the good thing s that a play is meant to do to you. And I have seen since so many dreadful productions of Our Town, that one of the things I want to talk about today is will somebody please do Our Town properly?
Jo Reed: And what would that mean?
Edward Albee: It is not a Christmas card. It is not a cute play. And most of the people who produce that play think it's afternoon television. It's one of the toughest, saddest, most brutal plays that I've ever come across. And it is so beautiful, and when it is funny, it's gloriously funny. There are scenes in Our Town that it's hard for me to think about without wanting to cry. It's that beautiful a play.
Jo Reed: Why do you think "Our Town" is seen as this nostalgic look at small town America at the turn of the century?
Edward Albee: Well, I guess that Thornton should have written something or said something about how the play is meant to be done. A lot of times, if there's something there that can be seen as something less than it is, which would be less troubling to people, that's the way they'll want to see it. You can't stop. No two people see the same play, and you can't stop people from seeing what they want to see in spite of what the play is all about. And Thornton Wilder knew his Kierkegaard. He knew his Camus. He knew his Sartre. He knew all of the existentialists, even though the play was written before existentialism. But it's a highly existentialist play, coming back from Kierkegaard.
Jo Reed: I'm thinking about the lack of staging of the play, and how Thornton Wilder really calls the audience to imagine the play as much as the play is being performed, and what that contributes to the play, which I think is a great deal. But also do you think that can account for sort of the misplaying of it?
Edward Albee: I suppose if you give directors and actors the opportunity to do something wrong, they're likely to take it. I can't imagine any other justification for so many terrible productions of Our Town. It is a highly avant-garde play in the sense of its construction, and its methodology. Maybe that gets in the way of people understanding. I don't know.
Jo Reed: And we also have a stage manager who throughout the play keeps telling the audience that they're seeing a play.
Edward Albee: Yes. He's trying to keep them intellectually on their feet. Yes. Maybe Thornton should have done something, made a couple of notes. Say, "This is a tough play, you know. Stop sitting around pretending it's a Christmas card."
Jo Reed: He, of course, had won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Do you have any idea why he turned to the theater?
Edward Albee: To broaden his perspective, to broaden himself probably. Well, he was so knowledgeable in plays going back to the Greeks. He knew his theatrical history as well as anybody. In fact, sometimes it was dangerous to talk to Thornton because you made so many mistakes, and he kept correcting you. "Escalus did not write that one, Edward." "Hey, you're right, Thornton." I guess he saw things that he could do on stage that he couldn't do on the page, and he certainly found them. You know, he wrote a lot of plays, and I think Our Town is a masterpiece. I think Our Town is probably the finest American play every written so far. I think The Skin of Our Teeth is a damn good play. The others I find somewhat lesser and don't matter much. But Our Town is so extraordinary and spectacular.
Jo Reed: What do you think it is about Our Town specifically that makes it the greatest American play?
Edward Albee: The fact that when it is done properly it makes us understand that if we don't live our lives fully and completely, we've wasted everything we have.
Jo Reed: But doesn't it also say it's impossible to do that?
Edward Albee: Yeah. But you got to try hard.
Jo Reed: That I agree with. You know, what strikes me about Thornton Wilder is he's certainly interested in the big questions, and yet the specificity of both the way Our Town begins.
Edward Albee: Yeah. But it's so nice that Our Town just doesn't say, hey, this is a play about the big questions.
Jo Reed: Exactly.
Edward Albee: The fact that he makes it seem other than it is makes it seem, well, it is about these people in this small town, and their lives, which are not spectacular, and that they live their lives and then they die. And that's it. You know, for me, the scene I can hardly even talk about without crying, is when Emily's dead, and she comes back and they warn her, "Just take the most normal day of your life. Don't take anything spectacular. Don't take your wedding or when you went to the soda fountain and he asked you to marry him. Don't do anything like that. Just take a normal day." Happened to be her sixteenth birthday, fifteenth or sixteenth birthday.
Jo Reed: Twelfth.
Edward Albee: Twelfth?
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Edward Albee: That young.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Edward Albee: Gee, because I've gotten so old I think everybody's older. And she comes back home and, of course, they can't see her or hear her. And she watches their life going on, and all of a sudden from off stage, we hear her father say, "Where's my girl? Where's my birthday girl?" And she breaks up, as I almost did telling you about it. And she has to leave. It's too beautiful, too sad. A writer who can do things like that breathtaking moment, something that Wilder had in almost all of his plays, something that catches us up and makes us understand that we're seeing something maybe far different than we thought we were. So that's the moment for me in Our Town, where she realizes that she can't relive it, it's all gone.
Jo Reed: There's something about the dead sitting in chairs facing the audience that seems to me such a mirror, such a reflection of the audience.
Edward Albee: Well, I'm sure he intended that, of course, yes, certainly. One of the things that Wilder accomplished was by taking people who were not spectacular except in the fact that they were human beings, most normal people you can possibly imagine. No greatness there. No terrible things, you know. One guy was a drunk, and this and that, but absolutely normal people, and that they're all so extraordinary, and their lives are so extraordinary.
Jo Reed: He seems to be both a very honest observer of people, but also an immensely generous one.
Edward Albee: Yes. But can you be an accurate observer of people without being both generous and objective? I don't think you can. There has to be some generosity or you're writing an act of aggression, and that's not enough.
Jo Reed: How has your viewing or reading of Our Town changed throughout the years?
Edward Albee: I don't think it has. Because, as I say, I keep running into these awful productions of it, and I keep wanting to stand up and say, "That's not the way to do it. You're making a terrible mistake. You're misinforming your audiences as to what this play is about." Now, I'm making the assumption that I'm correct about Our Town. Everybody else is wrong. Except I've talked to a lot of people who actually really, really know what the play is about. And they realize it's a tough play.
Jo Reed: Can you talk just briefly about the difference between sentiment or emotion, which Our Town certainly has, and sentimentality, which productions often drift into.
Edward Albee: The fact that Wilder keeps us at a kind of Brechtian distance in this play doesn't permit us to slop over into sentimentality, that we are objectively watching that which moves us, and that which affects the people in the play. The fact that there's the double image going there.
Jo Reed: Let's say you had to persuade somebody to go and see Our Town. What would you say to them?
Edward Albee: I would say what I say to most people, especially my students, every time you go to see a play, see the first play you've ever seen. Make sure you bring no expectation or no limitation of what theater should be into the theater. Have your first theatrical experience every time you go.
Jo Reed: Edward Albee, thank you so much.
Edward Albee: My pleasure.