VIENNA – Puzzled whispers echo through the audience at Vienna’s English Theatre, where Edward Albee’s latest play is having its world premiere. “Surcease,” the dying protagonist proclaims just before the curtain falls. “That’s the happiest moment. When it’s all done. When we can stop.”
“Surcease?” the Viennese wonder aloud, stumbling more over the unfamiliar vocabulary than Albee’s notion that death might come as a welcome respite.
“Why hasn’t anybody ever heard of the word ‘surcease’? Isn’t that strange?” asks the American playwright, conceding that a pitfall of staging his work abroad is the foreign audience. “The laughs do come late, since my language is a little ornate and convoluted sometimes.”
But Albee complains that his fate has been to be misunderstood on Broadway as well as on the European stage, where his earliest plays were first presented. Unable to get his one-act “The Zoo Story” produced in New York, Albee made his theatrical debut in Berlin in 1959. More than 30 years later he is producing his most recent work, “Three Tall Women,” a rumination on demise and disillusionment, at a relatively obscure playhouse far from home.
“You do your job properly. You do it well. In an ideal world, what you do would be accepted and `Thank you for doing it.’ But as often as not, if you say something tough, you get criticized for not being easy,” Albee laments in an interview at the theater. “And if you tell people how to change, they don’t want to be messed with. … The audience takes its cue from the critics, who are taking their cue from what they think the audience wants already. This leads to a certain misunderstanding of the function and use of art in our society. That can be a little heartbreaking sometimes.”
With plays such as “The American Dream” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Albee was hailed in the early 1960s as a major new talent. The dark rage of these tragicomedies also earned him the label of “angry young playwright.” Now 63, and having spent much of the past decade out of the theatrical spotlight, Albee refers to himself as “an angry older playwright.”
His output continues unabated – at 25 plays and counting. Yet none has recaptured the tremendous commercial success of “Virginia Woolf,” a ferocious account of an all-night drinking bout by two married couples who verbally and emotionally skin each other alive. The 1962 three-acter was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis and George Segal.
“Everybody has the illusion that I started out and got nothing but rave reviews and then they got worse and worse,” says Albee. “Not true. No play that I’ve ever written has gotten better than 50-50.”
Although he has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 1967 for “A Delicate Balance” and the other in 1975 for “Seascape,” he has long divided critics. Some found “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” masterful, others thought it depraved. Albee has always rejected the argument that it could not be an accurate portrayal of a heterosexual marriage, and blocked a plan for a production on Broadway with the wives played by men in drag. His characters’ language and thought have also been dismissed as preachy and pretentious. Philip Roth called “Tiny Alice” “the kind of play that makes you want to rise from your seat and shout `Baloney.’ “
The bitterness Albee expressed in his first productions seems to have been fueled by the rough treatment he now routinely receives from critics contending he has failed to fulfill his promise as savior of the American stage. “A lot of us have periods when we were in fashion and were the hot stuff at the moment and then somebody else comes along and we’re shunted to one side because we all need new stars,” he says. “Can’t worry about that. Nobody cares about that.”
He offers up a familiar diatribe against the U.S. commercial theater scene. “Too many people still assume Broadway is our national theater, when it is our national disgrace,” he said during a recent talk at the U.S. Information Agency library in Vienna. “I came in at the tag end of those few years when more serious plays were happily accepted on Broadway, before people got the weird idea that because they were paying for the ticket they had the right to determine the content. … The courage of producers was much greater when `Virginia Woolf’ cost 50,000 bucks to put on in 1962. It now would cost a million. Production costs make cowards of some people. The play has got to be accepted immediately by the critics and reach a large audience within the first three weeks or they can’t afford to keep it open.”
And so Albee tries out his plays in Vienna. “I’ve worked here so often it has almost become a habit,” he says. He is an occasional guest director at the English Theatre, founded in 1963 and catering to local English-speaking theatergoers, members of the diplomatic community and international civil servants working at the United Nations headquarters here. Albee has staged his own plays in their original English versions as well as works by Sam Shepard and David Mamet.
His latest drama, “Three Tall Women,” has been panned since its opening on June 14. Albee directed it himself. “Entirely banal,” pronounced the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, while the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung suggested the play could “perhaps be saved by a more unconventional staging and chucking some parts of the script into the waste basket.”
In response to critics who charge that his later work lacks the theatricality of the plays that made him famous, Albee sighs audibly. “It lacks some of the obviousness. I mean, in `Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ everybody yelled for three hours. Yelled, drank and threw things. What should I do? Write 25 more plays in which everybody yells, drinks and throws things? Why do that? Good God.”
In “Three Tall Women,” the female trio appears in Act One as a frail 91-year-old dowager, her middle-aged nurse and a legal assistant, 26, sent by the attorney handling the dying woman’s estate. The youngest has little patience or empathy for the crotchety woman who pays her salary, although the nurse warns, “It’s downhill from 16 for all of us. … You can’t be fully alive until you’re aware you’re going to die.”
By the second and final act, the three women have been melded into one character, the dowager played by the same three actresses at various stages of her life. We become either “parodies or shadows,” the youngest says, as her midlife version sounds the tired refrain, “And so it goes.”
“Time happens, I suppose,” a character in “A Delicate Balance” said with greater force. “To people … You know it’s going on … up the hill; you can see the dust, and hear the cries, and the steel … but you wait; and time happens. When you do go, sword, shield … finally … there’s nothing there … save rust; bones; and the wind.” In Vienna, Albee is still warning of the tragedy that results when people fail to communicate, to speak truthfully, to live consciously.
“People don’t participate in their own lives enough,” he says. “They drift. They end up at a certain point in their lives, filled with failure and regret, of things done and things not done. More importantly, things not done. But to be a survivor, to be able to survive everything that life gives you with a certain humanity, is important. And all plays, all serious plays, show more how we should not behave than how we should behave. So you hold up a mirror to people and say, `Look, you’re behaving like this. You don’t have to. Try to change.’ So all art is corrective, therefore all art is useful.”
Albee has at times been averse to discussing biographical elements of his work, but does say that “Three Tall Women” portrays his adoptive mother, who died a few years ago. Like many of the playwright’s female characters, she is strong-willed and given to trouncing men.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1928, Albee was adopted two weeks later by Reed Albee, who helped manage his father’s Keith-Albee theater chain. He was thrown out of a series of prep schools, and became estranged from his parents. Seeing his mother again in old age enabled him to “respect her a little more than I thought I did perhaps. … I developed a certain, I wouldn’t say affection, but a certain, yeah, affectionate admiration for her as a survivor. `My God, that old rotten bitch is good. She’s good.’ “
Albee – lean, fit and looking far younger than a man headed into his seventh decade – sees himself as a survivor as well, and denies that the brooding closing lines of “Three Tall Women” represent his current train of thought. “You’ve got to keep battering your head against the wall,” he says. “I don’t want to die before I’m ready to, and I have no intention of being ready ever. But when the time comes, I hope that I will be able to face it with a certain calm and sense that I’ve participated in it.”
Now is no time for that surcease. “Good God, no,” he says. “I’ve got another 30 plays, 30 years.”