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Edward Albee talks shop

February 3, 2009 |  4:30 pm


Edward Albee is one of those rare playwrights who has been content to remain a playwright.  He’s not angling for a meeting about a screenplay, and though he wouldn’t mind if someone wanted to make another film of one of his plays, he’d insist that they shoot exactly what’s written and not some cockamamie adaptation.
“I don’t want distortion,” he told me when I interviewed him at his home in New York a few weeks before his UCLA Live engagement, "An Evening With Edward Albee," at Royce Hall  this coming Saturday.  "I’ve only had two plays made into films, and in neither case was there a screenplay." 

Mike Nichols' 1966 film of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, brought Albee stratospheric fame.  But what he seems to have liked best about the experience is that they "basically photographed" his play.  (Ernest Lehman is given screenplay credit, but Albee contends, according to Mel Gussow's biography, that Lehman contributed just two lines: "Let's go to the roadhouse" and "Let's come back from the roadhouse.")

"The whole point" of Tony Richardson’s 1973 film of “A Delicate Balance,” part of the American Film Theatre series, “was doing the play." Albee says he cut three or four minutes that didn’t work as well in the movie.  “But all the lines were mine,” he adds.  “And that’s the way I’d like to work in film. But I’m not holding my breath.”

There have been a few TV versions of Albee's plays as well...

But theater is his incontestable home, and it's the subject he's most expansive on. Take, for example, the question of dramatic influences.  Albee isn't a voluble guy; his sentences come out finely chiseled.  But here's a topic that can really loosen his tongue.

“Sophocles helped a lot,” he says, straight off the mark. "But every play and playwright has something to teach me. Bad playwrights tell me what not to do. Good ones tell me how to accomplish what I really want to do more intelligently."

"Sam Beckett, I think, is one of my very favorite 20th century playwrights." After further meditation, he augments the list to include: “Chekhov, Pirandello, Beckett and sometimes Brecht."

It's an elite group, and one gets the sense that the indebted kinship Albee feels toward this coterie is no burden whatsoever.

--Charles McNulty

Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times