An Interview with Edward Albee
Javor Gardev © 2012

First published in L’EUROPEO BULGARIA
(Issue N31 / REALITY)

EA – Edward Albee
JG – Javor Gardev

New York City
Mr. Albee’s Tribeca Loft

JG: We’ll have performance #100 of “The Goat or Who is Sylvia?” in Sofia on the 16th of October. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions on that occasion?

EA: What do you mean “on that occasion”?

JG: On the occasion of the 100th performance of “The Goat” in Sofia and the 50th anniversary of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on Broadway. You always say that you don’t discuss the meaning of your plays, or at least you avoid discussing the meaning of your plays. Why?

EA: All you can direct is what you think the meaning is. As a director you can’t direct what you think I think the meaning is, all you can direct is what you think the meaning is.

JG: Of course. That’s true.

EA: So?

JG: I…

EA: I don’t believe in directing meanings…

JG: Me, neither. This is why I’m going to ask you about the meaning of the play itself, not about the meaning of a particular production of the play…

EA: It means what it says!

JG: It means what it says?

EA: Yes.

JG: Well…

EA: What is the meaning of Hamlet? Put it in one sentence.

JG: It cannot be put in one sentence.

EA: No meaning can be put in one sentence. None can.

JG: Sure.

EA: It’s about everything that happens in the course of the play to each of the characters, why it happens, why it should happen, why it shouldn’t happen. Why one character decides that one thing is true and the other is a lie. It’s about all of that. Any play that can be defined and whose meaning can be stated in one sentence… that play should be one sentence long.

JG: This is a law. That’s good, good to know.

EA: So never ask a writer what his play means.

JG: [laughs] So what is your play about? Is it “about an hour and a half”? [they both laugh] You know, usually people in Eastern Europe at least, in Bulgaria and in Russia, they would always ask what are these plays about. Are these plays about dysfunctional families.

EA: Isn’t everything?

JG: Yeah. Do they say that family is dysfunctional in general, or there might be a family that is not? Usually people ask such kinds of questions, generalizing the meaning. Is it possible to live in a family, or is it not possible? Is it by definition dysfunctional?

EA: It depends on the family. It depends on the choices you make and the lies you tell.

JG: Sure. But it always…

EA: It becomes complicated.

JG: Sure, but it always implies lies at some point.

EA: You don’t always have to know you’re lying, however. There’s a basic difference.

JG: [laughs] OK, I see.

EA: That’s very important. Do people know they’re lying or not? Or have they accommodated into their lies so much that they find them the equivalent of truth? It’s not simple.

JG: Yeah, I’m sure… Do you think “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” still works the same way it used to work when it was written?

EA: How did it work then?

JG: I don’t know…

EA: Then how do you know if it works the same now?

JG: Don’t you know?

EA: I don’t know what you mean by “How did it work?”. Has the nature of the play changed? It should be rewritten if it has. Are you trying to find out how to direct it or how to make it work in some way that it hasn’t worked before? Or make it somewhat different?

JG: Actually, no. I don’t think I’m trying to find a way to direct it or interpret it in a different way. I’m just asking myself how a play that has been…

EA: Well, you can’t direct it without interpreting it.

JG: Yes, of course. But I’m always asking myself how a text that has been written 50 years ago can work…

EA: Was it valid 50 years ago? Is it still valid? It depends on what area of validity you’re after. Does the language seem dated? That’s one thing. Do we no longer believe what the people are saying? Were they ever telling the truth or were they always lying? Is it badly written? Well written? There’s so many variables there… and I don’t think there’s a simple, single solution to any of the problems.

JG: I see.

EA: The better plays tend to keep working in the way they work. I don’t think you have to try to bring them up-to-date. It depends upon how accurately you wish to translate the experience. I’m not saying how well, but how accurately.

JG: So it’s again a matter of interpretation.

EA: Of course. Everything is.

JG: There are universal issues in your plays, so to say.

EA: Well yes, love always changes; the way that it’s practiced always changes…

JG: Many people tend to think that your play about the goat has a metaphorical quality?

EA: You know what my answer to that is all the time?

JG: What?

EA: You can’t fuck a metaphor.

JG: [laughs] Yeah, I see.

EA: It’s that simple.

JG: But can you love a metaphor?

EA: The play is not about love, it’s about fucking.

JG: Yeah, but Martin is trying to explain to Stevie that it’s not only about fucking, but about love. That’s what he tries to explain to…

EA: Yes, it’s the one thing that cannot be defined.

JG: Love?

EA: Because it’s different for everybody.

JG: Do you think so?

EA: Of course.

JG: So nobody can understand somebody else’s love? It’s not an experience you can share…

EA: You can get close to it. Your version of the same feelings. But you can never be another person. So how do you really know how close your definition is?

JG: You never know.

EA: Of course, it depends on who you are and who the other person is. It is always approximate. Can you define love?

JG: No.

EA: All right.

JG: But I think I can understand when people speak about it. I mean, I can relate to my experiences…

EA: Only to yours.

JG: Only to mine.

EA: Or to what you’ve read about other experiences.

JG: Or to what I’ve read or seen in movies or in theater… Don’t you think it’s reliable enough to relate to this?

EA: It’s all we’ve got. We don’t have anything else to relate to.

JG: But it’s not enough, obviously [laughs].

EA: It’s what we have.

JG: That’s true.

EA: Everything is approximate.

JG: But I’m asking myself all the time this question: why some plays are very popular and considered to work better than other plays. For example, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a landmark play. And then some other plays are not…

EA: It’s got to be a landmark play because it’s been around long enough and most people have decided it’s OK. That’s why it’s a landmark play.

JG: Sure. But why do they decide in such unanimity?

EA: Sometimes they can be partially right, sometimes they can be partially wrong, some plays become very popular because they become very popular. The popularity of some work is its popularity. It’s popular because it’s popular. It’s there because everybody wants to see it, whether it’s worth bothering to see or not. But still, everybody wants to see it. That’s why it’s popular, that’s why everybody sees it; because they’re supposed to.

JG: You have your favorite plays though? Don’t you? And others that are not your favorites… I mean do you love some of your own plays more than other?

EA: No, I like them for different reasons. They try different things.

JG: But never the same way.

EA: Do I think some are better than others?

JG: Do you?

EA: I don’t know how accurate my version would be.

JG: At least, do you think that that the plays you consider your better plays are considered the better ones by many other people?

EA: There’s quite often a difference.

JG: There’s quite often a difference? Are your most praised plays not the plays you love the most?

EA: Not necessarily! Often not. I suspect that I’m probably right, ultimately, as to which is… better (I hate the term “better”)… which are the most useful, which teaches more, which offers more opportunities to explore more interesting things. Some plays are fairly straightforward and simple and reveal their wonders, whatever they may be, very quickly, so you can go about your business and do something else. Others are complex. Some plays are simpleminded, but they’re very popular and very effective. I never know what any definition of excellence is based on or what it means. Now, I know that in commercial theater, in the East now as well as the West, excellence is determined by how much money the play will make.

JG: Sure, that’s one definition.

EA: That’s the basic definition. Will it make a lot of money for the people who put it on?

JG: You know, I spoke to some producers in Hollywood… They said they knew which the good scripts were. They wouldn’t produce them, though. They would produce the ones that are going to bring them money. They still know which script is better.

EA: Well of course. The people who are doing this shit are not idiots, they’re cynics!

JG: Yeah [laughs].

EA: They know what will work. They know what audience they’re after, they know how few truths they can tell and get away with…

JG: …which target group is going to like this and that…

EA: Of course!… One thing you must try to do if you’re being a writer, a serious writer, is to not think about those things. It’s hard. Because the pressures are always there to think that way, to think the way the cynics do.

JG: So, you never gave in to this pressure? Did you ever give in to this pressure?

EA: No, I don’t think so. No, I’ve never changed anything or done anything other than what I thought I should be doing for the value of the play, what was true for the play. Whether anybody likes it or not – that’s their problem.

JG: So does each play have its own rules that are invented during the process of writing it? Or you have general rules that apply to each one of your plays…

EA: The rules will apply themselves.

JG: So there’s only one way a play can exist? And you try to find this way?

EA: Yeah. Well, there are many ways, some of them are half-true, some of them are completely false, some of them lessen the experience, some of them really give you the entire experience. It’s only in part [about] how they’re performed. It’s about their nature, as well.

JG: Of course. [pause] So there’s only one possible way a play of yours can satisfy you? And you find it in the end…

EA: Yes, as much as it does satisfy me, as little as I have failed…

JG: [laughs] I see. Do you give yourself such an account “I failed with this play” – and what do you do with the plays that you failed with?

EA: I think I failed at all of them.

JG: All of them? [laughs]

EA: Well, you know what Beckett said…

JG: Probably, yeah.

EA: Fail, fail again, fail better.

JG: So it applies to your plays. I get it.

EA: Fail better.

JG: Yeah, that’s a good principle. And it’s a very demanding principle.

EA: Get as close as you can to not failing, without failing in the opposite direction of oversimplification or lying.

JG: That’s a good principle.

EA: Is a play better if it leaves you satisfied rather than dissatisfied? I’m not sure. Understanding what’s happening in a play, fully, does that demand oversimplifying to the point that you’ve started lying? Probably. Every play should be dissatisfying in a way.

JG: Dissatisfying?

EA: Dissatisfying. Because to satisfy everybody and everything on all levels, you’ve probably had to simplify to the point of absurdity.

JG: Yeah, that’s a good definition. Is this a law?

EA: Make interesting choices, do dangerous and interesting things to see what happens. As a writer.

JG: Is there a play that you think people never understood well enough? A play of yours that had no…

EA: A play of mine?

JG: A play of yours.

EA: I’d have to know what they think they’re seeing. I’d have to know what the nature is of the experience that they think they’re having. And then I can say, well that’s not quite the experience I hoped you’d have. But pretty close!

JG: So when you write a play, you hope for some experiences, you hope that some feelings of yours will be shared…

EA: I hope that there’s some coordination between the nature of the experience I want the audience to have – I can’t tell you what it is – and the nature of the experience I see them having. The closer they are to each other, the better off we are.

JG: So was there a play of yours when the experience you expected from the audience and the actual experience of the audience didn’t match at all?

EA: The only thing I can tell you is that I have learned over the years that plays of mine which audiences find less satisfying I think are just as good as the ones the audience finds satisfying. I find them more complex, I find that they are asking more of the audience than the audience may wish to contribute and does that make them better because they’re easier? No, but does making them too complex make them better? No.

JG: Not necessarily so.

EA: No, of course not.

JG: What happens to your new play?

EA: The new one?

JG: “Laying an Egg”?

EA: “Laying an Egg”… I’ve just got a little more work to do on that, not much, just a little bit. Having been sick with my heart problem and everything, I’ve had to stop working on it for a while. And I still don’t have my full energy back, my intellectual energy… I’m getting closer, I’m knowing more and more how I’m going to get exactly where I’m going. But I have to wait until the mind functions enough. I’ll get there, sooner or later. [pause] I think I’ve gotten rid of the Bulgarian. There was a Bulgarian in the play.

JG: Really? There was a Bulgarian character in the play?

EA: Yes. She was a doctor. A Bulgarian doctor. I think she’s going…

JG: Does it have to do with your stay in Bulgaria? You were writing there, I remember.

EA: I know, yeah. That’s why I made her Bulgarian.

JG: Did your stay there and the experience you had somehow influenced this character or the play in general?

EA: I don’t think so, no.

JG: So it was arbitrary, that the doctor was a Bulgarian? Not a Hungarian, for example?

EA: Well, probably just because I happened to…

JG: Is it exotic for the American audience for the doctor to be a Bulgarian? Or it’s not?

EA: It’s a little odd. But that’s not why I took her out of the play. It was just taking the play in areas where I didn’t want certain metaphors to be thought about. Oh, is it metaphorical or is it real? Like you can’t fuck a metaphor. Same thing. Some people seriously said to me, as you know: is the goat metaphorical? Is it a metaphor?

JG: Is it not? [laughs]

EA: Of course not! It’s a real goat.

JG: Many people tend to… Everybody understands that it is not a metaphor in the play. They’re watching the play and they see that this is not a metaphor. But afterwards, after they try to realize what it was about, so to say, they tend to interpret it in a metaphorical way, because they say…

EA: Well, it’s easier.

JG: No, not only because it’s easier… It’s also because they want to grasp some kind of universal meaning, which applies to them. For example, they ask themselves: if I have a lover and I have to tell my wife, then I will have the same difficulties this guy had with telling her about the goat. Of course, he has extreme difficulties…

EA: It’s impossible for the goat not to be both metaphorical and real, at the same time. It’s impossible.

JG: That’s true.

EA: If you think about the fact of the goat, you’re thinking in metaphorical terms. You can’t avoid it. It’s not a choice that can be made there.

JG: You always go into metaphorical fields.

EA: It has to be both.

JG: Both at the same time. So this is a normal tendency. If they see the reality of this goat onstage and then trying to grasp the meaning of the play: ah, there’s a universal thing about it…

EA: The goat is not concerned with the meaning of the goat.

JG: That’s true. It’s in the field of the interpretation.

EA: And why anybody else should be, I don’t know. I mean, you meet some guy and he says, hey, I’ve seen a real cute goat. Oh boy, a real cute goat. Hey, isn’t that nice? He’s not asking a metaphorical question. He’s asking how the fuck is she in bed? Or in the stall? (Hay?)

JG: This was a practice in the distant mountains areas centuries ago. Even last century. Sometimes in the recruited army… So, many people understand it literally. Some of them don’t think about it as metaphor, not at all. But some of them do. They say, ah, there’s another meaning to it. There’s something that has to tell us about our condition.

EA: You see… making a thing a metaphor can diminish its immediacy.

JG: … and make it cozier.

EA: You can’t smell a metaphor.

JG: Sure.

EA: And so why people want to do these things… Some people think that making something metaphorical makes it more important, more universal, better. It’s not.

JG: Justified.

EA: It avoids participating in it.

JG: So it’s kind of shield?

EA: “I’m not doing anything wrong,” it’s a metaphor.

JG: It’s kind of shelter?

EA: Of course it is.

JG: “The author is a humanist, so he probably speaks in metaphorical terms.” [laughs]

EA: That’s in my way of thinking clearly about things.

JG: We don’t need to be “afraid of the wolf”, so to say.

EA: When I wrote “The Goat”, it never occurred to me that the goat was metaphorical. Not for a second. This is a deeply emotional love, and also it’s physical love. You can’t avoid one to focus on the other, because you’re only doing half of what the play’s about. If it was only about being in love with a goat, that’s not a criminal act. Fucking a goat is a criminal act. For example.

JG: Yeah, love is not to be incriminating when it doesn’t imply physical intercourse. There is something even more problematic than fucking a goat, and this is being in love with a goat… Martin can’t explain this to Stevie. She refuses to believe that he may be in love with the goat. She does only at the end of Act 2 and this is why she eventually kills the goat.

EA: But is he in love with the goat? Or is he in love with the idea of being in love with the goat?

JG: Aha! He might be in love with the idea of being in love with the goat?

EA: He might be, yes. Things are often really more complex than they seem, at times. Everybody wants to get simple answers. Everybody wants one-sentence answers to everything. And there are no valid one-sentence answers, except that a) we’re born, b) we die… And how satisfying we can make these experiences to our need for total experience defines how interesting our mind is. … Now what good does this do, this conversation? Does it tell you anything?

JG: Yeah. It does. It told me many things.

EA: It is interesting to me that it never occurred to me that fucking the goat was metaphorical.

JG: This came to you after people started asking you: “Is she a metaphor?”

EA: Yes, yes. Of course it’s a real goat. You can’t fuck a metaphor.

JG: Yeah but fucking a real goat implies metaphorical meaning?

EA: If you wish to imply metaphorical meaning to it.

JG: So you don’t wish to?

EA: It never occurred to me…

JG: You just don’t think about it?

EA: I was concerned with the reality. Real person, real goat. If it was a metaphorical goat, you couldn’t see it or hear it, because it wouldn’t be there. And so how could you have an experience with a metaphorical goat? You could think about having an experience with a metaphorical goat, but the play is not about thinking about having an experience.

JG: It’s about having this experience.

EA: It’s about having a real experience with a real goat. It’s not about having a real experience with a metaphorical goat or having a metaphorical experience with a real goat. It’s about neither of those. What happens is a real experience with a real goat.

JG: But if ‘he might be in love with the idea of being in love with the goat’?

EA: Of course, certainly, that’s possible, sure. We do all sorts of bizarre things to justify our behavior. And other people say: well, since it’s only a goat… I’m not hurting anything, how could I possibly emotionally damage a goat, just ‘cause I’m fucking it?

JG: So being in love with the idea of being in love with the goat is a justification on Martin’s behalf? To justify the fact that he fucked a goat?

EA: No! He’s not apologizing for it.

JG: He’s not apologizing, yeah, but he’s trying to give an explanation to his wife. She cannot explain to herself how it’s possible. So he explains that he’s in love.

EA: He’s trying to talk to her in terms that she can understand, it has nothing to do with what he is feeling. He is feeling that the goat is just as valid and three-dimensional as anybody else. And he doesn’t feel that he is intellectually or morally damaged.

JG: By having such feelings?

EA: Yes. Most people can rationalize their way out of it. But he can’t.

JG: Is there a theme that…

EA: I hate themes.

JG: Don’t you have themes that reappear in different plays of yours? Recurring themes?

EA: I don’t think in those terms. In the play that I’m writing, these things happen to these people in these situations. Let’s examine the results. I don’t make many moral judgments in my plays, basically. I let the characters make their own moral judgments to complicate the matter. But no, I’m interested in examining the real thing that has come up. I don’t drag into it all sorts of moral conclusions, which would affect my writing. No, I try to become completely amoral in my judgments. I’m interested in what is happening to real people in real situations. If they have to go so far as to think that they’re metaphors to survive, that’s their problem.

JG: What about the theme about the baby? It is in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” , “The Play about the Baby”, “Laying an Egg” I guess… Isn’t it a recurring theme?

EA: What are the themes? {???}

JG: The theme about the lost child, or the unknown…

EA: The lost child?

JG: Not the lost child, but how to put it… the unrealized child? No, that’s not a good term…

EA: It’s not the same child, though.

JG: It’s always different?

EA: Yes, of course.


EA: One of my favorite phrases about theater, which we have to be able to do to really penetrate what theater’s all about, I forget whose phrase it was: the suspension of disbelief. That’s so important: the suspension of disbelief.

JG: Temporarily suspend it, in order to have a genuine experience.

EA: Well, we suspend disbelief sometimes because it’s the only way we can survive, we think, in a situation.

JG: So that’s something we do not only in a theatrical environment. The suspension of disbelief?

EA: I can think of half of Shakespeare’s plays in which if you couldn’t suspend your disbelief, you’d see that these plays don’t make any sense.

JG: By the way, do you like Shakespeare?

EA: Sometimes.

JG: Some plays or sometimes?

EA: Not always. No.

JG: So you don’t like particular plays, but sometimes you like him…

EA: I usually find there’s enough interesting stuff to find reasons both to approve and disapprove of old Shakespeare’s conclusions and theories in plays, yes. I think some of them, I would say, oh come on, try a little harder! They’re not all first-rate.

JG: Because he’s not in your list of favorite playwrights, as far as I remember. You told me once that your favorite playwrights were Brecht, Pirandello, Chekhov, and who else?

EA: Beckett, of course.

JG: Beckett, yes. And Shakespeare wasn’t one of them.

EA: He’s a pretty fucking good playwright, yes. There’s so much questioning about how much he wrote, how much he didn’t, how much other people wrote, but it doesn’t matter. A lot of the plays are fucking good. Yeah, they’re fine.

JG: Is Hamlet one of those?

EA: I don’t know, probably.

JG: Is there a favorite play of yours of Shakespeare?

EA: Of Shakespeare? I don’t like to think in terms of favorites.

JG: Right, I see.

EA: I’m pretty fond of Lear, although I’ve got a couple problems with it. But it might be several hundreds years difference between the original experience and experiencing it now, and can I experience the same play that Shakespeare’s audience experienced? I don’t think so. Try to make people have this experience of a play: that they’re not going to take a test about it afterwards, that they can suspend their disbelief without much problem, and that, hey, it’s interesting.

JG: What about your plays and metaphysics? Is there any metaphysics in your plays?

EA: Define metaphysics.

JG: Any transcendence from the literal world of the facts to the…

EA: Once you experience fact, there’s always metaphor involved.

JG: There’s always metaphor involved. Yeah, there’s no way.

EA: There’s no way for it not to be.

JG: So you are trying to avoid it?

EA: So the question doesn’t come up.

JG: I see. It’s irrelevant, simply.

EA: Absolutely.

JG: Yeah, but many people again, like it’s on the level of interpretation, would say that there is metaphysics in your plays.

EA: If it makes them happy.

JG: [laughs] Let them think so.

EA: I’m not saying there isn’t, because I don’t know what their definition of metaphysics is. Everybody has a different definition of metaphysics, and five people, three can say “yes, there is metaphysics in this play,” two can say “not” and depending upon what they all mean by it, none of them may be right!

JG: So it’s a question of definition of terms.

EA: You see, I just worry that too many people want simple answers to things. And everything spelled out, everything clear, nothing demanding suspension of disbelief. Some people want all that – or that little.

JG: And you never bothered to give them such answers?

EA: No. Because I’d have to find answers of some validity if I was going to do that. No two people see the same play. So how can you possibly expect us to give a definition as to what happens in the play? It can’t be done.

JG: OK, that’s a good conclusion.

EA: (Pointing at somebody in the air.) Do you like it? Good. (Pointing at somebody else in the air.) You don’t? Ah, fuck yourself! (Pointing at a third person in the air.) You think it works, (pointing again) you think it doesn’t work. Interesting. (Pointing) What about you? You think it works sometimes, oh? (Pointing again) You don’t think it ever works. I wonder how much of this is your limitation and how much is the playwright’s? Well, the playwright can’t have a limitation if the playwright doesn’t exist. It’s all real experience. People are after coherence. As if it means something. Coherence is basically what we can believe. Individually.

JG: And the world seems to be incoherent. Do you consider yourself an absurdist playwright?

EA: The term has no meaning anymore. None whatsoever.

JG: Once it used to be valid?

EA: No, it was considered to be valid. It wasn’t necessarily.

JG: Martin Esslin’s term…

EA: Martin Esslin’s term was closest, maybe, it’s a good term. But that was a philosophical concept. That was OK, but that wasn’t satisfying enough and absurdist plays eventually became nonrealistic plays in which unpleasant ideas were asked and not answered.

JG: [laughs] That’s a good definition!

EA: A play is about what happens and what doesn’t happen. And that’s it. And about the people in it. The play doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the reader or the observer. What definitions we make of the experience that other people are having. And we don’t think about… Do you ever go to a play and think about “where will I find the metaphor?”

JG: No.

EA: Most people do. They’re called critics.

JG: Or they expect to find something like that because they are educated this way; to expect it and to demand it.

EA: Yes, of course. It gets in the way.

JG: And then if they don’t find it, they think it’s skin-deep.

EA: They think that they’ve been cheated. Really. Because they’ve been out looking for the wrong thing.

JG: Happens often.

EA: You say you can simply, look for answers, so many answers, but you can simplify validity out of existence. But that’s because people go to the theater as if they have to take a test.

JG: Do you have expectations that your plays would be valid in the next century or you don’t bother to think about it?

EA: I’m only concerned what I’ll be around for. I just don’t think that every production should be aggressively trying to be different. And that happens too much. And that’s the director showing off. Trying to intentionally look at a different way at the same thing.

JG: Don’t you think that theater has its own ways, independent of the playwright? That it has its own laws and meaning?

EA: Does a string quartet have that? Yes.

JG: In Europe there’s the so-called post-dramatic theater, which does not necessarily emerge out of playwriting but also out of situations between participants. Do you believe in that?

EA: Good plays can come out of actors too. But it’s usually better to have some kind of controlling intelligence. Somebody can write a play in which all the characters are hopelessly boring. Very true, very valid, but pretty bad. Some control of intelligence usually helps. How long are you here?

JG: I leave tomorrow.

EA: You always come see me the day before you leave.

JG: I’m going back for the 100th performance of “The Goat” in Sofia.

EA: Give everybody my regards. The whole cast.

JG: Thank you. I will.

EA: Have you changed the cast a lot?

JG: No, not at all.

EA: The same cast? Aren’t they getting old?

JG: Yes, they are three years older now, but it still works. [laughs] They’re in very good shape.

EA: Good.


Transcription: Angela Rodel & Dimiter Kenarov