Edward Albee Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
FINDING THE SUN:
Memories of a Friendship with Edward Albee
by Daryl Chin
I started to do performances in 1976, but was very dissatisfied: I was not a natural performer, and my work was quite uneven (not to say mediocre). Imagine my surprise when, about a year later, I was contacted by Crystal Field at Theater for the New City. She had read my plays, which were part of the Playwrights Bank at CAPS (Creative Artists Public Service), the individual artist’s grant program of the New York State Council on the Arts. She thought my plays were unusual and original, and that I should direct my own work. I had never considered working in the theater, but decided to give it a try. Admittedly, my first time out was an utter disaster. I could not control the actors, the text went through many revisions, and I was never satisfied. But Crystal decided to stick by me, and gave me another chance to come up with a theater work. This time, I was very deliberate in my choices, and I came up with a text that would not allow for any deviation by the actors. I tried to be as careful as possible with the casting process, making sure the actors were prepared to hew to the text. The resulting piece, Apoplectic Fit, came as close to fulfilling my intentions as possible. As usual, I sent out flyers, using the mailing list provided by Theater for the New City (as well as my own friends and acquaintances). Since I had already worked as a film curator and critic, I had a small base of support. One thing: my work was being presented in the small, “experimental” space of TNC, and I sat on the side, in view of the audience, so that I could work the lights and the sound (a trick I gleaned from seeing the work of Richard Foreman, where he would sit in full view of the audience to work the lights and the buzzers).
Imagine my surprise when one person who came to see this piece was Edward Albee. Yes, his name had been on the mailing list from TNC, but so was Arthur Miller’s. So began an unlikely friendship. There was an interruption: I would not present a performance work for more than two years, because I had a job with the CETA Artists Project from 1979-1980. When I did return to doing performances in 1980, Edward returned to see them when he could. He also invited me to some of his plays during that period when he was “in the wilderness” and his work was received often with outright hostility. One example would be The Man Who Had Three Arms from 1982. Edward invited me near the end of its abbreviated run on Broadway; afterwards, we went out for coffee. He told me about what he had intended with the play and shared his observations on the state of culture. He never tried to justify the play, but his assumption was that he had the right to experiment (and this play was as close to the “absurdist” aesthetic with which he had been aligned in his early work as he would get), even if he failed.
From 1982 until 1985, I would make an annual trip to the San Diego area (Imperial Beach, to be exact); during one trip in 1983, I realized that Edward was doing a residency at the University of California-Irvine. (This was a period when Edward would do various engagements at universities: he had an annual teaching job at the University of Houston, but there were occasional residencies at other universities, where he often would direct a production of his own work or the work of writers he admired.) So I called my friend Susan Imhoff, because (as a native New Yorker) I don’t drive. We agreed to make the trip, and we made our arrangements. Edward was directing a production of a new play, Finding the Sun. The University of North Carolina had commissioned it during his artist’s residency there the year before. We had a lovely drive from San Diego, stopping for lunch (as planned) and arrived in plenty of time. As we went to the box office to get our tickets, Edward saw us, and he seemed delighted to see me. He asked us to meet him after the play. I remember Susan and I walked around the campus, looking at some of the artworks on display.
The production was quite beautiful. The one problem was that the casting of students diminished the sense of different generations among the characters. No amount of make-up can turn young people into one couple in their 60s, two couples in their 30s, and a mother in her 40s. Aside from that, the acting was exceptionally good, with great care in mining both humor and the pathos. Edward mentioned that he had wanted the cast to seem like characters from the plays of Philip Barry and S. N. Behrman, the kind of comedies he had seen as a child when his parents would go to the theater. (This idea, that Edward’s plays are distorted versions of the Broadway comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, was one he had broached in passing, but it explains the structure of many of his plays, especially Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, and Seascape, all of which contain characters who suddenly confront an existential crisis that tips into absurdism.) In Finding The Sun, Edward dealt with certain issues more directly than at any other time in his career: the two married men who are revealed to be lovers, and the society matron and her lackadaisical attitude towards her inquisitive son.
Over the next few years, I would run into Edward, often at the innumerable art fairs that were cropping up in New York City in the period from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s. During this time, he would not present his work in New York City. He did works in other cities, even in Europe, but he had felt so frustrated by the lack of sympathy shown by the theater establishment that he felt it safer to bide his time. He made some memorable comments. One was after a stay in Los Angeles, where he had directed a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Glenda Jackson had played Martha. The production was received with wildly disparate reviews, and had been marked by continual conflict between Edward and the cast. Yet Edward had enjoyed it; he quite liked Jackson’s combative spirit: “She’s like running into a razor blade!” Another was after he had spent a short time on location during the shooting of the film based on Carson McCullers’ novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (he acquired the rights to the material in order to write his 1963 stage adaptation). He had the chance to spend some time with Vanessa Redgrave, an encounter he cherished because of her ardor and the seeming depth of her emotions, as epitomized by “Those eyes! Amazing blue that seems to come from the depth of the sea.” Finally, he had directed a production of Marriage Play at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey, but he was so disgusted with the production that he decided the play should never be done on Broadway. He felt that the whole project was hopeless, and though he knew the play needed revisions, he just regretted the experience.
Marriage Play would be done in New York City, during the Edward Albee season at the Signature Theater in 1994. He had warned me not to see it, and the reviews had been very bad. Finding the Sun was on a bill with Box and The Sandbox. I hadn’t intended to see this production (though Edward was directing this triple bill of one-acts), but I received a call from someone at the Signature Theater: Mr. Albee would like to invite me to see those one-acts at the Sunday matinee. When I got to the box office, a note was waiting for me, asking me to meet after the performance. Edward met me in the lobby, and asked me to come with him backstage: he had some notes for the cast. I remember how succinct he was, and also how warm he was with the cast. When we went out afterwards, he wanted to know what I thought, because I had seen the earlier incarnation of Finding the Sun. It was shorter now, and the older couple did not have as much to do; the focus was on the married couples and the mother and son. He was pleased that I noticed the changes; he explained that the mother and son relationship in this play led him to write Three Tall Women, which had been done in Europe in 1991, but had an off-off-Broadway production at the same time as his Signature season. (He was particularly proud of the teenager who played the son, a young man whose first professional credit this was. He thought the boy could be a major talent, “if he doesn’t get mired in commercial mediocrity”; that boy was James Van Der Beek, who would be noted in all the reviews of Finding the Sun.)
Edward Albee,Three Tall Women, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 2010, Director: Allison Narver Costumes: Melanie Taylor Burgess Lights: Allen Hahn Sound: Paul James PendergastProduction Photo Credits: Matthew Smucker and Chris Bennion
That production of Three Tall Women in 1994 would mark Edward Albee’s triumphant return to the theater establishment. It would move from off-off-Broadway to off-Broadway, where it would receive the best reviews of his career, winning numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. And basically, my friendship with Edward Albee had reached its end. Not in any disagreement or rancor, but for some reason our paths wouldn’t cross. I had stopped doing any sort of performance work by 1986, for a number of reasons. I had tried to move into film production, with quite mixed results. But for Edward, I had been the person who understood his need to develop, his desire for experimentation, his hunger for risk. James Grissom, on his website where he has published material related to interviews he had not included in his book Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog, has provided Williams’s comments about his friendship with Edward Albee. Williams was amazed by Edward’s facility with language, and he valued Edward’s ability to be considerate to Williams’s continued involvement with theater, even if the results were not “successful.” Edward was sympathetic without being sycophantic. And that’s what I was to Edward. What Edward valued in me was that I had no training in the theater: I had started out as a film critic and curator. What I had done (as Michael Kirby would explain) was to use my critical acumen on performance to create performances that were critical works analyzing the conditions of performances that I had seen since the early 1960s (when I was still a child). Edward trusted that critical acumen. He did not want me to coddle him, but he wanted me to acknowledge that he was making honest attempts to experiment, to find new forms, new ideas, new content. And he valued the fact that I could recognize when he had succeeded, as he had done with Finding the Sun.
Edward Albee in 1993.Credit :Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
When Edward died in 2016, I realized that it had been more than two decades since I had seen him last. I had been his friend from the time before The Lady from Dubuque in 1980 to Three Tall Women in 1994; in essence, I had been his guide through the wilderness. I would deliver him back to the theater establishment: after Three Tall Women, he would continue to create new plays, but none would be met with the derision that had greeted plays like The Lady from Dubuque and The Man Who Had Three Arms. And two plays would have a certain degree of success: The Play About the Baby (originally written in 1998) and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (originally written in 2000). I valued his understanding of my work and I hope I provided a sympathetic listener to his ideas.
When he died, there were many tributes, and so many people spoke of his formidable intelligence, his ferocious wit, and his sometimes slashing authority. The Edward I knew was certainly acerbic and caustic, but also oddly vulnerable. He told me things that were revelatory: I would never have guessed that there was a connection between the society comedies of the 1930s and 1940s and Albee’s plays. And he spoke about how many of his plays were about the central trauma of his life: being raised in a family where the parents were constantly at odds with each other, and finding out that, after adopting him, his parents basically had no interest in him. Our friendship was mutually supportive. Edward said that he hoped one day I would direct one of his plays, because the style of acting which I had employed in my theater works (fast-talking, mostly uninflected, and often overlapping) had come from screwball comedies, and that’s how he thought his plays should be performed.
Brooklyn, March-April 2021
Daryl Chin is an artist, critic and curator who has been part of the New York City art world for 40 years. As a curator, he held a residency at the Department of Film of The Museum of Modern Art (1978-80); he has served as a guest curator at The Whitney Museum of American Art among others. As a critic, he began his career as Managing Editor of Film Culture magazine (1976-77); he was Associate Editor of PAJ (Performing Arts Journal) from 1989 to 2004. His essays are included in such anthologies as Asia in New York City: A Cultural Guide (2000), M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists' Writings, Theory, and Criticism, edited by Susan Bee and Mira Schor (2000), Tokens? The NYC Asian American Experience On Stage, edited by Alvin Eng (1999), Queer Looks, edited by Martha Gever, John Greyson and Pratibha Parmar, and Mediating History, edited by Barbara Abrash and Catherine Egan (1992). As a performance artist, he has created over 30 performance pieces from 1976 to 1985. His play The Dialectic of Enlightenment was published by Theatre Communications Group as part of their Plays-in-Process series in 1983. Currently, he maintains a cultural blog, Documents on Art & Cinema (www.d-a-c.blogspot.com).