Edward Albee: Still playing in the zoo

He has always been a controversial playwright. But, Edward Albee tells Paul Taylor, his new play about an affair between a man and a goat is less about bestiality than it is about 'unexamined taboos and moral principles'

It's a classic - not to say stereotypical - scenario. A loving, long-standing marriage is sundered by a sudden, unforeseen infidelity. The savage twist in Edward Albee's new play (which began previewing last week and opens next week at London's Almeida theatre) is that the "other woman" is from a different species. Martin, the 50-year-old, super-successful architect hero, has lost his heart to a goat. The animal goes by the name of Sylvia and is on the receiving end of Martin's ardent carnal attentions.

Albee assures me that bestial relations are more common than we think. "I did a lot of research on this. I teach at the University of Houston, where many of the tenured professors used to be farm boys. And I would sort of get to know them and ask them questions. 'You were raised on a farm?' 'Yes.' 'Any funny stuff with the animals?' And almost invariably they would say yes.

"I discovered that with boys it was goats or sheep; occasionally, putting a hand up a cow. And with girls it was always dogs - or, in extreme cases, horses."

It must have been pretty odd for those Houston academics to have America's greatest living dramatist sidle up to them in the SCR and make leading enquiries about their sexual conquests of livestock. And it feels a shade surreal, I can tell you, sitting in an Almeida dressing-room with the 75-year-old three-time Pulitzer prize-winner, calmly chatting about such matters.

Still, in for a penny, in for a pound. I tease Albee that I am thinking of bringing a goat as my guest to the press night. "As long as she's well behaved," he chips back, unfazed.

"Why do you assume it'll be a she?" I ask.

The eyes of the openly gay playwright widen. "Can you imagine what they would have done to me if I'd had a male goat in this play?" he exclaims, adding drily: "One gay person in the family is enough." (In the play, Martin's 17-year-old son, Billy, is homosexual - a fact that's important to a text about the shaky grounds for presuming where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable desire.)

Peter Hall, who directed the British premieres of A Delicate Balance and All Over, once said: "Edward is a very daunting personality. He makes a religion of putting people off. He loves destabilising people." Certainly, Albee has been no stranger to controversy since The Zoo Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hit the American theatre of the early Sixties with a liberating force comparable to the slightly earlier impact of Look Back in Anger in England. In his heavy-boozing days, he would not so much drink people under the table as send them running for cover from his blistering tongue.

On the wagon for many years now, Albee is a playful, droll, fastidious interviewee. Like his characters, who are much given to finicky fussing over semantics (a penchant for precision that, in their case, has comically little effect on the inchoate mess of their lives), he is inclined to pull you up on the exact meaning of your words.

There is rueful amusement in his response to the intolerance that The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? aroused during its (albeit successful and award-winning) Broadway run. "One or two people always walked out - and in the oddest places, like the scene where Billy kisses his father," in a charged, hungry embrace that possibly turns sexual. He received a certain amount of hate-mail ("mostly unsigned") but, significantly, no fan letters from practising heavy-petters. For bestiality is more the catalyst of Albee's drama than its specific subject matter, which is "the unexamined taboo, the unexamined moral principle. I want people to come out of this play trying to imagine how they would respond, had it been happening in their family."

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton, made feathers fly recently by contesting the taboo against sex with animals in a manner consistent with his main contention: that a belief in the inherent higher dignity of man is mere "species-ism", a "prejudice no better founded than the prejudice of white slave-owners against taking the interests of their African slaves seriously." If the sex act does not injure the beast, he asserts, and is consensual - how you would gauge that is left vague - then moral outrage is inappropriate.

When Martin's enraged, scathing wife calls him "an animal", he replies: "I thought we all were... animals." But the play, an (often mordantly funny) ironic tragedy, pursues a somewhat different line. According to Martin (played by Jonathan Pryce), his experience is quite distinct from that of the rather sad folk who attend the animal-lovers' therapy group. He claims that, at first sight, there was a connection between him and Sylvia that had the ecstatic power of an epiphany. Through the idea of a rapturous affair with a goat, Albee graphically illustrates the dark irrationality and uncontrollable onslaught of love. And through the horrified reactions to the violation of a questionable taboo, he dramatises the destructive effects of unthinking disgust. "That's the interesting thing about the second scene," the playwright says. "The husband and wife are talking about two totally different things. He's trying to explain what happened and how extraordinary it was and how it can't even be discussed in relation to other matters, and she's trying to get an apology out of him."

Like the bulk of Albee's work, The Goat trains a bracingly clinical eye on its material. It manages to be at once lacerating, mischievous and detached. He ascribes his outsider's perspective to never having known his natural parents: he grew up as the adopted acquisition of a very wealthy, bigoted couple - Reed Albee, heir to the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theatres, and Frankie, a tall, head-turning former department-store mannequin - whose Larchmont-Palm Beach values he rejected. "I was pleased and relieved when, at around the age of five, I discovered that I was adopted." A childhood spent among aliens "gives you an objectivity that is quite worth whatever sense of loss or betrayal you may feel."

Edward Albee is, to a phenomenal degree, a self-created man. Revealingly, he has never tried to trace his natural parents; and when I ask him whether he thinks that sperm-donors should have the right to remain anonymous, he replies: "I certainly have no developed moral objection."

He has had a number of long-term relationships, living since 1971 with the Canadian sculptor Jonathan Thomas, who has recently been treated for cancer. But the desire for children "never occurred to me". He smiles and adds: "I started having plays instead." His mother's prejudices drove him out of the house for good in 1949 and may have been what prompted her, despite their uneasy rapprochement, dating from the mid-Sixties, to leave her money "to a church she never attended and a hospital that did her no good". A writer, though, can always get the last laugh. His later, astringent but not ungenerous play about Frankie, Three Tall Women (seen in London in 1994), gave him his biggest hit in years.

The self-belief that has buoyed Albee through longish stretches of critical rejection is audible in the quiet, amused finality of his various pronouncements during this interview. On style: "There's no such thing as naturalism; only relative stylisation." On cannibalising life: "Every time I've taken a real person as the basis for a character, my invention has been more interesting than the person." On difficult actors: "Frank Langella is very good at playing sub-humans." And on the "disgraceful" George Bush: "He's not the legal President. The Supreme Court members whom his father appointed allowed him to stage a coup d'état."

The creative juices show no sign of drying up. He has recently finished Home Life, a "prequel, though I hate the word" to his landmark one-act drama debut, The Zoo Story. And he is planning a play "based on a short story by Sylvia Townsend Warner, about a brother and sister who married each other", which will allow him to explore "what identity really is". As for the upswing in his critical fortunes, he remains characteristically sceptical and stoic: "Oh, I fully expect to go out of fashion again and to bounce back when I'm 90."

'The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?', the Almeida, London N1 (020-7359 4404; www.almeida.co.uk) 3 February to 13 March

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