Edward Albee: The grand inquisitor

'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' has been called 'filth' - but someone has to investigate the American way of life, Edward Albee tells Michael Coveney
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Since Arthur Miller died last year, the Greatest Living American Playwright mantle has been quietly assumed by Edward Albee, although he'd be the last person publicly to lay claim to it. Not his style.

Now aged 77, Albee has slipped into London to oversee the latest revival of his best-known play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the no-holds-barred marital dust-up featuring the party games of "get the guests" and "hump the hostess" in the dead-of-night den of George and Martha. The revival, starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin, directed by our own Anthony Page, opened to rave reviews this week.

In the past 10 years, Page directed Three Tall Women and The Goat, plays about, respectively, Albee's intimidating, high-society mother, and a love affair between an architect and a goat, which re-established him in New York and London after a low-key decade starting in the mid-Eighties. His come-back was on a par with that of Lazarus.

Not that he ever stopped writing. "I don't depend on acceptance to keep on doing my work," he says. He treats those twin impostors, victory and defeat, with laconic indifference. "Though it's much preferable when people say 'yesy to when they say 'no'," he adds, carefully unveiling a good set of teeth in a twinkling smile, eyes slightly glazed with reminiscence. "I've had some wonderful productions and wonderful receptions lately, but that will all change, all even out! I just want the fucking plays to communicate with people."

He exudes the easy self-confidence of a man who has seen it all, from Greenwich Village in the early Fifties - where he signed up for Surrealism, modern music, poetry and gay lifestyle - to the new harsh, puritanical patriotism and internment camps of the Bush era. "I'm worried about democracy," he says, suddenly. "One may have to go to the barricades. Have we lived so long, and been through so much, to end up like this?"

He appears slightly uneasy in the grandiose, grey austerity of his Aldwych hotel. We sit quietly and order up coffee and tea. Albee is a wiry, watchful character, with a hearing- aid in one ear and a trimmed grey moustache, who you'd guess was in his early sixties. Unlike his great compatriots William Inge and Tennessee Williams, he has come out the other side of his drinking years to live another day.

Albee was the first anatomist of the American dream, the scourge of Wasp married society and suburbia, the unaccommodated poet in his unasked-for milieu, much as Eugene O'Neill had been among his own family of drinkers, guiltiness and ghosts.

He was adopted at birth into a privileged but stultifying environment in upstate New York - a child of luxury and lovelessness - and the wellspring of his art has been that temperamental rejection of the born outsider. In Albee's case, he scored a double whammy: adopted and gay.

Born Edward Harvey, he was adopted by the childless Reed and Frances Albee. Reed owned a chain of vaudeville theatres, Frances (one foot taller and 23 years younger than her husband) was a well-heeled product of the Wasp factory, racist and snobbish. They lived in Larchmont, 20 miles from New York ("a huge distance", says Albee), where Edward enjoyed, or endured, electric train sets, private schools, nannies and tennis lessons with national hero Donald Budge.

Three Tall Women (1991) is the wonderfully moving and funny resolution of his domestic statelessness, and a scathing character study - as triptych - of Frances.

At 14, he went to a military academy, then prep school and college. Decamping to the Big Apple, and spurning his folks in no uncertain terms, he settled for a life of drinking, music, boys, and work in an advertising agency and then - for three years in the mid 1950s - as a messenger for Western Union.

At 30, he wrote his first play, Zoo Story, as a present to himself and attended the world premiere in Berlin in 1959, where it was presented with Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. The play is a searing confrontation between two types of New York man meeting on a park bench, climaxing in grisly violence. Albee was asked if he wrote like Williams or Beckett. He replied: "Neither. Both. I write like me." Norman Mailer declared, "That's the best fucking one-act play I've ever seen." George Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, denounced it as "filth" in the Senate.

"My life changed. I did nothing that was expected of me: to be a businessman, lawyer, married. I could have done none of those things well and would have been unhappy."

In the Village, Albee became domiciled with the much older composer William Flanagan for seven years, segueing into a series of tempestuous relationships before settling for more than 35 years with the Canadian artist and sculptor Jonathan Thomas. The latter died two years ago of cancer. Having nursed him through the painful, protracted conclusion of his life, Albee seems reconciled to his own loneliness. He doesn't show much, though.

I nervously suggest he must be tired of discussing Virginia Woolf, a play that opened during the Cuban missile crisis and seemed to encapsulate something stirring in campus life and relationships across the country during the Kennedy years. He's not. "Everyone, you know, has one or two plays that they are well known for. Sometimes they're the best play, sometimes they're not." Is Virginia Woolf his best play? "That's not for me to say. I'm proud of most of my work."

No play like Virginia Woolf had ever opened cold on Broadway. "For Dirty-Minded Females Only", screamed one headline. One critic described it as "three and a half hours long, four characters wide and a cesspool deep".

Albee became a rallying point for the new generation of playwrights. Zoo Story had marked him as America's John Osborne as far as the young playwright John Guare was concerned: "I was in a daze. I was at sea but not drowning. The future had finally shown up."

I run quickly past the various London productions since the first one starring the terrifying earth mother Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill. There was Margaret Tyzack and Paul Eddington at the National in 1981. Next came Patrick Stewart and Billie Whitelaw at the Young Vic in 1987. And then, 10 years ago, Diana Rigg at the Almeida was an extraordinary Martha in her silvery, zebra-striped leggings. Albee is more forthcoming about David Suchet's George, which he describes as "marvellous".

Albee has got going now. He reminds me of his tussle with the Lord Chamberlain when the play was presented in London in 1964 (state censorship of theatre ended in 1968). He went to an office in Whitehall for a discussion about, among other things, the opening line: "Jesus H Christ!"

"Well, what's your alternative?" asked Albee. "I was told that that was my job, so I jokingly suggested 'Mary H Christ' and they said, that's fine! I went back to the show with 47 rewrites and we ignored them all."

Either side of Virginia Woolf, Albee has participated in the society, as well as the theatre, of his day to a rare degree. The Death of Bessie Smith is a candescent one-act play (seen at the Royal Court in 1962) set in a hospital that is refusing to admit the jazz singer who has died, after an accident, en route from being refused admission at a whites-only hospital. "It was a useful play," he says. "It works. And it helped break the colour line in South Africa."

While writing short plays - The American Dream and, especially, The Sandbox are worth a fresh look - Albee and his associate producers, using profits from Virginia Woolf, leased a theatre in the Village for six months of each year from 1963 to 1969, producing new playwrights such as John Guare and Sam Shepard.

More recently, he has taught for 15 years at Houston, Texas, working with young playwrights. "I think if you have an ability to teach, it's your responsibility to do it. I don't understand the people who don't think it's their job to do this."

In one of his most haunting plays, A Delicate Balance (1966), beautifully acted in a Peter Hall production here and revived in 1997 with Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith, a married couple arrive at their neighbours' house in the middle of the night, possessed by terror, unable to go home.

What is Edward Albee afraid of? He gives me a strange look. "I'm not afraid of anything, really, except the Bush administration. Any Democratic administration is preferable to a Republican one. Their failings are more humane. "

Does he write every day, still? "I always travel with a notebook in which I scribble. I behave every day like a writer. But I don't write things down every day because my characters don't want to talk every day...."

'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' is at the Apollo Theatre, London W1 (020-7494 5070) to 13 May