Theatre: A few good reasons not to be afraid of Edward Albee

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`Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' made Edward Albee a household name. But, for 10 or 12 years, it looked like he'd been forgotten. Enter `Three Tall Women' and a new run of successes on Broadway and in the West End. A delicate balance restored, he might say

In interview, playwrights rarely sound so very different from their plays. Tom Stoppard is witty and word perfect even with an audience of one; Simon Gray teeters mordantly on the edge of self-disgust in person as in prose; and offstage and on Jonathan Harvey is as camp as a Bedouin housing estate. Edward Albee's best known plays have the civilised exterior of East Coast comfort: there are no inarticulate Eddie Carbones in his view from the bridge, only profs and tennis club habitues and well-heeled products of the WASP factory. But open the front door and all you can see is rage and cruelty and slurping alcoholism.

Let's get one thing out of the way. Albee doesn't touch alcohol - or hasn't for over 20 years. But yes, the exterior is very civilised in a mud-coloured tweed sort of way. This is not an original observation, but he is the spitting image of Roy Strong, wiry and grey and long-faced (though with a much less horticultural moustache than either Strong's or the black ferret in his own absurdly out-of-date mugshot on the back of the Penguin edition of Three Tall Women). As for the rage and the cruelty, Albee would argue that his characters tend to display these as the result of a malaise that he himself has taken pains to avoid. "I've always thought there's nothing worse than coming to the end of your life and realising that you haven't participated in it, and so I write about people who have done that to a certain extent." A gym-honed 68, Albee is somewhere between the end and the middle of a life in which he has participated far more actively than George and Martha, the couple in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, whose idea of hell is each other.

So, there's daylight between him and the broiling despair of his characters. But that doesn't mean he's any easier to interview than his plays are to watch. His answers can be unusually short, as if, in his own certainty, he has no need of prolixity. And when they stretch their legs and wander about a bit, they seem to be using their length to crush the crassness out of the question. You can usually tell you've been doltish when the first word of his answer is "probably". As in, how do the ideas make their way into his head in the first place? "Probably because I'm a writer. And they're plays rather than novels because I am a playwright." Ouch. Or why did Three Tall Women, the first Albee play ever to earn unanimous critical approval, open in the New York equivalent of the Almeida? "Probably because Broadway management thought it was too - what's that terrible word? - dark. And also no chandeliers crashed to the floor."

Despite the safety-first policy on Broadway (carbon-copied, Albee believes, in London's West End), Three Tall Women - premiered in Vienna in 1991 and seen here three years later in a production starring Maggie Smith - rescued its author from a slough of commercial despondency. Not that he quite sees it that way. "All that time, a 10- or 12-year period when I wasn't ever put on in New York or London, I had lots of plays in the rest of Europe, around the United States, Latin America, just not New York City. But everybody in the theatre in America thinks New York City is the centre of the universe."

Whatever, the Almeida promptly caught the wave by reviving Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in a staging so successful that, in a coals-to-Newcastle kind of way, it made it all the way to Broadway. Thus Albee now has two influential patrons in Britain: a small but perfectly formed fringe theatre, and the West End impresario Robert Fox. Their roles in the resuscitation of his fortunes are in the process of being reversed. Having revived a hit from the 1960s, the Almeida will next year put on a brand-new play called The Play About the Baby. Fox, meanwhile, having earned his brownie points with a new Albee, now gets to revive A Delicate Balance in a production reuniting Maggie Smith and Tall Women's director Anthony Page.

Premiered on Broadway in 1966, A Delicate Balance has not been performed in London since Peter Hall's RSC production in 1970. It won Albee the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes by ruthlessly holding up a mirror to the predominantly middle-class audiences who would have seen it (and, indeed, will see it in this new revival). It tells of a wealthy suburban couple, Agnes and Tobias, who enjoy a smoothly oiled marriage at odds with both the serial nuptials of their unstable only daughter Julia - who drops by in-between divorces - and the alcoholic depression of Agnes's live-in sister Claire. This menage would function on a perfectly civil war footing were it not for the impromptu invasion of Agnes and Tobias's oldest friends Edna and Harry, who are sitting at home one Friday night and suddenly, for no explicable reason, get frightened. They move in with their best pals, on the shared assumption that they'd always be willing to return the compliment, only to trigger a nihilistic reassessment of the nature of friendship.

Albee swats away all my attempts to find a thematic link between A Delicate Balance and Who's Afraid. "George and Martha are about 20 years younger than the people in A Delicate Balance. The economic structure is different. The social structure is different, the education is different. It's all different." But what's ultimately the same is the bleak view of matrimony, which may or may not have something to do with his rather loveless upbringing as the adopted only child of a wealthy New York couple. (Albee has himself been in a relationship with another man for over 25 years.) The terror in A Delicate Balance goes unnamed, but it is not confined to married heterosexuals. Albee says that "you become aware of it as soon as you realise you're going to die". When did he clock that one? "Quite young." Before or after 30? "Probably around that time. If you're aware of that, then you certainly know that you're supposed to live more fully."

At 30, when he realised he was going to die, Albee started to write performable plays. "I had written a three-act sex farce when I was 12. There were a couple of half-assed attempts at writing plays in my early 20s which I didn't finish. I was a lousy novelist and a not very good poet. I wasn't ready to be a playwright until I was 30." His first, The Zoo Story, was premiered in West Berlin in 1959 - Albee has never been out of fashion in Germany - in a double bill with Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. "There was no off-Broadway and no one wanted an hour-long grumpy play by an unknown American on Broadway." He laughs and says, "That is still the position."

He quit delivering telegrams for Western Union, and within three years had written Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ensuring that, however un- hip, he would never be unknown again. When John Steinbeck (the dedicatee of A Delicate Balance) was sent on a friendship mission to the Soviet Union in 1963, he insisted on taking Albee with him; he was thus in Poland when the President was assassinated. Some playwrights sit at their desk at home and let the grass grow under them. Not Albee, who is lucky enough to be able to write on planes. He has seen roughly 100 different productions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and he polices it and other texts with fatherly protectiveness. He withdrew the rights to a production in Mexico when he heard they'd shortened it. He obliged them to change the set on the recent Broadway production of A Delicate Balance. "It was Bauhaus. I looked at it and said `It's absolutely perfect. There's only one trouble.' `What's that?' `Those people couldn't live there.'" He made it fairly obvious that he "loathed" John Napier's design for the Almeida production of Who's Afraid. "There was so much fucking carpentry and machinery backstage. You couldn't cross the stage behind, and I thought that was terrible. There is a thing about British set design: it's always calling attention to itself. I hate sets that make psychological or symbolic comments."

Other things for which Albee struggles to put together two good words: "the stability of the critical group" (except when it likes his plays); audiences ("trained to want less, to be satisfied with less"); playwrights ("who go on writing plays who haven't got an idea in their head"). This last, of course, will never happen to Albee. "When I have no ideas for plays, I hope I'll have the sense not to try to write them." There is a play called The Goat lined up behind The Play About the Baby. But we'll not know how fashionable Albee has actually become until both these plays have been run past the critical group. And the audience.

`A Delicate Balance' previews at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1, from Wed 15 Oct (booking: 0171-930 8800)

EDWARD ALBEE: A WRITER's LIFE BEGINS AT 30

1959 The Zoo Story: premiered in West Berlin.

1962 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: premiered on Broadway. Wins a Drama Critics Circle Award.

1966 A Delicate Balance: premiered on Broadway. Wins Albee his first Pulitzer Prize.

1975 Seascape: Wins Albee his second Pulitzer Prize.

1991 Three Tall Women: premiered in Vienna. Wins Albee his third Pulitzer Prize.

1998 The Play About the Baby: due to be premiered at London's Almeida Theatre in the author's 70th birthday year.

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