Monday, March 26, 2012

You Can Lead an Audience to the Theater, But You Can't Make It Think

I picked up a copy of Conversations with Edward Albee (Mississippi, 1988) at the library book sale the other day. I love reading collections of interviews, and Albee has been one of my favorite playwrights since I started reading him in my sophomore year of high school, almost fifty years ago. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is virtually burned into my brainpaths.

To be honest, though, I've neglected Albee's work for about the past decade. One happy result of reading this collection of conversations is that I checked out the third volume of his collected plays, most of which I haven't read yet.

The early interviews in the book, especially, took me back. I was greatly influenced for a while by Albee's pronouncements on critics and literature, though they seem simple-minded to me now. For example:
What I said is that I thought it was not valid for a critic to criticize a play for its matter rather than its manner -- that what was constituted then was a type of censorship ... You may dislike the intention enormously but your judgment of the artistic merit of the work must not be based on your view of what it's about. The work of art must be judged by how well it succeeds in its intention [60].
This sort of thing impressed me when I was seventeen. Now I think it's absurd, because I don't think the "manner" can be separated from the "matter" of a work of art. (I noticed too that on a couple of occasions Albee expressed extreme dislike for the popular comedies of Neil Simon, but because of their matter instead of their manner: he grants that Simon "writes the kind of play he writes very expertly indeed" [82]; by Albee's stated criteria, that should mean that Simon's art is valid, but he doesn't seem to think so.) The reason why criticism is so hard to do well is that the critic must deal with both subject and execution -- as must the artist. But what I also see now is that the "critics" (actually newspaper and newsmagazine reviewers) who bedeviled Albee and other writers were just really bad critics, neither very knowledgeable about drama or any other art nor very intelligent on any level. They were also gatekeepers of a kind, writing for a male audience they presumed to be much like themselves.

Consider the claim, which I've often encountered over the years, that Virginia Woolf was "really" about two gay couples rather than two heterosexual married couples. Even Leslie Fiedler, who really should have known better, bought into it. It turns up in Conversations in a 1966 Paris Review interview of Albee by his former "roommate," the composer William Flanagan. As Albee said, "Only the most callow or insecure or downright stupid critic would fault Proust's work, for example, for the transposition that he made of characters' sexes" [53].

What must have been running through their minds when they discussed this question? They knew very well that they were both queer, but such a fact couldn't be acknowledged in print at that time unless you were Robert Duncan or Allen Ginsberg. (And it was irrelevant anyhow.) But in this post-2000 conversation for PBS's In the Life between Albee and Kathleen Turner, who played Martha in the 2005 Broadway revival of Virginia Woolf?, Albee says simply what was surely the main factor: homophobic critics tried to smear the play by fag-baiting the playwright, and claiming that it was really about homosexuals and therefore lacked True Universality. (This sort of thing is still with us, often involving the same offenders. And nowadays some gay critics agree that Williams, Albee, and others wrote coded homosexual works that should be retroactively de-closeted; I don't think that's an improvement.)

In a couple of the interviews, Albee contrasts his work with socially conscious plays of the 1930s, and deploys the quip that if you want art to contain a message, send a telegram. At the same time, his work was avowedly a critique of modern American society; he insisted that an artist should make the audience uncomfortable, should make them think about their lives, and so on. While I admit that this is not quite the same thing as the overt preaching of Proletarian Art, I still think it's a message. I just don't think a message is a bad thing. As Joanna Russ argued,
it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on. Once fiction gets beyond the level of minimal technical competence, a reviewer must address these judgments of value. Generally readers don't notice the presence of familiar value judgments in stories, but do notice (and object to) unfamiliar ones as "Political". Hence arises the insistence (in itself a very vehement, political judgment) that art and politics have nothing to do with one another, that artists ought to be "above" politics, and that a critic making political comments about fiction is importing something foreign into an essentially neutral area. But if "politics" means the relations of power that obtain between groups of people, and the way these are concretely embodied in personal relations, social institutions, and received ideas (among which is the idea that art ought not to be political), then such neutrality simply doesn't exist. Fiction which isn't openly polemical or didactic is nonetheless chock-full of politics. If beauty in fiction bears any relations to truth (as Matthew Arnold thought) then the human (including social and political) truth of a piece of fiction matters for aesthetic reasons. To apply rigid, stupid, narrow, political standards to fiction is bad because the standards are rigid, stupid, and narrow, not because they are political [originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 1979, 103; reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews (Liverpool University Press, 2007), 165].
Even when I was younger I noticed that Albee was, if not preachy, at least grinding an ax. And now it looks as though he imported some of his beliefs into his work more overtly than I'd thought. George makes some remarks about "evolution" in Virginia Woolf that I naively took for the character's opinions, not his author's. (Just as I hoped George's equation of contraception with murder wasn't Albee's opinion.) But in a 1975 interview Albee says of his play Seascape, in which a suburban married couple encounter a lizard married couple from under the ocean:
... The play is about whether or not evolution has taken place. Sometimes I've got my doubts.

Jeanne Wolf: You're not sure if we're growing?

Edward Albee: I don't share the view that we're on the way up, anyway.

Jeanne Wolf: What would be the way up? Where should we go?

Edward Albee: I don't know, but the whole assumption that we're at the top of the pile just because we're the most recent animal strikes me as being a fallacious assumption. I thnk we're making sort of a mess of it. Maybe we'll stop being one of the two or three animals that kills its own kind, for example. We're the only animal that is polluting the atmosphere so that it can't survive anymore. No other animal does that. And this can't be high intelligence that creates global suicide.

Jeanne Wolf: Is it your intention then to call our attention to this predicament?

Edward Albee: In this play I'm certainly concerned with whether or not we shouldn't look to see whether as splendid as we think we are and if we don't have something to learn from our theoretical inferiors [117].
When Albee expresses "doubts" about whether "evolution has taken place," he doesn't seem to mean that he doubts that species change by natural selection, but that human beings have climbed higher on the Great Chain of Being -- which is not part of Darwin's theory. It's not easy to tell in this passage what are Albee's beliefs about evolution and what he's attributing to other people. Like many educated lay believers in Evolution, though, Albee was a Spencerian here, not a Darwinian. In any case, he definitely talks as though he meant Seascape to have a message, albeit more tastefully and subtly expressed than the vulgar Commercial Theater would dictate.

And oh yes, the Commercial Theater. Certainly Albee's right about the problem posed by Broadway's dominance, and about the way that huge production budgets adversely affect the quality of the shows. It seems obvious to me that, as with corporate media generally, the answer is to quit conceding that Broadway, or New York City, is American theater. Part of the problem is the nature of theater itself: a film can be distributed and shown widely, and every audience will see the same film. Theater is an inevitably local and transient phenomenon because of the very qualities Albee rightly stresses: every performance is unique, and it takes place in the presence of the audience, with the cast right in front of them instead of projected on a screen. (Performances can be recorded on video, of course, but that's not the same as live theater either.) The remedy is more theater everywhere, and that seems to be happening, if not enough. Albee himself has used his prominence to promote theater outside of the Broadway system, and he deserves great credit for that.

And my word, he's 83 now, still writing, still working. Which reminds me of something that I noticed while skimming over Virginia Woolf today. George and Martha often tease each other in the play about their respective ages -- George is 46, Martha 52 -- and at one point Martha refers to the 30s musical Chicago, "starring Little Miss Alice Faye." George says mockingly, "Well, that was before my time..." But think about it: the play was originally produced in 1962, so think of it as taking place in 1960. George would have been born around 1914, Martha in 1908. Both of them could easily have seen Chicago in its first run. The past is rushing away very fast.