Before famed playwright Edward Albee delivered the 2004 ASU Centennial Lecture on ‘the state of the arts,’ a group of Flinn Scholars got a special audience with him. In addition to the public lecture during his four-day residence at the Barrett Honors College, Albee also participated in a private reception with the scholars and a more informal colloquium with ASU faculty and alumnus playwrights.
On Nov. 14, about 15 Flinn scholars attended a private reception at ASU’s University Club with the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, and 26 other plays. Seated around two tables pushed together for the event, the scholars asked Albee about his life, his work and his opinions on art and media.
Daniel Sullivan, a 2004 Flinn Scholar currently attending the University of Arizona, considered the reception a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity provided by the Foundation to come face to face with a modern artistic giant and one of my personal heroes.”
Albee’s unconventional nature was evident from the beginning of the session as he began the evening with a somewhat unusual request to Sullivan.
“[Albee asked] me to take my cap off at the beginning of the reception so that he could see what my hair looked like,” Sullivan recalls. “I asked him if he preferred my cap on or off, and he said, ‘Hey, it’s your hat and your hairdo!'”
The conversation quickly shifted, though, to topics such as how Albee develops his characters and how he went about adapting novels for the stage.
“I wrote what Carson would have written had she been me,” Albee said of Carson McCullers, whose novella, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, he adapted in 1963. Albee went on to explain that he created dialogue for the stage production that he thought would fit into McCullers’s largely dialogue-free work.
The playwright also discussed his views on various types of film, his distaste for the medium of television and its effects on American culture, and the unique nature of live theater. He said that if an incident of violence as depicted in movies and on television were translated to the stage, audiences would run from the theater in terror.
“Theater is real,” Albee said.
Ultimately, though, the playwright left scholars with his advice to live life with open ears, eyes, and minds.
In his public lecture on Nov. 16, Albee spoke specifically about “the state of our culture, its cause, and its cure,” frequently eliciting laughter from the audience at ASU’s Gammage Auditorium with his often dry and self-deprecating humor.
“I enjoy being a playwright, which is fortunate because it is one of the few things I can do with any competence,” Albee said.
The dramatist also recounted the story of how he “liberated” a typewriter and some yellow paper from a Western Union office where he worked and used it to type what would become his first professionally-produced play.
The Zoo Story, Albee said, marked the first time that his voice emanated from his writing. That voice was translated into German for The Zoo Story‘s 1959 world premiere in West Berlin, but the play soon ran in New York (and in English), launching Albee’s career as an American dramatist.
Albee said that he sees art as a mirror that prompts society to examine and change itself. He also believes the ability to create art distinguishes human beings from other animals.
“I think somewhere along the line in the evolutionary process, our tails fell off and we grew art,” he said.
The following evening, Albee participated in a colloquium with two playwrights with connections to ASU: English professor Dr. Jay Boyer and alumnus Luke Krueger. There, the discussion focused almost exclusively on Albee’s plays. During the colloquium, Boyer asked Albee about the origin of the title of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
“It comes from my play,” Albee responded coyly, adding that he had seen the phrase written on the wall in a New York restaurant as a teenager.
The acclaimed dramatist is the latest in a series of lecturers from a variety of disciplines who have visited the Valley since 1985, when the Flinn Foundation established an endowment to fund the Centennial Lecturer post in honor of ASU’s 100th year.