STAGES OF EDWARD ALBEE, THE (DOCUMENTARY FILM)

Summary

This documentary film explores the life and career of playwright Edward Albee. The program begins with the filmmakers, John Kolomvakis and James Dowell, who previously interviewed Albee in 1996 for another project, talking with the artist at his home as Dowell creates a portrait of him. Albee explains that he was adopted at two weeks old by a wealthy family in upstate New York and was largely unhappy with his family, with whose values he strongly disagreed. Having bonded only with his nanny, he left home at an early age, and Terrence McNally notes that mothers in Albee's plays are "gargoyles" and the fathers largely "dismissed," reflecting his own unpleasant childhood. Albee admits that he received an excellent education, however, graduating from The Choate School in Connecticut, and started his writing career with "bad poetry" at age eight or nine. Journalist Jesse Greene explains that his family's wealth and prestige provided Albee with access to high artistic society and made him "comfortable being eminent." Ned Rorem comments on Albee's relationship with composer William Flanagan, who also served as his mentor before committing suicide after a long struggle with addiction. Albee also had a longtime relationship with McNally, who compares them to Romeo and Juliet and ponders their influence on one another's work. In an old "About the Arts" interview, Albee talks about his early job as a messenger and the many diverse people he met while delivering telegrams, and his friends recall his writing "The Zoo Story" (1958) seemingly "out of the blue." It premiered in West Berlin in 1959 in German, despite Albee's lack of knowledge of the language, and was a great success, reaching America in 1960. Bill Pullman recites a monologue from the play, and John Guare comments on the memorable experience of watching the "overwhelming" play written by an unknown Western Union courier.

McNally draws parallels to Stephen Sondheim's revolutionary musical writing style, explaining that Albee experienced "movie star"-like fame when his picture appeared repeatedly in the newspaper. Tony Kushner comments on Albee's "European sensibility" and discusses the difference between stylized and naturalized dialogue, and Albee clarifies the meaning of "Theatre of the Absurd" in a post-existential environment. He compares the realistic experience of theatre to the fantasy of movies and television, and actresses Marian Seldes and Rosemary Harris discuss the musical nature of his dialogue, particularly in his long speeches. Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner add that Albee originally wanted to be a composer and judges actors' performances by sound as a result. They both perform scenes from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1961-2), in which they starred together on Broadway, and Albee explains the origins of the play's title. Kushner and Edmund White weigh in on the "most American play imaginable," and Turner and Irwin discuss their views of their characters and the love between them despite their fierce battles. The play was wildly successful, though some homophobic critics opined that it was really a story about four men, denigrating Albee's own sexuality in their commentary, and McNally acknowledges the influence of Albee's relationship with Flanagan in the story. Irwin explains that he loves the 1966 film version, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, though Turner dislikes it and Albee "has objections."

Kushner explains that Albee "freaked out" critics and the public with his subsequent "shocking and forbidding" plays, not allowing the success of "Virginia Woolf" to make him complacent. Albee notes that he is inspired by the likes of Chekhov and Beckett, though he works not to make their influence too blatant, and next discusses "Three Tall Women," his 1994 play about his adoptive mother in three stages of her life. Joanna Steichen notes that Frances Albee was "difficult" and did not accept her son's lifestyle, and Albee waited until after her death to write the play, in which he attempted to be objective about her portrayal. Seldes performs a scene from the work, and Albee reflects on a quote from Eugene O'Neill about self-delusion and how it leads to cruelty. He next touches upon his 35-year relationship with Jonathan Thomas, whom he met in Toronto during a blizzard and who died in 2005 from cancer; Greene notes that Albee's writing became "more accessible" as he dealt with his grief. When asked about his religion, Albee says that one must be "fully conscious" and useful in the world, pondering the profundity of simple things like birdsong. He explains that psychological "action" is more important than physical in drama, and Pullman performs a scene from "The Goat or Who is Sylvia?" (2002) and discusses the character and the use of symbolism. Kushner states that Albee's plays are political in the sense of being "ferociously angry" towards the wealthy, powerful oligarchy and often satirize the concept of privilege, and Albee says that he is not didactic, but wants to encourage people to "participate."

Albee discusses his writing techniques further by explaining how he unconsciously ponders his works for long periods and then allows the characters to "carry the burden" of the story as it unravels. He notes that all authors want to "hold a mirror up" to the audience to inspire change, reflecting on his play "The Death of Bessie Smith" (1959) and its inspiration from his involvement with civil rights. He adds that he considers himself a writer who happens to be gay, rather than viewing sexuality as his sole identity, disliking the idea of a "responsibility" to write LGBT-themed stories and characters. Kushner discusses how Albee uses sexuality in general in his plays, and McNally ponders the "obligation to be honest." Albee then talks about writing a sequel of sorts to "The Zoo Story," a one-act titled "Peter & Jerry" (later "At Home at the Zoo," 2004) which explores the supporting character of Peter, from which Pullman performs a monologue. Seldes and McNally discuss Albee's supportive and kind nature, contrasted with his "unsentimental" writing, and Guare explores his many efforts to encourage young playwrights and artists, including his financial support of a theatre at which they can mount their works for a week and his creation of the William Flanagan Memorial Creative Persons Center, a colony in Montauk at which artists can convene and work. Seldes closes the program by reflecting on the self-discovery that can be found through Albee's work, calling his plays "a map of the heart."

Details

  • NETWORK:
  • DATE: 2012
  • RUNNING TIME: 1:36:40
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 110653
  • GENRE: Documentary
  • SUBJECT HEADING: Biography
  • SERIES RUN:
  • COMMERCIALS:

CREDITS

    • John Kolomvakis … Producer, Director
    • James Dowell … Producer, Director, Writer, Narrator
    • Johann Sebastian Bach … Music by
    • Edward Albee … Interviewee
    • Jesse Greene … Interviewee
    • John Guare … Interviewee
    • Rosemary Harris … Interviewee
    • Tony Kushner … Interviewee
    • Terrence McNally … Interviewee
    • Ned Rorem … Interviewee
    • Joanna Steichen … Interviewee
    • Edmund White … Interviewee
    • Bill Irwin … Interviewee, Performer
    • Bill Pullman … Interviewee, Performer
    • Marian Seldes … Interviewee, Performer
    • Kathleen Turner … Interviewee, Performer
    • Frances Albee
    • Samuel Beckett
    • Richard Burton
    • Anton Chekhov
    • Bill Flanagan
    • Eugene O'Neill
    • Stephen Sondheim
    • Elizabeth Taylor
    • Jonathan Thomas