Saturday, September 17, 2016

Edward Albee RIP

So many, many deaths of people I admired in 2016.  I've kind of stopped tracking them here, though I was quite sad to hear that the jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson died back in August, as well as Rudy Van Gelder, who was so central to the Blue Note label.  At least I had the opportunity to see Hutcherson twice -- at the Iridium in New York and in Chicago on the SF Jazz Collective tour.

Like these deaths, Albee's death was not totally unexpected, and he had a long life (88) and career.  Here is the standard AP obit, and here is an extended obit in the NY Times.  While I would probably have considered Tony Kushner the preeminent living U.S. playwright, Albee was certainly very close.

Albee and Harold Pinter (who passed away in 2008) wrote some of the most challenging works of the 20th Century.*  Sometimes it didn't work -- I hated The Goat or Who is Sylvia, and I thought The Play About the Baby was a weak retread of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (Actually, I must admit that I rejected The Play About the Baby without watching it.  The discussion about it made it so clear that it took one of the most intriguing aspects of Virginia Woolf (that is revealed only at the end of the long, terrible evening of "games") and put it front and center as a fairly shallow exercise.  I realize this isn't entirely fair, and if the "baby play" comes to Toronto and someone like Coal Mine or Storefront does it, I'll probably go.)

While Albee certainly was a true intellectual working in the field, and I think his desire for intellectually challenging plays was admirable, he may also have gone too far in privileging the playwright over the audience.  Here is Albee telling off critics and indirectly his audience:
“It is not enough for a critic to tell his audience how well a play succeeds in its intention,” he said; “he must also judge that intention by the absolute standards of the theater as an art form.” He added that when critics perform only the first function, they leave the impression that less ambitious plays are better ones because they come closer to achieving their ambitions.
“Well, perhaps they are better plays to their audience,” he said, “but they are not better plays for their audience. And since the critic fashions the audience taste, whether he intends to or not, he succeeds each season in merely lowering it.” (from the NY times obit)

It's hard to get more elitist than that, saying that the playwright writes plays that are good for the audience and that their enjoyment (or even understanding of what is going on) is irrelevant. This is an example of why I do not always defer to the playwright; I do think the audience matters and believing that playwright always knows best is foolish.

Also, Albee may not been the best judge of his own work.  All the critics that I respect feel that his reworking of The Zoo Story (into At Home at the Zoo where the back story of Peter is explored) weakens The Zoo Story.  Again the feeling is not unanimous, but it is among the critics I follow, so I don't plan on seeing the two act version.

I won't go into all the reasons why I didn't like The Goat of Who is Sylvia, but basically it wasn't the idea of bestiality or the other "immoral" behavior, but that I found the characters' actions implausible at every level.  For those of you who are interested, there will be a college production (Victoria College Drama Society) from Oct 26-28.

I think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is probably Albee's best play.  I saw a scorching version done at Storefront Theatre, which really was what cemented them into my mind as a company to watch.  For those that didn't see it then and do want to see the play, Trinity College Dramatic Society is doing the play in early January.

Those are the only upcoming local Toronto productions of Albee's plays, though perhaps in the next season or two, we'll see more.

In terms of which Albee plays I would still like to see.  I'd probably see Three Tall Women again, even though I saw this in Chicago in 2011.  I'm reasonably interested in seeing A Delicate Balance (curiously the rights are held by Samuel French, whereas almost everything else goes through DPS).  I'd see the one-act play Counting the Ways (particularly if it is paired with Listening).  Seascape sounds sort of intriguing, though a little unusual.  I'll try to get it out of the library.  I'd probably go see The Marriage Play, though I wouldn't travel anywhere to see it, and if it comes to Toronto (and isn't absurdly expensive) I'd probably see The Play About the Baby this time around (I've skipped it at least once).

* In general, audiences don't react all that well to uncertainty about what actually is happening during the course of the play, since they value closure quite a bit (whether they have actually been "taught" to value closure by critics seems a moot point to me).  I haven't seen anything by him (yet), but a glance over Christopher Shinn's work suggests he might be working in this challenging territory.  I'll see if any of his plays are at the library, and also add a few of his plays to my list of plays I'm trying to see in person.

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