On Albee, Auden and Making Art Happen

Posted on: September 20th, 2016 by Lindsey Ferrentino
Edward Albee and Lindsey Ferrentino

Edward Albee with playwright Lindsey Ferrentino.

I am a playwright because of Edward Albee.

In high school, I found a box of letters and newspaper clippings from and about a relative of mine, the poet Chester Kallman, who was life partners and a co-librettist with W.H. Auden. As an aspiring writer myself, I became obsessed with uncovering the story of their relationship, reading and corresponding with those who knew them, who befriended and peopled their lives. I came across an anecdote about how the playwright Edward Albee, as a very young man and recent Greenwich Village resident, wrote a letter to Auden, asking to meet. At this point in time, Albee still considered himself a poet and had not yet begun to write for the theatre. Auden invited the young, nervous Edward Albee into his Cornelia Street apartment, where the two spent the afternoon talking about writing and what it means to devote a lifetime to it.

When I read this anecdote, I decided I had to read the plays of Edward Albee. Most of this reading was being done while I was gainfully employed as a high school senior, working in our Florida small town mall, in what was called the “African Store,” which sold shea butter and dashikis to tourists. I checked The Collected Works of Edward Albee out of the library, moved all of the shop’s large wooden giraffes in front of the cash register (so that the security cameras wouldn’t see me reading), and sat down to read the entire thing, cover to cover, over my week’s shifts. I laughed out loud, cried, and was completely stupefied by the style, tone, and range of realism to absurdism to -isms I wouldn’t begin to learn about or understand until I went to college. I screamed with a bit of joy when I came across a line from Auden’s poem September 1, 1939:

“Art makes nothing happen
We must love one another and die”

It was buried in what would become and still is one of my favorite plays, Albee’s one-act Counting the Ways. I was reading Albee in the context of the post-World War II literary scene, the rise of the beat generation, and it seemed to me that his plays came out of that chaos: of being optimistic in a world that didn’t want you to be, a world where Auden had said he wrote anti-war poems during World War II but realized that the poems themselves didn’t save a single Jew from dying in the Holocaust. Edward Albee’s plays were a challenge to the times that they were written in, a celebration and condemnation of a world gone mad. And on the back cover of his collected plays, I can still remember, his brief bio read: Edward Albee lives in New York and writes plays.

When I first moved to New York, I tracked down the address for The Edward Albee Foundation. I spent my freshmen year gaining the courage to write and sophomore year wrote Albee a hand-written letter, asking to meet to talk theatre and Auden, to be interviewed for a documentary I was making on the post-World War II literary scene. To my shock, I received a response; an invitation to Albee’s apartment in Tribeca for a conversation.

Albee’s assistant let us in. The film crew set up, and I nervously paced, sweating and reviewing my questions, which I’d dutifully written onto index notecards. What I hadn’t told Albee in my letter was that this documentary was contingent on if Albee agreed to be interviewed. Or that Edward Albee was my first interview subject…literally, ever. At 2pm, when it was officially time for the interview to begin, Albee descended a spiral staircase in his living room, sat in the spotlight that the film crew had set up for us, looked right at me into the blinding bright light, and said, “Alright, what do you have?”

Michael Learned with Rosemary Harris

Michael Learned with Rosemary Harris in Roundabout's production of Edward Albee's ALL OVER in 2002. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I would be afraid to go back today and relisten to the footage of my interview. I’m sure it would be full of my eighteen-year-old self, trying to sound intelligent, well read, and thoughtful as I sit eye to eye with my idol, in his home, surrounded by his intimidating collection of modern art. I remember that afternoon as a blur of trying to stay with Albee’s quick-paced thinking and my own out-of-body excitement, where I’d float above the book-filled  nook of his living room where we were sitting, and say to myself, “Is this really happening?!” I remember regretting having asked Albee to talk about Auden because all I really wanted to talk about was Edward Albee himself. I wanted to ask: how did you obtain all of these books and modern art pieces? How did you become so confident in your voice on the page and in life? How did you go from the nervous, pleading young writer asking Auden for advice to the person staring back at me now, giving it?

I asked Albee why he’d included that Auden line in his play and he said, “I did? Hm. I don’t remember. I wrote that a long time ago.” This was not off to a good start. I couldn’t imagine a life spent, devoted to playwriting, where I’d written so many plays that I couldn’t even remember what was in them. However, we continued to speak about that line and Auden’s sentiment behind it. Did art really make nothing happen? And if so, how can you justify a life in the arts? How had he? Albee felt that Auden had gotten it wrong—it wasn’t about whether or not art makes direct political change. It was about creating a playing space where things can happen, where discussions are raised, and where a deeper attempt at communication is possible. Albee spoke about theatre’s utility. How all you can do as a writer is create a space in the theatre that encourages or challenges the audience to be more useful, to live their lives more fully and usefully, every day.

It was daylight when I arrived and nighttime when I left. He had a show running on Broadway, and yet he talked on with me, an eighteen-year-old NYU student with ideas for plays but nothing of substance completed, who nervously flipped through index cards. I remember thinking that that’s how you knew you’d accomplished real success as a playwright, when you had a play running somewhere and didn’t even bother going to see it; that each time your play was performed, it was wholly for the audience and no longer a special event for its author.

I stammered on, trying to stretch my time in his presence as long as possible, eventually repeating questions, which he alerted me I was doing and so said, “I think that’s it.” He shook my hand, thanked me for the interview, and wandered off into his kitchen while his assistant oversaw the breakdown of our film equipment. I needed a restroom and was pointed towards the back of the house, behind the kitchen, where I passed Edward Albee, sitting alone, socks and sandals on his feet, writing at his desk with a pen, against the backdrop of a black and white tiled floor. He looked up and asked me if I was a playwright myself, to which I nervously said yes. He encouraged me to keep writing and apply to the Edward Albee Foundation when I felt I was ready. I nodded, taking a mental picture of my own life in this moment, and shuffled out of his home, waiting to scream until I got into the car with the crew.

Rosemary Harris in All Over. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Rosemary Harris in Edward Albee's ALL OVER. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I wrote plays. I applied and was accepted to the Edward Albee Foundation a year later as I was graduating from NYU and facing my student loans and the undertaking of a life as a writer instead of a student. Kicked out of my dorm, my first adult home was in Edward Albee’s barn in Montauk, which I moved into immediately after graduation. What I remember about the Albee from that summer was his lack of formality; his casualness and comfort in his Montauk home, as opposed to being in front of a camera. He wore shorts and would drop by unannounced to see if we were working, to discuss at length with the residents what we were working on. It was in Montauk that Albee and I really spoke about the theatre. He told me that most of what I’d see would be bad, or at least I’d think it was, because I’d be trying hard to figure out my own voice for some time, and until I did, anything that isn’t that would be an affront to my sensibilities. We talked about the play I’d submitted with my application, which was populated with obscure historical figures. He talked about what he liked in the play, what made him laugh, but asked quite directly, “How will the audience know who the hell the characters are?” I mentioned the text references and cited that there will be a program note. He said, “You must NEVER rely on those because the audience NEVER reads them.” And I remember how he told me to find my people who believed in my work – something that, as you’re struggling to emerge and get people to read your work, is always easier said than done. And to learn how to talk about your plays and know why you write them.

On our last night in the barn, the other fellows and I made Albee dinner and did readings of what we’d completed. I did a reading of my one-act play that, looking back on it, was actually a cheap Albee knock off. He nodded throughout the evening, smiled, and ate his dinner. Our dinner discussion turned to the subject of films, and Albee said that “movies are an illegitimate art form because the director chooses the frame for you, whereas with the theatre, you have free will and can choose what to look at.” When people challenged this opinion of his, he stood firmly, spoke strongly, and was short and direct in his answers.

I ran into him occasionally in the years that followed – at various plays and once, rather randomly, at a diner on 14th street. He’d always ask If I was still writing, to which I’d reply Yes. And feel even more determined to make that answer true since, in his eighties, Albee premiered a brand new play and did re-writes of older works, and I’d keep picturing him, quietly working at his desk in the kitchen, still writing, always working.

The Albee Foundation’s Fellowship and Residency remained, for some time, my only professional credit, but it was that credit that attracted the attention of my first agent, of Sam French who now publishes my plays, of the people who produced my first reading, which led to graduate schools, and more plays, and now finally, productions. And when I learned of Edward Albee’s passing, I had just stepped out of a play I was seeing with Jill Rafson, the Director of New Play Development at Roundabout, the theatre that gave me my first professional production, and I couldn’t help but see the domino effect Edward Albee had begun in my life – how Albee’s art had actually made my life happen, that carried me from a high school student reading his plays in my hometown mall, to standing on 42nd Street with my producer and friend.

I think of Edward Albee every time I am interviewed. His confidence, direct gaze, stating his own opinions with confidence of fact. And though I am certainly not that self-assured yet, I try to be honest and know, because of him, why I want to write – which is, like the Auden line, to try and make something happen between all of our living and dying. I try, like Albee did, to keep returning to my desk.

I think of Edward Albee when I realize I feel most comfortable and most like myself, in the company of other artists, hearing about their work. And more than anything, I think of Edward Albee in times of self-doubt, to remember how one thing can lead to another and another; that small acts of generosity as a person and artist can set off an entire chain of events for someone else.

And I can say now, without exaggeration, that because of Edward Albee, my own bio reads:

Lindsey Ferrentino lives in New York and writes plays.

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    September 20, 2016

    Wonderfully said! So proud of this young lady, who I am proud to call my niece! Love you Lindsey!

  2. Nick Graham

    September 21, 2016

    What a beautiful remembrance of such a fine man. Thank you so much for this. I will return to it to feel the extraordinary love it carries like a precious child. I am so moved. Thank you.

    • Roundy Bout

      September 26, 2016

      Thank you so much for coming, Nick!


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