Edward Albee on Thornton Wilder

Jo Reed:  Edward Albee, can you remember the first time you saw "Our Town?"  Do you have a memory of that?

Edward Albee:  I remember the experience. And I was both moved and devastated, and amused and all the good things that a play is meant to do to you.  And I have seen since so many dreadful productions of "Our Town", that one of the things I want to talk about today is will somebody please do "Our Town" properly? 

Jo Reed:  And what would that mean?

Edward Albee:  It is not a Christmas card.  It- it is not cute- a cute play.  And most of the people who produce that play think it's afternoon television.  It's one of the toughest, saddest, most brutal plays that I've ever come across.  And it is so beautiful, and when it is funny, it's gloriously funny.  And I, there are times.  There- there are scenes in "Our Town", that it's hard for me to think about without wanting to cry.  It's- it's that beautiful a play .

Jo Reed:  Why do you think "Our Town" is seen as this nostalgic look at small town America at the turn of the century?

Edward Albee:  Well, I guess that Thornton should have written something or said something about how the play is meant to be done.  A lot of times, if- if- if there's something there that can be seen as something less than it is, which is- which would be less troubling to people, that's the way they'll want to see it.  You can't stop.  No two people see the same play, and you can't stop people from seeing what they want to see in spite of what the play is all about.  And Thornton Wilder was knew his Kierkegaard.  He knew his Camus.  He knew his Sartre.  He knew all of the, the existentialists, even though the play was written before existentialism.  But it's a highly existentialist play, going back from Kierkegaard.

Jo Reed: I'm thinking about the lack of staging of the play.  And how Thornton Wilder really calls the audience to imagine the play as much as the play is being performed.  And what that contributes to the play, which I think is a great deal.  But also do you think that can account for sort of the misplaying of it?

Edward Albee:  I suppose if you give directors and actors the opportunity to do something wrong they're likely to take it.  I can't imagine any other justification for so many terrible productions of "Our Town."  It is a highly  avant-garde play in the sense of of it's construction, and- and it's- it's methodology.  Maybe that gets in the way of people understanding.  I don't know. 

Jo Reed:  And we also have a stage manager who throughout the play keeps telling the audience that they're seeing a play. 

Edward Albee:  Yes.  He's trying to keep them intellectually on their feet.  Yes.  Maybe Thornton should have done something, made- made- made a couple of notes.  Say this is a tough play, you know.  Stop sitting around pretending it's a Christmas card. 

Jo Reed:  He, of course, had won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for "The Bridge of San Luis Rey."  Do you have any idea why he turned to the theater?

 

Edward Albee:  I think he to broaden his perspective, to broaden himself probably.  Uh.. Well, he was so knowledgeable in plays going back to the Greeks.  He- he knew his theatrical history uh.. uh.. as well as anybody.  Fact, sometimes it was dangerous to talk to Thornton because you made so many mistakes, and he kept correcting you.  Escalus did not write that one, Edward.  <laughs>  Yeah.  Hey, you're right, Thornton.  I guess he saw things that he could do on stage that he couldn't do on the page, and he certainly found them.  You know, he wrote a lot of plays.  And- and I think "Our Town" is a masterpiece.  I think "Our Town" is probably the finest American play ever written so far.  I think "The Skin of Our Teeth" is a damn good play.  The- the others I find somewhat lesser and- and don't matter much.  But "Our Town" is- is- is so extraordinary and spectacular.

Jo Reed:  What do you think it is about "Our Town" specifically that makes it the greatest American play?

Edward Albee:  The fact that uh.. when it is done properly it makes us understand that if we don't live our lives fully and completely, we've wasted everything we have. 

Jo Reed:  But doesn't it also say it's impossible to do that?

Edward Albee:  Yeah.  But you got to try hard.

Jo Reed:  That I agree with.  You know, what strikes me about Thornton Wilder is he's certainly interested in the big questions, and yet the specificity of about the way "Our Town" begins.

Edward Albee:  Yeah.  But it's so nice that "Our Town" just doesn't say, hey, this is a play about the big questions. 

Jo Reed:  Exactly. 

Edward Albee:  <laughs>  The fact that he makes it seem other than it is makes it seem, well, it is about these people in- in- in this small town, and their lives, which- which are not spectacular, and that they live their lives and then they die.  And that's it.  You know, for me, the most imp- the- the scene I can hardly even talk about without crying, is when Emily's dead, and she comes back and they warn her, "Just take the most normal day of your life.  Don't take anything spectacular.  Don't- don't take- don't take your wedding or- or- or- or- or- or when you went to the soda fountain and he asked you to marry him.  Don't- don't do anything like that.  Just take a normal day."  Happened to be her sixteenth birthday, fifteenth or sixteenth birthday.

Jo Reed:  Twelfth.

Edward Albee:  Twelfth?