Edward Albee on Playwriting

July 27, 2011

Adapted from: Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?

Joe Levine, Johns Hopkins Magazine, June, 1984

The action is the subject of the play. When people ask me what my plays are about, I say, “Well, it’s about what happens from the beginning to the end.” Symbolism, metaphor, and meaning are not my concern — they should be inevitable results of the action, not something that is put in or layered on . . . I said that to someone a long time ago, when I had been asked once too often why I chose the names George and Martha (as in Washington), and so now I hear it coming back at me. Well, it’s a perfectly sensible explanation, if you think about it, but the point is that I made the implications up afterward. I also discovered after I wrote the play that it examines humanism and totalitarianism, but I would have failed utterly if, during the course of a performance, someone in the audience nudged their buddy and whispered, “Hey, this play examines humanism and totalitarianism.”

People have such different vocabularies and rhythms. Particularly rhythm: Rhythm almost by itself is the basis for regionalism in speaking style. But if you cover the names of the characters in an O’Neill play, you can’t tell who’s talking.

You hear a play, even when you read it on the page.

Dialogue, like music, consists of sound and silence.

Subtext . . . is everything about the life of your character which is not revealed in the play — and you create it because God knows when you’ll need to use it .

All creative people are schizophrenic. We see ourselves doing things at the same time that we are actually doing them. If you’re making love, you back off and see it as a play. It can be kind of unnerving at first — you wonder, “Can I get back?” Well, you can. It’s a healthy kind of schizophrenia.

If you limit yourself to what you know you can do, you’ll never grow. The very best plays, apart from the exceedingly rare absolute masterpieces, are wonderful failures.

When you sit down to write, you’re writing the first play ever written by anyone. At that point, clear everything out of your head, be alone, and hear your own voice.

Know the competition from the beginning of history (and) steal shrewdly. If you steal well, they’ll say you were “influenced.” If you do it badly, they’ll call it plagiarism. But it should never really be plagiarism, because the natural playwright, by some process of alchemy, will synthesize his influence into his own voice.

Never trust anyone who tells you, “That’s too complex, simplify that.” Listen if they tell you it’s unclear. But if they say it’s too complex, then you’ve probably got something good, and you should fight to keep it. They’re just trying to make it safe and easy.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.