The following Letter from the Editor appears in the Winter issue. It was originally written a few days before Election Day.
“What is essential is the intense presence of the viewer in the intense presence of the art.”—Edward Albee
For eight years I lived in New York, and during that time I took in a reasonable amount of theater, on, off, and off-off Broadway, whenever and wherever I could get tickets. There was, as you can imagine, a great deal of serious and experimental work to choose from, which was particularly fortuitous because my graduate work was in part on Samuel Beckett. One memorable evening, my father and I saw a brilliant production of Endgame at the Irish Repertory Theatre starring Tony Roberts as Hamm (you may best remember Roberts as Woody Allen’s patient and much taller friend Rob in Annie Hall). In Endgame he was confined to a dilapidated wheelchair for the entire play, his eyes shielded from the audience by sunglasses, his body shrouded in piles of rags—and from this disadvantaged position Roberts captivated in every moment. Another fine evening of theater was also had well off Broadway, in a production juxtaposing three short pieces by Beckett (including Not I) with, after an intermission, Counting the Ways, a one-act by Edward Albee. Albee became another playwright I sought out, and over the years I saw Sally Field in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Both productions featured the always excellent Bill Irwin.) After each show I left the theater feeling drained, as though I myself had been through an extended bout of personal reckoning. Yet I returned to see both productions a second time. What is it about Albee’s work that seems so essential? What makes his work such a complementary pairing with the stylistically distinct Beckett?
I think it has something to do with Albee’s unsparing examination of who we are, and how we allow ourselves to become such mysteries to ourselves: this kind of investigation is demanding, but speaks directly to how art can craft meaning from the raw material of life. It has a personal dimension (his plays often examine intimate and long-term relationships), as well as a social and a political one. Albee’s work calls for us to wake up, to take stock, to challenge ourselves to confront who we’ve become. It asks us to see how we’ve wounded the ones we love, intentionally or otherwise, how we’ve drifted from our intentions and our better selves; to stop skating along complacently and consider the complexities of identity, relationships, and society, in all their tangled, gnarled glory. It’s an exhausting but profound journey we take. In other words, his work delivers on the promise of art.
Beckett is, still, literally incomparable. He plumbs essential questions about existence by relentlessly discarding all excess: the staging is spare, and speakers are often confined in one manner or another so that distraction is minimized and the dialogue can then do its work of relentlessly circling and closing in on the matter at hand. Through rhythm, repetition, a deliberate kind of digression, and a concentration on language itself, Beckett drills below the noisy, stubborn surface of daily life. “Absurd” is a word that often gets thrown around in discussing Beckett’s work, but the work is more stripped to a core (the voice that speaks, the mind that thinks) than it is simply absurd.
Albee’s work does something different but related. He, too, works to shatter the tough shell of the quotidian and to burrow into the difficult subject matter underneath. He presents material in what appears to be a more familiar setting (with the trappings of home and family), and then proceeds to make the familiar deeply strange. He uses crisis and excessive drink and elements, yes, of the absurd to crack the polite surface and to push his characters, and the audience, past delusion and into painful confrontations. Like Beckett, he uses language, humor, and extreme situations to dissolve our complacency.
There was an unpleasant dissonance in learning of Albee’s death in September within the same week I read about Tom Wolfe’s inexplicable new book in which he claims evolution cannot account for the human development of language: a thesis he supports with flawed logic and an exuberant obtuseness. We are in a time of real resistance to the facing of facts and hard truths that Albee championed. (How discouraging that evolution itself must still be counted among these.) This seems, indeed, to be a time of minimal respect for facts, for science, and for hard truths. Evolution (and its deniers) seemed to be of interest to Albee through the years; his 1975 play Seascape is in part a meditation on evolution. In one scene, a character attempts to explain evolution to a mated pair of man-sized lizards, with little success. In 1998, Albee clarified these needlessly muddied waters: “I hold that we are the only animal who has invented and uses art as a method to communicate ourselves to ourselves. And I am convinced that this has a great deal to do with evolution; again, my apologies to the creationists.”
Today, many of the trends and tics in American culture that most worried Albee seem amplified. In Stretching My Mind, a 2005 collection of essays, interviews, and reflections spanning his career, Albee laments critics who, instead of seeking to shape public opinion and guide public reception for art that may be difficult, try only to reflect existing opinion back to the public in a kind of self-congratulating hall of mirrors. “It is not enough to hold the line against the dark,” he wrote in 1989. “It is your responsibility to lead into the light. People don’t like the light—it reveals too much. But hand in hand with the creative artist, you can lead people into the wisdom…simply, that it is the dark we have to fear.” This concern endures, and a parallel abdication of duty in politics and political coverage—with too many members of the media shaping their work around public feelings about issues rather than the issues themselves—confronted us in this election season. Too many demurred when presented with an opportunity to call out a lie, retreating instead to the now familiar defense that the public can decide for themselves—evidently without the benefit and expertise of those whose job it is to analyze, contextualize, and fact-check.
Explaining in The Paris Review the meaning of the title of his most famous work, Albee said, “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, who’s…afraid of living life without false illusions.” The answer, if we are honest, is all of us. There is a perennial quality to this challenge at the heart of Albee’s work, but rarely have we been in more urgent need of the courage to dispel our personal and collective false illusions than now. Albee’s voice was singular. His loss is a great one for the arts, for the theater, for those who appreciate a thoughtful and meticulous kind of provocateur.
As we go to press with this issue in early November, we are in an odd position, knowing that it will publish about a month after the presidential election. Whatever the outcome, there will be much to concern us. For this is one of those loaded moments in our history when the tectonic shifts rumbling far below the surface can be easily felt.
No matter where we find ourselves, the motto that appears above the figure in our cover art is apt: be strong. We all have a great deal of work to do—as citizens, as artists, as members of myriad overlapping communities.
A world in crisis demands our full attention—a willingness to dispel our self-protective illusions—and requires the full-voiced efforts of our better selves.
Wishing you and yours a peaceful holiday season, and a bright NewYear.