An evening with Edward Albee

Still provacative at age 78, the writer of Seascape and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? admonished listeners to question their leaders and themselves

Too often a complacent American public stoops to feel-good popularism and accepts without question government dictates, some of which in recent years have bordered on out-and-out censorship, said playwright Edward Albee in a lecture on campus Feb. 16.

“If we are willing to accept the protection of illusory security,” he said, “the fragile state of democracy is at risk. We will get exactly what we deserve.”

It is a topic he has turned to repeatedly in public appearances for a decade.

Particularly upsetting, said Albee, is the continuing decline of support for the arts and an educational system that fails to teach people how to participate in their own lives.

“An aesthetic education is critical to a self-governing people,” he said. When we lack the motivation to look critically at our own lives we succumb to what he called “capitalist control of the arts that support escapist junk, merely motivated by profit.”

“It is the response to the arts that is declining, not the state of the arts,” he continued. “The lack of relationship between art and those for whom art is created is what is declining. We need to expose children to the visual arts, to classical music—without an aesthetic education we will end up with a society of educated barbarians.”

Albee himself had a somewhat disjointed formal learning experience. He was expelled from numerous private preparatory schools until his well-to-do adoptive parents enrolled him in the Choate School in Connecticut, where he claims to have received an outstanding education. Choate is the only school Albee ever graduated from; he was kicked out of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., after one year there, he says, “because they had their idea of what courses were required, and I had mine.”

Despite his nontraditional education—Albee might say because of it—he has won three Pulitzer Prizes, two Tony Awards, a National Medal of the Arts, and last year, a Tony for Lifetime Achievement.

But before the theater, Albee was first a writer of poetry. In his early 20s he attended the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. There he met Thornton Wilder, and, after reading Albee’s work, the author of Our Town suggested he might do better at writing plays. It was good advice.

Plays, Albee said, are an “act of aggression against the status quo. A play holds a mirror up to society to say this is how you behave, this is what you are, if you don’t like it, change.

“What sets us apart from all other animals is that we seek out that which distinguishes us; we consciously create art as a metaphor to define ourselves to ourselves. This is part of the creative process and, more important, the evolutionary process.”