Listening to Albee’s Men

MAR 24, 1998

An interview with Stephen Rowe by Jennifer Kiger

This spring, A.R.T. New Stages will present Albee’s Men, a one-man performance of excerpts from eight plays written by three-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edward Albee. Performed by Stephen Rowe and directed by Glyn O’Malley, the show includes monologues spanning over 30 years of Albee’s work. In collaboration with Albee, O’Malley and Rowe have compiled pieces from The Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Counting the Ways, The Man Who Had Three Arms, Marriage Play, Finding the Sun, and Fragments – Concerto Grosso. A founding member of the A.R.T., Rowe has been seen recently as the Cowherd in The Bacchae and as Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew. According to Rowe, Albee’s Men will give A.R.T. audiences an opportunity to experience the work of one of America’s most acclaimed playwrights.

Edward Albee has won numerous awards, including three Pulitzer Prizes (A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and Three Tall Women) and two Tony Awards (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance). In 1996, he received a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1997 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton. At the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in 1996, Albee was praised for his impact on American drama: “Edward Albee burst into the American theatrical scene in the late 1950s with a variety of plays that detailed the agonies and disillusionment of that decade and the transition from the placid Eisenhower years to the turbulent 1960s. Albee’s plays, with their intensity, their grappling with modern themes, and their experiments in form, startled critics and audiences alike while changing the landscape of American drama.”

Recently, Rowe shared his thoughts on Albee’s work, the genesis of Albee’s Men, and the opportunity to bring this work to the American Repertory Theatre.

JK: Is Albee’s Men the first one-man show you’ve done?

SR: Yes, but I’ve always found excitement in monologues, and I’ve always wanted to do a one-person show. There was an important moment in my life when I saw Jack McGowran perform his one-man Samuel Beckett piece. He stood on a bare platform in a tent in the middle of a field and channeled the Beckett material. Just thinking about it, nothing up his sleeve. There was nothing but the actor, the author, his material and the presence of that collaboration resounding in that space.

JK: When did you first have the opportunity to work with Edward Albee?

SR: In 1979 I played four different parts in the tour of Albee Directs Albee. It was a three-evening repertoire of Albee one-acts. For over a year, we toured all over the country and went to the Far East. A few years later Edward established a relationship with the Vienna English Theatre. I went there on my honeymoon and performed in The Zoo Story and Counting the Ways. We’ve worked together for a long time as theatre relationships go.

JK: How does this show fit into your work as an actor?

Scott Hylands and Robert Goldsby in The Zoo StorySR: My first formative experience as an actor happened when I was a junior in high school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We mounted a version of The Zoo Story for competition in a local high school drama festival. I played Peter, the reactive character. We won all the awards, and I was given a job as a result of it on a PBS children’s play series. That was in 1965-66, and then I played Jerry, the active character, directed by Edward Albee fourteen years later. Now I have come to this project. There’s a wonderful journey in all of this. I am thrilled that Edward has allowed this to occur. It’s also important to me that Albee’s Men will be presented by the A.R.T. Bob Brustein has been another formative person in my life. He gave me my first professional job.

JK: Do you consider Albee’s Men to be a collaboration between you and Albee?

SR: Yes. Although it is a great opportunity for me, this project is about Edward and his work. I get the opportunity to offer a montage of extraordinary writing to the audience. When I first started working on this project, I put together several pieces and called Edward to see if he would approve. After he gave a tentative approval, I called Glyn O’Malley, Edward’s literary assistant for eighteen years. Glyn and I worked together to find the structure of the show.

JK: How did you decide which material to use?

SR: We did not want to create a false context for the pieces or put them in chronological order. In the end we decided to show the men aging (from 15 to 60). It follows the seven ages of Albee’s men.

JK: When I first heard about this production, I wondered how a show could be built around Albee’s men. We often concentrate on the women in his shows.

SR: One could say that the women in Albee’s major plays carry the torch. When you look at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? do you think of George or Martha? I think of Martha. Given that some of Albee’s men are less familiar to the public, the material has a freshness to it. What’s exciting about the show is listening to these men be honest about their fear and loss, their longing and alienation at different stages of development. I’ve had some men say to me that they really appreciated hearing these guys talk to them.

George Grizzard, Uta Hagen, and Arthur Hill in a 1962 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia WoolfJK: Do you have a favorite character ?

SR: As I work on the material, I find that my favorites are changing. I have found a connection with the older men in the show. I know what the younger men are going through; I’ve been there. The older characters present more of a challenge to me. In the second act, there is a span of three pieces that include the characters of “He” in Counting the Ways, Jack in Marriage Play, and Tobias in A Delicate Balance. Working on the pieces, I’m beginning to see how they comment upon each other and how they speak to me. I’m facing my 50th birthday this year. The issues these men struggle with are becoming more important to me. They have taught me to look at what it is to be a human being and a man facing a point in his life when his body starts to break down and his mind starts to lose its sharpness.

JK: What kind of problems do the characters in Albee’s Men face?

SR: Jerry in Zoo Story gives a passionate cry for human connection. Several of the men must deal with the process of aging. In The Man Who Had Three Arms, Albee assaults American culture. He questions how Americans choose cultural icons and then reject them so easily. In the second half of the show, we see the older men searching for love and dealing with loss. The issue of loss repeats throughout the show. Jerry says that what he gained with his dog was loss. He finds out that neither kindness nor cruelty was the answer. The answer was both.

JK: Do you find humor in Albee’s plays?

SR: His plays are outrageous, naughty, and witty, just like Edward. He’s got a fabulous sense of humor that comes out of this somewhat reserved persona. Unlike Edward, there is an aggressiveness to the humor in his plays. The humor often comes out of a serious situation that a character comments upon in a witty or ironic way. A character’s aggressiveness often searches to be resolved in a kind of union, but frequently this does not happen. The humor comes from the character striving to get somewhere, even if he does not know if he will ever reach his goal. Also, the situations Albee creates are ripe for ironic perception. Jerry tries to find a deep connection with another human being by creating a confrontational situation with a man in the park while he tells this man a story about his dog. There’s a certain silliness to that, but it is never silly in the telling. It’s deadly serious.

JK: Albee once said in an interview that he loved the idea of laughter caught in the mouth. His plays often put the audience in the position of not knowing whether to laugh or to cry.

SR: As a performer, I have found that great writing gives me the opportunity each night to open myself to laughter and reactions in unexpected places. This is the hallmark of great writers like Chekhov. Clearly there are jokes, but particularly in a piece like Albee’s Men, where your partner is the audience, the responses are up for grabs every night. To trust the material in that process is to constantly uncover not just reactions but also interactions, which can be very exciting.

JK: How did you prepare to perform this show?

SR: I investigate the language in Albee’s plays closely. His language can be somewhat baroque in its syntax, but it’s engaging. When I say baroque, I do not imply that his language is embellished or flowery just for the sake of ornamentation. It is similar to Shakespeare in the sense that the articulation of each thought has a complicated progression. I have to concentrate on the central image of a thought while negotiating the twists and turns of a long, convoluted sentence. The complexity of the sentence and the length of the phrase are directly related to the intensity of the experience a character shares. For example, in a piece from Marriage Play, Jack talks about an epiphany he has; he thinks he experiences a physical transformation. He feels like he is leaving his body, and in a manner of minutes he describes a series of physiological changes. The experience is visceral; he can’t stop talking about it because he’s not done experiencing it. Edward engages with an idea until it’s completely exhausted.

JK: How do you make sense out of a complicated passage or sentence?

SR: The plays are challenging. There’s no question about it. You don’t penetrate some of the material right off the bat, particularly on the page. As an actor I find that you’ve got to put this material in your mouth. You literally have to move the words around in your mouth in order to better understand them. You need to chew on the thoughts; the articulation of the language makes the ideas flow. It’s a matter of phrasing. Unlike Mamet’s language, which often consists of few words, Albee’s sentences are extended. The ideas are entwined in a series of parentheses and asides. There’s an intellectual understanding you get when you look at the words on a page, and then there’s a more kinesthetic, or active understanding you achieve when you find a way to speak the words so the ideas come across clearly.

JK: Does the complexity and style of Albee’s language vary from play to play?

SR: Yes. Edward Albee is not a naturalistic writer. When Martin Esslin wrote The Theatre of the Absurd, the American entry in the book was Edward Albee. Box Mao Box is like Schoenberg. It is atonal, to use a musical analogy. The main story in Box Mao Box is about a woman falling off an ocean liner. That action is set against quotations from Mao Tse-Tung from The Red Book about what will happen when the revolution is realized. I use the word atonal because it’s a bizarre, almost contradictory amalgam of two different kinds of language. My sense is that he was trying to create an abstract sense of loss through the language.

The styles of the pieces in Albee’s Men vary, although the distinction may not be as clear, since the audience will see only excerpts from the different plays. There is simple storytelling on one level. Some of the stories are like parables; there is always another motive or intention underneath the story itself. For example, George in Virginia Woolf makes up a story to entertain Nick, but he’s also trying to keep Nick off balance. The same holds true for Jerry in Zoo Story. The stories often have swift changes and abrupt turns that are meant to keep the viewers off balance. Stylistically, Counting The Ways is meant to be a vaudeville. There are frequent blackouts and cards appearing from the wings with information about the characters. The only time we use blackout in the show is during these pieces. The Man Who Had Three Arms is agitprop.

JK: Albee has said that he would rather a person experience a good reading of his plays than a mediocre performance.

SR: I am positive that when he said that, he was not suggesting a person read his plays alone at home. He wants actors reading the play out loud, articulating the language. Above all, he wants clarity. When I worked with him as a director, I found it curious that he would sit in the back of the theatre and sometimes he would not watch what was happening. I remember saying, “Edward, I did some really great stuff here, but you weren’t watching.” And he said, “No. I was listening.” He listens. He has an extraordinary sense of what the language wants to do, and he is rigorous about it. We must be just as rigorous when we perform his words. Part of the experience of performing this show has been learning how to simplify my acting by peeling away the histrionic choices I would normally make to get an idea across. My work is usually characterized by too much physicality. Albee’s Men requires less extravagant performance values so that the material can be experienced in its full spectrum.

JK: Albee has said that art holds up a mirror to us. Theatre shows us who we are and who we can be. Do you think the men in this show are a mirror for all of us?

SR: Yes. They show us themselves, and in them we can see ourselves. Some of them lecture, cajole, seduce, but we see that they all need human connection. Most importantly, however, Albee’s Men also reveals Edward to us through his work. This show is really about Edward, his voice and his presence in this material. I think people will be surprised by the breadth of his work, its humor, and the compassion of his men.

Jennifer Kiger is a first-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training.

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