There’s a story I heard about Edward Albee when I first started teaching at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. I had an officemate that year, a big-hearted, gregarious, ragged-bearded Jewish medievalist named Julian Wasserman who had hosted Albee and done an interview with him during his visit the previous year. St. Thomas, a fairly conservative Catholic college, was on the edge of Houston’s gay district, and it seems that Albee had found a young boyfriend immediately after his arrival. He insisted to Julian as his host that his new friend join him onstage when he spoke—or he would not speak at all.
Picture Julian’s comic panic. The thing is, Basilian fathers, most of them aging Canadian Thomists, ran the college, occupying both the presidency and the major administrative posts, and to keep Mr. Albee happy, Julian had to negotiate the ascension of Albee’s beloved onto the stage with the priests. Otherwise, the hefty fee for the speech would go wasted, and it would all be Julian’s fault. Luckily, sort of, he was able to explain the ultimatum to those in charge, and so there the fellow flamed amid the cassocks. Ever since, whenever I think of Edward Albee, I imagine poor Julian as an attendant in the court of Caligula.
Last spring, 25 years later, I happened to sit next to Susan and Lowell Sargeant at the Undermain’s production of The Appeal. Susan told me that WingSpan, the company she founded 10 years ago, was doing Albee’s The Play About the Baby in the fall. It took me aback. Edward Albee? Seeing a production of Tiny Alice in high school was so claustrophobic that I didn’t see another play for three or four years afterward, and hearing Julian’s story had sealed my opinion for years. But Sargeant is a woman who conveys a sense of dignity. As Linda Loman opposite Bradley Campbell as Willy in Classical Acting Company’s Death of a Salesman last year, she elevated the role, bringing to mind weird, discredited words like “lady.” She also has a keen directorial intelligence. In 2005, she directed John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea for WingSpan with Clay Yocum in the title role, and it was one of the most memorable plays I’ve seen since I started reviewing theater in Dallas. So when she told me that the theme of the baby fascinated Albee, and Albee fascinated her, it was obvious that I should reconsider Albee.
After reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and favorably reviewing WaterTower’s production of it in June, I started to see what she meant about the baby. In that Albee play, George and Martha strip away all the dignity from each other and from the younger couple with them, exposing lies and very personal weaknesses in an orgy of viciousness, No Exit in an American living room. At the end, getting back at Martha, George reveals that they have no son after all. What could it mean?
Albee strikes me as more poetically gifted and less fond of cumbersome political statements than Arthur Miller. He does not indulge in unbearable purple speeches, as Tennessee Williams too often does. He brings to bear on his works a keen intelligence and a masterful dramatic sense. But his imagination has something wrong with it. Like the writers of Jacobean revenge tragedies, he seems to have experienced a disillusionment so profound that he wants to share it with everybody. Try some of this sulfuric acid for your complexion—that kind of thing. And in the same spirit, there’s no baby!
In The Play About the Baby, the alleged eponymous infantile unit on which the play centers also turns out not to exist. Here’s the way the dialogue goes toward the end of the play:
MAN. Once more: You have a baby?
BOY. (To girl.) Tell him!!
WOMAN. (Gentle.) Tell me, too.
BOY. Tell her!
MAN. Tell someone: You have a baby?
GIRL. (Long pause; finally; rather shy.) No; I don’t think so.
Hmm. There’s a pattern. What’s more, it’s possible to draw a certain syllogism from it. People claim to have babies. Babies, however, do not exist. Therefore, people do not have babies. Seriously, now, if you think you have one and you’re brutally honest with yourself, it’s going to turn out that you don’t have one at all. For Albee, babies are illusions on the order of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
I met Sargeant in a coffee shop in the West Village to talk this out, because my married daughter Lucia was expecting her second child in a month, and I had a personal stake in the answer. Luckily, it turned out that Sargeant loves to talk about Albee. After directing a number of his plays, she feels a bond with him. “If you want to get mystical with it,” she told me, half-joking, “his birthday and mine are not that far apart. His is March 12 and mine’s March 16.” Mostly, though, she did not seem mystical at all, but concerned about explaining her ties to Edward Albee.
“My connection to Albee does resonate deeply,” she said. “We both hail from the East Coast, and our family roots did not support an artist’s life as a solid career choice. Albee was adopted by a very wealthy uppercrust Connecticut couple. Edward Albee Sr. was the owner of several vaudeville theaters in New York, and his mother was, you know, from society. His dad had been married several times, and she was considerably younger, so an heir to the throne was expected. It wasn’t forthcoming, for whatever reason. I think in order to keep the husband and to keep the wealth—the bargains, the games, whatever you’re willing to do in order to succeed—the adoption happened. The myth is that since his dad was involved in the theater, that he’s some performer’s baby. Rumors that he is really Eugene O’Neill’s son—you know that his lineage is really something theatrical. So obviously, the baby. How does it fit into a marriage? How doesn’t it fit into a marriage?”
So Albee himself is the baby in question?
“I don’t think his mother was very demonstrative in terms of affection. I think she had expectations as far as what he should be—a lawyer, you know, something respectable, not a crazy playwright who happened to be gay as well, and who wouldn’t be forthcoming with an heir himself to carry on the dynasty in the lineage.”
I’m beginning to see why the “baby” disappears, I think. Given what the baby turned out not to be, there was never a baby. The baby is never the baby, in the sense that you look around and it has already grown up into something else while you were still talking about your plans for it. You were cradling an idea of the baby, a fantasy of your own, while the former baby meanwhile became, say, Susan Sargeant.
“My family viewed an artful life as something not practical, more of an avocation,” Sargeant told me. “Albee really does understand the vulnerability and risk that it takes to be an artist. Albee is often accused of being mean-spirited or very combative. True enough, but I have always connected with the unprotected underbelly of his characters. Inside, they are all children at risk. For me, Albee’s characters are always on the verge of breaking apart. They are protecting themselves from wounds. So in order to survive they put on armor. Actors by the nature of their profession are always vulnerable. I feel vulnerable as both an actor and director every time I put my work onstage.”
So there it is, art’s maternity and childlike vulnerability at once. As a director, she’s mothering the play’s meanest characters, these grown-up babies in their verbal armor, knowing how unprotected they are. At the same time, she’s putting herself in the vulnerable position of being judged and criticized.
Writing this, having just held my new granddaughter, maybe I understand Albee’s hidden vulnerability a little better. But I also want to say something to him, almost in a whisper. There is a baby, Mr. Albee. Right now, here she is. Felicity.
The Play About the Baby runs through November 10 at the Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Dr. www.wingspantheatre.com. 214-675-6573.