Unmasking absurdity

An award-winning dramatist known for his brutal honesty will lecture at Jesse Auditorium
Sunday, March 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:58 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

At 75 years old, the love for writing — and teaching — still burns in Edward Albee.

A fervent supporter of the arts, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner has no problem sharing his knowledge with students.

David Crespy, an MU assistant professor of playwriting, has learned from Albee.

“He is the most accessible of all the American playwrights,” Crespy said.

Students at MU can enjoy access Monday, when Albee will be at MU on the invitation of Crespy. Albee wrote the foreword to Crespy’s book, “Off-Off Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960s Ignited a New American Theater.” Crespy’s admiration for Albee is evident when he relates the first time he spoke to the playwright. Crespy needed to interview Albee for his dissertation and left a message for Albee.

“It was a Friday night, and I was in the shower when the phone rang,” Crespy said. “I ran out, stark naked, and a voice said, ‘All alone on a good Friday? Shame on you!’ It was Albee on the line.”

Albee will critique MU students

During his stay at MU, Albee will visit theater classrooms and critique readings of his plays.

Crespy calls Albee “a wonderful playwright and teacher.”

“He tells you to try to fail, try to do what you have never done before and it’s scary,” Crespy said. “But that’s just because he has done it himself.”

From the beginning, Albee made his own path in life.

He often clashed with his adoptive mother, who wanted to mold him into a sportsman and a member of the New York social set. Albee’s mother formed the basis of a character in his play, “Three Tall Women,” for which he won his third Pulitzer.

At 20, Albee moved to Greenwich Village. There, he found solace in the company of fellow writers and bohemians. Ten years later, Albee wrote “The Zoo Story.”

Albee devotes much of his time to scholars and aspiring playwrights. He established the William Flanagan Memorial Creative Persons Center in Montauk, N.Y.

Crespy believes students will benefit from spending time with Albee.

Sadie Chandler, a graduate student in theater, will be staging Albee’s “The Zoo Story” and receiving his feedback on the scene. Chandler is nervous about meeting the playwriting great.

“I have no preconceived ideas of what he’s going to say, but I hope that I achieve somewhere close to the real thing,” she said.

Chandler has read that Albee is a “staunch critic,” compounding her fears of meeting his expectations.

Albee himself has weathered some fierce critics.

He once said: “The only time I’ll get good reviews is if I kill myself.”

“He’s a real pugilist — a fighter,” Crespy said. “He gets the most vindictive criticism, but he manages to brush himself off. This shows that he writes plays for himself, not his critics.”

Albee's plays analyze society

Albee’s plays call for a deep examination of American society — an examination some critics don’t like.

“The job of the arts is to hold a mirror up to us and say: ‘Look, this is how you really are. If you don’t like it, change,’” Albee said in material from his publicist.

“You feel when he’s unmasking his character, he’s unmasking you,” Crespy said. “The process of destroying your illusions is almost impossible and terrifying. Tell me, would you feel OK with that?”

It is this desire to wake audiences to the absurdity of the human condition that has earned Albee the title of an absurdist playwright, a title shared by European playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet.

“His plays never let us off the hook,” said Brian Barker, assistant programs director at the Center for Literary Arts. “They refuse to allow us to shy away from the truth of human experience, our shortcomings and complacencies.”

“He writes arias, not monologues,” Crespy said. “He is an American Shakespeare.”

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