SEPTEMBER 29, 2016
Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.
— Jerry, The Zoo Story
I FIRST MET Edward Albee on a plane from New York to Los Angeles in fall 2006. I was 21 years old and new to theater, and stopped him as he walked down the aisle to stretch his legs. We talked about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Zoo Story (the only two plays of his that I’d read at the time) and he stood there, patiently answering my questions. A few days later, we ended up getting lunch together and continued our conversation. At some point I asked him what other playwrights I should be reading, and Albee furrowed his brow and said, pragmatically, “Read all of Chekhov. Start there.”
I was living with my girlfriend in a cramped, cockroach-infested apartment in Hollywood, spending my mornings interning at a production company, and my nights working at the Borders bookstore on Sunset and Vine, while still trying to carve out a little bit of time to write before I went to bed each night. I bought the collected plays of Chekhov and started The Seagull, but I couldn’t finish it. The only times I had to read were either after work in the evenings (when I was exhausted) or during my lunch breaks (where there were too many distractions). And so I shelved the book and waited for a better time.
Later that winter I applied to the Albee Foundation artist residency, and several months after that received the news that I’d been accepted. I flew to New York that summer and spent a month at “The Barn” in Montauk working on a new play. I’d heard that Edward lived in town and would swing by The Barn from time to time. But he wasn’t in Montauk yet. I decided to buckle down and read the Chekhov plays before he arrived so that I’d have something to talk about when he finally did.
With no formal obligations and a quiet writing studio to concentrate in, I spent the next few days reading The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. I read them slowly, underlining meaningful passages, and jotting down my thoughts in the margins. Finally, a week into my stay, I heard a car roll down the dirt driveway. I looked out my window and saw Edward step out of his silver Jeep Cherokee. I leapt from my desk and hurried down the stairs, eager to trade thoughts and to pick his brain.
I caught him just as he was stepping into The Barn, and told him how excited I was to be there and a little about what I was working on. Then, apropos of nothing, I blurted out, “So I finally got around to reading Chekhov. I read them all this week, and I just wanted to thank you for the recommendation. They were poetic and thoughtful and funny and heartbreaking. I loved the characterizations and the philosophical musings.” And so on. After a minute when I’d finally stopped, I noticed that Edward had a strange look on his face — somewhere between puzzled and offended — as though I’d just offered to rewrite one of his plays for him.
“What do you mean you ‘got around to reading Chekhov?’” Edward said, bewildered. “You have the honor to read Chekhov; the privilege to read Chekhov. You don’t ‘get around’ to —” He stopped, cutting himself off, and shook his head wearily. As he turned and walked away, he said, “You have a lot to learn.”
And, of course, he was right.
I can’t remember who told me first, but sometime before I arrived in Montauk I’d heard that one of the more unusual luxuries of The Barn was the fact that Edward delivered the mail. There was a P. O. Box in town and every few days he would check it, and if there was something for the residents he would bring it over for them. Being the young opportunist that I was, I quickly instructed my friends and family to send me as many letters as they could write.
About a week into my stay the first letter arrived. Again, I heard the sound of Edward’s silver Jeep Cherokee rolling up the driveway. Again, I went outside to meet him.
Edward was walking toward The Barn, head down, tapping a white envelope against his open palm, studying it like it contained a medical prognosis that he was afraid to read.
“Edward, do you have a letter for me?” I asked.
“I do,” he said, sounding concerned. “But before I give it to you, you’re going to have to explain it to me.” Edward held it up to me, the front side facing out. The letter was from my sister in Maine and addressed to Ian “Pig Destroyer” McDonald. Pig Destroyer was a heavy metal band that I liked at the time (and still do), and I suddenly found myself at a loss for words.
Edward Albee, for those who don’t know, was a huge classical music enthusiast, and has said before that he doesn’t write plays so much as compose them, likening specific stage directions (a pause, a slight pause, a very slight pause) to musical notes. He advises young playwrights to study classical music and had stocked The Barn with, literally, thousands of classical music albums. How the hell was I going to explain the artistic merits of grindcore to a 78-year-old who listens to Bach’s fugues before writing?
I gestured vaguely and tried to force an explanation, stumbling over my words, looking, I’m sure, incredibly guilty of some indescribable crime. Finally, seeing no other way out, I said, “Pig Destroyer is a band I like.”
Edward leaned back, eyebrows up, surprised but not displeased. “Oh,” he said. “So you, yourself, are not a destroyer of pigs, then?”
“No,” I said.
“Very well, then.” He gave me the letter, smiled, then returned to his Jeep Cherokee and drove away.
My time at The Barn, in 2007, was productive, illuminating, and, at the risk of sounding grandiose, life changing. The play I wrote there has never been performed, but the experience of writing it was important nevertheless. Paid for by the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Barn was conceived of as a place for emerging artists to get away and focus on their work. As a 22-year-old, I was still aspiring to the lofty title of “emerging.” My writing went largely unread, except, perhaps, by a few close friends. Agents and managers felt like angels and yetis — mythological creatures that others claimed to have seen, but which never revealed themselves to me. And while my parents have always been incredibly supportive, I didn’t come from the kind of family that could afford to singlehandedly finance a play or a film (as was the case with several of my peers).
John Steinbeck once said that “[t]he writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.” But one’s ability to sustain that illusion requires nourishment — readings, gallery showings, awards, publications, whatever. Another way of putting this is: Feeling like an artist is an important step in the process of becoming an artist. My stay at The Barn that year was the first time that I felt like an artist.
Shortly before the end of my stay, the other residents and I made dinner for Edward to thank him for the opportunity he’d given us. The conversation was, as others have confirmed, vintage Albee: a battle of wits. At times playful, at others confrontational. Exhausting, but also invigorating. At the end of the evening, I told Edward that I wanted to keep pursuing playwriting and asked if he would write a recommendation for me to attend graduate school. Edward said sure, and a couple years later, I found myself studying at Brown University.
Even now, it’s hard to express what this meant to me. Edward Albee was, and remains, one of my favorite playwrights. His work, which I reread often, is romantic but brutal, intellectual but visceral, challenging but clear, and his plays represent a kind of artistic North Star for me. Whenever I’m lost, I return to The Goat, Three Tall Women, Seascape, and, of course, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? to find my way home again. And while he’s become most famous for writing plays about well-spoken alcoholics abusing each other in living rooms, it’s impossible to describe his body of work as a whole, because the fact of the matter is that there’s a range and versatility to Edward’s plays which is frequently ignored. Box-Mao-Box is quite unlike anything else he’s written, as is the criminally under-produced Fragments: A Sit-around, which contains some of Albee’s most beautiful and devastating writing.
Also less discussed among his accomplishments, Edward was a teacher and an advocate for young artists. He dedicated much of his life to helping and encouraging people who were trying to make a meaningful (or “useful” as he would have it) contribution to the arts. I’m merely one of the many recipients of his generosity of time, money, and spirit.
Despite some efforts to reconnect, I only saw Edward once more after that. It was 2011, the summer after I graduated from Brown and was attending the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Edward was being awarded the MacDowell Medal that year, and while I hadn’t used his recommendation in my application, I suspect that my time at the Albee Residency may have been one of the reasons why I was scheduled to be there on Medal Day (as they call it).
Crowded in with the four or five hundred other attendees, I listened to Albee’s speech. He was funny and gracious, and told a story about meeting Thornton Wilder, when Albee was young poet, visiting a friend at the MacDowell. Albee, a fan, ran up to Wilder and shoved a bunch of poems into his hands and ran away. Later that night, Wilder found him and invited him to come sit by a pond so that they could discuss the work. The older writer took out a bottle of wine, poured them both a glass, and talked through each of the poems. And each time he finished talking about a poem, he would gently take the sheet of paper it was printed on and toss it out onto the water. When the discussion was over, the pond had all of Edward’s poems out floating on it, and Wilder turned to Edward and said, “Have you considered playwriting?”
Later that night, at the dinner, I found my way over to Edward, who was standing quietly with a few members of the MacDowell board, and reintroduced myself. He remembered me and we talked for a bit. I asked how life had been treating him, and he thought for a minute, then sighed and said that he was in love with someone who was young and straight, and that he felt like a fool for hoping because it was totally impossible. I was stunned by his candor and, not knowing quite what to say, told him that my girlfriend of the last five years (recently turned fiancée) and I had just separated. We commiserated about love and loneliness for a while and then, after 20 minutes or so, he wished me well and retired for the night.
It was the last time I saw him in person.
I attended the Albee Foundation residency again in summer 2015, and while Edward was living in Montauk at the time, his health, as I understood it, was failing. He wasn’t taking visitors, much less delivering mail. So I wrote him a short letter, which I gave to Rex Lau, one of Edward’s close friends and the facilities manager of The Barn. Rex read it to him a few days later and told me that, illness notwithstanding, it made Edward smile.
I won’t reprint the letter in its entirety, but have decided to include, here, the last paragraph from it because it summarizes my feelings as well as I know how. The time I spent with Edward was brief and intermittent, but his impact — professionally, politically, creatively — has been immeasurable, and I will be forever grateful that our paths crossed at all.
The last paragraph of my letter went like this:
We first met on a plane from New York to Los Angeles. We talked about theater, and you patiently answered my questions about Virginia Woolf and The Goat, and later that week we grabbed lunch together. At the end of it, you wrote down your New York address on a piece of the paper tablecloth and asked me to send you a play. I’ve kept that slip of paper in my wallet for close to nine years now. I’ve thanked you for the residency, the recommendation, and your inspiring body of work. But also, and most importantly, thank you for just being a nice guy to a kid starting out in the field. That meant more to me than you’ll ever know.
Ian MacAllister-McDonald is a playwright, filmmaker, and educator from Portland, Maine. He teaches at Loyola Marymount University and has recently completed work on his first feature film, Some Freaks.