The man who many consider the greatest American playwright of the 20th century, Edward Albee, lived in Montauk for nearly all of his adult life. He came here in the 1950s for the peace and quiet it offered. He bought an oceanfront house on the Old Montauk Highway, and he rented a stable adjacent to Montauk Manor, converting it into a rehearsal space to perform works in progress. He developed his great body of work at this place, and he had interns, actors, students and collaborators living in this facility for his whole working life. He passed away last year at his Montauk home at the age of 88.
This past week, one of his great plays, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, became involved in a controversy. This play, written in 1962, concerns two married couples having an after-party drink at one of the couples’ homes. It starts tensely, advances to revelations of dark secrets and ends in monstrous discourse just short of brutal violence. Theatergoers report it’s as if a bomb of depravity has gone off.
Earlier this month, a small theater group in Portland, Oregon was denied permission to perform the work, by Edward Albee’s estate, because the theater group wanted to have the younger of the two husbands played by an African-American. The denial has sent a shiver through the American arts community. This is the 21st century. How could this happen? Not long ago, Albee refused to allow another one of his plays to be performed because the theater group wishing to produce it refused to cast one of the characters as an African-American.
The estate’s job is to defend the integrity of Albee’s work, no doubt about that. It has decided to intervene with this work because having an African-American actor as one of the four in Virginia Woolf changes that character’s persona. The character in question is described by Albee as white, blond and Aryan looking, and as the play unravels he is assaulted with insults declaring him to be no more than a goose-stepping Nazi. The play, they say, therefore has to be seen as a period piece, set in its time frame. And it needs to be held to that.
The issue does get one to seriously consider when a person of a different ethnic background would be acceptable and when not. A white actor would not work as the lead in A Raisin in the Sun or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or in the more recent movie, Get Out, about a blond, white woman who brings an African-American boyfriend home to meet her white parents in Westchester. On the other end, I could see Beyoncé playing the lead in Hello, Dolly. And an African-American actor could successfully tackle any role in A Streetcar Named Desire. And what about the cast of Hamilton? Oh, wait.
One wag reviewing the controversy said that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would slip down from the pedestal of greatness because of the Albee Estate’s position. Horrors.