Playwright Edward Albee shares his know-how of drama and dramatists with Princeton students

Playwrights love to talk about their characters, but can grow reticent when it comes to delving into the working of their own minds. “If you talk too much about the [creative] process, you’re paralyzed,” said Edward Albee, the Pulitzer Prize-and Tony Award-winning author of works such as The Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. “There has to be a kind of magic about it.”

Nevertheless, Albee talked quite a lot about himself and his work in a course offered in the fall by the Program in Theater and Dance in the Lewis Center for the Arts. The course was titled “Albee on Albee,” and that is just what it was. Ten students, chosen by application, met weekly with Michael Cadden, a senior lecturer and the program’s director, to study the works of the man pronounced by many as America’s greatest living playwright. Three times during the semester they were graced by Albee himself, who in his first class session led a free-wheeling discussion of drama and dramatists. At the end of the semester, the students were scheduled to watch Albee in action as he oversaw rehears-als of a new play, Me, Myself and I, a comedy about identical twin brothers — both named Otto — which runs through Feb. 17 at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center.

Albee warned students, who read a biography of him, against the temptation to engage in literary psychoanalysis. “Many people make the mistake of thinking that plays are autobiographies,” he said. “This is nonsense. I have never written a play that is based on experiences I have had.” He also distinguished between the freedom of the stage and the restraint of film. In a play, Albee said, audience members can look wherever on the stage they choose. But in a movie, “I am told what I must look at, what I am supposed to feel,” he said.

In addition to dropping some show-business nuggets (he wanted James Mason and Bette Davis for the leads in the film version of Virginia Woolf but had to settle for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), Albee questioned the students closely about their backgrounds, interests, and reasons for taking the course. When a few admitted to writing fiction as well as plays, Albee counseled that it is the rare writer who can write well in more than one genre. “Arthur Miller wrote one novel,” he joked. “Don’t read it.”

Plays are meant to be read as well as performed, and are underappreciated as literature, said Albee, the author of more than 30 plays. Nevertheless, a playwright must never lose sight of his play as a dramatic work. “If you’re writing a play, you must see and hear everything you put down — as a play performed on stage, not as some ephemeral reality. This will save you an awful lot of trouble.” Even so, the effort is doomed to at least some disappointment. “The performance is always an approximation: it cannot, axiomatically, be as good or as accurate as what you heard in your head when you were writing.”

Now 79, Albee insists that age has not changed his perspective on character. A playwright should be able to write characters that are 90 when he is 18 and characters that are 18 when he is 90, he said. It is the playwright’s vision that must predominate, not the actors’ or the director’s. That is why he insists on sitting in on rehearsals for his plays and writes copious stage directions, comparing them to notations a composer puts in a musical score. When a student asked if he has become less demanding as he has grown older, Albee seemed to take offense. “Why,” he wanted to know, “should I become less demanding?”

He doesn’t hesitate to celebrate the playwright’s importance, and illustrated this point with a story. Before a rehearsal for Virginia Woolf, producer Richard Barr ’38 told him to look around the theater. It was filled with actors, understudies, agents, props people, lighting assistants, stage managers, lawyers — all for a three-act play with only four characters. Why are all these people here? Barr asked rhetorically. Because you wrote a play.