THE GOAT, OR, WHO IS SYLVIA?
Runs until November 4
Alberta Theatre Projects
Martha Cohen Theatre (Epcor Centre)
During a public conversation this past May at the CanStage Festival of Ideas and Creation in Toronto, Edward Albee told the audience how hed seen upset people get up and walk out midway through his Tony Award-winning play The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia? But what seemed to disturb them wasnt the fact that the main character, a 50-year-old architect, was having sex with a goat. What pushed their hot buttons was a scene in which the architects gay teenage son gives his father a more than filial on-the-mouth kiss.
On the one hand, their disgust proved one of Albees points in the play that weve still got a long way to go when it comes to an understanding and tolerance of sexual behaviour. At the same time, though, it also confirmed that, four decades after Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the septuagenarian playwright can still shock the average theatregoer.
"You would think that I had criticized God almighty, the number of people who would get up and leave at the fatal kiss," says a genial Albee when I remind him of the anecdote during a telephone interview from his Montauk, New York home. "It absolutely astonished me. Is this the limit of our comprehension, of our tolerance?"
His astonishment appears to be genuine. Albee says he really doesnt set out consciously to get an audiences goat, so to speak, when he writes.
"I try not to think about the effect my plays are going to have on people until I finish writing them," he says. "If I worried about it while I was writing them, I would do things that were wrong, like, Oh, dear, Id better make this less extreme, or, Oh, dear, I havent gone far enough. Id rather that the play get from my unconscious to my conscious mind and on to the page the way Ive wanted it to, before I start questioning what its all about. Its only after Ive finished a piece that I think, Wow! This is going to upset a few people. Or, This one is so complex, people are going to be totally confused."
Its also a mistake, he says, for audiences and critics to see The Goat as some kind of allegory. "All of my plays are naturalistic. This is not a metaphorical goat, its a real one, and its not a metaphorical love affair, its a real one." You can find symbolism in every work of art, he adds, "but the only thing I want is for people not to make judgments, but imagine how they would respond if they were the ones in this situation."
The Goat asks its characters and, by extension, the audience, to confront the uncomfortable truths about erotic attraction that society considers taboo. In a broader sense, Albee suggests, it may also be speaking to Americans under the "deeply stupid" Bush administration.
"What we are willing to think about and re-examine is one of the things that troubles me so much about American politics these days," he says. "We refuse to think about issues, we just do knee-jerk reactions to things without thinking. I imagine that The Goat, like most of my plays, is in part a political statement about my worries about the future of democracy in my country."
For an absurdist whose imagination has conjured up dramas about evolving lizards (Seascape), irrationally terrified WASPs (A Delicate Balance) and characters with superfluous appendages growing out of their backs (The Man Who Had Three Arms), a tragicomedy about goat-fucking is no great stretch. Amusingly, Albee may have first filed away the idea of bestiality as a theme while in George W. Bushs home state of Texas.
"I taught at the University of Houston for a while and I got to talk to a lot of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning former farm boys who were on the faculty there," he says. "And a few of them told me, When we were on the farm, we used to do little pigs and various other creatures, have sex with them. It didnt seem to upset them and it certainly gave us pleasure. And these were reputable and very bright people. So Im not convinced that its the worst thing you can possibly do. Although I dont recommend it," he hastens to add. "Just think of the terrible diseases that you might give to the poor animals. Nobody thinks about that."
He settled on a ruminant as a likely love object during a couple of visits to an Alaskan theatre festival around the time he began writing the play. "When I was up in Alaska, I would always go out to a goat farm and sit around with the goats," he recalls. "You sit around with the females the rams just want to butt up against you, theyre not very pleasant. But the female goats are so sweet and gentle and friendly, and their eyes I talk about it in the play are so loving. I could understand how somebody might very well decide, Wow! This is it."
The international success of The Goat is the latest triumph for Albee in what has proven to be a long-running comeback. The broody young playwright who burst on the scene in 1960 with his jarring one-act The Zoo Story, and followed it two years later with the brilliantly brutal Virginia Woolf, later found himself descending into a dark period in the 1970s and 80s when he wrestled with alcoholism and penned a string of plays that bombed or were not even produced in New York. For a time, it looked like he might be heading down the same sad path as his near-contemporary, Tennessee Williams.
With the help of his long-time partner, the late Canadian sculptor Jonathan Thomas, Albee kicked the booze and finally hit the theatre jackpot again with 1994s Three Tall Women, a thinly veiled portrait of his adoptive mother, that won him his third Pulitzer (after A Delicate Balance and Seascape). Last year, Albee picked up yet another trophy when he was given a Tony for lifetime achievement a bittersweet award, coming just a month after Thomas died of cancer.
Once known as irascible, at 78, Albee seems to have mellowed into a philosophical old stage warrior who looks back without anger at his peaks-and-valleys career. As we talk, hes sitting in his beachfront Montauk house purchased with his profits from Virginia Woolf and gazing out at the same stretch of Atlantic Ocean that inspired Seascape. "Its grey and rather stormy and wonderful today," he reports.
As for the comeback: "You have periods when youre in favour, and periods when youre not," he says amiably. "Im having a rather bizarre period where people seem to like what I do. That will go away. Maybe my next play will finish it all. I dont know."