Playwright Albee Defends 'Gay Writer' Remarks

Originally published on June 6, 2011 3:36 pm

Edward Albee's recent remarks about being labeled a "gay writer" sparked controversy within the gay community, but the playwright insists such definitions are "prejudicial."

"Maybe I'm being a little troublesome about this," Albee tells NPR's Renee Montagne, "but so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers and I find that is such a limitation and such a prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can."

Albee was recently criticized for a speech he gave while accepting an award at the 23rd annual Lambda Literary Awards. The ceremony, held May 26, honored work by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender authors. Albee — who is best known for plays such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Zoo Story and A Delicate Balance — was presented with the Pioneer Award, meant to honor those who have broken ground for LGBT literature and publishing.

In accepting the honor from Lambda, Albee told the audience, "A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay."

He continued by saying, "Any definition which limits us is deplorable."

Some artists in attendance felt Albee's tone was inappropriate for the event and have said that creating and supporting work that is specifically gay is important to the visibility of the gay community.

"The only part of the evening I truly found disappointing was the acceptance speech given by Edward Albee for his Pioneer award," attendee Sassafras Lowrey wrote on her blog. "He spent the majority of it talking about why writing from a queer experience was a lesser art form, how his 'sexual proclivities' have nothing to do with his art."

The Wall Street Journal's Speakasy blog and lesbian website Autostraddle also wrote about Albee's comments and the debate they have ignited about the future of gay writing and publishing.

Albee tells Montagne he has always fought for gay rights and points out that other artists are not put into such categories.

"Who goes around talking about abstract expressionist painters and making a definition or a distinction between those of them that were straight and those of them who were or are gay? Nobody does it," Albee says. "People only do it with writers and I find that so ridiculous."

Albee says he remembers being discriminated against by theater critics who knew about his sexuality early on in his career. He says when Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf — about a professor and his wife throwing a party for a new professor and his spouse — debuted in the early 1960s some critics wrote in their reviews that Albee was likely portraying two gay couples.

Now, at age 83, Albee says he's working on a new play. He isn't giving any details yet, but he says it explores various prejudices.

"None of which, oddly enough happens to concern being gay," he says, "but it concerns itself with prejudices that involve us a great deal more as a society."

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Interestingly, among the plays that have brought Albee three Pulitzer Prizes and three Tony Awards, none of them are about gay issues, which accounts for a bit of a controversy he got into a little over a week ago. The playwright was recognized as a Pioneer at the Lambda Literary Awards in New York, organized to honor lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender writers. In his acceptance speech, Albee said he was a writer who happened to be gay, not a gay writer. And went on to say...

MONTAGNE: Any definition which is going to limit us is unfortunate, and goes beyond that, and is deplorable.

MONTAGNE: Good morning. Thank you for joining us.

MONTAGNE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: When you're speaking, such as you were the other evening at the Lambda event, you were being honored as a Pioneer. It was the Pioneer Award which would make you, I guess, a pioneer gay writer, right - which is probably what sparked a debate?

MONTAGNE: The whole function of being a creative artist is to transcend the self and the self-interest, and have something to do with the anguish of us all.

MONTAGNE: Although it's not invalid, right, to in fact do that sort of writing?

MONTAGNE: Well, the only valid thing about it is the prejudice that the majority community brings to all of these definitions.

MONTAGNE: Meaning that the majority community sees it as a specialized and lesser piece of...

MONTAGNE: Yeah, I mean I happen to mention the fact that whenever poor Tennessee Williams is referred to in a review these days, or in conversation, he is gay playwright Tennessee Williams. Nobody ever says straight playwright Arthur Miller.


MONTAGNE: And, you know, interestingly enough, Tennessee - who happened to be gay - wrote much more convincingly about women than Arthur Miller ever did, who was famous for his own point of view, for being straight.

MONTAGNE: Though when you speak of it being limiting, even from the point of view of the majority population, a number of other gay writers took issue with that. You know, you...

MONTAGNE: Yes, a number of gay writers would, because some gay writers make their careers and their incomes off of being gay writers, rather than writers who happen to be gay.

MONTAGNE: But you still would hold to that that's a big issue.

MONTAGNE: I don't think it should be an issue. I mean who goes around talking about the Abstract Expressionist painters and making a definition or distinction between those of them that were straight and those of them who were or are gay? Nobody does it. Nobody does it with composers. People only do it with writers and I find that so ridiculous.

MONTAGNE: Was there ever a moment when you wanted to write, expand on, say, a gay character and felt at all inhibited from doing that?

MONTAGNE: But I'm not going to limit the subjects that I write about to the lives of five percent of the population. I'm not going to do it because that cuts me off from the woes and problems of 95 percent of the population. Why should I do that?

MONTAGNE: There was a time when gay themes were just not on, certainly took a lot of courage to be open about one's sexuality early in the game, I'd say the '50s and '60s. In that period, and you had one of the most famous plays ever in American theater - and this is "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

MONTAGNE: Yeah, and you know that when that play came out, some critics knew I was gay and they wrote in their reviews that he's probably writing about two gay couples.


MONTAGNE: Isn't that extraordinary?



MONTAGNE: 'Cause I know the difference between men and women, and I know the college structure.


MONTAGNE: And that wouldn't have been allowed in college in those days.

MONTAGNE: So what are you working on now?

MONTAGNE: I'm writing a play - well, I'm writing a play.


MONTAGNE: I discover that I'm thinking about some people and I try to find out why I've been thinking about them. And the whole play evolves from people that I'm thinking about, which - whom I've invented. I mean I invented them, therefore they exist and therefore I can put them down on paper.


MONTAGNE: Edward Albee, thank you very much for joining us.

MONTAGNE: You're welcome. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.