The actor Bill Irwin’s friendship with Edward Albee began when Irwin appeared in The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? in 2002, opposite Sally Field; on Broadway in 2005 he played George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, opposite Kathleen Turner as Martha, and won that year’s Tony for Best Actor for his performance.
Below, Irwin recalls their friendship, in the wake of the 88-year-old Albee’s death on Friday.
“The thing about Edward Albee was that he was one of the most erudite voices,” Bill Irwin told The Daily Beast. “We’re speaking about him now in the past tense, but we should think of his voice as going on forever.”
“I was a friend of Edward’s, and he was a complicated man,” said Irwin. “The story seemed to be to me that he had much mellowed by the time I met him and got to know him. He was actually a simple and generous soul in his way. He was crusty and witty, but not the combative younger man that people had described him as.”
I asked what Albee’s bearing was like. “He was an Alpha male of a certain sort, and he valued his acerbic-ness.”
Irwin retold a story that Bill Pullman (who played Martin in Goat, which Irwin later took on) told him. “During the first day of rehearsals—and it hasn’t played anywhere yet, let alone off-Broadway—Bill said he said to assembled table, ‘I can’t believe I’m here with Edward Al-bee. And Edward said, ‘It’s Awl-bee.’”
This was done with a certain kind of wit, said Irwin. I asked if Albee was very much in his actors’ faces in rehearsals, an interventionist, or did he sit on the sidelines.
“Well, he was a huge presence when he was present,” said Irwin. “I think he would say he adapted the stance of being on the sidelines of ‘letting you people get on with your work.’ But his very presence radiated, and he would say things that made you realize that you may have been on the wrong track.”
However, at one critical moment, Albee gave Irwin confidence in his abilities. During rehearsals for Who’s Afraid…?—which follows the dark, deep relationship between a married couple, George and Martha, and the secrets, hidden rhythms, and currents at their union’s heart—the producers had bought some journalists in to meet the company. One asked Irwin whether George was strong or weak.
“I said, ‘Well, at the end of the play he’s the last man standing.’ I saw that the corners of Edward’s lips under his moustache curled slightly. And I thought, ‘Oh well, I didn’t say the worst thing I could have said at least.’ That gave me confidence, thinking about this struggle of the four characters within the play, that I may be on the right track.”
Irwin was never present around discussions of the genesis of the play—whether it was based on same-sex couples, for example, “which I understand Edward didn’t have much patience for. But the thing about Edward—and I asked him about this in the course of the years that I knew him—was that he was a gay man who really knew how to write women. The character of Martha at the center of this play is such an amazing creation that it all of a sudden takes precedence in people’s notion of the play.”
Once, Irwin interviewed Albee on stage in Nyack, NY, where Irwin, his wife, and son then lived.
“I had to swallow hard a couple of times. Edward was a crusty character who valued the notion of his cutting wit, and boy did he have it. I asked him, ‘Do you feel as a gay man writing that you have a perceptive lens on heterosexual relationships that perhaps those of us who are heterosexual do not?’ And I again swallowed hard at the silence that fell there. Then he said, ‘I think so, yes.’ So, I was glad I asked the question.”
Before Irwin and his fellow cast began work on Who’s Afraid…? he had seen the classic 1966 movie, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, just once on its original release with a date when he was 17, “and I think we’d had something to drink before we saw it. I don’t think I watched it again till we had done the Broadway run in 2005. And I was so struck by how strong and detailed my memory of the movie had been—without my being fully conscious of it. It was huge in my work on the role, even though I’d seen it only that once at 17.
“Edward enjoyed rolling his eyes about the film,” said Irwin, “but we knew it had made him a household name and a lot of money.”
For Albee, the movie had elevated Martha more than the playwright had intended “in the balance of the original play,” so, Irwin thinks, in subsequent theatrical productions, Albee “encouraged a strong George, who takes on the appearance of being weak, who goes along to get along, but who’s actually very strong at the core.”
One day, Albee addressed the Broadway cast to tell them who his original choices had been for the film’s leads. “We were dumbstruck—there was other casting to the iconic casting of the movie?” Irwin recalled. “‘I wanted James Mason and Bette Davis in the roles,’” he said. “We were all aghast. But it was very illuminating to me. Mason is a very intelligent, witty, centered presence as an actor. His way of speaking—that cadence of literary intelligence—gave me a feeling that this is a man who in the early scenes is a bit of a milquetoast, but is that last man standing at the end of the play.”
As protective as he was of his work, Albee did not hold forth in rehearsals. “He had that maddening approach of ‘It’s all there in the play,’ which is also very authentic and real. He would talk about the casting of the movie and productions where things had been out of balance but he didn’t monopolize the room. I think he deeply trusted Anthony [Page, that production’s director].”
Playing George for between 3 and 400 performances was intense, Irwin said. “Every time I opened that door at the beginning, I thought, ‘Oh, here we go.’ Rounding the couch at the halfway point, I would think about hitting that halfway point. It was a big, enormous privilege on each outing, but not a show you took on lightly.”
The night that Irwin won the Tony, Albee was also honored with the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
“I guess I should have said more about our director Anthony,” Albee said to Irwin afterwards.
“Things were often oblique with Edward,” said Irwin. “He wouldn’t just say, ‘That was good great job tonight.’
“What seemed to mellow him, one huge chapter, a huge event, in Edward’s life, was the loss of his longtime partner Jonathan [Thomas, a sculptor],” said Irwin. “Jonathan was ill while we were rehearsing Who’s Afraid…? Edward said more than once he had would have been there more had it not been such a crucial time in Jonathan’s illness. By the time we did the show in London, Edward had lost Jonathan.” Thomas died of bladder cancer, aged 59, in May 2005.
Their relationship was both grounding and transformative for Albee, said Irwin, before saying he was hesitating how to tell the following story because he wanted it to be read, and taken, in the right way.
One night, at supper, Albee was talking about a food tour he had done; Thomas was interjecting with barbs as only a partner can. “At one point Edward said to Jonathan, ‘Shut up.’ I thought he was joking,” recalled Irwin. “I smiled. He wasn’t joking, but at the same time it wasn’t like someone else saying [a harsher] ‘Shut up.’
“It gave me such an insight into the characters who make up that great play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where they say things to each other—‘Shut up’—which don’t mean ‘This is it for us.’ It just means, ‘I’m as tough as you are.’ I realized something about Edward and Jonathan: they played for keeps in their games-playing, and I also realized how deeply they loved each other.”
Thomas’s death “affected Edward very greatly. It’s inadequate to give it an adjective, it was so huge. It was one of those cases where you felt, ‘I’m not sure this guy will survive his partner’s death.’ Then you watched him over the course of time toughening himself up. He did a show of all Jonathan’s artwork. He gave each person who came something they asked for—I have a piece. It was all part of honoring Jonathan and all part of moving on, which he did do.”
Irwin last saw Albee sometime in the last year—he can’t be precise on when—in Albee’s kitchen with James (Jim) Houghton, founder of the Signature Theatre, who himself died of stomach cancer, aged 57, last month.
“I was sitting with these two wonderful men,” said Irwin. “Jim had organized the visit. It was hard because Edward was frail, and it was hard to tell how much his mind or memory were compromised, or how much less interested he was in the world at large.”
Irwin sat there with both men “who are gone now,” he said. “It was a great privilege, and I thank them for allowing me to have that last goodbye with Edward.”
Albee, Irwin said, “really lit up when he asked Jim about his health regimen, and what he was doing after his own cancer diagnosis. Jim was very candid, and that got Edward really energized: ‘You’re doing this kind of chemo? OK, OK.’”
That day, Albee seemed frail “and his presence was not as strong as I remembered from earlier times, but he was still Edward Albee.”
Did Irwin know he was saying farewell to Albee for a final time? “I thought I might be, and like most Irish people I just didn’t mention it.”
As for Albee’s legacy, Irwin thinks that the playwright’s “use of language and stance towards language is like no-one else’s, therefore it is a voice that will be like no-one else’s. There was a courage and conviction about the way he wanted to go about things.”
Albee would have no problem telling someone that any cuts to his work were unacceptable, and yet would be fine with other cuts. He could also, said Irwin, “be a tough son-of-a-bitch, and then be gentle and generous. He was about as mysterious a creature as you’re ever going to find.”
There was an underlying tenderness to Albee, said Irwin. “As you read his plays there is an immense sympathy for these characters at the same time as a tough love, and that extended to actors.”
Albee, Irwin recalled, was once flown to the Stockholm premiere of Who’s Afraid…? and noticed the curtain only came down once between acts (it’s written in three acts). “Well, that only happened one night,” Albee related in the retelling—presumably meaning the Swedish producers were told pretty emphatically the play came with a second interval between acts.
“There was a certain amount of tip-toeing around Edward, hoping you didn’t invoke his famous wrath or ire, but he was a generous soul,” said Irwin.
Albee loved a play’s length and intricate structure, added Irwin, noting he had appeared in both the three hours-plus (without cuts, and he performed in it with some trimming too) Who’s Afraid…? and the 85-minute The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
“Both are magnificent plays,” Irwin said, “and both are quintessentially ‘Edward Albee’ in his voice. Now for my money, there are a few things he wrote in between that I’m not crazy about and he may not have been either, but those two plays—as different as they are—is all he needs as a legacy for me.”
When I asked Irwin if there is anything else he would like to say about Albee, he paused and said, “He prompts you to force yourself to be best. Talking about him is a challenge. You might toss something off glibly about somebody else, but you must be at your very best when talking about Edward Albee.”
Eileen Fulton, most famous for playing Lisa Grimaldi in As The World Turns, played Honey in the 1963 Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Eileen Fulton doesn’t remember Albee being present before her production of the show opened in rehearsals. “But I certainly remember his presence after the show had opened. We had a Christmas party on the stage and he was sitting back from us and looking.
“Of course, I was so excited to finally see him. And I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, and he glared at me and I couldn’t stop. It was a terrible thing. That’s what I remember the most.”
“I was saddened by it, I was shocked,” Fulton told The Daily Beast of learning of Albee’s death. “For me, he was always going to be here. He was a universal character. He drew from the world, and put us into these situations.”
Fulton loved the part of Honey: the latter was a preacher’s daughter, and so was Fulton, “so I knew where she came from, or at least I felt I did. And I loved working with Elaine Stritch [who played Martha]. It was quite a wonderful cast.” As for the play itself, Fulton feels, that “it’s a very lonely play, and the characters were lonely and fascinating. People kept coming back to see it over and over again. I truly loved doing that part.”
Fulton was doing triple duty while in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: at the same time she was also performing in the off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks and the TV role which made her most famous, as Lisa Grimaldi in As The World Turns, who she played—with a few breaks—from 1960 to the show’s end in 2010.
The show's producers assured Fulton, she said, that they would be “compassionate” in regards to all her demands, “but I didn’t trust them to be compassionate.” And so she beetled by train between Who’s Afraid…? and As The World Turns, and then performed in The Fantasticks in the evening.
She loved playing Honey, very much. “When Elaine Stritch came off-stage one night, she said, ‘I’ve caught the sofa on fire.’ One of her cigarettes had fallen down into the cushions. ‘Put it out the best way you can,’ she said, which I did with tea, which was a stage prop for the alcohol the characters were drinking.”
Once, in showbiz restaurant Sardi’s, Fulton heard someone disparaging Stritch. “I went over, slammed my glass down on the table, broke it, and said, ‘I will not stand for anyone saying anything against Elaine Stritch. She is one of my favorite people and a great, great performer.’ Then I was ushered out and someone paid for my dinner.”
Performing the play’s emotional rollercoaster was “draining, and we all got looped on drinking tea,” Fulton recalled. “It was really draining, and I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’ And I found out that it was a new experience every time we stepped on stage. It was a growing experience and I actually love that.”