Thursday, March 31, 2005

The baby's real, Larissa!!! The baby's real!!!

Maybe it's like this for everyone. Maybe having someone who's in a field you know about profiled automatically renders you incapable of enjoying their in-depth New Yorker spread. Were news anchors everywhere up in arms after the Dan Rather bio? Perhaps. And as far as I know, chefs everywhere go crying into their delicate greens when the Food Issue comes out.

What I do know for certain is that Larissa MacFarquhar's profile of Edward Albee is totally and completely lame. Lame to the point of almost not being worth reading, except that I happen to believe in the cleansing power of the truly awful to remind us what goodness is. Anyway, it's utterly stupid and pointless and shoddy and makes me want to kick her in the face. No, strike that, it makes me want to send Marian Seldes to her home to eviscerate her with withering glances and scabrous asides. Or maybe scabrous glances and withering asides . . . Anyway--

How can it possibly so lame, you ask? Well, we'll start with the big picture and move to the smaller details. Biggest big of the big picture being that I'd be willing to bet nontrivial sums of money that Ms. MacFarquhar has never seen an Albee play produced. I love reading plays more than your average bear, but even I will admit that plays are written to be performed. They are not fully alive until they are performed and, in particular, it is very hard to tell exactly what is going on, particularly in plays (like Albee's) where people lie all the time. Without a production, everyone's lines are just sitting there, and their "truth" is pretty up for grabs. Or, in this case, up for the grabs of a dingbat journalist who picks and chooses moments from Albee's plays to pair suggestively with details from him life. Such as:

In 1965, in the middle of the "Tiny Alice" fiasco, Albee received a phone call from his parents' secretary telling him that his mother was ill and lonely. (His father died four years earlier.) He went to see her, for the first time since he left home. "I hear his voice and it all floods back, but I'm normal," A, in "Three Tall Women" says of this meeting. "Well, hello there, I say. Hello there to you, he says. Nothing about this shouldn't have happened. Nothing about I've missed you, not even that little lie . . . There are no apologies, no recriminations, no tears, no hugs; dry lips on my dry cheeks; yes that."

No A bloody doesn't "say of this meeting." A wasn't there! She's a fictional character! Bad Larissa! Based on his mom, sure. Inspired by his mom, fine. But it's not the same thing.

Do you know how big of a fucking temper tantrum I would throw if anyone ever tried this with me? Some playwrights, yes, they're autobiographical and they say so (although I still think that kind of sneaky elision is crap), but Albee is not a one-to-one correspondance writer. Or, as David Finkle put it in his Theatre Mania review, "Albee is on record as maintaining that he doesn't write crypto-biography. . . he recently claimed to interviewer Leslie Garis, "This play ['The Play About the Baby'] has nothing to do with me at all, except my theory that everybody's reality is determined by their need."

Which brings us to the two central flaws of this piece. Overall, it's poorly researched and redactive for days, but on some big deep level, the writer just doesn't "get it" -- not what Albee's doing and not who he is. As evidenced by Flaw 1:
  • She is way too willing to believe. The best sentence to illustrate this point is the alarmingly stupid one from page 71, "Albee was pampered but unloved." WHAT???!!! This is a biography???!!! Who in the hell are you to ever pass judgment on whether someone is or is not loved? Was he loved in the way that would have been best for him? Looks not. Was he given the kinds of attentions he wanted as a child? Doubtful. But unloved? Come on now, that kind of summary of a childhood belongs in A Series of Unfortunate Events, not a supposedly nuanced biography of a real person. And it's not even "Albee felt unloved" or "Albee believed himself to be unloved" but just a "was." Wanna ask Mrs. Albee about that one?

Which brings us to Flaw 2

  • She is not nearly willing enough to believe, which we see in a sustained summary of what she believes to be the "single theme that runs through Albee's work . . the importance of being open to a full consciousness of life, with all the social and emotional risk that that entails." Big Marian Seldes eyebrow raise to that one, but moving on to how she proves it. Brief capsules of the "illusions destroyed" in Albee's major works, including this one:

    Man and Woman, in "The Play About the Baby," destroy Girl and Boy's fantasy that they have a baby.

    No, no and again I say no! The baby is real, Larissa!!! Don't believe me? Didn't get to actually, ya know, like, see a production with a pregnant woman and a baby onstage? God, that's so time-consuming, I know! Well, how about turning to the
    man himself who said, "It is about a real baby who by the end of the play ceases to exist." The baby is real. And what's also real (and what makes the play so horrifying) is so is the human tendency to trick ourselves to avoid pain. Or, as that guy, what's his name, oh yeah, Albee, put it: "We lie to ourselves. We invent things. We deny things according to what we can tolerate, and this play is another extended metaphor of that."

MacFarquhar is so invested in the story that, ahem, she wants to tell (about the sad little boy who likes to destroy big, bad illusions) that she can't look at the facts (of Albee's life or his work) the way they are. She denies what she can't tolerate and writes a lame-ass profile whose last line unwittingly undermines her entire approach and its simplistic conclusions. Quoting Albee, who said "Once I figured out who I was, whatever care or interest I may have had in where I came from vanished completely--I was indifferent to my past."

Is he "telling the truth" and therefore negating MacFarquhar's entire autobiographical line of reasoning? Or is he "lying" and perpetuating a delusional fantasy that needs to be destroyed, thus negating her other thread? You tell me, Larissa, you tell me.

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