When New York Times theater reporter and critic Mel Gussow wrote to Samuel Beckett for the first time in 1973, he requested a meeting with the 20th-century theater’s leading modern playwright to begin research on a biography. Beckett’s reply was characteristic.
The playwright and novelist (Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Happy Days) wrote back to Gussow that he would be happy to meet in Paris, where he’d lived for decades, but recommended a prompt abandonment of the biography scheme: “My life was devoid of interest and is much better left unwritten.”
A singularly harsh self-judgment, which raised a few eyebrows among the enthusiastic crowd gathered in Pope Auditorium on Feb. 10 to hear a panel discussion featuring Gussow, Edward Albee—himself one of the foremost playwrights of this era—and Lawrence Sacharow, director of the Fordham Theatre Department and most recently, director of the fall 2003 off-Broadway hit Beckett/Albee. The event was part of Sapientia et Doctrina, a yearlong lecture series celebrating the inauguration of Joseph M. McShane, S.J., the 32nd president of Fordham University.
Playwright Edward Albee’s award-winning plays include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?, A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women.
Photo: Ken Levinson
Gussow and Beckett did finally meet in 1977, after Gussow sent him a Times review he penned, noting the “uproarious pessimism” in one of Beckett’s recent New York productions. Beckett responded by letter, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” and the two men struck up an enduring friendship that lasted through the final months of Beckett’s life.
“He was as tall and craggy as a Giacometti. When I first saw him, he was smoking a cigar and drinking a coffee in the most unlikely of Paris cafés. In a voice full of Irish lyricism, Beckett said, ‘This is not an interview,’” and Gussow slipped his open reporter’s notebook into a pocket, from which it never again emerged in the presence of Beckett.
After their meetings, Gussow would head back to his hotel room and scribble madly, getting down as much as he could remember of Beckett’s conversation. “He turned to theater as relief from the darkness of prose. Theater was the light,” Gussow said.
Edward Albee was a young unknown when he had a first brush with Beckett in Paris, a meeting he promptly forgot.
“I don’t like meeting writers,” Albee declared by way of introduction. “If they’re larger than their works, it’s embarrassing because their sense of themselves is undeserved. If not, if they’re less interesting than their work, then it’s a disappointment.”
In his earliest years as a playwright, Albee worked at Western Union and could not get his work produced in this country. One fine day he quit his job and traveled in steerage to West Germany for the premiere of his Zoo Story, an early play of savage originality that went on to change the face of theater in the 1960s and 1970s.
“It was being done in Berlin because nobody here wanted a grumpy, hour-long play by an utterly unknown American,” said Albee. The lines were performed in German (a language he neither spoke nor understood) in a double-bill with a Beckett play—also translated into German—about a man who compulsively rewinds the taped soliloquies of his earlier life, laughing without mercy or pity at the younger voice. This was to be Albee’s first experience of a Beckett play.
“Seeing Krapp’s Last Tape was an extraordinary moment.” In spite of the language barrier, Albee recalls “a transforming experience.”
“I find Beckett’s plays clear, straight-forward. There is nothing opaque, nothing unclear about any single line he ever wrote,” said Albee. “I know of no playwright who wrote with greater clarity, greater economy, greater inevitability.”
The impact of Beckett’s work, of course, was not confined to younger playwrights. Lawrence Sacharow notes, “Directing Beckett illuminates the world, and directing Albee illuminates the world.” As an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, Sacharow saw his first play by Albee, Zoo Story. It convinced him that he wanted to spend his life working in the theater.
And work he has, directing dozens of landmark plays, among them the American premiere of Albee’s Three Tall Women, for which the author won a Pulitzer and the director, an Obie and a Lortel award. Albee’s work remains one of the constants of Sacharow’s life as a director.
“It’s very rare,” said Sacharow, “when you go the theater and it actually changes your life.”
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