Q&A: Playwright Edward Albee

Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee.
CBS News

(CBS News) Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar, and Richard Burton was nominated for one, for their performances in the 1966 film, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" So why, when it came to honoring the writer of the original stage play with a Pulitzer Prize, was it taken away from him? Who was afraid of Edward Albee? Tracy Smith asks the questions; Edward Albee provides the answers. . .

Playwright Edward Albee lives by a simple rule: "'Yes' is better than 'no.' In all things."

But Albee is neither a pushover nor a simple man. After all, he breathed life into George and Martha, the married couple who battle 'til dawn in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" on stage and on screen (played by the real-life battling Burtons, Elizabeth Taylor and then-husband Richard Burton).

In fact, George and Martha are still going at it, 50 years later, in a new staging on Broadway.

Who could resist the chance to ask the playwright everything we want to know about one of America's greatest plays?

"Specifically with George and Martha, are those based on people that you knew?" Smith asked.

"There are probably elements of the personalities of some people that I've know that turn up there," Albee said. "I find people I can invent are usually more interesting than real people!"

At times, interviewing Albee can become a game of wits.

When asked what "Virginia Woolf" is about, he replied, "It's about two and a half hours, three hours. That question troubles me so much -- 'What is your play about?' It's about everything that happens in it!"

"You don't like to boil it down," Smith said.

"Any play that can be described in one sentence should be one sentence long," he said.

Albee controls all aspects of productions of his play, from selecting the actors, director, and even how his name and the play's title are written on the marquee. It's a way of protecting his work from the commercialism that he says is destroying Broadway.

"It's all about not doing the best plays but doing the ones that will sell the most tickets [which are] usually junk," Albee said.

"Do you go see them?"

"Very seldom. I used to go see more since I'm one of the voters for [the Tonys]. Now I just lie," he laughed.

Albee's written some 30 plays in all, and won his first Tony Award for "Virginia Woolf" back in 1963. It is by far his most famous, and early on, it was a bit infamous, too.

"Going back to '62, a lot of people who were involved in the production of 'Virginia Woolf' were nervous about the subject matter, about the language. Were you nervous?" Smith asked.

"Well, I would hope so."

"You wanted them to be nervous?"

"Well, no, I mean, I knew the play was going to be a little troubling to some people. But I write what the play needs."

"And if that means it offends some people?"

"Well, I think if you don't offend some people, you're probably failing in some way," he laughed.

And if you think he's kidding, just watch him as he talks about the award that got away:

"The Pulitzer jury chose 'Virginia Woolf' for the Pulitzer . . . " Smith said.

Albee interjected, "And I thought it was a fairly reasonable choice, yes!"

"And then the Board said no, no, no. We're not awarding it to him. What did you make of that?"

"I realized fairly quickly that I was going to get much more publicity out of having the Columbia University Board turning down 'Virginia Woolf' [for the Pulitzer Prize] than I would have gotten just for getting it," he laughed.

Albee went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes for drama, for "A Delicate Balance" in 1967, "Seascape" in 1975, and "Three Tall Women" in 1994.

"When people ask you how many Pulitzer Prizes you have, I say, 'Three-and-a-half,'" Albee laughed. "The Columbia University drudges took it away from me."