"Every time I get an award, I'm deeply grateful and filled with great astonishment," Edward Albee remarked on receiving the Medal of Honor of the National Arts Club Tuesday night. "Every time I don't get an award, I feel the same astonishment. I've passed my life in great astonishment."
His wit and elegance as sharp as ever, the 83-year-old Albee regaled a huge crowd in the NAC's opulent Victorian mansion on Gramercy Park. The author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Delicate Balance mentioned he was working on a new play to be presented next year by the Signature Theater Company, which had commissioned it.
Woolf, his best known play, did not get the Pulitzer despite the fact the jury of critics who serve as advisers to the Pulitzer panel voted for it. The panel, which consists of journalists rather than drama critics, were disturbed by it and decided to make no award that year.
I am proud to have served on the 1994 jury that voted for Three Tall Women, which was Albee's second Pulitzer. Several on that jury wanted to give the prize to the second part of Angels in America. One of them even wore an Angels T-shirt to the voting meeting, which was a shocking form of electioneering at the polling place, not to mention sartorially inept. In the New York Times account on our secret meeting, I was reported as having been unaware that it was eligible. This was, of course, specious reporting -- I knew it was eligible. I just didn't think it was worthy.
Among the speakers honoring Albee was the novelist A.M. Homes, best known as the author of the novel "The End of Alice" and an early recipient of one of Albee's foundation grants. She recalled driving around Northampton, Mass., when she was on a book tour and pointing to a house she would love to own. She was startled and delighted to learn it was the house where Mike Nichols directed Mr. and Mrs. Burton in his film version of Virginia Woolf.
Another speaker was the young playwright Will Eno, also an Albee grant winner, who quipped, "Ten per cent of my caloric intake in the last 10 years has been at dinners honoring Edward." He said the title Medal of Honor seemed fitting, "since we are all chronically wounded in action."
The groundbreaking textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen remembered meeting Albee when he was first in New York in the late '50s -- the two were extremely chummy with another newcomer, a graphic artist named Andy Warhol. Larsen recalled Albee's "impeccable crew cut" and his "penetrating gaze -- as if he were recording everything he saw."
Beginning his own remarks, Albee paid tribute to several colleagues who had recently died, including fellow playwrights Lanford Wilson and Arthur Laurents. "I thought Arthur had gotten to the point where he was too old to die," he said. "I know he had no enthusiasm for it -- he thought it a waste of time."
He concluded his remarks by saying he planned to write "until I am gaga or somebody takes my pen away or I go into some other profession."
The master of ceremonies for the evening (someone introduced her as mistress and that person was scolded) was Elaine Stritch, who performed a great public service by singing a song from Stephen Sondheim's last show, titled Wise Guys in 1997, Bounce in 2002 and finally Road Show in 2008. Afterward I complimented her, pointing out that it's splendid that she give the song a public airing since the doomed show in which it appeared will probably seldom be revived. The song itself -- "You Are The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" -- is great and deserves to be better known.
In chatting with Edward afterward, I noted that I had been hearing him speak in public for many years and that tonight he had been all graciousness, with no anger.
"I save my anger for my plays," he said.