I thought this would be an interesting excerpt in light of the posts I’ve been doing recently on so-called “obscene” novels. It features one of the longest questions I’ve ever come across in a Paris Review interview and is entirely the fault of the floundering interviewer, the playwright’s pal.
A critic recently wrote the following paragraph, “Mr. Albee complained with Tiny Alice that people asked questions and would not let the play merely occur to them. He complains of those critics who judge a play’s matter and do not restrict themselves to its manner. Both of these statements tend to a view much in vogue — that art consists principally of style, an encounter between us and the figurative surface of the work. This view reduces ideas to decoration, character to pageant, symbol and feeling to a conveyor belt for effects. It is to shrink art to no more than a sensual response, one kind or another of happening. To some of us this modish view is nihilistic, not progressive.” Now the critic in question has come fairly close to defining a theory that might be got out of, say, Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation or her essay on style. I wonder how closely the critic’s interpretations of your remarks — of the remarks, I guess, that you made most specifically at the Tiny Alice press conference — are true to your own understanding of them.
Well, this critic is a sophist. What he’s done is to misinterpret my attitudes, Miss Sontag’s attitudes, and the attitudes of most respectable creative people. What I said is that I thought it was not valid for a critic to criticize a play for its matter rather than its manner — that what was constituted then was a type of censorship. To give an extreme example, I was suggesting that if a man writes a brilliant enough play in praise of something that is universally loathed, that the play, if it is good and well enough written, should not be knocked down because of its approach to its subject. If the work of art is good enough, it must not be criticized for its theme. I don’t think it can be argued. In the thirties a whole school of criticism bogged down intellectually in those agitprop, social-realistic days. A play had to be progressive. A number of plays by playwrights who were thought very highly of then — they were very bad playwrights — were highly praised because their themes were intellectually and politically proper. This intellectual morass is very dangerous, it seems to me. A form of censorship. You may dislike the intention enormously but your judgment of the artistic merit of the work must not be based on your view of what it’s about. The work of art must be judged by how well it succeeds in its intention.
In other words, what you’re saying is that a critic should separate what he takes to be the thematic substance of a play from the success or lack of success that the author brings to its presentation.
It’s that simple. And critics who do otherwise are damn fools and dangerous, even destructive people. I don’t think it can be argued.
From “The Art of Theater” No. 4 interview with Edward Albee, The Paris Review No. 39, 1966