Edward Albee's final wish

Published:  12:54 AM, 06 July 2017

Destroy my unfinished work

Destroy my unfinished work Edward Albe, three times Pulitzer Prize owner (1967 for Drama: A Delicate Balance, 1975 for Drama: Seascape & 1994 for Drama: Three Tall Women), was an American playwright.

Edward Albee died last fall. But the renowned playwright is making one last request from the great beyond. Albee wants two of his friends to destroy any incomplete manuscripts he left behind.

The instruction - included in a will Albee filed on Long Island, where he lived and died - is unusual but not unprecedented. There is a term in the legal world for such instructions - dead hand control - and, although compliance has varied and enforceability is debatable, they have been attempted by artists from Franz Kafka to a Beastie Boy.

 For now, the impact of Albee's will is a mystery. The executors - an accountant, Arnold Toren, and a designer, William Katz, both longtime friends of the playwright - declined through a spokesman to answer questions. They would not discuss whether any papers had already been destroyed. But the executors have been carrying out other aspects of Albee's will.

This fall, at the request of the estate, Sotheby's will auction off more than 100 artworks collected by Albee; the proceeds, estimated at more than $9 million, will benefit his namesake foundation. (The playwright, who was gay, never married, had no children or close relatives. His foundation, which maintains a residence for artists in Montauk, N.Y., is the primary beneficiary of his estate.)

The executors have made clear they plan to honor Albee's desires, even when they might be controversial. In May, for example, they refused to allow a tiny Oregon theater to cast a black actor as a blond character in a production of Albee's most famous play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" citing the playwright's intentions as expressed during his lifetime.

 Now at stake, at a minimum, are the latest drafts of Albee's final known project, "Laying an Egg," about a middle-aged woman struggling to become pregnant. (Paradoxically, one plot element concerned her father's will.) The play was twice scheduled for production at Signature Theater, an Off Broadway nonprofit in New York, and twice withdrawn by Albee, who said it wasn't ready.

Even if the executors destroy Albee's draft, other copies may exist - a Broadway producer, Elizabeth Ireland McCann, said she had at least a partial version of the script - but it is not clear whether Albee had done work on the project that only he had seen. It is also unclear whether Albee left any other incomplete manuscripts behind, or whether the language in the will could be interpreted to apply to early drafts of his published plays.

"Am I disappointed? Yes, because every tiny bit of everything that a writer has written provides insight into that writer's creative process," said David A. Crespy, president of the Edward Albee Society and a professor of playwriting at the University of Missouri. "But am I surprised? No.

He maintained very strict control over the materials that were available to the public." Albee is best known for 'Virginia Woolf,' a penetrating 1962 drama that was adapted into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He won the Pulitzer Prize three times - in 1967 for 'A Delicate Balance,' in 1975 for 'Seascape' and in 1994 for 'Three Tall Women' - and the Tony Award twice, in 1963 for 'Virginia Woolf' and in 2002 for 'The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?' He also won a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2005.

His work is frequently staged; a revival of "Three Tall Women," starring Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf, is to open on Broadway next year. The playwright died in September at the age of 88. His will, which he signed in 2012, was filed in Suffolk County Surrogate's Court; the provision in question says, in part: "If at the time of my death I shall leave any incomplete manuscripts I hereby direct my executors to destroy such manuscripts." Until the manuscripts are destroyed, the will says, the executors should "treat the materials herein directed to be destroyed as strictly confidential and to ensure that such materials are not copied, made available for scholarly or critical review or made public in any way."

 There is one potentially complicating provision, declaring that it is up to the executors to determine what material counts as incomplete, and is thus covered by the destruction instruction. Sam Rudy, Albee's longtime spokesman, said the executors would have no comment on the instruction or their handling of the estate. Several artists interviewed backed Albee's right to decide the posthumous disposition of his writings. "For writers, drafts of unfinished work can be quite sensitive," said Doug Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ("I Am My Own Wife") who is president of the Dramatists Guild of America.

 "These drafts are not public property; they belong to the author, and the author has the right to determine their fate." And James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama, said "Edward's choice strikes me as entirely in keeping with his own exacting standards."

"It's no more our business than it would have been if he had made a little bonfire of his work before his death, or shredded some manuscripts one day long ago - perhaps he did," Mr. Bundy said. "It's ultimately a good thing for artists to negotiate their own artistic destinies within the framework of the relevant laws: They have no more, and no fewer, rights than would you and I in the same situation." But lawyers who study the intersection of estate law and intellectual property say the issue is actually murkier.

There is a long history of heirs substituting their own judgments for those of deceased artists, and little case law about whether that is O.K. Among the most famous examples: Kafka asked his friend to burn his diaries and manuscripts, but the friend instead allowed publication of the writer's unpublished novels; Eugene O'Neill did not want "Long Day's Journey Into Night" published or performed until 25 years after his death, but his widow allowed it within three years; Adam Yauch, one of the Beastie Boys, included a provision in his will barring the use of his music in advertising, but the provision's validity was quickly questioned.

"It presents a moral and legal quandary," said John Sare, a partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler and the co-author of "Estate Planning for Authors and Artists." "You may feel a moral obligation to do as you've been asked, but that may be in competition with a moral obligation to do what's best for the history of arts and letters and a legal obligation to conserve the assets of the estate for the beneficiaries."

Eva E. Subotnik, an associate professor at St. John's University School of Law, argued for some skepticism about such provisions. "There is something special about these kinds of assets - they're not just like a mansion or a fancy watch, but they're socially valuable, and that has to play into the calculus," Ms. Subotnik said. "I definitely argue against full-throttle enforcement of artistic control after death."

But another expert on the subject, Lior J. Strahilevitz, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, disagreed. "Part of what we value in a great artist is not just raw ability but the ability to curate, and it's frequently the case that artists build great reputations by being selective about what they show to the world," he said. "It's problematic to force Albee to share these plays when he didn't think they were good enough."


The writer is an American journalist & theater reporter for The New York Times.
The write-up has appeared at
www.nytimes.com

---Michael Paulson


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