I hear you took piano lessons on the sneak and stole books in your youth.
I did a lot of things secretly to get away from my adopted family, including taking piano lessons. When I was working as a clerk at G. Schirmer, which was a music-publisher bookstore, I would see poor musicians shoplifting, and I would not discourage them. I probably took a few, stuff nobody else was buying. And I’ve not grown up to be a kleptomaniac. All these things are bought and paid for.
What art do you have?
Well [he points], that is a Kandinsky, 1930. An Arp from the twenties. There’s a Chagall from 1908. There’s a Lipschitz up there from 1918. I spend a lot of time looking at so-called primitive arts—the African collection at the Met, for example. Also, I wander around galleries and look at the trendy shit sold for high prices these days.
Does the art help you write?
When I’m writing I don’t listen to anything, I don’t look at anything. I tell my students, start your day by listening to some Bach preludes and fugues. It clarifies the mind. Then when you get into your room to write, don’t listen to music. You’ve got to make your own rhythms.
You yourself were a poor student, yet you read voraciously.
I was majoring in extracurricular activities. I grew up reading Edmund Wilson. I was always reading ahead of my time—most books of philosophy were beyond me. I got involved with Sartre and Camus after failing to understand any of the earlier stuff. I probably misunderstood all that, too.
Did you come to New York to see live performances?
Oh, yeah—I saw Jumbo! In 1935. Jimmy Durante and an elephant. He and the elephant looked very much alike.
How about concerts?
I saw Billie Holiday at the Loew’s Sheridan: one of the very, very last performances. Her voice was ruined, and she was glorious. And [I had] an interest in early jazz, especially transitional jazz from black folk music. We’d sneak out from school and go out to Nick’s in New York.
Do you like rock?
No. I can’t understand what they’re saying. I am told that you can understand the lyrics a lot better if you’re on drugs. I don’t do drugs. There are some performers I admire: Janis Joplin. Maybe it’s that same ruined quality. And Joe Cocker, and Tom Waits.
I’ve read that you used to skip your own premieres.
Yes—if I could find a Monty Python movie, I would go there. I do think Fawlty Towers is one of the greatest television series. Right now, I’m deeply enamored of a really bad show called That ’70s Show. It’s fucking funny. I’ve been examining the reruns of Seinfeld very, very carefully. I think I admire the skill of what they were doing more than the thing itself.
Well, Beckett—one of your favorites—had a great sense of slapstick.
I’ve always loved very sophisticated comedy and cheap comedy. It’s the stuff in between I have problems with.
What children’s books did you love?
The two that I loved more than anything when I was a kid, and read several times since, were Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. Great works, great works. Animals have a simplicity and a lovely lack of awfulness that human beings could emulate.
Speaking of kids’ entertainment, I know you’re passionate about puppetry, and you were friends with Burr Tillstrom
of the Kuklapolitan troupe.
Yes. One time I went out to his apartment in Chicago, and he disappeared. There was a character called Beulah Witch, which I probably based Grandma on in The American Dream. All of a sudden I heard Beulah yelling at me from the other room. “Edward, come in here!” Burr had set up a little stage, and there was Beulah. And the two of us talked for twenty minutes. Did I become a puppet, or did she become real? I don’t know. It was one of the truly wonderful experiences of theater that I’ve had.
You wrote lots of poetry in your youth. Whom were you emulating?
I was a good cummings imitator because you didn’t have to worry about spelling or punctuating or making any sense. And I loved Auden a great deal, even to the extent of showing him some of my work. He was very polite—he seemed more interested in me as this 19-year-old kid than he did my work. And I was probably a lot better than the work.
And Thornton Wilder, after reading your poetry, told you
to try playwriting.
He was trying to save poetry from me. Wilder’s undervalued, probably because most productions of Our Town are so terrible—they pretend it’s a Christmas card. The best one I ever saw was the one Lincoln Center did with Spalding Gray. A really good, tough production.