30 of Edward Albee’s Greatest Lines


Today, we celebrate the 85th birthday of one of America’s greatest playwrights, Edward Albee, the mastermind behind Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, and The Goat: or, Who Is Sylvia? — plus, oh, 30-odd more. To honor the great (and often somewhat crotchety) writer on his birthday, we’ve put together a list of some of his greatest lines, from his interviews, nonfiction, and plays. After the jump, indulge in a little Albee talk, and let us know if we missed your favorite quip in the comments.

“Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate it. A good writer turns fact into truth; a bad writer will, more often than not, accomplish the opposite.” — In the Saturday Review, May 4, 1966

“You gotta have swine to show you where the truffles are.” — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“What I wanted to get at is the value difference between pornographic playing-cards when you’re a kid, and pornographic playing-cards when you’re older. It’s that when you’re a kid you use the cards as a substitute for a real experience, and when you’re older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy.” — The Zoo Story

“If you have no wounds, how can you know if you’re alive?” — The Play About the Baby

“Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.” — The Zoo Story

“A play is fiction — and fiction is fact distilled into truth.” — In The New York Times, September 18, 1966

“I survive almost any onslaught with a shrug, which must appear as arrogance, but really isn’t because I’m not an arrogant person. When you write a play, you make a set of assumptions — that you have something to say, that you know how to say it, that its worth saying, and that maybe someone will come along for the ride. That’s all. And then you go about your business, assuming you’d be the first to know if your talent has collapsed.” — As quoted in Conversations with Edward Albee, 1988 by Philip C. Kolin

“If Attila the Hun were alive today, he’d be a drama critic.” — As quoted in Theater Week, 1988

“A playwright is someone who lets his guts hang out on the stage.” — From Shoptalk: Conversations About Theater and Film with Twelve Writers, One Producer — and Tennessee Williams’ Mother by Dennis Brown, 1993

“Remember one thing about democracy. We can have anything we want and at the same time, we always end up with exactly what we deserve.” — As quoted in Unleashing Intellectual Capital by Charles Ehin, 2000

“I have been both overpraised and underpraised. I assume by the time I finish writing — and I plan to go on writing until I’m 90 or gaga — it will all equal itself out… You can’t involve yourself with the vicissitudes of fashion or critical response. I’m fairly confident that my work is going to be around for a while. I am pleased and reassured by the fact that a lot of younger playwrights seem to pay me some attention and gain some nourishment from what I do.” — As quoted in Conversations with Edward Albee by Philip C. Kolin, 1988

“The gods too are fond of a joke.” — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“Every monster was a man first.” — Tiny Alice

“I have a fine sense of the ridiculous, but no sense of humor.” — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“Unless you are terribly, terribly careful, you run the danger — without even knowing it is happening to you — of slipping into the fatal error of reflecting the public taste instead of creating it. Your responsibility is to the public consciousness, not to the public view of itself.”

“Sincerity doesn’t mean anything. A person can be sincere and be more destructive than a person who is insincere.” — Wagner Literary Magazine, 1962

“Read the great stuff but read the stuff that isn’t so great, too. Great stuff is very discouraging. If you read only Beckett and Chekhov, you’ll go away and only deliver telegrams for Western Union.” — Books and Reading, Bill Bradfield

“What I mean by an educated taste is someone who has the same tastes that I have.”

“Creativity is magic. Don’t examine it too closely.” — As quoted in The New York Times, 2007

“The one living playwright I admire without any reservation whatsoever is Samuel Beckett. I have funny feelings about almost all the others.” — In an interview with The Paris Review, 1966

“If I read a book, go to a play, see a painting, or hear a piece of music that makes me expand the parameters of my response — makes me think differently, makes me think more completely about something — then I’ve had a useful experience. Otherwise, as I said, it’s merely decorative and a waste of time.” — In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, 2005

“If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly.”

“Try to get into your own mind a little bit. Figure out what it is you want to do with your life, what you really want to do, who you really are. Don’t waste your life doing something that you’re going to end up being bored with, or feel was futile or a waste of time. It’s your life, live it as fully and as usefully as you possibly can. “Useful” being the most important thing there. Life must be lived usefully, not selfishly. And a usefully lived life is probably going to be, ultimately, more satisfying.” — In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, 2005

“Some writers’ view of things depends upon the success of the final result. I’d rather stand or fall on my own concepts.” — In an interview with The Paris Review, 1966

“Well, when I was six years old I decided, not that I was going to be, but with my usual modesty, that I was a writer. So I starting writing poetry when I was six and stopped when I was twenty-six because it was getting a little better, but not terribly much. When I was fifteen I wrote seven hundred pages of an incredibly bad novel—it’s a very funny book I still like a lot. Then, when I was nineteen I wrote a couple hundred pages of another novel, which wasn’t very good either. I was still determined to be a writer. And since I was a writer, and here I was twenty-nine years old and I wasn’t a very good poet and I wasn’t a very good novelist, I thought I would try writing a play, which seems to have worked out a little better.” — In an interview with The Paris Review, 1966

“Dashed hopes and good intentions. Good, better, best, bested.” — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“I am not interested in living in a city where there isn’t a production by Samuel Beckett running.”

“Few sensible authors are happy discussing the creative process — it is, after all, black magic, and may lose its power if we look that particular gift horse too closely in the mouth.” — From the introduction to Three Tall Women, 1990

“Being different is … interesting; there’s nothing implicitly inferior or superior about it. Great difference, of course, produces natural caution; and if the differences are too extreme … well, then, reality tends to fade away.” — Seascape

“You’re alive only once, as far as we know, and what could be worse than getting to the end of your life and realizing you hadn’t lived it?” — In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, 2005