WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF
Edward Albee is the best American playwright to emerge from those rebellious 60's and Virginia Woolf is his finest play. The video with Richard Burton and Liz Talyor is one of the best film adaptations of a drama ever made. Taylor and Burton are perfectly cast as George and Martha and they both give stellar performances.
The film is very faithful to the script with a few exceptions. The play version restricts all the action to the inside of George and Martha's house. In the film version some scenes are shot outside the house -- in the garden and the drive to the roadhouse, for example. This detracts from the claustrophic atmosphere of the play, but it is not a huge flaw. The audience is supposed to feel trapped in the house of fun and games right along with George and Martha's "guests." A little of this feeling is sacrificed in the film version. Also, the film is shot in black and white, but this is a plus as it perfectly mirrors the play's "dark night of the soul" motif. The morning sunlight at the very end -- the relief -- works wonderfully in the black and white medium.
The Meaning of the Title: Virginia Woolf was a turn-of-the-century feminist writer who pioneered the novelistic technique called "stream of consciousness" wherein an entire piece of fiction uniquely records the thoughts of the main character. We simply read what the character is thinking, moving back and forth in time fluidly and naturally. Her most famous novel using this technique is Mrs. Dalloway recently made into a fine movie starring Vanessa Redgrave. Woolf was one of the first woman to write the truth about the female psychological state of mind in a male dominated world. She strove to see the world without illusions -- a major theme in Albee's play. When Martha asks, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" she is really asking who's afraid to see the truth clearly without illusion.
More on Virginia Woolf -- hear her speak!
The Vulgarity: First time viewers are sometimes immediately turned off by the play because George and Martha are so nasty toward one another. As a student once remarked to me, "I grew up in a home like that. I don't need to relive my childhood again for 3 hours!" Fight against this attitude. The abuse George and Martha heap upon one another is just one side of their marriage. In fact, it shows their marriage is not yet dead. Many couples, after 20 - 30 years of marriage, just stop trying to relate to one another or to connect in any way. George and Martha want more than "a truce" -- which is what most couples settle for if they don't divorce. George and Martha are mean and hurtful because they want to get the other's attention so desparately. In a perverse way each is saying, " I care!" In fact they love one another very much. Listen for Martha's speech towards the end when she muses about George: "George who can make me laugh and cry, my George, the only one who truly loves me." Like all marriages theirs is filled with illusions, deceits, and recriminations, but the play moves towards breaking through all that crap. How many couples would even attempt all the heartache and pain that George and Martha endure in an attempt to see what's left?
The Baby: The marriage of George and Martha is a childless one. Albee uses this infertility to suggest that our modern world is spiritually sterile as well. To compensate for the emptiness that George and Martha feel, they create for themselves an imaginary child who does not exist, but they talk about him as if he did. They celebrate his birthday, buy him presents, send him away to school, etc. While this may seem weird --- and it is --- don't all couples, to a certain extent, create illusions or ignore real problems in a effort ot compensate, cope and avoid pain?
On the night the play takes place, because Matha has mentioned the baby to the guests (a violation of trust), George decides to end the illusion and exorcise the imaginary child. This is the climax of the play. The false baby has given their marriage content and now they will have to face the void -- the aloneness they tried to thwart by creating the child in the first place.
Exorcism is a religious term. The Catholic church still officially believes (I think) that the devil is an actual reality and that evil demons can still inhabit the body of humans. When this is thought to be the case, an special priest as God's representative is sent from Rome to officially exorcise the demon -- spiritually wrestle with the devil and rid it from the body. In the 70's Walter Blatty's novel The Exorcist was a best seller and the movie with Linda Blair was a mega hit. George uses this religious context to underscore the spiritual emptiness of modern society. The exorcism is a religious purging of the evil in the world. George hopes he and Martha can start over - free of illusion, deceit and guilt.
The Guests: Nick and Honey (great names) are children to George and Martha for this one night. George even calls them "the kids." In a sense, George and Martha are showing the newly married couple how to survive a marriage and be more honest and the marriage of Nick and Honey is not off to a very good start. They married in part because Honey was pregnant, but the pregnancy turned out to be "false," and Nick is pleased that his in-laws are wealthy.
The Games: Playing games is one of the ways George and Martha connect to one another. Their games keep "what's left of their wits alive." They keep changing the rules so as to keep each other in tip top shape. These games have largely replaced their sex life. They are filled with foreplay, drama and surprise. When a game or trick George has devised is especially good, Martha becomes aroused. Martha still wants to see herself as a sexual creature, and while she flirts and flirts, I think she has remained faithful to George. The arrival of Honey and Nick inspires George and Martha's gamesmanship. What shall we play now Hump the Host or Get the Guest?
Despite the dark subject matter, this is one of the funniest and one of the best plays in the American canon.Enjoy the show!