020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee
It is 2:00 am, and George and Martha have invited a young couple back to their home on a New England university campus for after-party drinks. What follows is arguably the most extended and vitriolic marital argument ever staged. Over four hours of drunken skirmishing George and Martha tear strips off each other and their young guests, in a terrifying mix of games playing and truth telling, fuelled by anger, shame, disappointment, hatred and possibly even love. As the hostilities intensify both couples are forced to face unvarnished and difficult truths about themselves and their relationships. Who are the survivors of this long night’s journey? Or put another way: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? For this is American playwright Edward Albee’s classic play, with certainly one of the most memorable titles in theatrical history.
The controversial play opened on Broadway in 1962, and it was greeted by both moral outrage – one reviewer labelling it “a sick play for sick people” – as well as critical acclaim: “the most shattering drama since O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Both types of review contributed to its run-away box-office success, the play running for 664 performances, and famously attracting the interest of Hollywood, the 1996 film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor winning five Academy awards.
Joining me to survey the damage of this blistering marital battle are John Mitchinson and Andy Miller, the co-hosts of the award-winning podcast Backlisted, which as its strap line declares “gives new life to old books”.
020 Bonus – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – the film
Along with my guests, John Mitchinson and Andy Miller, I so much enjoyed talking about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the podcast that we went on for much longer than our allotted hour. Our conversation included a brief discussion about the 1966 film of Virginia Woolf starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, which in the interests of time I edited from the original recording. Given the enthusiasm and wisdom of my friends on the subject it seemed a shame to lose this part of the conversation entirely, so here is that extract from our conversation. Please note that this is very much an accompaniment to the main episode about the play.
Click here to listen.
John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher, co-founder of Unbound, the crowdfunding publishing platform for books, and co-host of the award-winning books podcast, Backlisted. He helped create the BBC TV show QI and co-wrote the bestselling series of QI books, including The Book of General Ignorance, which has sold over 2 million copies. Before that he held senior roles in publishing at Harvill and Cassell and was Waterstone’s original marketing director. When he’s not reading, he’s tending to his pigs and bees.
John recommended Jersualem by Jez Butterworth.
Andy Miller is a reader, editor and author of books, most recently The Year of Reading Dangerously (4th Estate/HarperPerennial). He has also written books about how much he likes the Kinks and how much he dislikes sport. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Spectator, Esquire, Mojo and Sight and Sound. He has toured the UK with his motivational lecture ‘Read Y’self Fitter’ and appears regularly on BBC Radio programmes such as The Verb (R3), The Museum of Curiosity (R4) and Open Book (R4).
Andy is also the co-host of the award-winning literary podcast Backlisted.
Andy recommended Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman.
Much Ado About Nothing is rightly renowned for the “merry war” of wits between the reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick, but alongside their brilliant partnership, there is also a darker story of misogyny and betrayal that gives the play a more complex and challenging character. Lucy Bailey, director of the joyous production currently running at the Globe Theatre in London joins me to review this romantic rollercoaster.
David Eldridge’s new play Middle, now playing at the National Theatre, follows on from his 2017 play Beginning. It is the second in what will be a “triptych for the theatre”, capturing epochal moments in couples’ relationships. I’m delighted to welcome David back to talk about the important dramatic trilogy he is building.
Arthur Miller’s breakthrough play All My Sons is both a searing family tragedy and an exploration of the moral challenges that Miller believed were inherent in the American Dream. Douglas Rintoul has recently directed a wonderful production of this devastating play at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch.