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.
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Published 4th December
Lynn Nottage’s play Clyde’s is set in a truck-stop diner on the outskirts of Reading, Pennsylvania. This is no ordinary diner though, because the short-order cooks that make the sandwiches that the diner is famous for are all ex-cons. But the eponymous proprietor, Clyde, has not offered these characters a second chance out of the softness of her heart.
Lynn Nottage has won the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice, and as we record this episode the European preview of Clyde’s is on stage at the Donmar Warehouse in London. I am delighted to be joined by the show’s director Lynette Linton, who also directed Nottage’s last play Sweat at the same theatre in 2018.
The poet Percy Shelley called King Lear “the most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world”. It is a prodigious play in every sense. There are ten major roles, it has multiple significant plot lines, an elemental stormy setting, intense domestic conflict, and acts of war and violence which roll on with a propulsive tragic energy and conjure a challenging philosophical vision.
As we record this episode a new production directed by and starring Sir Kenneth Branagh arrives in London’s West End.
I am very pleased to be joined in this episode by Paul Prescott, who is an academic, writer and theatre practitioner specialising in Shakespearean drama.
Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge tells the tragic story of Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman who works on the docks under Brooklyn Bridge. Eddie lives with his wife Beatrice and 17-year old niece, Catherine, whom they have cared for since she was a child. But Catherine is no longer a child, and her natural desire to pursue her own life will tragically rupture the lives of this family and the close-knit immigrant community of Red Hook.
As we record this episode a new production of A View from the Bridge is touring the UK, and I’m delighted to talk with its director, Holly Race Roughan, about this powerful play.