The Glass Menagerie – Footnotes

The Glass Menagerie – Footnotes

Photo © Marc Brenner

The Glass Menagerie – Footnotes

Our Footnotes to The Glass Menagerie include Tennessee Williams’ innovative ideas about lighting as an element of what he called his “plastic drama”; the endearing ambiguity of the character of Jim, the gentleman caller; the infinite distance of memory; and the explosive times the play was written and set in.

The Lighting
Tennessee Williams includes a lengthy paragraph in the Production Notes that preface the published text of The Glass Menagerie with observations on the use and importance of the lighting in the staging of the play. It starts with the statement: “The lighting in the play is not realistic. In keeping with the atmosphere of memory, the stage is dim. Shafts of light are focused on selected areas or actors…”. This approach to the lighting is all part of his deliberate intent to create a non-naturalistic form of theatre, which suits both the content of this play and his artistic method of imparting meaning. For the former the design expresses the flickering, subjective quality of Tom’s memory, which is the source of all that we see. The method represents his meaning in that Williams states that his purpose in his writing is to convey a “picture of my own heart” – an emotional truth. He conceives that this can be achieved by creating what he called ‘sculptural drama’, which is a more three-dimensional, sensory theatrical experience, that is not reliant solely or primarily on the words, but also on striking visual images and evocative music. The imaginative use of light can engender a “mobile, plastic quality to plays of a more or less static nature.”  

The lighting in this play is certainly central to our understanding of its emotional truth and to the beauty that enraptures us. As Williams points out, for example, “the light upon Laura should be distinct from the others, having a peculiar pristine clarity such as light used in early religious portraits of female saints or madonnas”, or he might have added of the light that reflects off the figures of the glass menagerie itself. The candlelight that illuminates the climactic love scene between Laura and Jim evokes the dream-like softness of their fleeting moments of romance.

I imagine that this play must be a joy for lighting designers to work on!

“Time is the greatest distance between two places”.
Tom’s final speech takes us back to the beginning, reminding us that “this is a memory play”, and that there is a great distance back to our past. Tom’s memories are full of pain and regret; regret that he cannot fix the past, especially for his sister Laura. The guilt he feels about his abandoning her haunts him – his memory won’t let him go. “I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be”.  He seeks any diversion that will allow him to escape the memory of her: “anything that can blow your candles out”. His final plea “Blow out your candles, Laura” is to ask her to finally leave him alone.

All of the characters in the play fail to bridge the distance to their past in a way that allows them to truthfully connect with their present. Amanda’s memory of her romantic past is overshadowed by the reality that she chose the wrong man with disastrous consequences. Laura has a false memory of herself at school, over estimating the notice that others made of her disability, tragically inhibiting herself. The whole memory play affirms the impossibility of our accurately reconstructing our past. As Williams tells us memory is “non-realistic”; it is “seated predominantly in the heart”.

The gentleman caller
The character of Jim, the gentleman caller, stands out in the play for apparently being from a different mental landscape than the members of the Wingfield family. As Tom describes it, he is “an emissary from the world of reality that we are somehow apart from”; “a nice ordinary young man” as the playwright succinctly puts it in the character notes. In simple terms he does largely represent the outside, material world: an all-American high school success, focussed on self-improvement and conventional career ambitions; an advocate of the American dream built on “Knowledge!…Money!…Power!”.

However, Jim’s program has not gone to plan so far. He hoped that he “would be further along” by this time. And this is what gives Jim the depth as a character that impels his connection with Laura. His sense of disappointment is the common ground he recognises in Laura. As Williams said “If you write a character that isn’t ambiguous you are writing a false character, not a true one.”  Jim is not just a cipher for the American Dream or ‘normal’ world. He does in fact connect the Wingfield characters to the real world, not just by his presence, but by showing us that “everyone has problems”, as he puts it. The Wingfields are not the only freaks living with illusions and self-doubt; we are all freaks.

His culpability in his raising and dashing Laura’s hopes is also all the more compelling for being ambiguous. His impulse to reach out to help her is clearly genuine, as are the feelings he responds to. As John said so convincingly in our conversation, “he falls in love”. And we are shown by contrast that his relationship with his fiance, the prosaically named Betty, is one of contrivance rather than passion. But he is at best self-centred and naive in his setting out to try to make an emotional connection with Laura, as suggested by his ironic claim that he “can analyze people better than doctors…I can sure guess a person’s psychology”. He does have some intuition of Laura’s pain, but he underestimates the stakes and quickly gets in over his head. Do we blame him for lacking the nerve or integrity to change the course of his life with Laura? Probably not. In the end I think we cannot but join Amanda in wishing him luck. He is just another unicorn without a horn.

Kate O’Flynn as Laura and Seth Numrich as Jim
in John Tiffany’s production in Edinburgh in 2017
Photo: Johan Persson

 

 

The play in its time
As we learn from Tom the play is set sometime around 1938-9. He makes specific references to Picasso’s painting of Guernica, painted in 1937 following the indiscriminate bombing of the town by Nazi war planes allied with General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in September 1938. At the time the play premiered in 1944 Tom would have been speaking to the audience from the vantage point of the war that followed from these events, and which America was now engaged in.

Tom’s references to Guernica and Chamberlain carry some moral judgement, his implication being that America and the Allies were fatally complacent in their responses to Hitler or Franco. At the same time he is telling us that it is art, such as Picasso’s, that draws attention to the truth. Tom refers somewhat elliptically to the explosive changes in the world that the characters don’t see coming, although of course the audience will know what he means when he concisely and poetically identifies the impending change as being “caught in the folds of Chamberlain’s umbrella.” The cataclysmic world changes that Tom describes are aligned with his own youthful urge for adventure. The war is somehow “compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure.” A time when “adventure becomes available to the masses”, as he says to Jim.

It’s a naïve idea about war as adventure, indicating perhaps the depth of Tom’s desire for change in his life, and in the society around him. Williams himself propounds an idea of himself, Tom and the artist as exceptional individuals who will distinguish themselves from the masses and lead more truthful and energetic lives. His view of the masses as stuck in their impoverished lives for lack of initiative is suggested in the description he gives of the Wingfield’s tenement building:
“It is one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism.”

But has Tom’s bid for adventure, to distinguish himself, succeeded? In fact he “didn’t go to the moon”…he only “left St Louis”. The picture we get is of his drifting, swept along “like dead leaves”. In fact as he addresses us in 1944 he is wearing a sailor’s uniform, and as he tells us “nowadays the world is lit by lightning”. Perhaps he is about to find the adventure he seeks.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
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021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams breakthrough playThe Glass Menagerie is a very personal portrait of Williams’ own flawed family. It first opened on Broadway in March 1945 to rave reviews, it’s box office success catapulting its 34-year old author to fame and fortune. The play is now a standard on educational curricula and theatrical programs, loved for its heart-wrenching portrayal of the hopes and disappointments of its characters, and admired for its theatrical technique and poetic dramatic language.

The play was brilliantly staged in 2013 on Broadway in a production directed by John Tiffany, which was revived in 2017 in London’s West End, and I am absolutely delighted to be joined in this episode by the director himself, John Tiffany, to share his insights into this enduring classic.

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

It is 2:00 am, and George and Martha have invited a young couple for after-party drinks to their home on a New England university campus. 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. This is American playwright Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened on Broadway in 1962, and was greeted by both moral outrage and critical acclaim. Both types of review contributed to its run-away box-office success, and led to the 1966 Oscar-winning film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

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”.

019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood

019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood

It is 1759 in East Anglia. A child has been murdered and a young woman has been convicted to hang for the crime. She ‘pleads her belly’ and a jury of matrons must determine if she is truly with child and thus may escape the gallows. Lucy Kirkwood’s powerful play The Welkin, is an historical thriller and a tense courtroom drama, as well as a vivid representation of the real burdens that women carry in a patriarchal world of any age.
The Welkin premiered at the National Theatre in January 2020 before its run was cruelly cut short by the first Covid lockdown. I’m delighted to be joined by the author herself to talk about her rich new play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

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The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

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021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

Kate O’Flynn as Laura and Brian J Smith as Jim
(Photo: Johan Persson)

 

021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

The narrator tells us up front: “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic….I am the narrator of the play and also a character in it. The other characters are my mother, Amanda, my sister Laura, and a gentleman caller who appears in the final scenes.”  The narrator is Tom, an aspiring writer who is trapped in the “living death” of a job in a shoe factory and the claustrophobia of life in a small apartment in a tenement in St Louis with his mother and sister. The play which Tom narrates, and plays his part in, consists of a series of snapshots of the family’s life back in 1938, filtered through the emotional lens of Tom’s memory. The play is very much “a picture of my own heart”, as its author Tennessee Williams said about the intent of all of his play writing, and in this case it is a particularly personal portrait of Williams’ own family. The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams’s breakthrough, opening in March 1945 on Broadway to rave reviews, and its box office success catapulted its 34-year old author to fame and fortune, a status affirmed two years later with the Broadway success of his most famous play A Streetcar Named Desire. 

The Glass Menagerie is now a standard on educational curricula and in perennial theatrical revivals, loved for its heart wrenching portrayal of the hopes and disappointments of this flawed family, and admired for its theatrical technique and poetic dramatic language. The play was brilliantly staged in 2013 on Broadway in a production directed by John Tiffany, which was revived in 2017 in London’s West End, with Cherry Jones repeating her role as Amanda, and Kate O’Flynn giving an ethereal performance as Laura. I am absolutely delighted to be joined in this episode by the director John Tiffany to share his insights into this enduring classic.

 

John Tiffany

John Tiffany is the winner of two Tony Awards, an Olivier, a Drama Desk and an Obie award as a director and his productions have earned countless other award nominations and wins. His recent work includes Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in both London and New York (Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Direction of a Play); The Glass Menagerie (A.R.T., Broadway and West End); The Ambassador (BAM); Pinocchio (National Theatre); Once (Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical). For the National Theatre of Scotland he directed Let the Right One In (also Royal Court, West End and St. Ann’s Warehouse); Macbeth (also Lincoln Center and Broadway); Enquirer; The Missing; Peter Pan; The House of Bernarda Alba; The Bacchae (also Lincoln Center); Black Watch (Olivier Award for Best Director); Elizabeth Gordon Quinn; Home: Glasgow. As Associate Director at the Royal Court Theatre, productions include The End of History, Road, The Twits, Hope and The Pass. He was educated at the University of Glasgow (M.A. in Theatre and Classics). John was founding Associate Director at the National Theatre of Scotland from 2005–2012 and a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University from 2010–2011.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. Through our selected partners Bookshop.org and Blackwell’s you will also be supporting independent bookshops. Thank you.
Photo © Marc Brenner
We have footnotes for this episode …

Our Footnotes to The Glass Menagerie include Tennessee Williams’ innovative ideas about lighting as an element of what he called his “plastic drama”; the endearing ambiguity of the character of Jim, the gentleman caller; the infinite distance of memory; and the explosive times the play was written and set in.

Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams breakthrough playThe Glass Menagerie is a very personal portrait of Williams’ own flawed family. It first opened on Broadway in March 1945 to rave reviews, it’s box office success catapulting its 34-year old author to fame and fortune. The play is now a standard on educational curricula and theatrical programs, loved for its heart-wrenching portrayal of the hopes and disappointments of its characters, and admired for its theatrical technique and poetic dramatic language.

The play was brilliantly staged in 2013 on Broadway in a production directed by John Tiffany, which was revived in 2017 in London’s West End, and I am absolutely delighted to be joined in this episode by the director himself, John Tiffany, to share his insights into this enduring classic.

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

It is 2:00 am, and George and Martha have invited a young couple for after-party drinks to their home on a New England university campus. 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. This is American playwright Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened on Broadway in 1962, and was greeted by both moral outrage and critical acclaim. Both types of review contributed to its run-away box-office success, and led to the 1966 Oscar-winning film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

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”.

019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood

019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood

It is 1759 in East Anglia. A child has been murdered and a young woman has been convicted to hang for the crime. She ‘pleads her belly’ and a jury of matrons must determine if she is truly with child and thus may escape the gallows. Lucy Kirkwood’s powerful play The Welkin, is an historical thriller and a tense courtroom drama, as well as a vivid representation of the real burdens that women carry in a patriarchal world of any age.
The Welkin premiered at the National Theatre in January 2020 before its run was cruelly cut short by the first Covid lockdown. I’m delighted to be joined by the author herself to talk about her rich new play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

The Glass Menagerie – Footnotes

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Footnotes

Photo © Marc Brenner

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Footnotes

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is such a rich play that we have a lots of Footnotes to supplement our episode on the play. These include more on the origins and meaning of the famous title; some play-by-play analysis of George and Martha’s battle; the symbolic contrast between history and biology which George and Nick represent; the absence of model parents, or children at all; the thrill of the play’s language; and the censors who took offense at this “filthy play”. 

The title of the play
It is one of the most memorable titles in dramatic history; but it wasn’t Albee’s original title. He was several months into writing the play before he adopted the phrase “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as a recurring symbolic refrain, and he added it as a sub-title. Up to that point his working title was Exorcism, which suggests that he had a clear vision of one of the themes of his play: that through the course of the action the characters would be purged of the illusions that they have preserved in their relationships. In the end he named the third act The Exorcism, during which of course George and Martha expressly exorcise their imaginary son. The final title of the play not only has a magical musical rhythm, it also summons several meanings, lampooning the pretensions of academia, and suggesting the psychological demons that afflict the characters. Albee’s intuitive arrival at his final title highlights his artistic process whereby the play develops organically, as he said that the quotation was adopted by the characters during “the thinking-as-opposed-to-writing part of working on the play.”

The battle of George and Martha
In the same way as one relishes analyzing the blow-by-blow of sport, there is a rich record to review in the to and fro of George and Martha’s epic battle. The central mesmeric challenge of the play is to decipher the underlying truth of their relationship through all of the nuance and ferocity of their struggle. As we agreed during our conversation on the podcast, their initial exchanges are fabulously funny, partly because of the dazzling sharpness of their repartee, but also because we feel that at some level they too are enjoying the fight as a game. As George reassures Nick: “Martha and I are merely…exercising…that’s all…we’re merely walking what’s left of our wits”. The conflict they incite together is performative – a means of simultaneously addressing and avoiding the truth, testing what is real or not, but without facing the consequences.They are picking at the scabs of their unhappiness, daring themselves to see if they could survive the open wounds.

There are shocking, exposed moments when it feels like the game has gone too far. As onlookers it is difficult to decide when they have crossed over the line. When Martha starts to tell Nick and Honey about George’s unpublished book, he pleads with her to stop, but the game continues:
Martha: What’s the matter George? You given up?
George: No…No. I’ve just got to figure out some new way to fight you, Martha.

And when Martha thinks George has gone too far in tormenting Nick, and he angrily points out that she has been relentlessly humiliating him, she declares:
Martha: YOU CAN STAND IT!
George: I CANNOT STAND IT!
Martha: YOU CAN STAND IT! YOU MARRIED ME FOR IT!
He has needed her provocation to push him, and the more he failed to succeed the harder she has had to press, even though she says “it’s not what I’ve wanted” , and she’s now “gotten tired whipping you.”

By the end of Act 2 they have reached a point where the “whole arrangement” has “snapped”, and they declare “total war”.  One of the ways that Martha attacks is through her overt seduction of Nick. As we discussed in the podcast, there is a strong sense that Martha is sexually dissatisfied with George. She reacts angrily when he twice rejects her overtures to him in the first act. The second occasion follows George’s prank of shooting the parasol from the gun. She finds this arousing, but he rejects her advance. The gun becomes a sexual metaphor, Martha turning provocatively to Nick “I bet you don’t need props”. When she finally presses her suit with Nick, she is further frustrated and humiliated by George’s lack of response – he reads a book, pretending indifference, daring her to go through with her seduction. In the face of his failure, she is left with no option. Her sexuality is her only weapon, so she carries on hopelessly with her affairs. The fact that Nick is unable to consummate the sex is a fitting statement on the futility of Martha’s general strategy to find solace through sex elsewhere.

In the to and fro of George and Martha’s battle, the advantage swings back and forth. For most for the first half of the night Martha is on the attack, relentlessly humiliating George, He counter attacks through his persecuting Nick and Honey, before intensifying his assault in “bringing up baby”. Initially Martha seems beaten down, not willing to play this game, but she rises in anger and they slug it out on equal terms in a scene of ritualistic, poetic intensity and imagination. “We’re going to play this one to the death”. Finally she is beaten. At the end of the play she is exhausted and fragile. George must try to lift her off the canvas; she cannot walk unaided. Once rested will they start the fight again? Maybe. Maybe on different terms. As Albee said, who knows.

History vs Biology
There are a number of ways in which the characters of the two men, George and Nick, are set up in contrast. Not only do they find themselves as sexual rivals when Martha turns her attention on Nick, but they also stand for contrasting values in the framework of themes in the play. George represents the traditional social establishment of America, being native to New England, where the country was founded. He resides in the rarefied, protected habitat of the university campus; albeit also now a complacent, decadent, even sterile environment.

Whereas Nick is from the mid-West, the frontier of the country. He represents a youthful ambition and ruthless sexual confidence, propelled by physical vigor. His ambition is unencumbered by obeisance to established social hierarchies or concern for anyone other than himself. He is the modern science of biology, whereas George is history, the drag of the past. The analogy extends to the theme of gender and reproduction, about which both couples are so preoccupied. George refers frequently to biologists working with chromosomes to create the perfect man, for example. There is of course much sparring between Martha and George about how much of a man he is, including compared to Nick who is proud of his physique. And the references to the biological creation of life cannot but resonate with both couples’ inability to conceive.

Despite the old-fashioned sterility of George himself, the balance of the debate between science and history perhaps swings in his favour when he imagines supermen that will be created through genetic engineering, we cannot but be reminded of the Nazi eugenics. In this respect George’s argument that the knowledge of history and the principles of civilisation must be retained to inform our management of the future makes reassuring sense. Ultimately however all of George’s wordy arguments feel like nothing more than hot air in the face of the personal desolation and isolation of the characters’ lives.

Model parents
As we touched on in the podcast it is difficult not to trace the play’s preoccupation with parents and their children, or lack thereof, back to Albee’s own unhappy adoption. He himself admitted that he “was aware of some connective thematic tissue” with his own experience. Albee said many times that he did not feel positively attached to his adoptive parents, and there is certainly a lack of positive parental role models in the play. Martha has an unhealthy fixation on her authoritarian father. George may or may not have killed both of his parents. Honey’s father was a charlatan, possibly even criminal, priest. And we know nothing of Nick’s parents, which is a telling lacuna in itself, for he is a character without roots or allegiances.

More central to the play is the fact that both couples are childless and deeply disturbed to be so. Albee’s adoptive parents were unable to conceive, as are George and Martha. George and Martha invent their imaginary son, as by analogy Albee was the result of his adoptive parent’s scheme to adopt and try to mold him. Infertility is also connoted in Honey’s “hysterical pregnancy”. She is terrified of the physical process of pregnancy and childbirth, to the extent that she may had abortions that she has kept secret from her husband. Honey is in fact childlike, too “slim hipped” and immature to be a mother. At one point she is “rolled up like a foetus” on the bathroom floor, sucking her thumb. The prospect of Nick and Honey successfully conceiving in the future also seems slim. There is a suggestion that all is not well in their sexual relationship – Nick is only too willing to respond to Martha’s overtures, or to reveal that he plans to “plough a few pertinent wives”. After the revelations of the evening we sense that the future of their relationship may be even less secure than George and Martha’s. 

The language of the play
The dialogue in the play has an exhilarating fluency, which feels natural if also heightened in intensity and intelligence. There are moments when the language becomes almost surreal, where the dialogue is stuck repeating words or phrases in a musical rhythm, most obviously of course in the recurring refrain of the title. Other examples include Honey reduced to shouting “violence” or “dance” repeatedly, or the focus on the specific detail of the “tiles” of the bathroom floor that Honey is lying on, or the onomatopoeia of the door “bells”. In one short burst George, Nick and Martha between them repeat the word “ice” seven times in as many lines. These repetitions reflect the other-worldly state they are locked in by their drunkenness as well as the intensity of the dynamic. One of the most poetic moments in the writing is Martha’s description of the ice cubes in their drinks being made from their tears, and then her jiggling the glass “clink, clink, clink”. Albee likened his writing to composing music, for which he clearly had an exquisite ear.

The play also contains several majestic longer monologues, in which the speaker takes the time to unfurl a story in vivid images: George’s tale of his drinking with his young friends in the bar, leading to the story of the boy killing both of his parents; or Martha’s description of her “Lady Chatterley” affair with the gardener at her college; and finally the horror of George’s description of their son’s car crash. All of these have a dream-like quality, raising a question over their reality, but also captivating us in the way dreams or great writing can.

“A filthy play”
The Pulitzer prize jury labelled Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf a “filthy play”. It is not clear whether they had in mind the obscenity of the language or the graphic ugliness of the behaviour on show, or both. It is likely that they were offended by the language. Albee’s first draft of the play contained numerous “fucks”, “motherfuckers”, and “shits,” but when initial readers reacted with alarm suggesting that it would be hard to get it produced, he replaced all these with watered-down equivalents such as “screwed”, “hell” and “crap”. In fact he restored some of these in a production he directed himself in 1976.

The play ran foul of the censor when it was first produced in London in 1964.  Albee explained to those unfamiliar with the British censorship regime that the role of the Lord Chamberlain “was to make plays safe for the Royal Family, if they ever went to the theatre.” The Lord Chamberlain requested pages of changes to the obscenities, although they allowed “Hump the Hostess” to remain because “hump” was used in Shakespeare! The producers told the actors to ignore the requested changes, which they largely did.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams breakthrough playThe Glass Menagerie is a very personal portrait of Williams’ own flawed family. It first opened on Broadway in March 1945 to rave reviews, it’s box office success catapulting its 34-year old author to fame and fortune. The play is now a standard on educational curricula and theatrical programs, loved for its heart-wrenching portrayal of the hopes and disappointments of its characters, and admired for its theatrical technique and poetic dramatic language.

The play was brilliantly staged in 2013 on Broadway in a production directed by John Tiffany, which was revived in 2017 in London’s West End, and I am absolutely delighted to be joined in this episode by the director himself, John Tiffany, to share his insights into this enduring classic.

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

It is 2:00 am, and George and Martha have invited a young couple for after-party drinks to their home on a New England university campus. 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. This is American playwright Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened on Broadway in 1962, and was greeted by both moral outrage and critical acclaim. Both types of review contributed to its run-away box-office success, and led to the 1966 Oscar-winning film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

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”.

019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood

019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood

It is 1759 in East Anglia. A child has been murdered and a young woman has been convicted to hang for the crime. She ‘pleads her belly’ and a jury of matrons must determine if she is truly with child and thus may escape the gallows. Lucy Kirkwood’s powerful play The Welkin, is an historical thriller and a tense courtroom drama, as well as a vivid representation of the real burdens that women carry in a patriarchal world of any age.
The Welkin premiered at the National Theatre in January 2020 before its run was cruelly cut short by the first Covid lockdown. I’m delighted to be joined by the author herself to talk about her rich new play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

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.

https://traffic.libsyn.com/secure/theplaypodcast/The_Play_Podcast_20A.mp3

John Mitchinson
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.
Andy Miller
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).
The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. Through our selected partners Bookshop.org and Blackwell’s you will also be supporting independent bookshops. Thank you.
Photo © Marc Brenner
We have footnotes for this episode …
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is such a rich play that we have a lots of Footnotes to supplement our episode on the play. These include more on the origins and meaning of the famous title; some play-by-play analysis of George and Martha’s battle; the symbolic contrast between history and biology which George and Nick represent; the absence of model parents, or children at all; the thrill of the play’s language; and the censors who took offense at this “filthy play”.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams breakthrough playThe Glass Menagerie is a very personal portrait of Williams’ own flawed family. It first opened on Broadway in March 1945 to rave reviews, it’s box office success catapulting its 34-year old author to fame and fortune. The play is now a standard on educational curricula and theatrical programs, loved for its heart-wrenching portrayal of the hopes and disappointments of its characters, and admired for its theatrical technique and poetic dramatic language.

The play was brilliantly staged in 2013 on Broadway in a production directed by John Tiffany, which was revived in 2017 in London’s West End, and I am absolutely delighted to be joined in this episode by the director himself, John Tiffany, to share his insights into this enduring classic.

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

It is 2:00 am, and George and Martha have invited a young couple for after-party drinks to their home on a New England university campus. 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. This is American playwright Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened on Broadway in 1962, and was greeted by both moral outrage and critical acclaim. Both types of review contributed to its run-away box-office success, and led to the 1966 Oscar-winning film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

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”.

019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood

019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood

It is 1759 in East Anglia. A child has been murdered and a young woman has been convicted to hang for the crime. She ‘pleads her belly’ and a jury of matrons must determine if she is truly with child and thus may escape the gallows. Lucy Kirkwood’s powerful play The Welkin, is an historical thriller and a tense courtroom drama, as well as a vivid representation of the real burdens that women carry in a patriarchal world of any age.
The Welkin premiered at the National Theatre in January 2020 before its run was cruelly cut short by the first Covid lockdown. I’m delighted to be joined by the author herself to talk about her rich new play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

The Glass Menagerie – Footnotes

The Welkin – Footnotes

Photo © Marc Brenner

The Welkin – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on The Welkin include more on symbols in the sky, the life of the wife of a poet, and the apt sound of the butter churn.

The Welkin
We talked in the episode about the meaning of the title of the play, and Lucy explained that the welkin is a term for the highest part of the sky or of heaven. We talked about the metaphoric meanings associated with the sky, including of course as the location of heaven, and of the stars or comets to which mankind has attributed some form of influence over its fate or fortunes. One of the matrons on the jury believing that Sally’s chance of avoiding hanging is all but hopeless suggests that she “must look to the welkin, there’s no earthly help for her now.”

Why do we look to the sky as a source of supernatural power? Perhaps in a practical sense, simply because it is the source of the weather on which our material existence depends. Kitty neatly expresses this more utilitarian vision of the sky: “I never look up at the sky. Not unless I have washing on the line.”

But others are convinced that the mysterious appearance of comet is a portent of change in their earthly destinies. Mary relays how her grandmother saw an angel the last time that the comet visited and then gave birth to a boy with two thumbs. For Sally, when she looked to the sky and prayed for escape from the tyranny of her husband and her limited domestic life, the comet heralded the arrival of Thomas McKay and her precipitous passion.

The epigraph that prefaces the published text of the play, “When beggars die there are no comets seen” is the first part of Calpurnia’s warning to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, that the comet recently seen in Rome may prefigure the “death of princes”. In The Welkin the epigraph stands less for the significance of the astronomical symbol than for the point that ordinary people’s deaths, or lives, are arbitrarily less often noted in art or society.

 

Mrs Sara Coleridge, born Sarah Fricker

The wife of a poet
One of the great strengths of Lucy’s play is the array of distinctive individual characters who make up the jury of matrons. One of these is Ann, without an ‘e’, who introduces herself as follows:

My name is Ann Lavender, without an E. I was christened with one but my husband felt me more elegant without it. We moved here more recently to raise our four daughters in peasant honesty. William is a poet and had a desire to share the housework equally and take many long solitary walks. He has been very successful at the latter. 

I was fascinated to learn from Lucy that Ann is based in part on Sara Coleridge, whose life with the romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was one of long-suffering, middle-class poverty. She was born, Sarah Fricker, but like Ann, dropped the ‘H’ from her name to please her husband. Through the forty years of their marriage, she carried the burden of child care and domestic survival, Coleridge spending most of his time absent from the family home, absorbed by his literary contemplation, drug addiction and various infatuations with other women.

Ann is a character with a sharp and enquiring intelligence. She raises incisive questions throughout the judicial process, is curious about the experiences of her fellow jurors, and is particularly stirred when she tries to elicit from Sally her reasons for participating in killing the little girl. In another age she, like Sarah Fricker, may have had the chance of a more independent life.

The butter churn
When we are first introduced to the midwife, Lizzie Luke, we are also introduced to her daughter, Katy, who she instructs to carry on churning the butter. Churning butter was a laborious physical task. The thumping sound of the plunger in the churn continues as the background sound track to the empanelling scene that follows, where the jury matrons are introduced. The churn is a reminder of the continuous labour of these working women, and perhaps also a metaphor for the specific labour of birth, which is the central thesis of the play.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

021 – The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams breakthrough playThe Glass Menagerie is a very personal portrait of Williams’ own flawed family. It first opened on Broadway in March 1945 to rave reviews, it’s box office success catapulting its 34-year old author to fame and fortune. The play is now a standard on educational curricula and theatrical programs, loved for its heart-wrenching portrayal of the hopes and disappointments of its characters, and admired for its theatrical technique and poetic dramatic language.

The play was brilliantly staged in 2013 on Broadway in a production directed by John Tiffany, which was revived in 2017 in London’s West End, and I am absolutely delighted to be joined in this episode by the director himself, John Tiffany, to share his insights into this enduring classic.

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

020 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, by Edward Albee

It is 2:00 am, and George and Martha have invited a young couple for after-party drinks to their home on a New England university campus. 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. This is American playwright Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened on Broadway in 1962, and was greeted by both moral outrage and critical acclaim. Both types of review contributed to its run-away box-office success, and led to the 1966 Oscar-winning film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

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”.

019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood

019 – The Welkin, by Lucy Kirkwood

It is 1759 in East Anglia. A child has been murdered and a young woman has been convicted to hang for the crime. She ‘pleads her belly’ and a jury of matrons must determine if she is truly with child and thus may escape the gallows. Lucy Kirkwood’s powerful play The Welkin, is an historical thriller and a tense courtroom drama, as well as a vivid representation of the real burdens that women carry in a patriarchal world of any age.
The Welkin premiered at the National Theatre in January 2020 before its run was cruelly cut short by the first Covid lockdown. I’m delighted to be joined by the author herself to talk about her rich new play.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country