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.
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.
Shakespeare’s devastating exploration of race, reputation and jealousy, The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice was a popular success when it was first performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but in the centuries since it has provoked a wide range of responses as successive generations have grappled with the racial identity of the eponymous character. As we record this episode a new production of Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London views the play’s treatment of race through a contemporary lens, setting the play within the London Metropolitan police force, a topical environment for racial inspection.
I am privileged to welcome as my guest someone especially qualified to help us navigate the tricky waters of Shakespeare’s play, Farah Karim-Cooper, Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kings College London, and the author of The Great White Bard – Shakespeare, Race and the Future.
Ken Nwosu as Othello and Ralph Davies as Iago
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Photo by Johan Persson
Harold Pinter’s disturbing exploration of toxic masculinity and sexual maneuvering, The Homecoming premiered in 1965. The play’s portrait of misogyny, and even more disturbing, the apparent female complicity, was shocking at the time it was written. Nearly 60 years on the sexual politics is if anything even more difficult to watch. So what was Pinter’s purpose in presenting such a provocative piece, and how do we process it in the post Me-Too age?
I am joined by Matthew Dunster, the director of a scintillating new production of the play at the Young Vic in London, who can help us answer those questions about Pinter’s challenging classic.
Lisa Diveney as Ruth at the Young Vic – photo by Dean Chalkley.
Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama Ghosts provoked outrage when it was published in 1881, its treatment of sexual disease, incest and euthanasia too much for the critics. More than 140 years later its portrait of repressed truths and social hypocrisy remains as powerful as ever.
Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, helps us review Ibsen’s unflinching drama.
Hattie Morahan as Helene Alving at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London, December 2023. Photo by Marc Brenner.
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.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
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 …