Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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The sequence of establishing shots of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opens with a full moon framed by trees in early autumn defoliation. It is 2 A.M. in a black-and-white world. It is the start of a new academic year at a small proprietary college in New Carthage, New England (modeled after Williams College, in Williamstown, MA). The camera descends and focuses slowly in on a middle-aged married couple, George (Richard Burton), a history professor, and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), George’s wife and the proprietor/president’s daughter. They are strolling arm-in-arm across campus toward home after a party at the president’s residence, the ritual introduction of new faculty to the campus community.

Arriving home to their messy and book-strew home, the real party begins. Unbeknownst to George, Martha has invited a new faculty member Nick (played by an impossibly young and lithe George Segal) and his astonishingly invisible church-mouse wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) over for drinks. The promise in the over-the-top word play of the film’s title goes from zero-to-sixty in a nanosecond. Once safely at home, Martha casts off her cocktail-party facade and lets her sadomasochistic side (natural or alcoholism-induced?) rip loose on her husband. Martha’s opening volley, Taylor’s memorable deadly camp delivery of the Bette Davis line, “What a dump!,” escalates a tiff over identifying the film (it is Beyond the Forest) into a no-holds-barred battle.

The film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is based on Edward Albee’s highly successful stage play (perhaps Albee’s most multifaceted autobiographical work). Screenwriter Ernest Lehman and director Mike Nichols create a noir universe (in the words of Bosley Crowther’s 1966 review) enveloped in a Twilight Zone-like “darkness, silence, and doom”–part nightmare, part psychotherapy, part docudrama, part cultural meta-narrative, part transcendent myth. The film collaboration may well rival the original play in much the same way that MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland, has rivaled the original L. Frank Baum children’s novel.

In both cases, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Like Nick and Honey, the audience is jolted awake in the bowels of a cinematic hell. And, like Nick and Honey, the viewer is unable to break the mesmerizing spell cast by the gaze of evil from the silver screen.

Critics have most commonly interpreted this film as a psychodrama—of a childless couple for whom alcoholism and verbal sadomasochism are symptoms of their failure as a procreative family unit; of an alcoholic relationship in which procreative barrenness is the cause and verbal abuse a symptom; orof a sadomasochistic marriage symptomatic of the hidden and unspoken reality of modern marriage, typically a result of the lives of quiet desperation post-World War II Americans were allegedly leading.

Another frequent interpretation, staunchly denied by Albee, has been that George and Martha are a homosexual male couple, thinly veiled as an unnecessarily cruel and heterophobic portrayal of traditional marriage. Critics point to the imaginary child and to the dominant/submissive power play of their relationship. The bitchy dialog, pregnant with references to camp films, actresses, and classic lines of dialog, and the apparent underlying self-loathing of both individuals, have been read as typical of male homosexuals. (The dynamics were made explicit in another successful stage play (1968) and film (1970) of the era, Matt Crowley’s The Boys in the Band.) While not necessarily about gay men, the film demonstrates common ground where spousal relationships of every sexual orientation may converge, and how academic life can be a cruel imitation of Real Life.

Significantly undervalued is Albee’s choice of setting and characters. On a very literal level, the film is about a bored, middle-aged academic couple. They are more permanently caged in daddy’s academic compound (George, who is in the History Department–as opposed to being the History Department) than trapped in a “failed marriage.” On the contrary, George and Martha seem Platonic soul-mates, perfectly suited to one another. Emblematic of the death cult of modern society, they have descended into a folie a deux, locked in a sadomasochistic love-hate relationship, which neither of them can live without. Too, George and Martha (like the Father and Mother of Our Country) have spawned dreams which have only been dashed.

The original play is divided into three acts—“Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht,” and “The Exorcism.” Strongly suggesting Goethe’s Faust I, George and Martha’s richly subtextured Walpurgisnacht resembles the monkish and naive scholar Faust’s foray into the Real World–of flesh, desire, emotions, and human interactions and their consequences: the Devil’s playground. When George the historian casts Nick the biologist as the mortal enemy, Albee presents a philosophical treatise about the battle between traditional humanistic values and the modern technological world, between knowledge and experience, between good and evil. Had she been invited, what would Hannah Arendt have made of the banality of evil parlor games?

Les Wright

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