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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward…
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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962)

by Edward Albee

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3,799522,152 (4.01)146
George, a disillusioned academic, and Martha, his caustic wife, have just come home from a faculty party. When a handsome young professor and his mousy wife stop by for a nightcap, an innocent night of fun and games quickly turns dark and dangerous. Long-buried resentment and rage are unleashed as George and Martha turn their rapier-sharp wits against each other, using their guests as pawns in their verbal sparring. By night's end, the secrets of both couples are uncovered and the lies they cling to are exposed. Considered by many to be Albee's masterpiece, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a "brilliantly original work of art -- an excoriating theatrical experience, surging with shocks of recognition and dramatic fire" ("Newsweek").… (more)
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George and Martha are a middle-aged couple who live on a New England university campus; he teaches History, she is the Dean's daughter. They invite a new colleague and his wife over for a nightcap after a university function and, as the night wears on and the drinking grows heavier, subject them to their twisted hate games. For George and Martha loathe each other: their intentionally toxic relationship consists mainly of sniping at each other about flaws real or imagined -- mediocrity, adultery, patricide, overbearing parents. They are vindictive assholes whose only joy is found in going out of their way to be hurtful to each other; their guests are largely there to turn the whole thing into a fetishistic performance.

I suspect the revelations in the third act were supposed to make their relationship seem poignant or even tragic or something, but I couldn’t find it in me to care. George and Martha are vicious assholes who chose to be that way and who choose to continue down that path: they’re entirely responsible for all their nastiness and bullshit, and I see no reason to pity them or even think of them as 3D-characters. They are the Serious Literature equivalents of that one-dimensional Big Bad from dreadfully written genre fiction, who is just evil for no adequately explained reason.

It was at least a little creative, though, and the buildup in acts one and two was good, and so I’ll give it two stars. ( )
1 vote Petroglyph | Jul 10, 2019 |
Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Reclam, Paperback, 2010.

12mo. 205 pp. Edited by Ferdinand Schunck with footnotes and Afterword [195-205].

First produced and published, 1962.
Penguin edition, 1965.
Reclam edition, 2000.
Reprinted, 2011.

Inhalt [Contents]

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Act One: Fun and Games
Act Two: Walpurgisnacht
Act Three: The Exorcism

Editorische Notiz [Editorial Note]
Literaturhinweise [Bibliogaphy]
Nachwort [Afterword]

--------------------------------------------------​

Characters:
Martha, large boisterous woman, 52, looking somewhat younger. Ample, but not fleshy.
George, her husband, 46. Thin; hair going grey.
Honey, 26, a petite blonde girl, rather plain.
Nick, 30, her husband. Blonde, well-put-together, good-looking.

The scene is the living-room of a house on the campus of a small New England college.

==================================================​

I must say I am greatly prejudiced in favour of Edward Albee. He is entitled to my love by default because he was a cat lover. That said, I’m afraid his most famous play didn’t live up to its fame – or my expectations.

Martha and I are having... nothing. Martha and I are merely... exercising... that’s all... we’re merely walking what’s left of our wits. Don’t pay any attention to it.

These words of George, said early in the first act (“Fun and Games”, indeed!), summarise the play pretty well. It is one giant battle of wits between George and Martha. And sometimes it’s not easy to pay attention to their boozy slugfest.

Nevertheless, this is one hell of play – in every sense of the phrase – for the first two acts. George and Martha are just about the most detestable couple in fiction. They are vicious, violent, vindictive, abrasive, alcoholic and cruel. They are not smart, witty, sensitive or even sensual. But are they alive! They do provide some food for thought about marital sadomasochism and delusional flight from reality, but it is their visceral excitement that really counts. George and Martha are at their best when they are least intellectual, if a little too self-conscious. For example:

George: You’re a monster... you are.
Martha: I’m loud, and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in this house because somebody’s got to, but I am not a monster. I am not.
George: You’re a spoiled, self-indulgent, wilful, dirty-minded, liquor-ridden...
Martha: SNAP! It went snap. Look, I’m not going to try to get through to you anymore... I’m not going to try.

Nick and Honey are quite overshadowed in that company. Poor things. But they are gradually, yet deftly, revealed to be nothing more than younger versions of George and Martha. It is frightful to imagine them after twenty years – if their marriage endures that long.

And yet, even the first two acts look rather quaint today. No doubt there are saintly souls still scandalised by drinking and fornication; but they are becoming fewer. To the rest of us the whole thing is amusing rather than shocking. And just a little boring. I don’t mean the fantastic amount of ellipses. I know they sound better on the stage than they look on the page. I mean the good deal of repetitious and lacklustre dialogue. This is good depiction of drunken people. It is not good drama.

What’s all the drama about anyway? Because George doesn’t run the History Department as Martha’s mighty daddy hoped he would? Because he is not a great boxer and a great athlete? Because Martha is all for playing the sweet game “Hump the Hostess”? Because two middle-aged drunkards cannot come to terms with their mediocrity? Strip George and Martha of their delightful demolition of each other, all of it eminently effective on the stage, and there is next to nothing in them. Strip Nick and Honey of their roles as the most miserable butts of all time, and there is nothing in them at all.

It’s not hard to understand what dynamite this play must have been in 1962, especially with Uta Hagen as Martha. The Taylor-Burton affair was national news and the scandal to end all scandals at the time. And why? Because two people had sex while being married to other two people and didn’t care who knew it. Imagine, in this context, how it must have looked when Martha and Nick are making it out in the living room while the “preoccupied with history” George is fetching some ice and the “not mixing her brandy” Honey lies dead drunk in the next room. Dynamite, my eye! A regular H-bomb!

Well, 57 years have passed since then. The play has grown old. Even the performance history seems to confirm this. It lasted for 664 performances after its first night on 13 October 1962. But there have been only three revivals on Broadway since (1976, 2005, 2012), and they together managed only 436 shows (117, 177, 142)[1].

It is the third act, however, that proves the great undoing. It is supposed, in theory, to be the climax of the play. It is, in fact, a massive anticlimax.

It is poorly and pretentiously written in the first place. All that Latin is really tacky. I am not going to spoil the great secret about the son, but I must say I found it utterly incredible. Nothing we have seen of George and Martha so far does suggest they are that mad. On the contrary, both have very realistic grasp of their personal failures. That’s why they taunt each other so effectively. Because their insults are largely true. Last and most important, when George and Martha have been consistently presented as the most despicable people you can imagine for the first two acts, it is a huge dramatic mistake to try to turn them into tragic characters in the last act. Nobody, not even Shakespeare, could pull off a stunt like that[2]. If a playwright is smart enough, or bold enough, he wouldn’t even try.

In the end, despite our mutual passion for cats, I was disappointed with Edward Albee. I wanted to like his almost legendary play a lot more than I actually did. It’s a great fun for the first two acts, but even they feel like a guilty pleasure; entertaining, for sure, but neither moving nor thought-provoking. The third act is a disaster. I’m amused by the critics who have discovered all sorts of profoundness in this play, but I don’t buy any of their fantasies[3]. The famous 1966 movie keeps very close to the play and remains essentially the same flawed period piece. Liz and Dick make it a classic, not Edward Albee.

__________________________________________________​
[1] Poor Eddie! He never had another success even remotely like Virginia Woolf. He was prolific but unsuccessful. Only one of his other plays (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?) managed more than 200 performances (209) on Broadway, and that was as late as 2002. Only four others exceeded 100 performances: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1963, 123; adapted from the novel of Carson McCullers), Tiny Alice (1964, 167), A Delicate Balance (1967, 132) and Three Tall Women (1994) which earned Albee his third and last Pulitzer Prize but hit Broadway only posthumously in 2018 (102 shows). From the late 1960s to 2002, he had to suffer a long string of flops on Broadway (some of them also adaptations of works by others). Even his fairly successful plays were seldom revived. Tiny Alice hit the stage again five years after its premiere – only to close after the embarrassing ten performances. A Delicate Balance remains Albee’s most successful play after Virginia Woolf. It has enjoyed two Broadway revivals (1996, 2014) and 293 shows overall (185, 108). Compared to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams (both of them a generation older), Edward Albee is a very small fry. See Internet Broadway Database.
[2] It should be remembered that Shakespeare did load the dice heavily against all of his tragic characters, most notably against Lear and Macbeth (or even Hamlet). This is essential, of course. Tragic characters must be deeply flawed in the first place. Yet they must also have the potential to move us. Otherwise they only get what they deserve and there is no tragedy. Even Shakespeare, and even in controversial cases like Antony and Shylock who have divided readers and critics alike, never hated his characters as Edward Albee hated George and Martha for the first two acts.
[3] Albee himself, alas, has not been exempt from using this critical crutch. In 1976, he suggested this, to my mind controversial and misguided, explanation of Virginia Woolf: “The play is an examination of whether or not we, as a society, have lived up to the principles of the American Revolution. There’s no argument that George and Martha were named after George and Martha Washington.” See Gerry McCarthy, Edward Albee, Macmillan, 1987, p. 15. ( )
  Waldstein | Jul 1, 2019 |
Brilliantly written and wonderfully paced. I literally could not put this down once I got into it. The dialogue between the characters gives them a great amount of depth.

George and Martha are a married couple that came back from a party, only to host a small get-together at their home because the head of the college says it would be nice. As the night wears on, a number of revelations are had between the couples and pretenses are stripped away. I would love to see this acted out, but I don't know where it is playing. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
Remarkable! A pleasure to read. ( )
  DanielSTJ | May 5, 2019 |
I think we read this in school more than 30 years ago. I've definitely seen the Taylor-Burton movie. But in revisiting this text, it was clear to me how much I had forgotten about the toxic nastiness and raw viciousness being played out here. I can't imagine what it must have been like seeing this performed on stage back in the early 60s. Really shocking piece of theatre in the best possible way. ( )
  asxz | Mar 13, 2019 |
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» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edward Albeeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Capriolo, EttoreTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Collo, PaoloIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reve, Gerard Kornelis van hetTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Set in darkness. Crash against front door. Martha's laughter heard. Front door opens, lights are switched on. Martha enters, followed by George. MARTHA: Jesus...
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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This LT work is the text edition of the play. Please do not combine the book with the movie. Thank you.
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George, a disillusioned academic, and Martha, his caustic wife, have just come home from a faculty party. When a handsome young professor and his mousy wife stop by for a nightcap, an innocent night of fun and games quickly turns dark and dangerous. Long-buried resentment and rage are unleashed as George and Martha turn their rapier-sharp wits against each other, using their guests as pawns in their verbal sparring. By night's end, the secrets of both couples are uncovered and the lies they cling to are exposed. Considered by many to be Albee's masterpiece.
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