Friday, 20 February 2015

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It’s two in the morning. In the opening scene of Edward Albee’s WHO’ AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, George and Martha stumble home tipsy, from a party. They bicker, in the way drunks do about things that don’t really matter. They laugh; stupidly.
The loud snap of a door latch. Action!

Martha; “What a dump!” The play begins.

Yes, it's 2am and Dionysus is on the prowl. Dionysus is alive and well this night in New England in the 20th century. His red gaze falls on his two old disciples, George and Martha. The beast has been unleashed; he wakes from his long slumber, and snarls. George and Martha will act out Dionysus’ ritual and sacrifice. They will scream and go mad. They will paw and claw at each other. They will do real damage. The ritual will end in death, just as it did every year centuries ago, in Eleusis.

Dionysus is the Greek god of fertility, wine, and ecstasy. A complex deity Dionysus played two very different roles in Greek mythology. As the god of fertility he was closely linked with crops, the harvest, and the changing of the seasons. As the god of wine and ecstasy he was associated with drunkenness, madness, and unrestrained sexuality. His nature included a productive, life-giving side and a bestial, destructive side.

The audience know immediately, that George and Martha have acted out this orgy of violent, verbal bloodletting before. How we know; well, no-one tells us, it’s just a gut feeling. The humiliating word games they play; “Get the Guest.” The stories that they tell suggest that this obscene rite has been performed before. George and Martha are in the grip of a repetition compulsion. Just as Hades and Persephone act out their ritual of death and re-birth so do George and Martha. The Dionysian mysteries were repeated annually; the sacrifice, the ritual tearing of human flesh to please the god ensured healthy crops and fertility for the coming year.

George and Martha are part of this eternal conflict. Their game is cyclical and they play it through to its bitter conclusion. Only then can they achieve sanity, sanctity and restore order.

Two guests arrive and they are immediately drawn into George and Martha’s ugly little scenario.

I watched the film of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, this week. I didn’t want to; I knew I was in for a rough ride. I’ve seen the stage play and seen the film. Both left me shattered. The film stars Richard Burton as George and Elizabeth Taylor as Martha. George Segal is Scott and Sandy Dennis is Honey. The film is made in black and white which works well; the stark images helping to convey the creeping, sinister feeling that everything is slipping out of control. Usually, I would prefer to watch a stage play over a film, but the close up camera work lingering on facial expressions adds to the tension. I feel as if I’ve watched a violation, something profane. Something I should have stopped but was helpless to do anything.

There’s a hopeless, helpless slippage going on that things are not what they seem.

This is psychological terrorism.

At one point, Martha says to George. “Truth and illusion. You don’t know the difference.” George responds; “No, but we carry on as if we do; the illusion can be as true as we want it to be.”

While Martha is showing Honey where the bathroom is, George tests Nick's verbal sparring skills, but the young man is no match for his host. Realizing that he and his wife are becoming embroiled in the middle of marital warfare he suggests they depart, but George cajoles him into staying.

Upon returning to the living room alone, Honey innocently mentions to George she was unaware he and Martha had a son on the verge of celebrating his sixteenth birthday.

Martha has broken the rules by talking about their son, and will be, must be punished.

But at this stage of the play, it is Martha who is controlling the action. George seems like an amateur compared to Martha’s bitter vitriol.

Martha reappears in a new outfit - sleek fitting slacks and a revealing blouse - and when her husband makes a snide remark about the ensemble, she begins to demean his abilities as a teacher, then escalates her seduction of Nick complimenting him on the body he has
developed as quarterback and a state boxing champion, while criticizing George's paunch.

Honey again raises the subject of George and Martha's son prompting the couple to engage in a conversation which Martha quickly tries to end without success.

To counterattack George's relentless comments about the boy she tells their guests her husband is unsure the child is his own. They argue about the colour of the boy's eyes until George threatens to expose the truth about the boy. Martha is furious and accuses him of being a failure, whose youthful idealistic plans for the future slowly deteriorated as he came to realize he wasn't aggressive enough to follow in his father-in-law's footsteps leaving her stuck with a flop. Inebriated and upset by Martha's behaviour, Honey rushes from the room.

Honey’s comical hysterical exits and entrances provide the audience with a much needed relaxation of tension. We are already feeling battered; we need to breathe before the next round of screeching, screaming annihilation. It’s a relief to be allowed to laugh; it’s only when we laugh at Honey’s antics, we realise how our jaws have been set in a grimace of horror, like Munch’s SCREAM.

Honey is the Greek Chorus, commenting inanely, sometimes profoundly on the action. Sometimes she simply repeats the last word of the dialogue. Sandy Dennis’ wonderful comic timing, and physical comedy, releases us from the tension for just a beat, or two.

Honey wants to dance; she loves to dance. “I dance like the wind,” she tells us, while skipping and waving a silk shawl. Her dance is reminiscent of a Dionysian orgy.

“Following the torches as they dipped and swayed in the darkness, they climbed mountain paths with head thrown back and eyes glazed, dancing to the beat of the drum which stirred their blood. In this state of ekstasis or enthusiasmos, they abandoned themselves, dancing wildly and shouting 'Euoi!' [the god's name] and at that moment of intense rapture became identified with the god himself. They became filled with his spirit and acquired divine powers.” (WIKI)

The play is overshadowed by children, or the lack of them. Honey has had an “hysterical pregnancy.” “She goes up, she goes down.” One of the first questions George asks of Scott is whether he and Honey have children. George tells a story about a boy, blonde haired and beautiful. He shot his mother and killed his father in a road accident. He’d swerved to avoid a porcupine. The story has a peculiar resonance with what George says to Martha about their own son.

Martha; “our son is coming home tomorrow, for his 16th birthday.” George tells her that their son is dead. He drove into a tree, trying to avoid a porcupine on the road. Martha bursts into an hysterical rage. George has killed their son. He has no right.

But George has taken control of the action. He was in control all along; the audience and Martha just didn’t realise it.

Martha asks George, where is the telegram notifying them of the death of their son? George says he’s eaten it. He hasn’t; there was no telegram. Honey colludes with George. She tells Martha, “He did eat it, I watched him.” George’s statement is a blatant, bitter parody of the Eucharist. Transubstantiation; the participant consumes the wafer, the body of Christ. The disciple consumes the Divine and becomes the Divine.

Was any of this true? Was there a son? Was a boy, killed? We don’t know, and that really is unsettling. We know that the telegram is a lie; what else is a lie?

There’s a strange feeling of calm as George begins to pray. The final act is entitled “Exorcism.” Is this an exorcism or a requiem? A prayer for reconciliation? Is it a funeral mass? While George is reciting the prayer, Martha talks. The two voices speaking simultaneously, produce a rhythmic, calming, lulling effect. Order is slowly being restored.

George; Kyrie Eleison. (Lord have mercy.)
George; Christe Eleison. (Christ have mercy.)
George; Kyrie Eleison. (Lord have mercy.)
Honey; Amen. (So be it.) Honey, as the Chorus, speaks the final word of the prayer ending Dionysus’ revels. The games are over.

Kyrie Eleison is Greek, and is a part of many liturgical rites in Eastern and Western Christianity.

Scott and Honey leave, almost unnoticed. George and Martha relax. The actors take their curtain call. The credits roll to Alex North’s tranquil music. George and Martha prepare to go to bed.

Dionysus sleeps.


  1. It is a disturbing play! I haven't seen the movie version, but anything starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor has a real-life subtext. Both these mega-stars were married to other people when they co-starred in Cleopatra (1963?) and divorced their spouses to be with each other. In the 1960s, this type of behaviour was considered scandalous, even for movie stars. Their relationship apparently had as many ups and downs as the relationships they portrayed on-screen. They seemed perfectly cast in Edward Albee's play.

  2. It really is worth renting the movie version Jean...I've seen it several times and read the play a number of times just cannot put your finger on where it all goes horribly wrong...then you realise that it was always horribly wrong...and it was a superb piece of casting...I clearly remember their scandalous affair on the set of Cleopatra...then they married, divorced, married again..he bought her a massive diamond ring...I know that they weren't married when he died..he married an English woman. Can't remember her name, but she said of Burton's funeral she may as well not have existed, totally eclipsed by Elizabeth Taylor and her entourage...

  3. Cameron Maltman1 March 2015 at 17:02

    It is interesting to her your opinion on the play. I had never related it to the Greek gods, and I thought it was an interesting take on the play. You never stated what you truly believe is Albee's purpose for writing this play. I would be interested to know.

  4. Your connection of the play to greek mythology opened a new perspective to me. As we commonly relate this film to modern times, it is interesting to see it traced back hundreds of years. I agree that the direction of the film really accentuate certain scenes of the movie that could not have been done as a stage play! However, I must say that I don't agree that George was in control the whole. Contrary to that, I actually thought that Martha was dominant majority of the party and lost control and gave up the fight.

  5. Hello; I am an English student having currently just finished reading through the exercise in the absurd that is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Comparing the antics of this couple and their guests to a Dionysian spectacle is certainly an interesting lens with which to view the play; the god was, after all, known as the Loosener - the loosening of social norms and preconceptions are a dominant theme throughout the play. In addition to this, I am interested in your different interpretations of the meaning of the climactic exorcism; for my part, I feel that we are in fact witness to an exorcism: the harrowing act of wrenching away the last spirit -or is it a demon- to haunt this old, unhappy marriage. This spirit is, of course, the ghost of a life lived differently: one where the birth of a child forges a stronger bond between the couple where a reliance solely on an upwards-bound George failed and led to bitter and drunken nights. This ghost of a better relationship is the last bond holding the two together, in memory of what may have been; this night, George sees it exposed and decides to sever it. Now both must face that final truth, with the refrain of the play's title repeating in their ears as they consider what exactly the truth of their relationship is, and if they are able to face it in full.

    Well, something of a different take on it! If you do still frequent this blog, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on my musings.

    1. Cameron, Adam and fmurray -- I am delighted that you have responded to my thoughts on Virginia Woolf -- forgive my tardy response -- I only checked out the post yesterday -- you all raise interesting points which need careful thought -- I shall respond in a few days -- thanks again!

  6. Cameron -- I think it's a testament to Albee's creation that even after seeing the play performed on stage and screen -- and having read it countless times that I still don't know, or what to think about his purpose -- that at the end of it all, I still don't really get it. Maybe that is his purpose -- human beings have devoted to much energy inventing systems to deal with the abstract stuff, like time, we still cannot control it -- George and Martha talk about "truth and illusion" "you don't know the difference," Martha says to George -- George responds, "No, but we carry on as if we do.."

    Is Albee saying 'you may think you're in control -- but are you really?'

    I Googled Virginia Woolf last night to see if there were any suggestions out in cyberspace as to Albee's intentions -- there is one notion that it is a political play. It was written at the height of the Cold War -- George declares "I will not give up Berlin.." It's a theory, I suppose, but I'm not buying it -- I don't see it as a demonstration of Capitalism v Communism -- the play still makes me flounder but I am drawn to the "truth v illusion debate.

    btw. I'm still fascinated by the play -- I ordered the dvd last night -- I'll watch it again..

  7. fmurray-incoldblood -- I have always loved the Greek myths -- I was lucky enough to afford a holiday in Greece some years ago -- when I arrived in Athens it felt like coming home -- I studied Sophocles at university and was overwhelmed by the Greek tragedies -- Antigone, The Medea..I read Mary Renault's re-telling of the Theseus story -- how he killed the Minotaur and eloped with Ariadne -- how she went crazy with the Dionysian orgy on the island of Naxos. My mind made a connection with Albee's play -- the drunken sparring of George and Martha and the utter bewilderment of Nick and Honey at their antics -- no one knows what is going on -- that includes us -- the audience. And it was presumptive of me to conclude that George was in control of the action -- the dialogue between George and Martha is more like a seesaw -- control slips from one to the other...

  8. Adam -- I am intrigued by your studies in relation to the Theatre of the Absurd -- I hadn't thought of Virginia Woolf as being part of that genre -- but I can see where your train of thought is coming from -- Samuel Becket's Waiting for Godot and Endgame share the same sort of hopelessness as Virginia Woolf -- and come under that genre. Vladimir and Estragon wait endlessly for Godot -- who never turns up. The characters in Endgame, speaking from the props of refuse bins seem simply to be waiting to die. Add Virginia Woolf into the mix and the 3 plays here seem to be about nothingness -- nothing happens. Samuel Becket's stage direction at the end of Godot "they do not move" sums up a sort of futility -- nothing happens -- no matter what we do we are unable to control our destiny -- destiny is abstract, like time, truth and illusion. Where Virginia Woolf differs is the final act Exorcism -- George takes on a holiness, a sacred rite as he invokes the words of the Kyrie Eleison Lord have Mercy -- Christ have Mercy. The rite of the exorcism heals -- and I am shattered.