Since I’ve first read the play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I’ve often casually wondered why the tale of an alcoholically debauched night between two academic couples, one seasoned and supposedly mature and the other neophyte, should have been given its title, with a major talent of the writing world (who was excluded from academia because she was a woman) featured by name. At first, I followed up a suggestion, unfounded, made to me by someone who said that as neither of the couples purportedly have surviving children, it was named because Virginia Woolf was not allowed to have a child, due to her bouts of mental illness. While there may be many truths that history, literary as well as other kinds of history, may hide, I could find no suggestion in what I know of Virginia Woolf to support the theory that she wanted children. In fact, she apparently turned down Leonard Woolf a couple of times because she wanted to avoid sex and marriage. Next, my theory became the idea that as marriage is often fearsome and turbulent for many, the title referred to this very desire to avoid marital intimacy. But then, beginning with George and Martha, the older couple in Edward Albee’s play, all the dirty linen and even the hypothetical dirty linen of marital intimacy is aired in front of the opposite couple, the younger of whom are Nick and Honey, who after a while of this badgering begin to reveal some ugly secrets of their own. So, I was no further along.
I was perhaps making my mistake, though, by my preference for George’s character, because he is the one who seems at some moments to be the ringleader of the group, though Martha plays a strong hand as well. He, for instance, christens the “games” of societal frauds and truth-tellings between the two couples, who are spending a sodden late night visit together, Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, and Hump the Hostess, and he is the senior academic of the group at the college where Nick is also employed. But this didn’t get me much further, once I decided to try to look at the group more objectively, perhaps, certainly more equally, with each having a part to play. It’s a funny play, funny in a biting, acerbic, sardonic fashion, which is George’s main mode of utterance most of the time, so I feel I may be excused for at first regarding him as more central than the others. It’s an odd, surrealistic scene, typical of the ways many people going on a bender feel about their surroundings while they are doing it; I can speak from experience in this regard. It’s sort of reality turned inside out, with people saying things they normally only think when they are in such a situation, where they mostly stick to polite manners, fighting off drunken impulses even when three sheets to the wind, only discussing the evening frankly with their mates when they arrive home. But in this case, in different groupings of four, three, and two, they find themselves in a metadialogue, discussing what happens as it happens.
What actually happens here, though, does have something to do with a certain quote from Virginia Woolf, which I uncovered only today: “A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life.” Martha and George seemingly have a routine they go through around other couples, and an agreement not to discuss their progeny, a son, whom it is difficult to discern if they ever really had. They keep threatening each other with the revelation of something about him in front of the guests, who are uncomfortable and want not to hear at first, and it’s difficult to know if it’s that he died in an accident caused by himself or George, or that in fact he doesn’t exist. The suggestions run counter and rampant, but by the end of the play, it would seem (though the one truth is not for certain) that, as they end by telling the guests together, in a seeming truce between them which ends their war of words and threats, they never were able to have a child. If this is the truth which has caused all their angst and pain, and their conflicts and battles, their use of the other couple to get back at each other, and then their mockery aimed at the other couple, then it has been revealed after a reaching through myriads of shadows and illusions they have created, and it ends the play. Thus it’s not only a feminist who reaches some form of release and freedom, however temporary, by telling the truth about her life, but both Martha and George, in their drunken revelations and conflicts, who by the end of the play have rehearsed once again (and one feels this play has a repetitive loop sense reminiscent of others like “Waiting for Godot”), and come up with the truth(s) of their life, both the things they pretend, the illusions, and the haunting agony that compels them through their lives. Martha’s drinking problem in particular is in the forefront of their diatribes against each other, though both imbibe heavily; it is Martha (in the perspective of 1962, when motherhood was still believed to be more innate and stronger a feeling than fatherhood) whose tragedy it is a little more than George’s that either 1) their son died, or that 2) (as seems more likely, since it occupies the ultimate ending position in the play’s plot) they never had a son. And yet, both of them tell Honey and Nick at the end that “we” were not able to have a child, which is a sign of their apparent strong and twisted love for each other.
I know I perhaps should have issued a spoiler alert for the benefit of those who have not seen or read this play yet, considering the things I’ve revealed about it, but the point is to read or see it and perhaps get something new from it each time. An excellent experience is to catch a revival theatre viewing of the version of this play with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, directed by Mike Nichols; I promise for searing, scorching dialogues and portrayals of marital pain, it won’t disappoint.