Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered on 13 October 1961 at the Billy Rose Theater, New York, in a production directed by Alan Schneider. The play has generated popular and critical notoriety for its controversial depiction of marital strife. It depicts the alternately destructive and concilia-tory relationship between George and Martha, a middle-aged history professor and his wife, during a late-night party in their living room with Nick, George's shallow colleague, and Honey, his spouse. As the evening proceeds, George and Martha alternately attack and patronize their guests before Martha seduces Nick with the intent of hurting her husband; George retaliates by announcing the death of their imaginary son, whom the couple had created to sustain their relationship. The conclusion suggests that George and Martha may be able to reappraise their relationship based on the intimacy—which was both feared and sought all evening—that arises from their shared sorrow.
Although faulted by some commentators as morbid and self-indulgent, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was honored with two Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and other accolades. When Albee failed to receive the Pulitzer Prize because one trustee objected to the play's sexual subject matter, drama advisors John Gassner and John Mason Brown publicly resigned. The play has since been assessed as a classic of American drama for its tight control of form and command of both colloquial and abstruse dialogue. Variously interpreted as a problem play in the tradition of August Strindberg, a campus parody, or a homosexual critique of conventional relation-ships, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has generated a wide array of critical analyses. Daniel McDonald, Ruth Meyer, and many others have focused on the play's exploration of truth, illusion, and ambiguity. Thomas E. Porter has argued that the play represents a rejection of a number of American myths: "the success myth, the image of American manhood and womanhood, the institution of marriage itself." Contrarily, Rictor Norton has argued that "underlying mythic patterns account for the intense dynamic effect of Albee's drama," and Orley I. Holtan has viewed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? specifically as an "allegory for the American historical experience." Other critics have examined the play's language and its depiction of the problematic relationship between love and sex.
Howard Taubman (review date 15 October 1962)
SOURCE: A review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in The New York Times, 15 October 1962, p. 33.
[In the following review of the debut of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Taubman considers the play impressive but judges the device of the imaginary son improbable. "This part of the story, " he states, "does not ring true, and its falsity impairs the credibility of his central characters."]
Thanks to Edward Albee's furious skill as a writer, Alan Schneider's charged staging and a brilliant performance by a cast of four, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a wry and electric evening in the theater.
You may not be able to swallow Mr. Albee's characters whole, as I cannot. You may feel, as I do, that a pillar of the plot is too flimsy to support the climax. Nevertheless, you are urged to hasten to the Billy Rose Theater, where Mr. Albee's first full-length play opened Saturday night.
For Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is possessed by raging demons. It is punctuuated by comedy, and its laughter is shot through with savage irony. At its core is a bitter, keening lament over man's incapacity to arrange his environment or private life so as to inhibit his self-destructive compulsions.
Moving onto from off Broadway, Mr. Albee carries along the...
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Daniel McDonald (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "Truth and Illusion in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," in Renascence, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter 1964, pp. 63-9.
[McDonald contends that in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee "illustrates how human beings begin with the illusory excellences of youth, see their ideals destroyed by the dark realities of experience, and seek to compensate by creating new illusions. "]
The danger in reading Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is in becoming too involved with the symbolism. The individual who is largely concerned with Martha's being "the Earth Mother" and her father's being "a God," will miss the point of a fine drama. Essentially, the play is not an allegory about Godot, or Good Deeds, or The American Dream; it is a story of real people and their illusions.
Through the story of a history professor and his wife enduring an all-night party with another university couple, Albee describes reality—i.e., human aspirations and emotions in the human situation—as "aimless … wanton … pointless." (The ellipsis marks in this paper will invariably be those of Mr. Albee, who uses many of them.) His theme is the necessity of illusion to sustain one in such an environment. By juxtaposing the two couples—the new and the old generation—he illustrates how human beings begin with the illusory...
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Chester, Alfred. "Edward Albee: Red Herrings & White Whales."Commentary 35 (April 1963): 296-301.
Argues that Albee's scheme for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is "all contrivance and that … it functions to conceal the fact that the author is really out to … get his characters."
Choudhuri, A. D. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Death of an Illusion." In The Face of Illusion in American Drama, pp. 129-43. New York: Humanities Press, 1979.
Characterizes Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a "drama of domestic life" in which "many of the cherished and comforting illusions have been destroyed to make us wide awake to the power and impact of illusions that lie at the heart of American culture."
Davis, Walter A. "The Academic Festival Overture: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" In Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama, and the Audience, pp. 209-62. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. Contends that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? enacts the "movement to death, self-fragmentation, and the descent into psychotic anxieties."
Dozier, Richard J. "Adultery and Disappointment in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Modern Drama XI, No. 4 (February 1969): 432-36.
Considers Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "an unsatis-factory play, a play of half-heartedly...
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