Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890
Upon the premiere of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? some critics praised virtually every aspect of the play, while others faulted it as too long, too vulgar, or too pessimistic; almost everyone, however, saw in the play the potential to breathe new life into a Broadway theatre that was no longer the creative force it had been. "An exciting play," after all, "is good antidote for what ails Broadway theater," Taubman noted in the New York Times. Whether they admire or detest the play, Taubman observed, "theatergoers cannot see it and shrug it off. They burn with an urge to approve or differ."
A reviewer for Time claimed that Albee's play "has jolted the Broadway season to life." Similarly, a reviewer for Newsweek called the play a "brilliantly original work of art—an excoriating theatrical experience, surging with shocks of recognition and dramatic fire. It will be igniting Broadway for some time to come." Although he found Virginia Woolf important in the context of the Broadway season, Harold Clurman of the Nation called the play'' a minor work within the prospect of Albee's further development." (In this his opinion differs greatly from the popular notion that Virginia Woolf was the high point of Albee's creative career.)
Critics praised the density of Albee's writing, the challenge presented by his complex merging of multiple theatrical elements. Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review observed that Virginia Woolf contained some of the same complex Freudian psychology of Albee's earlier plays but that the new work "is more recognizably real and self-generating than were its predecessors." While the play also has a "sense of the ridiculous ... things are hardly exaggerated enough to be called 'Theatre of the Absurd,' either.'' John Gassner commented in Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled from Thirty Years of Drama Criticism that "Mr. Albee has written a terrifying thing—perhaps the negative play to end all negative plays, yet also a curiously compassionate play." The powerful sense of recognition inspired in audiences by the play rested, most critics observed, in the speech of Albee's characters, what Cohn called "the most adroit dialogue ever heard on the American stage." Clurman wrote that the dialogue "is superbly virile and pliant; it also sounds."
Reviewers who were generally positive about the quality and importance of Virginia Woolf, however, criticized certain aspects of Albee's technique. Taubman in the New York Times expressed mild reservations about a key plot device and whether Martha and George are "believable all the way." The Time reviewer, meanwhile, found the plot resolution "woefully inadequate and incongruous, rather like tracing the source of the Niagara to a water pistol." The review also found the play "needlessly long ... repetitious, slavishly, sometimes superficially Freudian, and given to trite thoughts about scientific doom."
And, as with any work of art, there were those who, despite overwhelmingly positive reception, found little to praise in Virginia Woolf. The New Yorker review thought Albee imitative of O'Neill "without having much to talk about," and though granting him "a certain dramatic flair," found it "ill-directed ...in the present enterprise."
In the nearly four decades since the premiere of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, not only has the play remained luminous in the minds of critics and other theatergoers (as well as generations of readers), but so much so that almost the entire rest of Albee's career has seemed tarnished in comparison. While Albee went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes and other high honors, he has also occasionally been plagued by negative criticism and commercial failure of his productions. Richard Amacher wrote in his l969 book Edward Albee that the playwright has earned a great deal of criticism precisely because he continues to experiment rather than shape his work to commercial taste or repeat his past successes, because he "does attempt a more difficult, a more deeply penetrating, view of reality than some of the older dramatists, who by comparison seem merely to scratch the surface of illusion.''
But if such total artistic, critical, and commercial success never again coalesced around one single work for Albee, as it did around Virginia Woolf, his new work in subsequent decades has nevertheless had an impact. Virginia Woolf, meanwhile, continues to draw close interest and is continuously revived, extensively read and studied, and widely written about; the play's richness shows itself in the variety of topics of inquiry. Many wrilers have explored it as a social phenomenon, a challenge to corrupted values particular to its time. Psychological readings of the play have also been quite popular—both Freudian readings of the psyches of the characters, and studies of external behavior and modes of communication using other psychological models. Joy Flasch, in her Modem Drama analysis of the play inspired by Eric Berne's study Games People Play, saw the conclusion of the play as an "attempt to put aside the destructive Games which have taken the place of true Intimacy. It will be difficult, perhaps impossible."
The differing perspectives the work has inspired, in addition to the pure entertainment value that it provides have made Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a hallmark of contemporary American theatre. That new ideas and fresh perspectives continue to be discovered within the play's text—and that multiple generations have found merit in the work— is a testament to the depth of Albee's creation.