Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 2001
The ad copy for the movie read: ‘You are cordially invited to George and Martha’s for an evening of fun and games.” Beware; fun and games can be vicious.
In 1966, four years after the controversial Broadway opening of the play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” went further than any prior big-studio film in its use of profanity and sexual implication, which assured its entry into film history and the American lexicon.
Some theater critics had called the play “a brilliantly original work of art, an excoriating theatrical experience, surging with shocks of recognition and dramatic fire,” “the most shattering drama… since O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” But when the Pulitzer Prize committee voted to honor …Virginia Woolf, the trustees of Columbia University, overseers of the award, denied the Prize because of the overly explicit language and exploration of ‘taboo’ subjects.
Nearly four decades later, the play still has the power to shock and devastate. George and Martha, whose names are said to symbolize the First Couple and the failure of the American Dream, are intelligent, inebriated, combative, acerbic, verbally violent and thoroughly unforgettable.
But the piece isn’t just about their disturbed and destructive marriage. Edward Albee wrote the play during a time of tense relations between East and West, between blacks and whites. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (a title Albee said came from a men’s room wall) was one of the first theatrical successes to articulate our country’s undercurrent of unease and dissatisfaction. In addition to examining two unsavory relationships, mired in fantasy and deception, the play also challenges several sacred American values: family, marriage, success, religion. In a small New England college town, George and Martha play deadly, devastating games with their young visitors: Humiliate the Host, Hump the Hostess, Get the Guests. It’s not just brutal; it’s brutally funny.
Though it’s been hailed a masterpiece, the play isn’t staged that frequently, because the playwright demands approval of every single production, conception and cast.
Todd Salovey, associate artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre, feels fortunate to have gotten the master’s approval, which he attributes, in part, to his theatrical pedigree: he trained at Stanford and at UCSD, under two of Albee’s most significant interpreters: theater historian Martin Esslin and Alan Schneider, who directed the original stage production with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill. He’s thrilled to be bringing Virginia Woolf to San Diego.
“I think the play is timeless and topical,” says Salovey. “It’s about the fall of the American Empire. It goes deeper than George and Martha to the fabric of our society — at once personal, social and political, forcing us to think about this couple and America at the same time.” The confrontations between the two academics — George, who teaches history and Nick, who’s focused on biology, are “the battle between past and future, history and technology.”
The play, Salovey admits, is not for sissies. “Watching it, we feel like voyeurs in a living room we’d rather not be in. But once we’re sucked in, we can’t turn away. It’s literally breathtaking. The two intermissions are essential; you really need to be able to go out and catch your breath. You feel numbed and stunned.
“It’s for people who like to think,” he continues. “It has the linguistic lushness of a novel; a beautiful sweep of muscular, poetic language. But it’s not a downer. There are so many levels of vitality. George and Martha wouldn’t be such icons of the American theater if they weren’t such an entertaining couple. They have supreme wit, and supreme enjoyment of intelligence and creativity. Their whole life is a battle between truth and illusion. And that’s what theater is all about, too. The problem comes when you believe the illusion is truth.”
Salovey loves the film almost as much as the play. “Part of the brilliance of the movie is that we’re aware we’re watching superstars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, a real-life husband and wife playing a fictional husband and wife. But at the same time, we’re completely captivated by George and Martha.
“When Martha utters those famous words, ‘What a dump!’ she expresses her disappointment with her life. And that forces us to confront our own lives, our own discontent. We have to consider what constitutes a meaningful life. What are we here for? At the end, though, I feel optimistic. After the artifice is stripped away, I think George and Martha have a shot at turning their marriage around.”
Casting the production was a painful and painstaking process, but Salovey is very pleased with his choices, most of whom he’s worked with before. “I feel that I’ve cast people with the richest capability of discovering the multiple nuances that exist within each character: as Martha, Ellen Crawford (a ten-year veteran of TV’s “ER”), and three Salovey faves and Rep regulars: John Campion as George, and former San Diego residents Peter Friedrich and Carla Harting as Nick and Honey.
“I hope the production is as big as this play,” Salovey says. “It’s one of the most extraordinary American plays ever written, and the most important play of the last 50 years. So many plays try to make the audience feel smart. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf demands that the audience be smart.”
[Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through November 25 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre; 619-544-1000, sandiegorep.com
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.