The electric charge of Mike Nichols’ 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee’s play WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? is generated by its deceptive simplicity. Following a university faculty party, a boozy middle-aged husband and wife, George and Martha, played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, entertain a young couple new on campus. That’s it, the whole of the set-up, the entirety of the plot. The entire film plays out in two locations with just these four characters, but what happens between them feels as massive as the movement of continents, as powerful as an elemental force of nature. As the hours of the party stretch into the abyss of morning, as the couples ingest copious amounts of liquor, the younger Nick and Honey are unwittingly swept up into George and Martha’s maelstrom of a marriage. Thrashing about on the tidal waves of their most intimate furies, George and Martha perform a kind of savage dance of love and death for them, dragging out into the light their own hideousness as well as that of their guests’ in a monsoon of razor tongues, a tempest of vitriolic rage which seemingly has no bounds in its path of destruction and emotional ruin.
The play overcame controversy to become much celebrated and awarded. The film adaptation was nominated for an armload of Oscars. It also marks the directorial debut for Nichols, a filmmaker who would go on to have a career laden with influential and powerful films. It also happens to give us Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest performance committed to film.
Before I get too far into a deeper analysis of the work, I’d like to take a quick minute to comment on something I said on the last episode while discussing Hal Ashby. I said that I like too many films to be an effective, “good” critic and, after our recording, I resolved that no matter what film was to befall me on the next episode, that I was going to review it negatively. What I had in mind was a kind of exercise in film criticism, a sort of undermining of the pretense of the form. I’ve always wanted to do something like this actually, to take the same exact qualities of a film as arguments for why a film is great and then, contradictorily, why it sucks for those very same reasons. This critique of criticism, I schemed, would be a cheeky way of illustrating how silly all of this movie opinion business is. A bit of self-effacing humor.
But I’m not going to do that here, not with this film, because in the end, by calling out the art of film criticism, I’d also incidentally be trivializing the work being used as example, and that would feel pretty sinful to me with Woolf. (and this despite the fact that it’s a film concerned primarily with the destruction of the self-delusions we construct in order to live with ourselves, delusions not unlike the importance with which a film reviewer often regards his own opinion.)
I do however want to pick up a thread that we were discussing in a related manner, that of escapism in cinema. I hastily commented that first and foremost we go to the movies as an outlet for escape and that if the film we’re watching makes us think or feel differently about our personal lives as a bi-product, then, okay, great. Well, I need to retract that “first and foremost” part of the comment. Escapism is as valid a reason as any for going to the movies. There are hundreds of reasons to go, after all… but escapism isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “first or foremost.” I misspoke in my haste and something Edward Albee said in an interview I found today made me regret it. I’m going to read an excerpt from that interview here because if the aim of this review is to persuade you to go and watch or re-watch this film, which it is, then this excerpt will do it, if anything can. Albee’s talking to the interviewer Studs Terkel here:
“Usually one or two people always walk out of every play of mine, either through good taste or because they’re offended, one of the two. But I’d be more disturbed the nights that nobody walks out of the play of mine if I didn’t realize the incredible apathy that people bring to the theater with them—which connects with political responsibility, too. If people would go into the theater realizing it’s an arena of engagement, rather than escapism and if people would go to the theater to be upset and disturbed rather than merely being pacified and having their values reaffirmed, then on Broadway each year you’d have more than one or two half-way decent plays surviving. People have got to realize that art isn’t easy, and the audience must bring to the art at least part of the responsibility that the perpetrator brought to it.”
He goes on later to say, “It’s the function of creative people to disturb the peace. Some people ask me, “Why don’t you write plays that I know exactly what the specific answer to the questions you’re raising is by the end of the play?” And I always have to answer these people by saying that I find I can ask an awful lot more interesting questions if I don’t have to supply the answers to them. If I limited the content of my plays to what I could give specific answers to, I think I’d write very dull plays. And also, there are some people who say, “Why don’t you write happy plays?”
Terkel comments, “Your plays have violent laughs.” To which Albee replies, “Laughter should be awfully close to violence and tears.”
Well, the laughter and tears and violence at work in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? plays like the notes of a symphony.
And it’s also evident that Albee is a man who’s true to his principles. His primary intention with WOOLF, I believe, is to disturb us, to rock us out of our apathy, to prod us into the participation of the art, and to challenge our understanding of what love and caring and marriage and truth is and what they can be when we’re truthful with ourselves. I won’t profess to have the answers to the questions he’s asking, but I can at least try to state a couple of the questions: Can punishing and humiliating your loved one be a healthy expression of love? What happens when love is built on an illusion conspired by the lovers? What happens to their marriage once the illusion upon which it’s built is obliterated? And what happens, finally, when the stark, sleepless dawn breaks and the big bad wolf of plain truth rears its ugly, yellow-toothed snarl?
Pleasure in our pain. The illusion and disillusionment of love. The hideousness of cold truth. These are big questions, questions that are sublimely and tragically human, questions that define the intricate contortions we make when bound to one another. These are the questions that reveal the hideous poses we strike to get through the night, the contours of our terrible stories. George and Martha’s stories are epic poems they perform for themselves with eyes wide shut. They are grotesque vaudevillian shticks with a punchline poised on the pin prick on self-loathing and guilt and sado-masochism, a circus tight rope act of compassion and murder. The great Joan Didion once wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. George and Martha tell themselves stories in order to love.
Jesus, as if that’s not enough.
Later in that same interview I cited, Albee makes an off-handed comment to Terkel about how the naming of his main characters George and Martha wasn’t merely coincidentally, certainly not insignificant, and that when the play first came out, everyone was too busy talking about the husband-wife argument to notice or comment on it, the symbolism of the whole entanglement he’d presented.
Well, Mr. Albee, I looked at WOOLF considering its greater significance and potential symbolism of this for the first time today. I looked at it thinking about the names George and Martha and what it might mean if America was their child-illusion, if America was an idea, and ideal we paint into each other’s eyes that binds us together, a fairy tale we believe in with all our being because we need to believe in something, don’t we? And I asked myself if it could mean that maybe we’ve been stumbling along through this marriage drunkenly, like George and Martha, only our vaudeville act of destruction has been going on for two hundred fifty years, since the original George and Martha, and maybe like the pair in the play, too, all this time we’ve been unable to discern the difference between truth and illusion, as Martha says, but that we’re carrying on as if we did anyway. I asked myself, like George does in the picture, what if the idea of America never quite existed? Or rather, if it existed in a state of illusory perfection that we tear each other up over, mad and rabid carrying picket signs or fistfuls of dollars, as we try, oh how we try to raise up our child in perfection, despite the acid-hypocrisy of the marriage.
But something that’s illusion can’t ever be quite perfect, can it? Perfection is flawed by nonexistence, after all. And I asked myself what it might mean if some drunken night, an inebriated, embittered, emasculated historian decided to let the cat out of the bag, to let it die, this illusion of America, just like the historian did in the play. What if that wiseguy killed it while the younger generation, beaming with idealism or ambition or idealistic greedy ambition, like we did before them, declares, “Oh my god, I think I understand,” and cynicism sinks deep into their generation and the earth mother, who calls us all flops, is reduced to sloppy uncontrollable sobs on the living room floor.
I asked myself about this today, Mr. Albee.
Joseph Christiana, January 2014