OCTOBER 27, 2016
WHEN I WAS FIRST exposed to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a college student, I knew that something at some point had gone seriously wrong in the United States. George and Martha’s “fun and games” — indeed, their very existence — meant that, sometime in the early 1960s, the social consensus must have broken down more violently than I had initially thought. This is the only play to have been selected by the Pulitzer jury as the year’s best, only to have the prize stripped away by the advisory board (the trustees of Columbia University), on the basis of the text’s profanity. This was the annus mirabilis of 1963, “Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP,” as Philip Larkin argued, which was the year sexual intercourse began. Our threshold for impiety has risen dramatically since then, but Woolf retains its power to disturb. If anything, the modern viewer, no longer shocked by the play’s sexual candor, may be all the more sensitive to the other bugs circulating within.
I came to the play through Mike Nichols’s 1966 movie version, and then — forgive the pun — wolfed down most of the Albee inventory. His work transformed my view of what theater’s ambition should be: it should disturb us, change us, drain us. In Woolf’s climactic scene, as George prepares to “kill” his and Martha’s fictional son, he responds to Honey’s admission that she peels labels (she’s been drunkenly peeling the label off a brandy bottle for a while), by saying, “We all peel labels, sweetie; and when you get through the skin, all three layers, through the muscle, slosh aside the organs […] and get down to bone … you know what you do then?” Honey doesn’t. “When you get down to the bone, you haven’t got all the way, yet. There’s something inside the bone … the marrow … and that’s what you gotta get at.” The stage directions call for a “strange smile at Martha.” As a novelist, I find it difficult to write dialogue without George’s soliloquy in my ears. It summarizes what Albee brought to theater. Every one of George and Martha’s lines, or those of Agnes, Julia, and Claire in the equally brilliant A Delicate Balance (1966), goes straight for the marrow, each exchange flaying the antagonist, layer by layer. This, I realized, was the essence of dramatic dialogue.
Nichols’s rendition brought Albee’s vision to the screen with unusual success, but the discomforts it inspired were a picnic compared to those I experienced when watching the play’s 2012 Broadway revival. The production was arresting. While I still rate Nichols’s screen version a masterwork, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor sinking into the roles of George and Martha with suspicious ease, the stage performance made clear that there was too much oxygen on the film set. To be sure, Nichols takes us from one emotional pressure cooker to another — the house, the garden, the car, the bar, the parking lot, and back to the house — but each change of scene offers at least mild relief, and sacrifices the claustrophobia vital to the play’s effect. There are no such breaks onstage; the action takes place entirely in George and Martha’s living room. The force of the dialogue, its poetic venom, is much more lethal in this delimited setting. There’s no buffer, no wall, between George and Martha, their guests Nick and Honey, and us. At one point, as Martha attacked Nick for being unable to please her in the sack, my partner at the time clenched my arm tight and whispered, “Too harsh, too harsh.” Albee would have been pleased; I could almost see that closed-mouth smile of his, overlaid by that bristly gray moustache.
The moment that disturbed me the most was more subtle: while George is warming up for his final game, his “revelation” of sonny’s demise, knowing that this will tear Martha’s world apart, he is, for an instant, notably gentle with her, stroking her hair. It’s reminiscent of the famous scene in Marathon Man (1976), in which Laurence Olivier’s character tortures Dustin Hoffman’s with some unsanctioned dental work. Before he drills a hole in his victim’s gums, Olivier tests the spot, asking with feigned compassion whether it hurts. Hoffman’s character, mouth agape and fully aware that he’s at the mercy of a psychopath, innocently, helplessly, mumbles, “Yes.” It’s a distressingly tender moment, broken by Hoffman’s wailing. In Albee’s hands, that brief intimacy between predator and prey is just as creepy, and just as beautiful.
Now Albee’s gone, but I still have so many unanswered questions about George and Martha. How have they stayed together so long? In a revision as compelling as it is subtle, Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for Nichols’s film has the couple talking about having been together for centuries rather than decades; “A thousand years of you has been long enough,” Martha tells her husband, who in the same scene accuses Martha of taking a new tact in their marital combat “in the last century or two.” This turns the passage of time into a source of surreal horror: What have all those nights been like, with their countless bottles of gin, and what will the next century be like? Indeed, what do exhausted and battered George and Martha do next? Their “son” is dead. There is no son, and there never was. After all the stabs they have exchanged throughout the evening, George’s termination of the fiction, in retaliation for the Martha-Nick union, finally gets to the marrow.
The phantom offspring’s death brings the play and, we assume, a part of the marriage, to a crashing conclusion. Deprived of fictions, George and Martha have nothing with which to resist the bared horrors of the modern world. Yet there’s another eerie possibility: that once they’ve climbed “them well-worn stairs” and had some sleep, they’ll start rebuilding their illusions. One of the play’s working titles was The Exorcism, but I’d like to think Albee abandoned it because he knew that nothing was exorcised. Imagine George and Martha building and then violently dismantling another illusion, and then another, and another, for the rest of their lives — a much richer and disturbingly detailed expression of the Absurd as we live it than Waiting for Godot.
There were some other beauties both before Woolf — like the one-acts The Zoo Story (1958) and The American Dream (1961) — and after — like Three Tall Women (which won the 1994 Pulitzer for drama). But the closest Albee comes to the heights of Woolf is A Delicate Balance, which also conceals the fantastic behind a realist exterior. Like Woolf, it’s set in the living room of a middle-aged couple (Tobias and Agnes) and begins to unwind with the arrival of guests (Harry and Edna). The wit surpasses even Woolf, especially when it comes to Agnes’s alcoholic sister, Claire, who, for example, dismisses Tobias’s hesitation at pouring her another drink by asserting, “it’s only the first I’m not supposed to have.” Referring to her niece Julia’s latest of four failed marriages, she says, “you don’t look too bad for a quadruple amputee, I must say”; later, she describes Julia as “home from the wars, four purple hearts.” Like their predecessors in Woolf, none of these characters are spared a skinning. But the climax belongs to Tobias, who erupts after a lifetime of reticence — a “noneminence” in Julia’s description — insisting that Harry and Edna, who have by now acknowledged the tyranny of their intrusion and agreed to leave, have a right to stay. The outburst is as memorable as anything in Woolf. The narrator of my first novel, Invitation, who breaks a long pattern of passivity with an abrupt show of violence, was in part inspired by Tobias.
Traces of Albee’s influence are ubiquitous in modern drama, from Yasmina Reza’s acclaimed God of Carnage (2006) to Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Pulitzer, to of course, Tony Kushner’s masterpiece Angels in America (1993). But none of these works have disturbed me the way Albee’s have. He once wrote, “Our talented people are improperly used if they become possessions; you must not possess them — you must let them possess you. You must not invite them into your world — you must enter theirs, be taken, and move deeper.” Albee is gone, but we still have the world of his plays. Enter that world, move deeper — if you have the stomach.