“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Not Liz Taylor

by on May 17, 2011Posted in: Essay


EDWARD ALBEE AND his first lover, the composer William Flanagan, were known in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s as “The Sisters Grimm,” and most evenings they glowered their way through clandestine, Mafia-run gay bars with names like Goody’s and Mary’s and Lenny’s Hideaway. They lived to drink from 11pm to dawn and slept until 4 in the afternoon; in between times, they took odd jobs and ran telegrams for Western Union. Flanagan was a sharp, fast talker, and Albee was his younger protégé, a kind of silent sponge, drinking everything in. “Edward is widely reputed to be a mysterious number,” Flanagan said later on, after Albee left him for the young and extremely beautiful Terrence McNally. “He’s been exorcising ghosts all his life.” One night at a bar called the College of Complexes, Albee looked up and saw some graffiti scrawled on a mirror: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” This smart-crowd joke stuck in his mind until he needed it.


Albee broke through as a playwright at the age of thirty with his one-act play The Zoo Story, and he followed this up with a few more one-acts before penning his marital death match, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which quickly became the third point on the 20th-century’s holy trinity of Great American Plays, a blasphemous, boozy, “I will cut you” problem child of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But where O’Neill’s magnum opus is taken directly from his own tortured relationship with his family, so that Long Day’s Journey couldn’t be more personal, Albee’s play essentially sprang fully formed from his seething imagination.


Virginia Woolf takes place from around 2am until dawn, and it involves George and Martha, a middle-aged professor and his braying wife, tormenting each other and their put-upon younger guests, Nick and Honey. As the daughter of the university president, Martha is a useful step up the ladder for ambitious biology teacher Nick, who stays through all of the escalating abuse so that he can “plow” this most “pertinent” of college wives. “Some of it obviously came from the arguments Bill and I used to have together,” Albee has admitted, “but the invention of the university setting, the invention of those two other characters—I have no idea where they came from.” George and Martha, the central couple in Virginia Woolf, have an imaginary child. At the end of the play, Nick says “I think I understand this” several times as George kills this made-up son, destroying Martha but also freeing her. These are people so filled with sickness, disappointment and self-loathing that they have resorted to pure fantasy as a means of escape, and if the sickness is to be rooted out, the fantasy must go.


Left The Temperamentals: composers Virgil Thomson, William Flanagan and Ned Rorem, key personal influences on Edward Albee’s music-driven plays.
Right A portrait of the playwright as a young man (Reginald Gray for the New York Times, 1966)


WOOLF WAS FIRST offered to Method diva Geraldine Page, a major theater player and Tennessee Williams interpreter who might have given the performance of her life in it, but she turned it down, citing its “bitterness, hostility and infantilism.” Luckily, theater beast Uta Hagen was made of sterner stuff and she wasn’t afraid of Virginia Woolf or anything else; she originated Martha on Broadway and played the exhausting part for two years to sold-out crowds drawn by the play’s reputation for candor and blue language (Albee cut all of the fucks and shits from his first draft, but he left in plenty of damns, goddamns, bastards and sons of bitches). I got to see Hagen play the part one more time when she did a benefit reading of Virginia Woolf on her eightieth birthday, and though she was elderly at that point, I was still able to see the shape of her original performance. What struck me about her interpretation was its casual humor, its emphasis on the effects of alcohol, and the hair-raising little girl quality she had as Martha with a lot of middle-aged “bitch” behavior layered only for protection on top.


Elizabeth Taylor was the biggest movie star in the world in the mid-sixties after playing the title role in Cleopatra (1963) and landing her leading man, Richard Burton, as a husband. Their follow-up films together, The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Sandpiper (1965), had not worked out too well, and there were whispers that she was going to be the ruination of Burton’s standing as a classical theater actor. Taylor had not seen Hagen play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway, and when she was sent the script for a film version, she read it on board a train to California, and then silently passed it on to Burton, who stayed up late and read it twice. Taylor asked Burton what he thought of it. “I think you’re too young,” he told her. “I don’t think you’re enough of a harridan. Maybe you don’t have the power. But you’ve got to play it to stop everybody else from playing it.” By all rights, the thirty-three year-old, goddess-beautiful Taylor playing the fifty-ish, alcoholic, sadomasochistic Martha shouldn’t have worked at all, but she was stimulated by the challenge of the part, and she wanted to impress Burton, who took on the role of George. The Burtons chose Mike Nichols as their director, and this was his first film; he was most known as a theater director and as a comedy partner to Elaine May (in 1980, Nichols and May actually played a short engagement in Virginia Woolf in New Haven at the Long Wharf Theatre, and that must have been something to see).


George Segal and Sandy Dennis were cast as Nick and Honey, and the four actors rehearsed with Nichols for three weeks. “He’d make me throw away a line where I’d have hit it hard,” said Burton later of Nichols, “and he was right every time.” The hollow, declamatory habits that Burton often fell into on screen when he was bored, or even when he wasn’t, aren’t in evidence in Virginia Woolf. He makes a meal of all the High Bitch lines (“Blondie and his frau out of the plain states came!” he announces when he’s “getting” his guests where they live), but his best moments are in silent close-ups where we can see what the wasted, pre-occupied George is thinking and feeling; there are times when Burton’s pockmarked, resigned face lights up with hellish unrest, like some ghastly Halloween pumpkin. Similarly, Taylor is at her very best in Virginia Woolf in silent reactions to others; look at the way she registers deadpan, exhausted disdain when George sounds pleased with himself while saying, “I am pre-occupied with history,” or some of her tender looks of sympathy at Nick.


Director Mike Nichols (far left) and cinematographer Haskell Wexler oversee a scene with on- and off-screen husband and wife Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.


“I am the earth mother, and you are all flops,” Martha proclaims toward the end, and Taylor never had a line of dialogue that better suited her fighting maternal spirit, even if her time-stopping beauty keeps peeking out of Martha’s barnacles of grey hair and (penciled-on) wrinkles. With twenty extra pounds packed onto her small frame, Taylor actually waddles in the opening scenes, but when Martha puts on her tight hot-mama outfit (what George calls her “Sunday chapel dress”), Taylor leads with her magnificent boobs and fills out a pair of Laura Petrie-like Capri pants in a way that might have brought a blush to the cheeks of Mary Tyler Moore. She throws away some of Martha’s nastiest lines (“I swear to God, George, if you even existed, I’d divorce you,” she mutters into her gin), but she leaps at certain words like “bog” and “howl” like a wild animal tearing meat off of bones and then throwing them back into the fridge for later. It’s almost as if Burton and Taylor are doing dissonant musical arias, alone at the camera and in tandem, so that watching the film is like taking in a dirty-phrase opera filled with repetitions of “Up yours!” and “Screw you!” and more specific combinations like “Hump the hostess!” and “Bust a gut!” and one-time wonders like “Melons bobbling!”


Nichols trusted the visuals to cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who makes this black and white movie a monument to dinginess; it looks like a bedpan filled with soggy, snubbed-out cigarette butts. Wexler indulges himself with some showy zooms when George pretends to shoot Martha with a shotgun, and some ultra-close shots when Martha is blasting through her first extended denunciation of George; these stylistic curlicues are unnecessary but still attention-getting. The stab-rampage flights of invective keep taking off at regular intervals, and Segal makes for a nicely smarmy, go-getter Nick, while loopy, funny-bunny Dennis has a whole other movie going on as the highly suggestible Honey, something closer in spirit to the sweaty, nauseous reality of John Cassavetes’s Faces (1968) than Albee’s theatrical monster. Albee enjoys teasing his audience and leading them down garden paths, and the talk circles round and round and keeps coming back to certain sounds: “Snap!” “Poof!” These are people who drink straight gin without much or any ice, and anyone who drinks seriously knows how deadly that invariably is.


DVD jacket for a German-language release.


THIS FILM OF Virginia Woolf won Oscars for Taylor and Dennis, but not for Burton, alas. It has the brainy showmanship of all Nichols’s best movies, but its heart lies with Taylor and Burton, who both overcome being somewhat miscast and make a profound connection to and identification with all the play’s booze, brawling and furious love. In her final defense of illusions, Martha says that during the summer the sun turns her made-up son’s hair “fleece,” and some of Albee’s intimates felt he had given this imaginary son McNally’s physical appearance. When George says that he got a telegram from Western Union, Martha asks, “Crazy Billy?” This was meant as a joke for Bill Flanagan, and whenever I see and hear this great play, I can’t help but be haunted by Flanagan and what he must have felt as he saw his former lover and protégée become a famous and admired playwright. Flanagan died in 1969, of a heart attack. “I thought he was trying to kill himself,” said Albee. “I had moved away emotionally, as you have to in a situation like that. In a curious way, I felt, he was getting back at me.”


George and Martha are not Flanagan and Albee, and Albee has always righteously rejected the homophobic notion that the couples in Virginia Woolf are gay men, or can be played by gay men (Honey’s all-important pregnancy scare makes no sense if she’s a boy, of course, and at least 80% of the dialogue, with its specific, anatomical jests, wouldn’t work between men, either). Still, people are people, games are games, and destructive couples are destructive couples. As played by Taylor and Burton, Martha and George look like they have a pretty good chance of surviving together. But if we are to view these characters as real, and they are just as real as Blanche DuBois and James Tyrone, then it’s natural to feel, as I do, that one or the other of them will destruct and die as Flanagan did, to “get back” at the other one, and that, as they say, is that.


Dan Callahan’s first book, a critical study of the films of Barbara Stanwyck, will be published in February 2012.

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