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Tiresias Shuns You

July 6, 2011

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? begins with its characters acting terribly and ends with them acting even worse. Say what you will about it being a scorching tale of the illusions we create for ourselves and one another, within two pages I was already sick of it. In those few pages, playwright Edward Albee offers no reason for their abominable actions beyond an excess of drink and, furthermore, hints that there is no hope that matters might change. Martha and George will never treat each other with the respect any human being deserves, let alone one’s own spouse.

To be fair, by the end we realize that what we had assumed was a play was actually a riddle, but I don’t go to the theatre to discover the answer to a riddle. I go to the theatre to see truth exposed through story. But story requires the audience to connect with the characters in some way and Albee does the opposite. Instead of crafting a story, he seems to be working out his frustrations in play form, which only results in alienating his audience from the get go.

New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley once said: “Never underestimate the pleasure of watching really good actors behaving terribly.” Insofar as this is true (and it is), I assume the first ten or so minutes of this play could be raucously funny in the theatre. But terrible behavior has to be grounded in something beyond laughter itself upon the solid foundation of truth. The playwright, like any other artist, is a seer. It is his calling to reflect God’s story; to pull out one of the many threads, examine it, expound on it, and cause us to search for those threads in our everyday lives; to snatch characters from swathes of humanity and exaggerate archetypes for our entertainment and edification. Anything less is not worth my time and money.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. robinjharris permalink
    July 8, 2011 4:47 PM

    So I’ve always wondered- what does the play have to do with Virginia Woolf?

    • July 9, 2011 11:11 AM

      Nothing really. Directly, anyway. The characters sing “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” sort of mockingly to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mullberry Bush.” Someone earlier in the evening (before the start of the play) sang it first and Martha and George sort of bandy it about the whole play. Then George asks the question again in the end and Martha’s response is, “I am, George. I am.”

      But I don’t know enough about Virginia Woolf to answer the question thematically. Some ideas I’ve heard include that Woolf hates facades and since Martha and George’s entire marriage is a sort of facade (both to each other and to outsiders) that might be a reason to fear her or her ideas at least. Then there’s the crazy aspect. Woolf was legitimately insane (so saith Wikipedia) and Martha may or may not be. At one point in the play George threatens to commit her.

      I don’t want to be wholly unfair to Albee. As you might be able to tell, by the end of the play it’s very clear that it’s a meaty play. I just don’t like the way he packs it, I guess. But the meat isn’t apparent until the end, which is kind of a low thing to do. It doesn’t work as a play. There’s no one to sympathize with and you just end up feeling kind of like you need some gum or a shower or something.

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