News & Articles
2010-2011, Volume 2
Letter from Artistic Director on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Martha Lavey
We continue our exploration of the public/private self with Edward Albee's Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This is a scary play to produce. It is so well known and so respected, and the 1964 film of the play, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, is etched in our cultural memory. The play won the Tony® for Best Play in 1963, and was awarded the Pulitzer for Best New Play, a decision overruled by the award's advisory committee which objected to the play's profanity and sexual themes. The demand on the actors is tremendous—both because of the intrinsic challenges of the roles' psychological depths and because of the extrinsic challenge of meeting the huge expectations of previous performances. But the challenges are irresistible. Virginia Woolf is a great American play, and as a company of actors dedicated to telling the stories of our complex cultural life, Steppenwolf is proud to bring the play to our audiences with the hope that you will experience again—or for the first time—the great thrill of the play's depths and truths.
One of the great pleasures of Virginia Woolf is how successfully it operates both on the interpersonal level as a story of the marriage of Martha and George, and as an allegory for an America in transition. The idea of transition is alive in the play as Albee draws our attention to the succession of generations. Throughout the play is a recurrent allusion to age and vitality: Martha's father, the president of the college, the patriarch, is a hovering presence; the age difference between Martha and George is a repeatedly invoked; Nick and Honey are greeted as “kids” and Nick's physical superiority is a weapon Martha points at George; and, most significantly, the motif of having a baby underlies the relationships of both couples. In a play that seems an extended contest of survival, the question of who owns the future is critical and the relative ages of the couple signals an inevitable succession of power. What will the next generation, modeled in image of Nick and Honey look like?
This nexus of ideas—fertility, ascendency, the future—is captured in the play's most potent symbol: the baby. The relationship of both couples is significantly shaped by the narrative of having a baby.
We learn that Nick and Honey married on the idea that they were pregnant. It was, in that sense, a forced marriage. They learn, upon marrying, that it was a false pregnancy—an “hysterical pregnancy”—and this mistake? ploy? lie? forms the basis of their union. We learn, too, that a marriage to Honey provides Nick an economic advantage, further enforcing the sense that the marriage is founded on a (mis)calculation—a dishonest contract that is proving, despite continued attempts at pregnancy, unfertile.
The narrative of a baby is similarly crucial in describing the relationship between George and Martha. The story of their child is a long-rehearsed ritual between them. It is an image of their past and future shaped to the contours of their desire, an expression of both their love and their profound frustration and shame. The great, dramatic event of the play is Martha's revelation of the “child” to Honey and then Nick. What had been the inner-most secret between Martha and George and the ballast of any love between them is exposed to public view and disassembled. The “child” is the locus of their intimacy—a private, shared narrative that binds them together and the play opens the question of who they will be together if the narrative they have constructed is destroyed.
The importance of creating a family is particularly lively in a play written in the early 1960s in America. The play is prescient in that sense: the 1950s was the model of an American Dream which was shocked into revision by the events of the late 1960s. Images of the perfect nuclear family, a staple of early ‘60s television, gave way to Vietnam, America's first televised war and the record of the political and social movements of the late ‘60s. In Virginia Woolf, we see two couples unmasked in their performance of family, at war with each other. What will it mean for each of these couples if the story they tell of themselves is exposed as a lie? What does it mean for us, as a nation, if the American Dream, as represented in these couples is barren?
The play's resolution is deeply ambiguous. What is the future of George and Martha without the solacing fantasy of their child? By extension, what is an America without the image of our dream? The child of Martha and George is destroyed by exposure: their private life subjected to the public witness of Nick and Honey. Likewise, it was the insular, isolationist America of the 1950s that was met by the witness of the other—youth, women, people of color—and forced to revise the narrative of its past and future. The revision continues: we continue to struggle with the story of our American identity, unsure of what we will if we give up the story we have told ourselves.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an extraordinary play for the way in which it tells an interpersonal story that resonates out to a larger social and political realm. The relationship of Martha and George is constituted in a slippery, elusive balance of truth and lies. The upset of that balance by the presence of Nick and Honey parallels the revisionary insistence of each new generation: what will we be now? Can we survive the scrutiny of our American Dream?