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The Politics of Virginia Woolf

by Christopher Shea

In his review of the 1976 Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, New York Times critic Walter Kerr lauds the electric relationship at the play’s center, but dismisses Albee’s ostensible attempts at social critique. Using the names of the leads as evidence, Kerr asserts that George and Martha stand in for our first president and first lady, while their unseen son represents the American Dream. But Kerr dismisses the apparent allegory as a trite distraction, irrelevant to the “immediate human probing” on display in George and Martha’s relentless banter. “George is a historian,” Kerr avers, but “this is not a history lesson.” Three decades later, the suggestion that George and Martha exist in a historical vacuum proves difficult to swallow. It takes little perspective to notice that the conditions of the early Cold War shape George and Martha’s circumstances. The world changed quickly in the 18 months leading up to Woolf’s fictional dénouement (Albee finished the play in 1962). In April of 1961, Kennedy instigated the Bay of Pigs invasion, a plan to overthrow the Cuban government and sever Cuba’s ties to the Soviet Union. The invasion failed. In the summer of 1961, the government of East Germany (probably under the direction of Soviet Secretary Nikita Khruschev) erected the Berlin Wall. In September, 1962, the Soviet Union resolved to send arms to Cuba. And in October, Woolf opened on Broadway. Though Albee refrains from discussing these events directly, anxieties about rapidly shifting political circumstances permeate the evening’s conversation. George contrasts the dying art of his field—history—with the burgeoning pursuit of Nick’s field—science. He imagines sometime in the near future “a race of scientists and mathematicians, each dedicated to and working for the greater glory of the supercivilization.” No political circumstance shapes the evening’s proceedings as thoroughly as the structure of the small world they occupy, the unnamed college in fictional New Carthage. Many of the changes that have defined the American university in more recent years had already been wrought. In 1944, the GI Bill was passed, fully underwriting post-secondary education for nearly eight million World War II veterans. In the late 1950s, well under 40% of faculty at many American colleges had PhDs: many were simply grandfathered into tenured positions. But the GI Bill (renewed in the Korean War), had created a far more educated population and competition for professorships consequently blossomed. The now-familiar, meritocratic system of tenure based on PhDs and publishing fell into place. The transition was swift. At one New England college, the number of faculty with doctorates rose 7% between 1961 and 1962 alone. The shifting dynamics of the academy drive the most marked divisions between the younger and older couple. We know that George attended college with mostly members of the upper middle class, while Nick (educated after World War II), studied with a far broader cross-section of the population. We further know that George attended prep school, while Nick came from far humbler beginnings. George’s needling of Nick for his less-than-Yankee beginnings (“Pan-Kansas swimming champeen,” he at one point dubs him) becomes more pointed in the context of the early 1960s: George (and Martha’s) constant reminders that Nick and Honey are outsiders from the “Middle West” aim not just to alienate Nick at this get together, but to mark him and Honey as outsiders in all of New Carthage. The effects of the mid-century academy’s structure and isolation are most salient, however, in the discussions of the period, roughly 23 years prior, when George and Martha’s relationship began. George repeatedly emphasizes to his guests that “everybody was away” in the early years of his and Martha’s relationship. The U.S. military began to draft young men in 1940, before the country had officially entered the war. The number of enlisted men quickly ballooned. Faculty members at colleges across New England were drafted, or enlisted freely. By 1942, the military had drafted nearly four million. At one major university, over 250 faculty members served. It was in these tumultuous years—when the war had changed the face and diminished the population of already tiny New Carthage—that the most formative events in George and Martha’s relationship took place. George assumed the chair of the history department in the absence of anyone more qualified for the role, and, even amongst a sorely diminished faculty, failed to impress. At some point during this tenure, Martha’s father hosted a gathering in which he asked the young men to box. In a move she insists was an accident, Martha donned her father’s boxing gloves and punched George, knocking him down in front of the entire assembled gathering. Martha confirms that the literal blow to the failing department chair—at an event staged in honor of the war in which George would or could not fight—has “colored our whole life” since. Clues strewn throughout Albee’s text help paint a thorough picture of the early years of the marriage, when the resounding theme of George’s effeminacy and inadequacy emerged. “There is no earthly reason why an ‘American’ dream should go down to failure because of this George’s, this Martha’s, attempts to flay each other as the only means of touching each other,” Walter Kerr posits in his New York Times review. “Their bitter story is both larger and deeper than facile, two-dimensional political cartooning.” Kerr’s assessment undoubtedly rings true for many viewers; Woolf has survived for the hot-blooded relationship at its center, and not for any political allegory, or “historical lesson.” But details that make this a specifically mid-century, specifically American tragedy nonetheless stand out to contemporary viewers. History might not account for George and Martha, but it clarifies George’s paranoid musings on rising supercivilizations; it contextualizes Martha’s frustrations with her distinctly un-heroic husband; it helps explain how, at some point, in deep private—when millions of Americans fought abroad and towns like New Carthage were even more desolate than usual—a restless George and Martha quietly conceived a son.