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who's afraid of virginia woolf?

First performed in 1962, Edward Albee's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' is still shockingly savage in its portrayal of a disillusioned marriage. In Onafhankelijk Toneel's version, 'Wie is er bang voor Virginia Woolf?', the actors manage to infuse the play's three hours of relentless verbal warfare with enough emotional depth to let the tragedy behind all the abuse and bitterness hit home. Illustrative of the play's brilliance, it is still possible to discover shreds of love among the wreckage.

In one long liquor-drenched night (the story starts after a party and ends at daybreak) the cynical and twisted mind games that George and Martha have been playing for years come to a violent climax. The arena is a university campus, where George is a history professor and Martha the rector's daughter. But this is not a civilized duel - it is a gloves-off fistfight, with both fighters aiming to open up every old wound they can find, breaking all previous rules and limits of their relationship.

Martha: You've really screwed up, George.
George [spitting it out]: Oh, for God's sake, Martha!
Martha: I mean it... you really have.
George [barely contained anger now]: You can sit there in that chair of yours, you can sit there with the gin running out of your mouth, and you can humiliate me, you can tear me apart... ALL NIGHT... and that's perfectly all right... that's OK...
George: That's a desperately sick lie.

The unwitting witnesses to - and catalysts for - this marital battleground are a young couple, Nick and Honey, who have a few skeletons in their own closet. In fact, as they provide a mirror for George and Martha, so are Nick and Honey perversely drawn to look into the mirror that this older couple provides for them. What they see may be ugly and cruel, but there is an honesty to it that they haven't been able to reach in their own relationship.

George [claps his hands together, once, loud]: I've got it! I'll tell you what game we'll play. We're done with Humiliate the Host... this round, anyway... we're done with that... and we don't want to play Hump the Hostess, yet... not yet... so I know what we'll play... we'll play a round of Get the Guests.

So what has Virginia Woolf to do with all this? Not that much, apparently, except her name makes a play on the Disney song 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?' According to Albee, he found the phrase in a bar:

I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf... who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.

Apart from the connotations of intellectualism, Woolf's name also conjures the deep fear most Albee characters harbor of going insane. Most of the play, in fact, takes place inside the game or fantasy world that George and Martha have created together - a folie à deux almost. Albee, however, insisted that both were fully capable of distinguishing reality from their co-concocted fantasy.

Indeed recognizing the fact that it was a symbol. And only occasionally being confused, when the awful loss and lack that made the creation of the symbol essential becomes overwhelming - like when they're drunk, for example. Or when they're terribly tired.

Without wanting to spoil the nature of this symbol which all George and Martha's games revolve around, it is safe to say it doesn't survive this particular night.

Martha: You know what's happened, George? You want to know what's really happened? [snaps her fingers] It's snapped, finally. Not me... it. The whole arrangement. You can go along... forever, and everything's... manageable. You make all sorts of excuses to yourself... you know... this is life... the hell with it...

The Dutch translation by Coot van Doesburgh also deserves mention, not just conveying meaning but adding new dimensions in Dutch as well. To give one small example: what in English is described as "peeling the labels" (off liquor bottles - Honey's neurosis curled up on the bathroom floor) in Dutch becomes "de etiketten afpulken", adding a word play on labels also being etiquettes. This resonates further in George's comment:

George: We all peel labels, sweetie; and when you get through the skin, all three layers, through the muscle (...), and get down to bone... you know what you do then?
Honey [terribly interested]: No!
George: When you get down to 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.

Albee is quoted from a 1966 in-depth interview from the Paris Review: 'The Art of Theater No. 4: Edward Albee' (PDF).


to the lighthouse

Virginia Woolf 's fifth novel ' To the Lighthouse ', published in 1927, is one of her most experimentally modernist works. The book's genius is hard to summarize, except by saying that reading it is a uniquely immersive experience. To as… Read the full post »

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