Tuesday, 09 May 2017 18:37

Who's Afraid of Feminism?

Michael Cox speaks with Sara Stewart about how feminism and modern society have changed the way audiences view Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the role of Martha.

Michael Cox: When the play first opened there were a lot of charges against Albee that he was a misogynist and anti-women. There were people in the 60s who actually accused him of disguising the fact that it was really a play about four gay men. So, my first question is—over 50 years later—do you see Martha more as a masculine role or do you really think she is a feminine role who’s just strong in her ways?

Sara Stewart: Yeah, okay. I get that argument, and I think there’s an element of truth in the writings of Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward and Edward Albee. They were not allowed to have gay characters in their plays at that time. So, I’m sure they sublimated a lot of gay men into female roles, and thank God they did because some of the best writing for women has come from these gay playwrights who actually allowed female characters to have wit and guts and personality. They are the better writers for women, I think. Now, as a woman, she doesn’t strike me as masculine at all! She’s a fully rounded out person. Actually, I think, conversely, he was highlighting the tragedy of women who were stuck in a position they weren’t able to fully flourish and be their full selves. They were judged on appearances and their ability to have babies and whether they were a good wife or not. I sort of witnessed that in my mother, too. And I’m pleased to say that I do feel that in my lifetime there are all these women in society who have really changed, so that I now can look at my daughter, who’s just coming out of college. She’s 22, and she has a very different set of yard sticks that she’s going to measure her achievements that she values herself with. I find that very…moving.

Michael: Would you say that Virginia Woolf is now a period piece because society has shifted so drastically?

Sara: I do think it’s a period piece in some senses. We did come to that agreement on day one. There are certain things about this play that fix it very squarely in its time, but there are things that are outrageously relevant. There’re just so many different opportunities that are available now that weren’t available then. Martha should have been a teacher at the college. Why did she have to marry into the college? Why couldn’t she have trained to be a teacher herself? So, yeah, there are things that fix it squarely in its time, but there are human truths that are, and always will be, relevant.

Michael: There are also things that happen in this play that a modern audience would probably look at differently than audiences in the 60s. We look at the alcoholism differently. We look at the roles…not just Martha but Honey. I think Honey, in a modern light, is certainly different. I think she was the comic relief then but I think she’s more of a tragic figure in a modern context.

Sara: Yeah, that might be true. Absolutely. Because she’s someone that you sense is a free spirit, and the system is already crushing her. And I suppose sexuality is a big theme as well. Albee’s pretty honest and quite brave, I think, having Nick say that he and Honey don’t really have a sexual relationship. But the fact that Martha is…it must have been shocking in its time…the fact that she is so sexually aggressive and so sexually confident. I just think it’s great, actually. When it was written, they didn’t even think women had orgasms. It must have been so shocking.

Michael: That and homosexuality was a mental illness.

Sara: Exactly. So, the idea that a woman had an actual sexual appetite in itself was really shocking. Whereas now, I think it’s still unusual to portray a middle-aged woman as being a person who has a sexual appetite. It’s still a taboo. So I relish that opportunity.

Michael: And when it’s done it’s usually for laughs.

Sara: Exactly! Oh my God, it’s my casting. I get cast as that a lot, the sort of…the comic MILF. It’s funny, an older woman being a bit sexy or mutton dressed as lamb or whatever it is. We’re not sending Martha up for that. We’re not making her ridiculous in her sexuality. She’s a red-blooded woman.

© Michael Cox

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
3rd May to 3rd Jun, 2017

Published in Archive Articles
Friday, 28 April 2017 13:55

Who's Afraid of a Legacy?

‘It’s odd isn’t it that so many contemporary playwrights are best known for one play, usually an early one and, while often a very good one, not necessarily their finest work… I find Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hung about my neck like a shining medal of some sort—really nice but a trifle onerous.’ –Edward Albee, in a programme note for a 1996 London revival.

As Albee stated in the above quote, a playwright’s most significant work tends to be an early one. And while Albee would buck the trend by writing further great plays near the end of his career, the utter importance of Virginia Woolf, his first full-length play, cannot be debated.

The Writing of Virginia Woolf

Originally called The Exorcism, the play began to bubble in Albee’s mind with a desire to look at ‘the destructive forces of various falsities in relationships.’ While drafting the play’s first two acts, he was reminded of seeing the title written with soap on a mirror in a Greenwich Village bar in the mid-1950s. ‘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.’

Albee’s script is filled with word play and ambiguity. Indeed, the play is filled with intellectual games, and the characters all have moments where there are questions of fact and fiction. Albee leaves it to the audience to decipher what is ‘truth’ and what is ‘illusion’.

In interviews, when asked what certain moments mean he’d continuously say that a play that can be summed up in a few sentences should be only that length, and to ensure his vision was respected he added excessive stage notations—a fact that has both pleased and frustrated actors, directors and designers since its Broadway premiere in 1962.

The Reactions

When the play opened, the reactions were decidedly mixed—no one thought it was okay: they either loved it or loathed it. Some critics championed Albee’s ambiguities and use of language while the blunt language used shocked others. ‘A sick play for sick people’ and a play that’s ‘four characters wide and a cesspool deep’ are just some of the charges laid against it.

The play would also run afoul of obscenity laws. American tours had to change and justify its use of language to the satisfaction of bureaucrats. When the play opened in London, the Lord Chamberlain demanded numerous cuts and changes—forcing Albee to be creative in order to slip as many profanities as he could get away with.

Perhaps the biggest showing of how controversial the play’s use of language had become was when the jury of the Pulitzer Prize awarded the play best drama: the board revoked the jury’s decision because they didn’t want to reward a ‘vulgar’ play. Had the board given Albee the prize, he would tie Eugene O’Neill with four career wins.

Many also refused to acknowledge that women would behave as Martha does. Some accused Albee of creating a ‘monstrous dual stereotype: smothering mother and voracious whore’ with the character. Some critics even refused to believe that Albee intended Martha and Honey to be female but that the play was really about four homosexual men. Albee, himself gay, refuted this, stating that if the characters were supposed to be gay he would have written them that way. This would come to a head when a proposed all-male production was made: Albee inserted a gender-specific clause into the play’s licensing contract, ensuing Martha and Honey were always portrayed by women.

Legacy

Virginia Woolf might have met controversy but it proved lucrative for Albee. He would go on to greatly profit from the numerous productions of the play—and for selling the rights for the celebrated film (which he did not write). The play would prove equally compelling—and controversial—for critics and audiences alike internationally, giving him greater success and acclaim overseas than in America.

One thing Albee did with his profits was to establish the Edward F Albee Foundation in 1967, which is a residence for writers and visual artists based on an estate in Montauk, New York. He began the foundation as a way of giving young artists starting out in their careers a safe place to develop their skills. The estate has proven a great success and is still running.

Maybe Albee’s greatest legacy with Virginia Woolf was in how American theatre’s language changed. ‘He invented a new language,’ says Terrence McNally, a fellow American playwright (and former lover of Albee). ‘[His was] the first authentically new voice in theatre since Tennessee Williams.’ But perhaps its Michael Smith, writing in the Village Voice, who best voiced why the play would ricochet through theatre. ‘Edward Albee has found fire in the soggy ashes of naturalism and forged a technique of inestimable potential. This is a crucial event in the birth of a contemporary American Theatre.’

© Michael Cox

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
3rd May to 3rd Jun, 2017




Published in Archive Articles
Thursday, 27 April 2017 09:51

Edward Albee: An Authentically Unique Voice

Winner of numerous awards and acclaim, Edward Albee is a unique voice of the American theatre, standing with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as a pillar of 20th-Century American drama.

Writing in his obituary in the New York Times, Bruce Weber states that Albee is ‘widely considered the foremost American playwright of his generation, whose psychologically astute and piercing dramas explored the contentiousness of intimacy, the gap between self-delusion and truth and roiling desperation beneath the façade of contemporary life.’

Albee was born March 12, 1928 but was put up for adoption within the second week of his life. His adoptive father was Reed A Albee, the heir of a fortune made from his family’s success in running vaudeville companies. Reed was a well-known adulterer and was barely at home. His mother Frances was little better. A socialite who was Reed’s third wife, she would prove to be a rotten maternal figure for Albee but a wonderful muse: aspects of her would pop up in many of his plays.

Albee knew he wanted to be a writer and that he was gay by the time he was a teenager. As staunch conservatives, his parents strongly disapproved. In speaking about them in an interview with Charlie Rose, Albee said ‘I think they wanted somebody who would be a corporate thug of some sort, or perhaps a doctor or lawyer or something respectable…They didn’t want a writer on their hands. Good God, no.’ He would also claim that his family gave him money instead of love.

After numerous arguments, Albee left home and ended up in Greenwich Village. He would befriend many different artists and take odd jobs for financial support. During this time he dabbled in many forms of writing, having only a few poems published without any major success. He showed his work to many in his circle, including the American playwright Thornton Wilder, who recommended that he write plays: whether he saw something or simply didn’t think his poetry held muster is unknown.

Nearing the age of 30, Albee ‘borrowed’ a typewriter from his employer to write a play. Taking less than three weeks, the result was his first major work: The Zoo Story. He struggled to get an American production but managed to secure its world premiere in Berlin. The play would finally perform in New York, first as a one-off staged reading at the Actors Studio (where Norman Mailer declared it the best one-act he’d ever seen) and then Off-Broadway—Albee is credited by many as helping launch the New York Off-Broadway movement. Albee would write several other one-acts, all receiving mixed reviews but putting him firmly on the radar of playwrights to watch.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, arguably his greatest work, opened on Broadway in 1962. The play won multiple awards and ran for nearly two years.  In an interview, Albee said the spark for the play came from a desire to look at ‘the destructive forces of various falsities in relationships.’

It courted controversy. For such an iconic play, the initial reviews were rather mixed, some loving the play but others comparing it to a cesspool with its ‘vulgar’ depictions of marriage, sex and language.

The film version premiered in 1966 and would receive similar notices: a mixture of acclaim and condemnation. The film won many awards, but its frank language also stirred up controversy. The film pleasantly surprised Albee: he was glad that it mostly kept his script and that its director had an appreciation for film and the story.

Time was cruel to Albee after Virginia Woolf. While he had a few successes, including the plays A Delicate Balance and Seascapes, the following years would see failure upon failure, with many of his plays quickly closing. Albee also turned to alcohol, causing even more friction personally and professionally.

After the death of his father, contact with his mother proved mostly cool: she struggled with his artisan life and refused to accept his homosexuality. When his mother died, Albee learned that she’d written him out of her will—a final slight. However, Albee used his mother and her death as the catalyst to write Three Tall Women—the play that would secure him a professional third act of new success and acclaim. He would remain active, seeing revivals of his major work and writing more award-winning plays.

He would significantly slow down with the death of his partner of 32 years, Jonathan Thomas, in 2005. Albee himself died on September 16, 2016.

© Michael Cox

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
3rd May to 3rd Jun, 2017

Published in Archive Articles

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