‘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.
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.
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