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