Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

November 4, 2011

Columbus, MS, Culture

I first read Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in college, and was completely taken with it. I was too young to really understand the complex psychological and sexual dynamics of the main characters, George and Martha, but as I grew older and had my own intense and complex relationships, I began to understand a central point – you can never judge a relationship by what you see.

George and Martha are a middle-aged couple who live in New Carthage, a university town in New England, in the 1950s. Martha is the daughter of the university president and George is a professor in the History Department. The action takes place over a space of two hours from 2am on a Sunday morning after a faculty party at the school. Through a series of games, George and Martha pit each other in a battle of wills which, as the play goes on, appears to be a battle in extremis. The games are variously cruel, hateful, and mean with no apparent purpose except to wound and hurt. At the beginning of the play the exchanges between George and Martha are so hateful and spiteful that there is no conclusion but that they do in fact hate each other irreversibly.

As the play goes on, however, and the elaborate series of psychological games are played (Hump the Hostess, Bringing Up Baby, Get the Guests, Humiliate the Host), we begin to suspect that there is more to their wounding thrusts and parries – that perhaps George and Martha really love each other, or at least have a mutual dependency that could pass for love. After each skirmish of wills, one or the other expresses admiration for the skill of the maneuver regardless of its hurt or humiliation, suggesting that the games may be a necessary, although indirect way at getting to the heart of the matter – the very core of the relationship which despite the brutality of the battles, is vitally important to them, a matter of survival if not life or death.

By the end of the play, this interpretation is confirmed. The elaborate games, culminating in the “death” of a son they invented – a fictional, fantasy child who was both the anchor of their marriage, and a reminder of their failure as the parents they desperately wanted to be – completely broke down all fantasy, illusion, and pretence, and as George says, get to the marrow of the bone. As they emerge from the destruction, they realize that they are standing on a stronger foundation, and that there is a glimmer of hope for the future.

Some critics have criticized the main proposition of the play – the construction of elaborate games and especially the device of the son which they find even beyond the usual theatergoer’s ‘suspension of disbelief’. I never have questioned this theatrical turn, nor did I have to suspend any disbelief because I never had any in the first place. I have known women like Martha whose life has been an elaborate construction of fantasy and illusion. I had to dance with these exciting women within their fabricated world and never challenge it; or call them on it; or reveal to others what I knew. In a somewhat similar way, Tennessee Williams has created women who live in a fantasy world, but often they are unable to emerge from it. They are either destroyed like Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire or retreat forever into an even smaller illusory world like Laura in Glass Menagerie. Williams, like Albee, has created women who see that they must at least try to enter and survive in the real world, but most are defeated in the attempt; but Albee has made the painful entry hopeful.

Over the years I have seen marriages like George and Martha’s – not as exaggerated, of course, but similar in the games that they play and in the surface impenetrability of the relationship. Like George and Martha these marriages were complex – men do indeed marry their mothers , and the women their fathers. There were hidden dependencies that kept marriages together, fears, uncertainties of relationships with other people……a thousand reasons behind the spiteful exchanges, the cuts and mean bruising. I didn’t particularly like being around these people when they bitched and fought, but at least I had some glimmering of understanding why. But whereas the bitching and fighting between these real couples was a continuing battle of wills over long-forgotten slights and insults, there was never any resolution to the real underlying issues that caused the unhappiness.

The fictional George and Martha have the courage to face these issues. In order to resolve them, however, they have to flay each other bloody, destroy their demons of hate and resentment, in order to be able to emerge on the other side. I admire them for that. Few of us are capable of such honesty.

So I never judge marriages or relationships. I never ask the obvious question, “How could she be married to him?” let alone try to answer it. The answer is behind closed doors and should remain there; but, after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, my interest and speculation about that answer will always be there.

— Ron Parlato is a writer and former International Development consultant living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his blog http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com.

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