The Wolf in Woolf

I ask you to once again peer into the lives of George and Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The film begins with a couple, the couple, exiting from a party. The conversation of the couple is barely audible but appears genial and familiar at a distance. As the couple approaches, the volume is increased and the conversation is heard. Their apparent light and familiar tones are perceptibly exhausted and partially biting. They enter their home and Martha peers around her and her husband’s cluttered home. She says “What a dump!” and invites her husband to find meaning in the exclamation. Well, not quite invite, Martha prods her husband to tell her “What’s that from?” He dismisses the question and we are left like Martha to find meaning in the “dump.” We, or maybe just me, search to find what is so important about the “dump” and seek to find the reflection of an answer in their home. Every inch of their house is covered with something. No surface is completely visible. Even the radiator has a plank or counter over it which serves as a place for their knick-knacks. Every table is crowded with glasses, dishes, laundry, books, and miscellaneous objects. There is baggage everywhere and not just material baggage but emotional baggage too. Martha has daddy issues which add to George’s insecurities as a man, as an academic, and as her husband. Her father is the president of the university and is an invisible yet powerfully present force. Martha uses him as a weapon against her husband and other men. She also uses her father as the model man against which she compares other men, often times the men fall short.

On the other hand, if we dismiss the exclamation “What a dump,” we are like George and choose not to humor Martha in her little antics. We progress to the bedroom where, as Roxie beautifully recaptures in her post, the couple is seen as loving and playful. We see the last glimpse of the loving married couple before they are put to bed and before the entrance of their guests, the new couple. We have heard foreboding utterances and a few snide remarks prior to this bed scene but the new characters that arise from the bed give new energy to their bitterness and viciousness to each other. The couple that we see throughout the majority of the film is this couple. They undertake great pains and care to ridicule each other. Martha and George engage in a night-long game with the new couple, Nick and Honey. Martha and George find new ways to best each other and use the new couple for their gains.

Nevertheless, as dawn looms and the couples have bested each other for the night, the couples retire to their corners to review the night’s games in better light. Martha and George are done with Nick and Honey and the new day is fast approaching so they must leave. Martha and George remain to find comfort in each other and their feats from their mean and spiteful games. They find solace in the sarcastic, yet welcomingly caustic, niche of a home that they have created. With the light of day, Martha and George become the loving couple who was put to bed before the night games commenced. They are more sympathetic to each other. George says “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” He tries to console Martha with the song she has been singing and enjoying all night. Her response is thought provoking. She says, “I am.” The audience wonders if the Virginia Woolf reference is an actual reference to the literary figure or to the boogeyman (wolf) or to their academic lifestyle.

Considering the reference to Virginia Woolf, one may wonder if the characters of Virginia Woolf are representative of Virginia, Leonard, Vanessa, and Clive(*skim Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1974). Martha could be a character who has similarities toVirginia Woolf. Both are gregarious, sociable, and intelligent women who are not really able to have children. Leonard Woolf was attentive and bowing to Virginia. We know George plays games with Martha and entertains the guests, though he is exhausted. Honey, Nick’s mousey wife, could be an auxiliary character like Vanessa in Virginia's life. Nick could be Clive who thinks that he is more intelligent than he really is and is clandestinely misogynistic in his attempts to profit in life. The relationship between George and Martha or Virginia and Leonard could be an example of an atypical marriage. They do love each other but instead of candy-sweet remarks to one another all the time and children they substitute caustic remarks tied with endearing nicknames and a phantom child.

Still, let us look at the last two possible references of the song before we decide if the literary figure trumps the boogeyman or academic explanation. As Kathleen Kane mentions in her post, the reference may be academically centered. Rather than big bad wolf, the song substitutes Virginia Woolf. The substitution has a similar rhyme, differing in the addition of one syllable. It also maintains the wolf with differently spelled “Woolf” that is apparent to the literarily aware, or academics; therefore, the change and joke hinges on wolf-Woolf which can refer to a menacing animal or to a prominent female literary figure. In this case, if Martha is afraid of Virginia Woolf she could be scared of this hinge, the scary and academic where illusions and reality are restlessly muddled or tested. In the history field the, the historians, like George, create stories of the past and of past historical figures. They take pieces of exhumed fact and couple them with assumptions of how things were. In the field of biology, the biologist creates a past and pieces together the present to the past in cladograms and phylogenies. In the lives of Martha (daughter of the president of the university) and George (a professor in the history department rather than the history department), illusion and truth have no definite boundaries:

Martha- Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference.
George- No,but we must carry on as though we did.
Martha- Amen.
The characters get lost in their games, their creations, and their academic lifestyles. They grope through critically acclaimed films, quotes from acclaimed plays, and get lost in their literature. They may even be like the big white rat with beady red eyes that George says is a fitting description for Martha’s father or a description fitting for Honey’s father. They may be smaller rats running the maze of life as Martha’s father or Honey’s father constructs it.

George- You take the trouble to construct a civilization…to build a society based on the principle of…principle…you endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man’s mind…you bring men to the saddest of all points…to the point where there is something to lose…then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.
Could this be a comment on society? Their marriage is not what one expects from a typical marriage. Although they are learned individuals, they are not models of sophistication or civility. From the opening scene, they appear to be civil and genteel but, like Nick who is chastised by Martha for dealing too much in appearances, we must not trust appearances. Things are not that clear cut. Perhaps the significance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is not that definite either.

Although Edward Albee tries to explain the significance of the title, his explanation seems incomplete:

having 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.(Paris Review interview with Edward Albee
I am left with no definite conclusion, except that the reference is for all of the aforementioned reasons. Despite this befuddlement, I think the film is fantastic. The actors employ an emotionally unstable environment that functions on dysfunction and tantalizingly portrayed raw emotion. The audience feels the chillingly warm embrace of anger, lowered expectations, bitterness, resentment, and discontentment as the characters open their home, secrets, and vulnerabilities to us. Every word is enacted with the utmost feeling, save when George tells Martha to show Honey the euphemism because ironically bathroom or lavatory is too dirty a word to utter. Plus, I've always enjoyed the late 50s to 60s saying "Come off it." Twilight Zone uses a form of it in The Afterhours when characters say "Climb off it, Marsha." It is similar to the line in Albee's play, "Come off it, Martha."
See Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf asap.

Party Games, Upgraded

The 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, begins with a long, pan-out camera shot during the initial credits. The scene is quiet and serene as a middle-aged couple walks home in the dark. The credits fade and the film blends genres to resemble a play as the couple flicks the light switch of their living room to represent the beginning of a scene. However, this aspect of a play is present within a movie, so the lens takes the viewer right into the scene. Martha's throaty voice yells, "What a dump!" and the viewer is thrust into a two hour long emotional tug-of-war.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play Martha and George, a married couple who host a small get together that pushes everyone involved to the brink of a break down when paired with psychological games and endless rounds of drinks. Kathleen's blog provides an excellent and thorough synopsis of the film so I'll try to stay away from summary to present a commentary.

Filmed in black- and-white, director Mike Nichols uses a camera technique that gives the sense of an amateur home video or a mock documentary (think of the extreme close ups of Michael's face as he makes a desperate announcement in The Office). This blurring between Hollywood film and a home video mirrors the the blurring between truth and lies, as well as objective and subjective reality within the movie. Martha and George declare something only to contradict themselves a moment later. While I don't want to give away any spoilers, I must admit that I enjoyed realizing that nothing is what it seems in this film and discovering that the viewer is yet another player in Martha and George's game.

The movie left me with numerous questions since I found it surprisingly complex. Is Martha a miserable person while George simply enjoys being miserable, or are they both rotten, miserable people? Does this movie document the moment that Martha and George "snap" or is this just a typical night with its typical scenes that occur regardless of who is present? Can Martha or George triumph over one another when they view reality as a malleable thing, or as a game with an endless supply of "Make Your Own Rule" cards?

The film showcases excellent performances by its leading couple. Taylor thoroughly dedicated herself to the role; the wikipedia gods informed me that she gained 30 pounds to become Martha, who is described as "frumpy" and "thick-hipped" throughout the movie. Though Taylor would be more successful at looking frumpy if she took up the role now, her transformation is drastic when compared to how she looked in Cleopatra or even The Sandpiper, which Taylor and Burton starred in only a year prior to the release of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Both actors adapted gestures and mannerisms that enhance their characters; Taylor's yelling and wild eyes make Martha seem vulgar while Burton's slumped shoulders and side glances reflect George's sense of personal failure.

I can't imagine many actors pulling off the complex and intimate relationship of Martha and George besides a pair that has worked together in previous roles. The dynamic between Taylor and Burton's Martha and George is impressively realistic. For instance, Martha accusingly asks George why he didn't put any ice into her drink when the couple is laying on their bed during the first scene. After he mumbles that she always eats her ice, Martha rolls over George, reaches into his drink, and drops the retrieved ice cubes into her own glass with a hand now dripping with alcohol. This moment is executed so flawlessly that, paired with the intimate camera technique, the viewer feels that Martha and George have been together for years and, though their marriage is dysfunctional, they share a deep emotional bond. Of course, it might help that Taylor and Burton were actually married off-screen. Twice.

As for the reference to Virginia Woolf, I have to admit that I don't get it. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is an alteration of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf." I see that the this movie makes a jab at academics who view themselves as intellectually superior though they might be more ruthless and primitive than the average person, but I doubt whether this joke actually contributes anything to the film. I found more connection between the characters' inability to name and know anything with T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," rather than finding a connection between the film and any of Woolf's works. Perhaps Woolf was regarded in a negative light during the '60s due to her association with stigmatized feminism. Perhaps this "joke" is simply in the same vein as describing something as "kafka-esque." Regardless, I found that the three times that this joke was forcibly brought up were the only moments of the film that I disliked.

Overall, I recommend this film with much enthusiasm but advise viewers not to distract themselves by attempting to find a connection between the movie and Virginia Woolf.