Benedict Andrews on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Edward Albee’s now classic drama portrays a society where human beings are trapped in illusions and claustrophobic relations. The only escape is booze, lots of booze. Written in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall was erected, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a Cold War drama whose teeth remian sharp in a new American era. Albee constructs his characters in a warzone and proposes the extinction of their civilisation. They end the play having stripped each other raw. Eviscerated by the party games and awake to each others’ strangeness, Nick and Honey begin their journey home. Shorn of certainty, afraid and fragile, Martha clings to George as the light of a new day floods their cave.

George and Martha are the most formidable and ferocious opponents of 20th century drama. They are addicted to each other and to getting at each other. Their danse macarbe is a display of pure aggression, a burlesque doubling act, a psychodrama played to the hilt. Trapped in a hall of mirrors with their “little guests” as audience, they dare each other to hunt down a kernel of love – behind the Oedipal masks, beyond disgust, beyond excess, beyond illusion. To get at each other – to get at the marrow – they enact a ritual with the coffee table as altar, alcohol as the sacrament, the guests as acolytes, and the murder of their made-up son as the sacrifice. What is displaced by this exorcism? Some cancers that have built up at the core of their marriage, certainly… A violent lack behind the lie the American Dream… A nightmare lurking inside familial structures… Daddy’s red eyes and big dick… A strung, jerking ego, that ‘no-thing’ that Jaques Lacan called “an old puppet… a baroque doll… a trophy made of limbs.” Hysteria. Narcissistic frenzy. A phantasmagoria of endless reflections. Messy, desperate hungers. All this, but also a clearing away. A savage, exhausting, hilarious emptying out of roles.

The fun and games are not, however, confined to the stage. Honey and Nick, those promising, young neo-cons are our representatives onstage. Like them, we are not allowed to remain voyeurs. Theatre is a ritual enacted in public. We stare fascinated at conflicts we would normally avoid and we see strange versions of ourselves. We glimpse our blindspots. We come near the insane laughter and total silence which George describes as echoing behind all language. Albee’s critique of reality is total. The lie of society is exposed and everyone is culpable. There is no salvation, no closure. Watching George and Martha’s games, we might want to cry out like Nick, “Hold on, I think I understand this”, but are disallowed. They run fault lines through language, expose secrets, shatter illusions, and produce irrealities. Like George and Martha, we lack a future, yet taste, for a moment, grace.

Benedict Andrews, June 2008