Monday, May 16, 2016
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
What an impressive film directing debut for Mike Nichols in this 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s acclaimed play. He had steered Broadway productions to success before this movie, which helped him here in dealing with stage material. But, he had to cope with the two biggest, and some may say most difficult, Hollywood stars of the time. The proof of his success is in the Oscar pudding: multiple nominations, including ones for its four main actors, the movie, and the director, with wins for best actress and supporting actress.
The story presents us with modern marital warfare. George (Richard Burton) is married to Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), who is the daughter of the president of a New England college. She constantly belittles her husband, admonishing him for not being aggressive enough to rise in the scholastic ranks. It’s as if the only reason for the two main characters to keep living is to play games that allow them to attack each other. When George points a rifle at Martha, which, when fired, only projects a parasol, Martha appears to get excited, saying, “Yeah, that was pretty good.” Later, after coming out of a bar, George and Martha get into a heated exchange, and their alternating sadomasochistic relationship is laid bare. George says that she humiliates him and tears him to pieces. Martha says to him, “You can stand it, you married me for it!”
But, the specific details here reverberate with more general concerns about the modern state of American life. Albee has said that the fact that George and Martha have the same names as the first president and lady of the United States is no accident. George significantly teaches in the history department, and there are numerous references to how these two, in a sense, represent history itself. George makes reference to being in the Punic Wars (they live in New Carthage, after all), and says that Martha is “a hundred and eight years old.” While speaking to Nick (George Segal), he channels his namesake by saying, “You take the trouble to construct a civilization, to build a society based on the principle of … principles. You make government and art and realize that they are, must be, both the same.” But, what judgment is rendered by the youthful Nick concerning what he has inherited? Nick says, “Up yours.” History provides knowledge through experience, and that understanding brings no optimism, in the context of this movie, for the future. The couple, which Martha has invited for drinks after a party at her father’s house, are, in contrast, young, thus representing the future. Nick teaches, appropriately, in the biology department, since that discipline evokes youthful physical development, sex, and procreation. It may even conjure up evolution. George, being the man of experience and an observer of history’s documentation of failed human endeavors, is skeptical of youth’s scientific plans for the future, including, as he notes, genetic manipulation.
These two men represent areas that purportedly deal in facts, certainties. But, in the world of modern twentieth century literature, absolutes are suspect because people began questioning what beliefs were taken for granted in the wake of world wars, racial holocaust, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. In the theater, the feeling of uncertainty is evoked by an inability to communicate anything definite, which leads to an inability to emotionally connect to others. So, in this story we have multiple instances of characters unable to comprehend what others are saying, or not capable of knowing what is really going on. Martha told George that Nick was in the Math Department, but Nick says he teaches Biology. Despite Nick’s protestations, George keeps saying he is in the Math Department. The two men sometimes confuse whose wife they are discussing. George discusses Martha’s rich stepmother. Nick says that she never mentioned a stepmother. To which George replies, “Maybe it isn’t true.” Toward the end, Nick says, “Hell, I don’t know when you people are lying, or what,” and George says, “You’re not supposed to.” Nick’s inebriated wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis), says that among the games the couples have been playing, is one she plays called, “peel the label.” She holds up a wine bottle and says, “I peel labels.” George metaphorically responds by saying, “We all peel labels, sweetie,” with the cliché of peeling the layers of an onion to get at the heart of things thus coming to mind. George tells a supposedly true story about a boy he knew in school who accidentally killed his mother with a shotgun and eventually his father in a car accident. Later, Martha implies that George admitted to her father that a novel he was working on contained that same tale, but admitted that he was the boy who killed his parents. What is the truth behind the tale? We don’t know, and that inability to truly understand “reality” is one of the points of the film.
Which brings us to the supposed existence of George and Martha’s boy. He warns her not to bring him up in front of the strangers. However, Martha mentions the youth to Honey. This admission after his warning angers George. We later get hints that the existence of the child is questionable. When George and Nick are outside near the tree with the swing (ironically, a child’s play thing), George says, “Martha doesn’t have pregnancies at all.” Later, because she has broken the rules of their game by speaking of the boy, and to retaliate against her sexual indiscretion with Nick, he decides to kill off the child. He says that there was a telegram that stated that their son was killed when his car hit a tree when he avoided hitting a porcupine, which was the same story he told about the boy who killed his father. (Accidents are mentioned often in the film. There are the two automobile ones, and George drives the car recklessly on the way to the bar. Also, in George’s story, the boy “accidentally” shot his mother, the gun incident mirrored in the mock shooting of Martha. These incidents lend a feeling of things being dangerously out of control and echo the destructive nature of George and Martha’s relationship.) Nick finally realizes, as George delivers a prayer for the dead in Latin, that his hosts could not have children.
The younger couple’s future does not seem all that promising. Nick admits that he married Honey because her father was rich and she was pregnant. However, Nick reveals to George that Honey had a hysterical pregnancy. Thus, there are parallels between the two couples, and it’s possible that Nick and Honey could turn into George and Martha, thus undermining the idea of evolutionary progression. George Washington is called the “father of our country,” but, here, with a modern George and Martha, we have a spiritually barren world, where the only things growing are regret, contempt and loneliness.
There is a bit of hope, though, at the end. Honey, after hearing that George and Martha have no children, says emphatically, “I want a child!” which suggests that the future may have a glint of possibility in it. Martha even acknowledges that George is good to her, because he “can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them.” The play starts in darkness but ends at dawn, with George forcing his wife to face the reality of their childless marriage. When members of an audience see a play or watch a movie, they suspend disbelief, fool themselves into believing that what they observe is real, so they can have that Aristotelian purgation of pity and fear, or just escape into an entertaining story. At the conclusion of the show, they reenter into reality’s atmosphere. Martha had not been able to pull herself back from the land of make believe until now. She is on the scary terrain of the self-aware adult. So, when George repeats the silly academic version of the child’s song sung at the party, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” she answers, “I am George, I am.”