Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Critical Review by James Campbell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
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Critical Review by James Campbell

SOURCE: "The Habit and the Hatred," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4880, October 11, 1996, p. 23.

In the following excerpt of a review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Campbell surveys the history of the play.

It is worth remembering, while enduring the three-and-a-half hour comic nightmare of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that the play emerged from the Theatre of the Absurd. Albee's early one-acters, such as Zoo Story and The American Dream (in which a couple have gruesomely disposed of one of their sons in order to fit the picture of the American way of life), suggested a line of inheritance from Adamov and Ionesco. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, written in 1961 and first performed in the following year, was a departure: a well-made play, with a domestic setting, replete with wider references from the "world of ideas", particularly relating to science and civilization. In spite of its surface naturalism, however, the underlying spirit of this play draws on the farcical despair of Albee's dramatic mentors as much as his earlier work. It is the Theatre of the Absurd brought to your own fireside. In George and Martha's perfectly plausible living-room, where the young and innocent guests (innocent until now, that is) are introduced to the party games, Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests and Hump the Hostess, things get so mad and bad that the audience thinks they cannot get worse—whereupon they do.

The ghost of childhood dominates Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is, of course, the play about bringing up the baby that doesn't exist—the "son" on whom Martha dotes and about whom she insists on boasting to the guests. The younger couple, Nick and Honey, have problems of their own, what with hysterical pregnancies and induced miscarriages. Yet each of the four principals is trapped in childhood, unable to grow up. The playwright has pursued variations on this theme ever since, from The American Dream (1960), where the child doesn't exist because it has been cut to pieces, to Three Tall Women (1991), a semi-autobiographical work with a dominant non-speaking part given to a young man who is seated by the bedside of his estranged, now dying, mother. Albee's latest, according to the programme for this production, is actually called The Play about the Baby.

Who's Afraid … is also, less happily, the play about Western Civilization. The war between George and Martha rages side by side with another, between George, the professor of history, and the new-generation biology teacher Nick, whose personal and professional vigour greatly interest Martha. There can be few people who have left a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? talking about its allusions to Spengler and Anatole France's novel Penguin Island (1908), a proto-Brave New World fantasy in which science would rule over human choice (for which read: Nick will rule over George). This perennially topical theme seems tired and affected in the play, as do further intended enlargements of the couples' discontents, signalled by the fact that George and Martha share Christian names with the first American President and his wife, and that the campus on which the men teach is called "New Carthage".

It is, rather, as a portrait of a marriage that Who's Afraid … has secured a place in the modern repertoire….

It is unusual for a play's success to be measured against a cinematic version, but so it is with productions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which are inevitably compared to Mike Nichols's 1966 film, with its famed performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Though it makes good viewing, the film relied on a truncated and altered script, with an added outdoors sequence, which fails to entrap the audience in the long night's journey into day of a good theatrical production.

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This section contains 630 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Campbell