Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Critical Review by Robert Brustein

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
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Critical Review by Robert Brustein

SOURCE: "Albee and the Medusa Head," in New Republic, Vol. 147, No. 18, November 3, 1962, pp. 29-30.

In the following excerpt of a review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Brustein recognizes Albee's talent for compelling and clever dialogue and his inventiveness, but also notes what he perceives as the author's failure to create a cohesive drama.

Edward Albee's new work embodies both the failings and the virtues of his previous plays. But its positive achievements are substantial, and I am finally beginning to regard this playwright's future with real expectation. Albee's technical dexterity has always been breathtaking—for sheer theatrical skill, no American, not even Williams, can match him—but like Williams, he has been inclined to falsify his native gifts, distorting experience through self-defensive reflecting mirrors. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Albee is still not looking the Gorgon smack in the eye. Still, he has conjured up its outline. And if he tends to focus more on writhing snakes than on the other features of this terrifying monster, then even these quick glances are more penetrating than I have come to expect; and they are always projected in steaming, raging, phantasmagoric the article images.

Virginia Woolf is an ambitious play, and it evokes the shades of the most ambitious dramatists. The central conflict—a Strindbergian battle royal between George, a contemplative History professor with an unsuccessful career, and Martha, his bitterly shrewish wife—proceeds through a series of confessions, revelations, and interior journeys which recall the circuitous windings of O'Neill's late plays. Glued together by mutual hatred and mutual recriminations, the couple can connect only through enmity, each exposing the other's failures, inadequacies, vices, and secret illusions in language of savagely ironic scorn. Though the climax of the work is built on such an exposure, however, Albee seems less interested in the real history of his characters than in the way they conceal and protect their reality: the conflict is also a kind of game, with strict rules, and what they reveal about each other may not be true. This comedy of concealment reminds one of Pirandello, and even more of Jean Genet. For George and Martha—each by turns the aggressor—shift their identities like reptiles shedding skins. And as the evening grows more alcoholic, and the atmosphere more distended and surrealistic, their "total war" becomes a form of ritual play acting, performed upon the shifting sands of truth.

The "setting" for this play-within-a-play is a late night party; the "audience" is composed of a hollow young biology instructor, Nick, and his demure, simpering wife, Honey. A conventionally shallow couple, they are at first innocent bystanders embarrassed by the squabbling of their hosts, then full participants, as George sadistically exposes their guilty secrets. Nick's academic opportunism, Honey's surreptitious abortions. The waspish "fun and games" begin to take the form of ruthlessly aggressive charades. After "Humiliate the Host" and "Get the Guests" comes "Hump the Hostess" as Martha and Nick, in revenge against George, make a feeble attempt to cuckold him in the bedroom. The last episode, "Bringing Up Baby," constitutes George's revenge on Martha—not because she tried to betray him (her infidelities are apparently innumerable), but because she broke one of the rules of the game: she mentioned their "son" to strangers. Forcing Martha to recount the childhood history of this absent youth, George reads the requiem for the dead, climaxing this litany with the announcement that their son has been killed in an auto accident. But the child has never existed. He is merely the essential illusion of the childless Martha, a consoling fiction in her inconsolable reality. The play ends with Honey now determined to have a child, and Martha, submissive and frightened, being comforted by George.

Everyone seems to have boggled at this fictional child; and it is certain that the play collapses at its moment of climax. But the difficulty is not that the author introduces a spurious element into an otherwise truthful play. It is, rather, that he suddenly confronts us with a moment of truth after an evening of stage illusions. Albee's theatrical inventiveness rests mainly on incongruous juxtapositions: when George aims a shotgun at his braying wife, for example, it shoots not bullets but a Japanese parasol. These shock tactics are a sure-fire comic technique, but they have the effect of alienating the spectator from the action the very moment he begins to accept it. Thus, when George launches a blistering attack on the evils of modern science, Albee undercuts it with a ludicrous non-sequitur: "I will not give up Berlin." And when Martha speaks of her need to escape reality, he has her do so in a broad Irish brogue. George responds to Martha's infidelity by nonchalantly offering her flowers; he tells a harrowing story of matricide and patricide which is proved, first, to be autobiographical, and second, to be false; and when asked about the telegram announcing his son's death, he claims to have eaten it. Truth and illusion may be confused, as one character tells us, but after three and a half hours of prestidigitation, we become reluctant to accept one of these magical tricks as the real thing. In short, Albee is a highly accomplished stage magician, but he fails to convince us there is nothing up his sleeve. His thematic content is incompatible with his theatrical content—hi-jinks and high seriousness fail to fuse.

On the other hand, the author has a fine time showing off his sleight of hand, incidentally, I suspect, conjuring his action into the outlines of a classical myth (the evidence is jumbled, and I may be crazy, but I think I can detect elements of the story of Aphrodite, Ares, and Hephaestus, mixed with pieces from the story of Aphrodite and Adonis)….

In spite of all the excellence of play and production, however, I am left with my equivocal response. In his latest play, Edward Albee proves once again that he has wit, cunning, theatricality, toughness, formal control, poetry—in short, all the qualities of a major dramatist but one: that selfless commitment to a truthful vision of life which constitutes the universal basis of all serious art. Possibly out of fear of such commitments, Albee is still coquetting with his own talent, still resisting any real identification with his own material, so that he tends to confuse his themes, shift his attitudes, and subvert his characters. Yet, a genuine insight, merely sketched in his earlier work is now beginning to find fuller expression: that in a time of deadened instinct, people will use any methods, including deadly hatred, in order to find their way to others. This, or something like it, may become the solid foundation of Albee's future writing; but whatever it is, I await what is to come with eagerness. For if Albee can confront the Medusa head without the aid of parlor tricks or mirrors, he may yet turn us all to stone.

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This section contains 1,148 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Robert Brustein