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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Broadway remembers Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? writer Edward Albee

Dom O'Hanlon
Dom O'Hanlon

Last weekend brought the sad news that American dramatist Edward Albee had passed away at the age of 88 following a short illness. It is customary once a writer, or artist passes to try and make sense of their work and contribution to their art form, and in this internet age it's all too easy to make bold statements about their work out of context, with many headlines fighting to call the deceased the greatest living example in their particular field, or some other hyperbolic phrase to drive traffic. With art and theatre in particular, I always bristle upon hearing the exclamation that precedes an obituary, and as 2016 rumbles on taking with it yet more well-known names this only grows more and more out of hand.

I would certainly not deny Albee's influence on American theatre, and would be the first to admit that his influence has been felt on stages around the world. Whilst looking back over his career it's remarkable to think that his 'greatest' work, or the play with which he is most widely associated was his first; the sardonic and bitter Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that continues to be revived on Broadway and in the West End. Despite writing finer examples of the form in later plays such as A Delicate Balance (1966) and even his more experimental The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (2001), public association with ...Virginia Woolf continues to provide producers with ample opportunity to mount new productions, often as a showcase for that current generation's finest acting talent.

It's a play that weighs heavily on American sensibilities and is held up as one of the greatest theatrical explorations of a dysfunctional family set up - a theme that resonates soundly on either side of the Atlantic. The masks of truth and illusion run throughout the entire drama, and Albee challenges both his audience and characters to simply stick to the facts and not shatter the perfectly presented front that a married couple, especially in small-town academia, should aim to present.

In announcing the time-honoured tradition of dimming the lights on Broadway for Albee, which took place on September 22, Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League referenced him as "one of our most influential and most honored American playwrights". Discussing his work she went on to say that he "deeply affected audiences and inspired so many fellow writers with his brilliant dialogue and indelible characters" and that he "created some of the most complex and compelling works presented on stage in the past six decades."

Albee's contribution to Broadway and American theatre is undeniable, and his own influence from European theatre have helped evolve the nature of modern American drama. Openly gay, he was conscious about being pigeon holed, stating that "a writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay". Living and working against an ever evolving society some time before the Stonewall Riots in 1969 his sexuality in no way restricted his astute delivery of married life, and his writing explored heterosexual couples at their most tender and also most volatile. 

The American obsession with the dysfunctional family runs deep not only in drama but in popular culture. From the hugely successful TV series 'Desperate Housewives' which explored the secrets behind the net curtains of American suburbia against the perfectly manicured lawns and presentable 2.4 children to more modern comedies such as 'Modern Family', which turn the same idea on its head and makes a virtue of family misgivings. The beating heart of American drama throughout the 20th century in many ways concerns the illusion between truth and reality - from Miller's All My Sons to Williams' The Glass Menagerie right through to Tracy Letts' August Osage County and Stephen Karam's recent Tony Award-winning play The Humans. In each of these examples, perfect relationships are presented to the wider world and are left to dishevel in front of our very eyes, and it's this relatable idea that keeps audiences returning to even the most acrimonious and resentful relationships.

Whilst the themes may indeed be universal and transcend time and place, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is very much a production of its time, inspired by the development of American society throughout the 1960s as a knock-on from the expectation of the 50s. Changes in sexual freedoms and the expected relationship between a husband and a wife makes the play a direct opponent of the 'perfect' American nuclear family that held with it the ideal of a male breadwinner, a female home maker and agreeable and respectful children. George and Martha, whose names alone allude to the first couple of the United States, aim to destroy such societal expectation - from the infidelity to the hysterical pregnancy, tied in to George's own academic failure as head of a family.

There's much to explore within the world of academia that Albee's characters inhabit, but it's their relation to the wider 'American Dream' that resonates most strongly with audiences divorced from the setting. At a time where America itself seems to be wrestling with its social and political conscious this fractured idea of the hollow virtues of American success rings true. As the country is currently being offered to chance to "Make America Great Again" by Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump, the idea of what it means to be both 'American' and 'great' is once again up for discussion. The American psyche has often been criticized for devaluing compassion at the hands of success and ambition, and pundits widely interpret Trump's ramblings as a look backwards towards the traditional idea of the American Dream that Albee seems to criticise. Both couples are well-educated, middle-class citizens who on paper should embody the very best aspects of American culture and spirit, but instead both rely on fantasy for survival.

Despite the play's innate American sensibilities Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been revived numerous times throughout the past four decades and has found an audience in both the UK as well as the USA. In the West End it is most fondly remembered for the Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin revival which ran at the Apollo Theatre in 2006 as well as a production at the Almeida Theatre a full decade earlier which starred David Suchet and Diana Rigg. In each case the overtly American themes resonated with audiences beyond the obvious and the domestic battle as a national metaphor was placed in the foreground. As America battles itself internally, and will continue to do so well beyond 8 November, ...Virginia Woolf? remains a play for our time and new productions will allow audiences the opportunity to watch that battle once again against a brand new context.

As the Broadway and off-Broadway community assembled to dim its lights to remember Albee last night, it's clear that his contribution to world theatre will never be forgotten. Three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an award that is "for a distinguished play by an American playwright, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life", there really can be no greater commentator on American life. For once I'm inclined to believe the hyperbole.

Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill will star in a new production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 22 February 2017.

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