Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Background
by Edward Albee
About Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
On June 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy traveled to West Berlin and uttered the now-famous statement, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Nearly two years earlier, on the night of August 13, 1961, the Communist East German government had erected the Berlin Wall. Not only did this wall physically close the border between East and West Germany, separating families and prohibiting travel between the two nations, but it soon because a potent symbol in the Cold War.
In his famous speech, Kennedy declared that Berlin was a symbol of democracy and freedom. "Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us." Indeed, Berlin became a potent and embattled symbol during the Cold War 1960's in both politics and literature.
George, the battle-weary male protagonist of Edward Albee's 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? references this Cold War understanding of Berlin. In act one, George proclaims, "I will not give up Berlin!" George's reference to Berlin, in the heat of battle with his braying wife Martha, not only reveals the influence of the Cold War on Albee's play but suggests deeper and darker meanings for the symbol of Berlin than those touched upon in Kennedy's famous speech. This reference to Cold War politics was intentional. Albee later explained in straightforward terms the influence of the era on his play: "Here was a time when Russia was trying to take Berlin, the Berlin blockade."
Berlin's symbolic power and the Cold War perception of it as an embattled site can be traced back to geographical and historical realities. Berlin, of course, is the capital city of Germany. When Germany was partitioned into two halves, to be administered by the Soviet Union and the Allied western powers after World War II, Berlin was split in half. However, Berlin's location within the country of Germany presented specific geographical concerns. Berlin is not at the center of Germany but rather in the eastern half of the country. West Germany, Kennedy's bastion of freedom, was therefore geographically surrounded by what became Communist-controlled East Germany.
In 1948, after the initial partition, Soviet powers had blockaded Berlin in a lengthy stand-off. In 1961, White House foreign policy experts worried that such a situation could easily occur again. At that time, the illegal flow of East Germans into West Berlin was increasing, and Germany was perceived as a pressure cooker about to blow. Nonetheless, Washington did not expect the Soviet-controlled East German government to respond by building a wall. Therefore, Kennedy was caught off guard by his nemesis, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Albee purposefully named the character Nick, the young Biology professor in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, after Nikita Khrushchev. Decades later, speaking to a group of Howard University Students, Albee explained, "I was having some fun writing this. It was written in 1962, and I named Nick after Nikita Khrushchev. That was a private choice." George, whose first name echoes that of George Washington, represents the old American dream. But unlike Kennedy, who found optimism in the democracy of West Berlin, Albee was led by the Cold War to conceive of a much darker and more cynical vision of American culture.
Berlin, a site in which Communism and Democracy existed side by side, their coexistence held in check only by violence and the threat of violence, understandably became a microcosm for the Cold War world ? divided along Eastern and Western, Communist and Democratic, lines. Similarly, the single set of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the living room of George and Martha's house, functions as a microcosm in which Edward Albee explores the destruction of the American dream.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway on October 13, 1962. That same month, the world seemed poised on nuclear war when the United States faced off against the Soviet Union over the presence of nuclear weapons on Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During those tense thirteen days, Kennedy and an executive council of advisors met and discussed the fate of the world. On October 18, only five days after the opening of Albee's play, when faced with the question of whether to warn Khrushchev before striking Berlin, President Kennedy mused, "And then if he says: ?If you are going to do that, we're going to grab Berlin.' . . . He'll grab Berlin, of course. Then either way it would be, we lost Berlin, because of these missiles.
Albee's play was clearly a product of its time. Indeed, the profanity and hateful words between George and Martha that so shocked audiences in the 1960's now seem commonplace to an American public accustomed to Jerry Springer and other television shows of that ilk. Such was not the case, however, in 1962 American, still lingering in the halcyon days of 1950's optimism. This was a time before Vietnam, before Watergate, before the Camelot era ended with Kennedy's assassination.
Honey and Nick, the young married couple who stumble into George and Martha's marital battlefield, are products of that era. Notably, Albee does not praise them or set them up as standards of perfection. Rather, he demonstrates that at their cores, they are hollow and flawed. Honey and Nick function as surrogates for the audience inducted into George and Martha's chaotic world. In recognizing their commonality with this young couple, the audience is forced to comprehend Albee's criticism of the American dream.
At the time that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was produced, Albee was already a successful and noteworthy new playwright, most well known for his one-act, The Zoo Story. Both plays showcase his talent for combining realism and absurdism.
The audience ? the very audience whose dreams and assumptions Albee sought to critique ? was immediately polarized by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The play was an enormous commercial success. Many audience members and critics lauded it as revolutionary and as marking a new era in American drama. Within the decade, Albee became the second most produced playwright, after Shakespeare, on college campuses. (Albee's biggest competition for that spot was with Eugene Ionesco, another absurdist playwright.)
But many of the people who saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? during its 1962 run found its language and sexual content shocking and labeled it "perverse" and "dirty minded." While this debate raged far and wide, even among those who had not seen the play, it had specific ramifications in the world of theater critics.
The committee selected to chose the play that would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962 voted to make Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the winner. However, the Pulitzer Prize is overseen by Columbia University, and the trustees of the university decided that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s explicit language, interest in "taboo" subjects, and controversial public reception made it the wrong choice. Though it had won the vote, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did not receive the award, which was not given to any play that year as a result.
Nonetheless, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Tony Award for Best Play that year. Albee has won three Pulitzers in years since. The production, which ran at the Billy Rose Theatre, featured Uta Hagen as Martha, Arthur Hill as George, George Grizzard as Nick, and Melinda Dillon as Honey, and was directed by Alan Schneider.
In 1966, Mike Nichols directed a film adaptation of the controversial play, starring famous and controversial then-couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Martha and George. Sandy Dennis played Honey, and George Segal played Nick. Studio honcho Jack Warner insisted on maintaining the integrity of the play, and The screenplay, adapted by Ernest Lehman, preserved virtually all of Albee's dialogue, though it did open up the locations of the one-set play beyond George and Martha's living room. The film was shot on-location as Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Drawn by the power of its controversial stars and the fame of the play itself, the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a resounding commercial success. It was the most expensive black and white film ever made. Stars Burton and Taylor drew $750,000 and $1.1 million, respectively. Though Albee rumoredly wanted to cast Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in the roles, studio heads prevailed. Burton pushed Taylor to sign on. She then brought first-time director Mike Nichols on board, and Nichols in turn cast Burton as George.
Friend familiar with the play warned Taylor and Burton that portraying this hate-filled couple would be detrimental to their marriage. Indeed, it is believed that the film ? for which Taylor gained 20 pounds ? led to their breakup. Taylor also chipped a tooth during filming. Not only was it Nichols directorial debut, it was also actress Sandy Dennis's first film. Pregnant when production began, she suffered a miscarriage during the filming of the movie.
Despite Jack Warner's warnings, Nichols shot the film with the script's profanity in tact. For the most part, the censors let it by. This not only added to the immediacy and believability of the film at the time but helps it to remain effective even today. Nonetheless the dialogue that was cut from the play upset Albee, who felt that the political message of his play were excised from the film.
The film opened on June 22, 1966, at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. All of the film's actors were nominated for Academy Awards. At the time, that was the first time this had every happened. It has only happened once since (in 1972), with Sleuth. Ultimately, Elizabeth Taylor won the Oscar for Best Actress and Sandy Dennis won for Best Supporting Actress. The film also won for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
There have been two major theatrical revivals of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf since its original Broadway production. Both were directed by Edward Albee himself. The play was first revived in 1976 on Broadway. Its stars, Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara, were both nominated for Tony Awards for their performances. Only fourteen years after the initial production, American was a far different place. Watergate, Vietnam, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, had all made America a much more cynical place politically. Culture had changed too. No longer was George and Martha's animosity so shocking or controversial.
The second revival was in Los Angeles in 1989 and starred Glenda Jackson and John Lithgow. In November of that year, chaos began to reign in East and West Berlin. The East German government was collapsing. East German money was worthless. Crowds began to gather at the Berlin wall. On November 9, the Berlin Wall, the symbolic and physical barrier separating East and West Berlin, fell. Just as George and Martha move from chaos to tentative reconciliation in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the two parts of Germany began the process of reconciling themselves into one nation. Though it remains famous ? increasingly included in literature courses and still performed by theatrical companies and on college campuses ? Albee's play was without a doubt the product of an era. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, that era game to an end, but the power of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lives on.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Essays and Related Content
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Major Themes
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Essays
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Questions
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Edward Albee: Biography
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Summary
- About Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Act One
- Summary and Analysis of Act Two
- Summary and Analysis of Act Three
- Related Links on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources