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Written in the Fall of 2008 for a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by Ethan McSweeny at Baltimore Centerstage. This note elicited an angry email from a board member (and elder brother of a well-known theater director) who reprimanded me for overintellectualizing theater meant to serve as passive entertainment. An inauspicious start to my Baltimore career. -DL

At first glance, Edward Albee’s seminal 1962 drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, fits squarely in the middle of the American naturalistic tradition. As in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Albee confines the action to a living room populated by wealthy New Englanders, who proceed to drink, shout, and carry on through the night. (Indeed, drama critic Thomas P. Adler, glancing at O’Neill, once informally retitled the play “Long Night’s Journey Into Day” in a review.) But appearances can be deceptive. In the world of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, reality gets linked to its own distorted reflection in a series of games, puzzles, and lies—in other words, theater. This indissoluble mixture of reality and illusion in the world of the play provides not only the play’s humor and its heartbreak, but it marks Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a cornerstone of 20th-century American dramaturgy, a hybrid of traditional and new forms in the service of vital, pressing concerns.

Shortly after the play opens, we learn that George and Martha, a slightly graying married couple ensconced in the academy, are awaiting the visit of a hotshot junior faculty member, Nick, and his “slim-hipped” wife Honey. The situation is both intimately familiar and tantalizingly ambiguous, laced with the confluence of character, setting, and circumstance that drove social dramas of the period—and continues to do so today. Will we witness a romantic quadrille, a dance of death in which the two couples trade partners, or will we get sparring academic rivals, goosed on by their spouses? Perhaps we will learn of some long-buried secret that leads to a cathartic emotional revelation? Whatever promises to unfold, the ash-tray naturalism of the environment—an imitation of objective reality down to the microscopic level—suggests an experience of immersive intensity. We seem all set to sojourn with these four people for an evening, observing their behavior and surroundings in an empirical, almost voyeuristic manner. As in classic works by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, or Arthur Miller, the factors of heredity and environment begin to resemble fate, as the four combatants move inexorably within their naturalistic frame toward a climactic confrontation.

And yet, the four characters also resemble players in another kind of drama. Albee, who titles his first act “Fun and Games,” structures the play with a peculiar twist on conventional plotting, the tried-and-true reversals and revelations that drive most naturalistic plays. The twists and turns of action are still there, but one can never be sure of what is really happening, or what has just happened. The four characters, particularly George and Martha, engage instead in a series of potentially vicious yet strangely childlike games that intensify in cruelty and sexual charge, just as Albee appears to be playing a game with us, testing and teasing our abilities of perception. This internal theatrical structure is more reminiscent of the work of Samuel Beckett than the family conflicts of domestic realism.

In particular, Albee appears to evoke Waiting for Godot, a philosophical clown-play set on an almost bare stage, upon which the protagonists fill the endless vacuum of time and space with a series of comic gags and games. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also calls to mind the work of Eugene Ionesco, a contemporary of Beckett’s who specialized in tracing a deep vein of existential dread underneath the banal surface utterances and materialistic trappings of the petty bourgeoisie. In Virginia Woolf, Albee’s first Broadway production after an avant-garde apprenticeship spent writing one-acts for the black boxes of Greenwich Village, Albee hit upon a newly synthetic way of cloaking the metaphorical structures of continental Absurdism within the visceral confines of the American Naturalistic drama. The form is ingenious, a merging of heady, weightless abstraction in the flowing blood and pulsating guts of the human body. The resulting play often feels like a dizzying, physically exhausting, spiritually exalting tennis match that shuttles between two carefully interwoven worlds: the naturalistic imitation of reality and its absurdist, theatrical shadow.

Albee came to artistic maturity in a period in which art and life appeared to occupy increasingly separate realms. With Western civilization still coming to grips with the philosophical and moral legacy of the Second World War—including the bombing of Hiroshima and the horrors of Auschwitz—artists increasingly sought solace in the comforts of aesthetics. In the art world, the tonal extremes of “cool” Minimalism and “hot” Abstract Expressionism shared a similar aversion to representation, a trait noted ironically by George as the two couples regard an abstract artwork in the play’s first act. Meanwhile, Absurdism in the theater displayed a corresponding hesitation to fall back into the escapist rhythms of narrative, as if depicting a world in which progress unfolded onstage was unfathomable in the wake of an apocalyptic event. Much in the same way as their progenitors, the Dadaists in the wake of World War One, the Absurdists felt compelled to create art, yet were uncertain in many ways of how to proceed.

Albee’s approach, given its fullest expression in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, constitutes one possible vision of artistic and moral progress, a repurposing of avant-garde content within popular forms and vice versa. Such a formal juxtaposition between the everyday and the metaphysical was not merely a breakthrough in playwriting; it precipitated a generational shift in art and its social uses. Though he may technically belong to the era of Eisenhower and McCarthy, Albee is at heart a baby boomer, and this, one of his greatest plays, contains the glorious range of contradictions that would define the decade to come. By courageously collapsing the high and low, Albee helped to usher the Postmodern era onto the Broadway stage, much in the same way Andy Warhol would shortly make art out of mass-produced icons and the Beatles would turn disposable pop songs into musically sophisticated forms of generational protest. Like his similarly minded contemporary Harold Pinter—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is perhaps as close as American drama comes to the Comedy of Menace—Albee is a master poet of the absurdly real. And in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he allows a setting as familiarly domestic as a Campbell’s soup can to accumulate the potential dread, existential uncertainty, and internalized abstraction as provocative as any empty, post-apocalyptic landscape.