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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Who's Afraid of Snapdragons?

To crib the first line from Love Story: What can you say about a fifty year old play that died?

Not that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is dead. Certainly my version of it, where Martha is the dominant character, is dead though.

Dead. SNAP!

Dunno why I always thought the play revolved around Martha, really--perhaps because I saw the film version when I was a baby gay, and was all about Liz Taylor. Seeing the previous revival with Kathleen Turner didn't help matters.

Gay touchstones, both. Liz Taylor, when I was growing up, was fabulous. And I'd be straight today if not for Kathleen Turner's turn in Romancing the Stone.

But whatever. Tonight, seeing the current revival with Tracy Letts as George and Amy Morton as Martha, I realized just how much of the show is owned by George. My ages-old perception of the play was changed. Murdered. The play I thought I knew died. What can I say?

Thing is, the death happened just where it was supposed to happen. Second act. Martha delivers her speech to George about SNAP ("SNAP! It went SNAP! I'm not gonna try to get through to you any more. There was a second back there, yeah, there was a second, just a second when I could have gotten through to you, when maybe we could have cut through all this, this CRAP. But it's past, and I'm not gonna try") and I realized just how important George is.

My companion leaned into my ear and whispered, "She's so selfish."

And I whispered back, "No. She's beaten."

And she is! There are three games in Virginia Woolf. Martha loses each of the three. And if you don't know the plot, now's a good time for a summary: A middle-aged academic couple at a New England college invite a younger couple new to the college back to their home for drinks. George, a professor of history, makes it clear he does not like the new guy--a biology professor; Martha, the daughter of the college's president, makes it clear that she doesn't like anyone. Rather than break out the Pictionary or whatever games most people play at parties, George and Martha engage in their own private games with the younger couple.

The first game is 'hump the hostess'. The second is 'get the guests'. The third is 'bringing up baby'.

Martha loses each game.

Now. What I'm used to is this: Martha dominates. In the film version and in the revival with Kathleen Turner, the show is about Martha. Hell, when I read text in high school, Martha was the stand-out. The character of George, while occasionally assertive, didn't drive the plot. George seemed henpecked and weak, merely reacting to Martha's decades-old games. George was a victim because his wife was the daughter of the president of the college. George made the mistake of marrying the daughter of a man who could control his life.

 Not true! Tracy Letts' George is just as dominant as Willy Loman or Hamlet. George has so much power over the other people around him he doesn't know how to manage it. 'Hump the hostess'? Fine. 'Get the guests'? Gotten. 'Bringing up baby'? Well, he kills the baby.

A lot has been written about Virginia Woolf, and most of it is bunk. Here's all you need to know about Virginia Woolf: Men want to be dominant. Don't question silver-haired men. Men, when questioned on their authority, turn nasty.

Snap. Okay. So the second act (there are three acts--imagine that!) of Virginia Woolf ends with Martha's 'snap' speech. She declares that her husband, George, is no longer worthy of her sympathy or love. And she's right. George is a manipulative failure of a man. He is a failed novelist, and he is in the history department rather than being the history department.

Old school. The thing that Letts and Morton brought out, though, was that Martha doesn't resent George for being a failure. Quite the opposite! Martha resents George for thinking he's a failure. And that is why she loses the three games.

During 'hump the hostess,' she tries to get George to step in. To stop the game. He doesn't, and Martha gets a bad hump.

During 'get the guests', Martha has no clue of the rules. George throws snapdragons at her and at Nick. George screams SNAP at her, echoing the snaps Martha screamed at him.

During 'bringing up baby', George kills the imaginary child both he and Martha have created. [SPOILER: George and Martha have no children. They invented a child]

For years, I've thought Martha to be a bully and a bitch. Snap. She isn't. She's a smart woman trying to survive the early 1960s. George is a failure. But he's a failure on his own terms. It has nothing to do with Martha.

At the end of the play, George makes Martha cry. He puts a blanket around her and asks her, 'Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?' and she responds, 'I am, George.' Then, black. Lights are cut. Audiences rustle.


A lot has been made of the ending of the play. Is Martha afraid of feminism? The play was written just as women were demanding equal rights, and George bested her. Is Martha afraid of being less than a woman because she never gave birth? She does, in the third act, discuss what it is like to give birth, even though she never has had a child.

Totally the wrong questions. Martha is afraid of George, who is in control of the play, in control of her life.

And George is an asshole. He only plays games he knows he'll win.

Side-note: After the last scene, Amy Morton as Martha is broken down to her most raw. Seriously, she's a destroyed woman fetal on a stage stared at by 1000s of people, barefoot and alone. The stage cuts to black, and then light again for the curtain call. There are four actors in the show, and Amy Morton, who only 3 seconds before was landing the haunting line "I am, George," comes out. Her eyes still wet. Clearly baffled. She accepts the applause, but christ, after landing the famous end of a 3 hour play, it almost seems cruel to make her transition from "I am, George" to 'take a bow, toots.'


1 comment:

JC said...

You're one helluva writer.

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