07 October 2008

Film Journal: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)


One idea which occurred to me when watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is that George and Martha, though adults, remain children due to their inability to become parents. The most defining relationship they seem to have is not really with each other as husband and wife, but as children under their father or father-in-law. These patriarchs hold the most power in the film, even though physically absent, and it seems that as long as George and Martha remain without child they will continue to be under their control. Thus, George and Martha’s attempts to have a child seem to be a way in which they can gain back some control in their life, by being in that position of power over their own child. Since they are unable to have an actual child, they invent one in order to feign order and control in their life, a false front that comes tumbling down over the course of a long night and an obscene amount of drinks.

The child-like qualities of George and Martha come out in several ways. I think it is more obviously seen with Martha at first, as she seems to be all id with her near-hysterical laughter, her manic change of moods, and her playfulness. George, who speaks intelligently and surrounds himself with the books on the shelves, seems to be more mature at first, but only before his third drink. George assumes child-like postures when he sits on the swing by himself and then immediately afterward when he trades stories with Nick. He also makes suggestions of games such as “Hump the Hostess” and “Get the Guests” which are obviously not games, but which suggest that George is more of a frustrated child than anything else. The way George and Martha seem to rationalize life seem to be to make everything into a type of game: the way they relate with each other is a type of power game; they invent a child and a story for it as if it were a game, which has certain rules; they play act with each other. It is these types of games which keep George and Martha going, simultaneously stimulating some kind sadomasochistic libido in Martha.

I believe the issue of parenthood is more important for George than for Martha. After all, it is the father figure who is the one in power and thus it is by George becoming a father himself that he can gain equal footing. It is significant then to consider that it is George who is sterile, not Martha. His inability to have a real child causes him to produce a novel as a type of surrogate son, a labor of love which also could not come to fruition. Martha notes other failures and embarrassments of George throughout the night – his getting punched in the face by her, his failure to become head of the department – and it becomes clear that the burden of not being parents, rich, or of status lies on George’s shoulders. I think it is then appropriate that George is the one to kill the imaginary child by the film’s conclusion. This may be the first assertive act towards a renewed relationship and life that George has taken, a symbolic killing of the games he and Martha play and the hint of ascension from childhood to adulthood. This is reinforced through the idea of hope by the final shot of joined hands and dawn’s light coming in through the window, an image that could come from any family melodrama (All That Heaven Allows, for example) to signify a happy ending. Though George is still not able to become a parent, the killing of the fake son suggests that he is at least no longer a child; maybe it is the shift from childhood to manhood.

1 comment:

James said...

These are very interesting thoughts on Albee's underlying aspects of his play. I recall watching this film long ago from a VHS tape. If I remember correctly, the film has a haunting subtle score and the cinematography is wonderful ... dutch angles are used at times, I think. This is one of the only films in history to have the entire cast nominated for Oscars. I have ALWAYS wanted to see this performed. Twice in my life it has been revived on Broadway and the last time I had a chance to see it, but blew it. Lost opportunity. This must be a powerhouse performed live in front of your eyes. The only Albee play I saw was THE GOAT on Broadway with Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruhl. It was shocking and exciting ... another play about a marriage imploding.