Edward Albee’s Beautiful Venom

Shahryar Fazli in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_2335 Oct. 29 23.51When I was frist exposed to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a college student, I knew that something at some point had gone seriously wrong in the United States. George and Martha’s “fun and games” — indeed, their very existence — meant that, sometime in the early 1960s, the social consensus must have broken down more violently than I had initially thought. This is the only play to have been selected by the Pulitzer jury as the year’s best, only to have the prize stripped away by the advisory board (the trustees of Columbia University), on the basis of the text’s profanity. This was the annus mirabilis of 1963, “Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP,” as Philip Larkin argued, which was the year sexual intercourse began. Our threshold for impiety has risen dramatically since then, but Woolf retains its power to disturb. If anything, the modern viewer, no longer shocked by the play’s sexual candor, may be all the more sensitive to the other bugs circulating within.

I came to the play through Mike Nichols’s 1966 movie version, and then — forgive the pun — wolfed down most of the Albee inventory. His work transformed my view of what theater’s ambition should be: it should disturb us, change us, drain us. In Woolf’s climactic scene, as George prepares to “kill” his and Martha’s fictional son, he responds to Honey’s admission that she peels labels (she’s been drunkenly peeling the label off a brandy bottle for a while), by saying, “We all peel labels, sweetie; and when you get through the skin, all three layers, through the muscle, slosh aside the organs […] and get down to bone … you know what you do then?” Honey doesn’t. “When you get down to the bone, you haven’t got all the way, yet. There’s something inside the bone … the marrow … and that’s what you gotta get at.” The stage directions call for a “strange smile at Martha.” As a novelist, I find it difficult to write dialogue without George’s soliloquy in my ears. It summarizes what Albee brought to theater. Every one of George and Martha’s lines, or those of Agnes, Julia, and Claire in the equally brilliant A Delicate Balance (1966), goes straight for the marrow, each exchange flaying the antagonist, layer by layer. This, I realized, was the essence of dramatic dialogue.

More here.