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Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

Theatre of the Absurd was coined by critic Martin Esslin to describe a particular style of modern drama in the 1950s that centres on the irrational nature of human existence. Some of the principal practitioners- Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet- riddled their plays with nonsensical dialogues and esoteric argots to enhance a sense of unease and hyper-reality. Their purpose is often to enlarge the powerlessness of human beings when confronted by a world that seems exceedingly deprived of meanings. The movement, coincided at a time when people were gradually convalescing from the traumas of WWII, but would soon be assailed by more upheavals in the coming years, served implicitly as intellectual comments on the fraught state of affairs.

Esslin, in the eponymous article, redefines the notion of the absurd: “Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose... Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.” Many playrights had actually gone against such definition by justifying the layered meanings of the word- absurd is more than just a case of purposelessness. One of them was Edward Albee, who in many of his plays explored the “purpose” of those that invariably act absurd. He reckoned his characters’ absurdity to be more of a conscious effort than a naïve impulse; a devious but viable means of forestalling the awareness of truth by assuming a silly disguise and eccentric behaviours.

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Albee’s most reputed and possibly most blusterous, absurdity comes in the form of a charade, a dangerous attempt at fiddling with distorted realities and false illusions. At its centre is a middle-aged couple, Martha and George, who are in the death throes of an unhappy marriage. The play takes place solely in the couple’s house, where they are joined one late evening by a young couple, Honey and Nick, on a host of sadistic games and violent brawls. As the orgiastic fun starts going awry, Martha and George become increasingly affected by a story they casually make up, about their invisible, emotionally troubled son.

The film, a debut from Mike Nichols, takes its characters away from Martha and George’s cramped abode to their courtyard, their car, and a rundown roadhouse. This somewhat attenuates the unrelenting feel of angst that, in the play, resonates when the environs narrow. But any of such erred deviations are redeemed by the dazzling performance of the cast. Elizabeth Taylor’s Martha is ferocious, scathing and obstreperous. She clucks around her husband like a virago, drinks like a fish, and laughs like a lost soul bewailing her fate. There lurks beneath that doggedly matriarchal front a vulnerable soul that fears the contact of reality, and harbours an excessive idolatry for her possibly domineering father. Her husband, played by Richard Burton, is a decided contrary. At first laconic, brooding and submissive, his indignation at his perpetual cowardice bestirs him to commit spasmodic acts of violence, and to scheme for his ultimate revenge. One especially horrific sequence sees George contemplating a perfect ending to the story of the couple’s imaginary son. His pensive face is lit up suddenly by a gleam of viciousness that flits across his eyes, the moment when an idea dawns on him, and then he pronounces the fateful words: the son is going to die. Burton superbly evokes the inner turmoil of a misunderstood man, who takes ruinous measures to reassert himself as an unsympathetic tyrant.

George Segal and Sandy Dennis are equally brilliant in their supporting roles as the young couple, though both seem slightly eclipsed by Taylor and Burton. Segal is too mild throughout, and misses the significant moments when he should be impetuous and provoked. And after seeing Dennis’s intriguingly peculiar screen test for the role, I must say I’m disappointed somewhat of how, and confused of why, she resolves to deviate from that, and makes Honey an unhinged alcoholic.

Another thing the film does so well is cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s deft camerawork. His use of intrusive close-ups for moments of the characters’ heated arguments is astoundingly effective. But this certainly makes for extremely discomfiting viewing- it took me one day to read the play and four intermittent days to finish the film.


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