/ Literature /
Last evening Jan and I watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the movie, 1966: with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor: after the play by Edward Albee. When I asked if she wanted to see it she told me that she didn’t recognize ever having seen it: did I recommend it? did I want to see it again?
Drunken Drivers, George & Martha
No, actually. But it struck me that if she hadn’t seen it, she ought to see it, as an esthetic imperative: like one ought to go to church, one ought to go to college, one ought to get into heaven. Well, now we’ve taken the rollercoaster, gotten sick, paid our dues.
When it was finally over I told Jan that I’d had mixed feelings about the play, about Albee, about the movie: the dialogue was brilliant however perverse, it made me ill while it impressed the hell out of me. In short my feelings were mixed. Jan responded that it just might be the worst movie she’d ever seen. Hmm, that’s saying something.
Mid-1960s Edward Albee was invited to speak at NYU: 1965, ’66. I don’t think the movie had been made yet. I was in grad school at NYU, had been there long enough to cordially hate the school, the faculty, the student body: was well along toward being convinced that they would never understand a word I said: or, did understand everything, and were unannymous that I had to be stopped. Anyway, Albee addressed the hall, the audience was enthusiastic. He had a small mouth, that twitched, high-speed, like a rat. I was embarrassed for the student / faculty audience. I illustrate: Albee said that he’d come to think of writing as kin to composing. There was a woman present who’d won some prize for her PhD thesis, she was due to graduate next ceremony coming up. She, looking like she felt obligated to speak, looking nervous ’cause she had next to nothing to say, said, Yes, I see, you write for this character, that character: like writing for the violins, then for the violas.
Yes, of course, I thought, but she’d be far better over the ball if she mentioned that music is composition of harmony, rhythm over time: you show, as Chekov said, the gun in Act One, then in Act Three the gun goes off. Martha mentions their “son”, bit by bit the son is revealed to be a fiction, everything in their drunken lives is a fiction, then George kills the little bugger off, wipes him right out of their dialogue. Yes: like music. You play the fifth, at some point the third, then the Root. And then again, modulate, by a different path.
Anyway, I stood there, embarrassed. Albee stood there: kind, cooperative.
Someone asked a question, Albee answered it by referring to the character “Honey”. “We know”, he said, “that Honey is lying of the floor of the bathroom …” “No”, I interrupted. Gasp! from all parts of the audience: this jerk has contradicted the great artist! Albee himself however withheld judgment. He looked at me to see how I’d follow up. I took the ball, I carried it, I scored.
Blasphemies, Secular, Sacred
Naming the characters George and Martha, then showing them nasty, vicious, sadistic, drunk, cynical is a blasphemy of the faith that is America: first president, first lady: no lady. And then George intones familiar prayers, in Latin, with Greek, as the first lady implodes. Christian blasphemy, every hind of blasphemy.
But that group at NYU were ready to genuflect. They were in the cathedral of big education.
Over the line, and over the line, and over the line:
One thing “wrong” with the play / movie was clear to me this time:
The dialogue mixes bludgeon blows with rapier thrusts among the characters with rapier thrusts. They drink, they insult each other. Where’s the actual blood? who’d put up with any of that in reality?
The play progresses with the audience believing that the characters’ behavior is symmetrical, as distinct from complementary. I shove you, you shove me back, I shove you again. That’s symmetry. Such battles must escalate. So where was the carnage? Why wasn’t the scenery littered with corpses? brutalized body parts? Complementary action can defuse symmetrical action: the guy says “I’m so strong”, the girl cooes, “You’re so strong”. The guy purrs, does Not clobber the girl.
This story gets energy from it seeming to be symmetrical, but turns out to be complementary. George and Martha’s brutality seems to be symmetrical but proves by the end to have been complementary: for years, decades. They feed each other. And the sap audience should stay home and mind its own business.
“Hurt me”, says the masochist; “No”, says the sadist.
I’m reminded of The Killing Fields. bk and I attended the movie with my old friend Madge. When I was over bk expected me to say something. I did. I said, “All I want is for everybody in the movie to be dead. And everybody in the audience. Such things should have no survivors.
George and Martha can move the party to their house, but it should be the last party anyone there ever attends.
After the DVD was over Jan asked if I remembered that funny novel I’d read to her. Samuel Beckett, she meant: Watt. Beckett keeps me going ’cause he’s so funny! Jan loves him, and so did Catherine: deaf, blind and crippled and oh so old, Catherine laughed and laughed at the Lynch family’s medical woes.
I’m sorry I never saw Albee again, maybe we’d ‘a been a million laughs.