Scarlett and Rhett, Katherine and Petruchio — heck, Peg and Al Bundy — got nothing on George and Martha, the combustible couple at the center of Edward Albee's classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Their scathing verbal assaults, alcohol-fueled arguments and sadomasochistic mind games represent some of the most savage scenes in modern drama and would seem to make them the poster couple for dysfunctional marriage. Yet despite their volatile clashes, it's clear that these two characters need each other as much as they need oxygen to breathe.
"As you begin the play, you have Honey and Nick, this very sweet, young married couple coming into a den of wolves. But by the end, you realize it's George and Martha's marriage that really means something and that it's very likely that Nick and Honey are finished as a relationship," says the guy who wrote that ferocious dialogue, during an interview at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston, where Virginia Woolf is in previews prior to its Broadway opening at the Longacre Theatre this month. The complex dynamics of George and Martha's relationship are among the reasons it has taken "five to six years" to cast the roles for the first Broadway revival of Albee's seminal play in almost three decades.
When it comes to prestigious, brand-name dramas like Virginia Woolf, there is no shortage of boldfaced names who would salivate at a chance to sink their teeth into these corrosive characters. But over the years Albee remained content to wait for the right duo, holding readings with scores of A-list actors. He finally settled on Kathleen Turner, the sultry stage and-screen siren, and Bill Irwin, an accomplished actor who's nevertheless best known for his unique work as a theatrical clown.
"None of the combinations of actors seemed to work until this one — which was pretty much my idea," reveals Albee. "I was taken right back to the first time I heard Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill [who were the first Martha and George] reading the play. The same qualities were there. It wasn't just copycat. They both seemed to innately understand the roles and the differences in the roles. . . . See, you can have a number of first-rate actors, but if they're paired with the wrong people, the production won't work." Like Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Virginia Woolf is Albee's signature work and one of the great American plays of the twentieth century. Although he's proud and grateful for its success, he's always felt slightly saddled by its baggage. "It's nice to have a play that everybody knows you for," he explains. "But everything you write shouldn't get compared to the popular one."
The play's instant name recognition can be traced back to the 1966 film adaptation headlined by the battling Burtons (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) and directed by then-newcomer Mike Nichols. But its legend began four years earlier with the uproar that was stirred upon its theatrical premiere. Critics called the play revolutionary and groundbreaking and deemed Albee the heir apparent to Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd. But others were shocked and revolted by the play's explicit language, taboo subject matter and frank sexual content.
Then there was the infamous Pulitzer Prize controversy. As the most important new work of 1962, Virginia Woolf was the jury's easy choice for the Drama prize. However, the Pulitzer's advisory board, made up of 15 newspaper editors and publishers, rescinded the jury's decision and chose to leave the Pulitzer unawarded that year. When the trustees were later polled, it was revealed that five of the eight who had voted against it had neither seen nor read the play. "That gave them a kind of objectivity," says Albee with a laugh. "I probably ended up getting more mileage out of the fact that it didn't get the Pulitzer than I would have had it won."
When asked about his reaction back then, Albee insists that he was amused, not angry. Looking back on it today, he shrugs it off: "I think their decision was pretty dumb. But I don't brood about it. . . . I learned a long time ago, don't fuss over stuff that nothing can be done about. Just go about your business and you'll get your revenge eventually."
When asked if he's gotten his, Albee smiles and replies, "It's coming."
His vindication has no doubt already begun, thanks to the creative and career renaissance he has enjoyed over the past 15 years. After spending much of the late 70's and 80's in the critical wilderness, his comeback commenced in 1991 with Three Tall Women, a deeply personal play about his demanding yet distant adoptive mother. It earned him his third official Pulitzer; the first came in 1967 for A Delicate Balance, the second in 1975, for Seascape. In 2002, The Goat or Who is Sylvia?, about a man whose family life disintegrates after he reveals that he's having an affair with a barnyard animal, marked his first new work on Broadway in 19 years and earned him a host of critical hosannas and the Tony Award for Best Play. Theatre's enfant terrible had returned with a vengeance.
And you can bet that this 77-year-old rebel-provocateur isn't about to surrender his pen anytime soon. "I'm happy with the way I'm writing. My craft is more under control and perhaps my ideas are a little suppler and more interesting than they were when I was younger. I don't think my mind has collapsed or my talent has faded away. And I still enjoy it immensely."