Saturday, 16 March 2013

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


I came across a brilliant article by Buddhist writer David Loy entitled “Bubbles of Delusion with some Sex” on the OBC Connect forum about how human beings can create microcosms of denial within families and other groups which facilitate abuse.

It encouraged me to revisit a show we did back in April 2009.  We covered the career of George Segal and his performance in the superb “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. The 1966 film is the film version of Edward Albee’s 1962 play of the same name.

Middle aged academic George Washington (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) invite a younger academic (Nick/George Segal) and his wife (Honey/Sandy Denny) to their home for a drink.   It’s George and Martha’s home, it’s their “bubble”,  and the dysfunctional, co-dependent, heavy drinking couple spend the evening belittling, abusing and terrorising each other before turning on their guests. Their behaviour is typical of emotional abusers; insults and humiliation disguised as “jokes” where, should the victim speak up, he will be accused of having “no sense of humour”.  Martha’s father is the President of the University and the surface gloss the couple present is one of social respectability and kindly networking with junior members of the establishment.  Blindsided, Nick and Honey know something is “wrong” but are powerless to escape, bound by the ‘rules’ of the fantasy world created by the Washingtons,  rules which the Washingtons do not adhere to themselves. They are deceived by the Washingtons show of magnanimity and narcissistic largesse and by the time they reveal their true colours it is too late.  The Washingtons have created a cult of mutual abuse which they are determined to play out in front of an audience, as if the involvement of other people validates their disordered behaviour. George and Martha  are frozen in a relational folie a deux, simultaneously needing others yet  needing to destroy others at the same time. There are several moments when the glass almost shatters, Martha talks about things “snapping” and says “Truth or illusion, George, doesn’t it matter to you at all?”.  Just as it seems that reality is going to intervene (the film has recurrent images of illumination; lights being switched on and shots of the full moon) the bubble re-inflates. The Washingtons clearly consider Nick and Honey to be rank and file subordinates, there to serve their projective needs, yet they are also envious and jealous of them, raging at those they consider inferior and unworthy as Nick and Honey’s “normal” marriage shatters their fragile, inflated and grandiose self image. Nick is not once addressed by his name throughout the film.

Given the Washingtons are named after America’s first couple it seems undoubted that Albee is trying to make a wider point about the collective bubbles in which we live.  Their “power” and respectable façade is borrowed in the first place, it is the university which employs George and Martha’s father which has the gravitas and George and Martha assume it by proxy. Arguably, universities themselves have only the ‘power’ society is encouraged, even deluded, into according them. So the ‘bubbles’ expand, ever out, or inward.   The failure of the Washingtons to support one another renders their marriage, a supposed cornerstone of “society”, nihilistic.

Loy’s article discusses the need for us to free ourselves from society’s collective delusions “Such group bubbles of denial” he writes “become much more difficult to dispel, or even become aware of, because people consciously or subconsciously believe they benefit by not seeing them.”. I recently read an article on Fred Phleps (leader of the Westboro Baptist Church) who, I understand,  is banned from entering the UK. He intimidated, bullied and abused his own children ensuring, unbelievably, their compliance and devotion.  Those reading in the UK cannot be unaware of the recent scandal surrounding the BBC after allegations that a very well known media celebrity had been abusing children on BBC premises, unchallenged by those around him despite suggestions his peccadilloes were well known.  Whilst the façade may be comforting it is, ultimately, damaging to the individual and to society.

The film is 131 minutes long (I’m with Hitchcock on this) but the original stage play ran for 3 hours! At 32, Taylor was too young to play Martha and gained weight for the role (this was the reason for filming in black and white). She won an Oscar for the role, and rightly deserved as she rocks!  Burton on the other had is awful; hammy, laboured and seemingly unable to understand the material he is delivering.  Given what we now know about the Burton/Taylor marriage this is, tragically, ironic.  

I found the David Loy article here:
There’s also another version in The Huffington Post about global warming – I’m not sure which is the earlier.
Don’t forget, we’re on air today 16th March between 4-5 GMT.

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