Chapter 8: FAM
FOR DIRTY-MINDED FEMALES ONLY.
A brilliantly original work of art -- an excoriating theatrical experience, surging with shocks of recognition and dramatic fire.
The evening was astonishing: laughter followed by gasps, as the characters wounded one another with words, as the play moved inexorably to its final catharsis. When the play ended at 11:40, there was a moment of silence, then thunderous applause, followed by curtain call after curtain call for the actors, who were high on the adrenaline of the evening. Amid the bravos, a cry was heard for the author, but Albee did not go onstage. Tennessee Williams was at the opening and came back again and again the following week. I, too, was at the opening, as was Tom Wenning, the drama critic of Newsweek. Tom and I shared an office, and I wrote and reviewed for that magazine. For some time, I had been following Albee's career Off-Broadway and telling Tom about his talent, priming him for this Broadway debut. As we left the Billy Rose Theater, Tom gave me a thumbs up sign. "You've found one," he said, meaning Albee as playwright.
At that performance, Abe Burrows said to Albee, "Welcome to the theater, young man," disregarding the playwright's Off-Broadway success. It was as if Albee were now a member of the "real" theater. There was no formal opening-night party, although Uta Hagen remembers hosting a party upstairs at Sardi's, and Arthur Hill remembers going to Albee's apartment for a celebratory drink. Because the play opened on a Saturday, reviews were not printed until Monday, although some of them were available in advance on Sunday night. With no performance on Sundad access to information that the good reviews were coming."
Walter Kerr's review in the Herald Tribune was an improvement. There were positive comments and quotable adjectives, but in his first paragraph, he said that the play was "a brilliant piece of writing with a sizable hole in its head," a phrase for which Albee never forgave him. Interestingly, when Kerr published that review in a book of collected criticism the following year, he rewrote it, and in all respects, it was reductive of his original opinion. He took back the word "brilliant" and it dwindled to "admirable," "two stinging acts" became "two exacerbating acts," and no longer was the play a "work of energy and distinction." In his review in the Times, Howard Taubman concluded that Albee's "new work, flawed though it is, towers over the common run of contemporary plays." In anticipation of the opening, Paul Gardner had written a "Man in the News" column on Albee for the Times, and in an unusual move, it ran in the same issue as the review. The article announced that Albee was "the first new important playwright to shake Broadway from its lethargy." In the afternoon Post, Richard Watts led the critical bravos. With his customary enthusiasm for Albee, he said the play was "the most shattering drama I have seen since O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night." For Albee and his colleagues, depression was soon replaced by euphoria.
On opening night, I had no idea that Virginia Woolf was going to represent my debut as a Broadway critic. I knew that Tom Wenning was ill, but I did not know he was suffering from terminal cancer. On Monday he quietly told me that he was unable to write his review of Virg inia Woolf. He asked me if I could fill in for him, which I did, for that play and for the rest of the season. Having taken no notes on opening night, I reviewed the play with some trepidation. The review was printed the following week under the headline "Game of Truth." (Since this was still a time when there were no bylines in newsmagazines, my name did not appear on the review.) In part, I wrote:
Albee's new play...is not only shocking and amusing, but is also as emotionally shattering, in its own way, as Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night...Virginia Woolf is a splendidly acted, electrically staged (by Alan Schneider), brilliantly original work of art -- an excoriating theatrical experience, surging with shocks of recognition and dramatic fire. It will be igniting Broadway for some time to come.
On Monday, there was a long line outside the theater. The box office sold $12,000 worth of tickets, more than the show's entire advance sale. The treasurer announced that he was "wrapping" one thousand dollars an hour. As the weekly reviews came in, it was evident that the critics continued to be divided. Harold Clurman, who was so enthusiastic about the play when he read it, began his review in The Nation by saying that Virginia Woolf was "not only the best play in town now; it may well prove the best of the season. Its significance extends beyond the moment. In its faults as well as in its merits it deserves our close attention." He had high praise for the dialogue, which he called "superbly virile and pliant." At the same time, he felt that the author's pessimism was unearned and immature. Robert Brustein praised Albee's wit and imagination, then took it back by saying, "Despite its surface brilliance, however, the play is hollow at the centre, and ultimately claustrophobic." Brustein's "hollow at the centre" echoed Kerr's remark that it was a play "with a sizable hole in its head." In the end, the passion of the response worked to the play's advantage. In a curious reversal, even the negative reviews seemed to sell tickets. Within the week, the show was building into the season's biggest dramatic hit.
Because the play was so long and so demanding on the actors, the initial idea was to limit performances to six a week, but when Rose said he was going to charge the producers rent for eight performances as in the contract, Barr came up with the idea of having a separate matinee company. Hagen insisted that she was ready and able to do all eight, or even "twelves times a week" if necessary, but Hill was not sure he would have the energy. A different company of four actors was brought in and agreed to serve as standbys for the evening company. Kate Reid, Sheppard Strudwick, Bill Berger, and Avra Petrides were hired, and the matinees sold out as well.
On Thursday after the play opened, I met Albee for the first time, for a feature story that would appear in Newsweek. Neatly dressed, with his hair cropped short, he looked younger than his thirty-four years. He seemed modest and reserved while still exuding an air of confidence, or rather, an air of someone who had received his just deserts. He seemed clearly capable of handling his sudden success. It was also obvious from that first encounter that he was a man who watched his words -- and the words of others. He was always listening, observing, and analyzing. Over a Ca mpari and soda, he said, "I don't feel any kind of elation, just relief. Maybe elation will come."
How did he feel about being compared with O'Neill? "If you mean that both Long Day's Journey into Night and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have four characters and they talk a great deal and nothing happens, if you mean that, that's pretty superficial. If it's a more serious comparison, then I think it's premature and I get embarrassed." About O'Neill, he said, "I was enormously involved in, enveloped by The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey. I'm sure Long Day's Journey influenced Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, just as Suddenly Last Summer influenced The Zoo Story" -- especially in his use of the long monologue reflecting on the past.
He added, "I've been influenced by everybody, for God's sake. Everything I've seen, either accepting it or rejecting it. I'm aware when I write a line like Williams. I'm aware when I use silence like Beckett. I like silence in my own life, solitude and stuff like that. In a play it's like music -- sound and silence." Looking ahead to the life of the play, he said, "There is no virtue in failure. There is no virtue in commercial failure. Nor should it be a god."
As it turned out, this was to be the first in a series of meetings between us over the next few months. Because of the success of Virginia Woolf, I suggested to the editors that Newsweek do a cover story on Albee. The idea was accepted, and I was assigned to write it. When Albee and I met for the second time, it was in his new apartment on West 10th Street, which happened to be directly across the street from mine. It was a large, hig h-ceiling duplex apartment, with cork-lined walls and a feeling of solitary splendor. Among many other things, we talked about the reviews -- as he emphasized, the "mixed" reviews -- and he singled out for praise the Newsweek review, assuming that it had been written by Tom Wenning, whose name was listed as drama critic on the masthead. When I told him I had written it, it caught him completely by surprise. For once, he was at a loss for words.
After only thirty-one performances, the play paid back its investors, who from then were able to reap profits. In retrospect, The Zoo Story -- and the ensuing acclaim and celebrity -- was like a pilot program for what happened to Albee with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Broadway did make a difference. He was put on a pedestal, occasionally knocked down from that pedestal; repeatedly interviewed, he was quoted, courted, and invited. On November 19, he went to the White House and as part of a delegation of tastemakers met President Kennedy.
In December, he flew to Italy to talk to Franco Zeffirelli about an Italian production of Virginia Woolf. He spent New Year's Eve in Rome, "as much as anything to witness the Roman custom of throwing bottles, furniture, and people out the windows into the streets at exactly midnight." With McNally, he visited Diamond in Florence and traveled to Venice and Milan, where they saw Rigoletto and also The Zoo Story in Italian.
Meanwhile, the Newsweek cover story moved ahead. Although reporters were unable to talk to Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco, one did speak to Tennessee Williams, and either misheard what Williams said or Williams himself misspoke and then had second thought s. In the article, he was quoted as saying, "Edward Albee is the only great playwright we've ever had in America." Reading that in print in the February 4, 1963, issue, Williams immediately sent a telegram from Key West:
I am sure that Edward Albee is even more embarrassed than I am by the misquotation attributed to me that he is the only great playwright that America has produced. Since I know that he must feel as I do that the mark of Eugene O'Neill is a great one yet to be reached by any of us late comers. After all true theatre is not an athletic competition and comparisons are better left to critics if they wish to make them sincerely.
For all the differences in their approach to theater, both Williams and Albee had a marked respect for O'Neill. Parenthetically, Williams also said in that Newsweek interview, "Albee is much handsomer than he appears in his photographs. Most playwrights don't photograph very well anyway. In fact, most of them look like a dog's last dinner." That quotation, of course, was not used in the article. Nor was Harold Pinter's: "His work exhilarates me. He's a cool, quiet, self-contained chap, a very amiable, charming host but not a garrulous man. He's a shrewd observer with a gimlet eye on life around him."
Flanagan sent me a letter offering to check the article for facts, an offer that I did not accept. Explaining his interest, he wrote:
You see, from about 1952 through 1959, let's say, I guess I'm the only person Edward knows who had any kind of complete picture of his life. And I know, for example, that you've talked a good bit to Noel Farrand who, with the best intentions in the world, is quite capable of c onfusing opinion for fact -- this out of a desire to warm The Past with a sort of Proustian glow...I realize that, so far as you are concerned, word from any one of Edward's friends is as good as another's. And it's quite possible that closeness to Edward, and my resultant tendency to want to protect him, makes me a fair share more suspect than anyone else.
The Newsweek cover photograph was of Albee, his brooding, somber face, hand on chin, in front of the cast in performance. For a cover banner that would appear under the words, playwright edward albee, the editor, Osborn Elliott, chose the sensationalism of SEX + SADISM = SUCCESS. After a strong objection, my choice for a banner was used: ODD MAN IN. When the article was published, Albee sent a letter thanking me for writing "an honorable piece." He added, "Of course, as I whined at you all the time, I would have preferred that the piece consider mine instead of me, maybe only because a man's work is the man, and a man is not his work -- not completely...by the way, where did you get the T. Williams quote from, the quote which he so graciously qualified."
The offers began to flow in to Albee -- for productions of Virginia Woolf around the world and for him to write articles, stories, screenplays, and plays on commission. To help clear the air of pretension, he wrote a self-interview on the subject, "How Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Has Changed My Life." He approached this as a child's theme or schoolboy's essay. Naturally he began by avoiding the question. Then he said, "People should be more interested in a writer's work than in the person of a writer. Writers, in other words, should be heard and no t seen. It is very dangerous for a writer to become a public personality; I can think of one American novelist [Ernest Hemingway], recently dead, who became so convinced that he was, in fact, the public image of himself that it did serious damage to his work. And the better the writer, of course, the more interesting his work in comparison to himself." Asking himself what he meant when he wrote his play, he said, "If I could tell you what I meant by the play in any fashion other than reading you the play from beginning to end then I should have written the play in a different fashion." He added that six months after completing a play, "I can no longer really recall either the experience of writing the play or the motivation for writing it." "An exorcism of devils?" asked his self-inquisitor. "You say it, I don't," he answered, in a variation of George's comment, "That's for me to know and for you to find out," which itself could serve as a motto for Albee's interviews at the time.
He admitted that some things had changed: "I'm busier, I have less privacy, I'm solvent, I travel a good deal more, I meet many more people," and he discovered, to his sadness, that people did not take Off-Broadway seriously. Despite his Off-Broadway success, it was not until he had a play on Broadway that he was admitted "into the fraternity." When people came up to him and said, "I saw your play, and I loved it (or, hated it)," they meant one play, Virginia Woolf. One reason why audiences were seeing it was its "reputation, unfounded...of being dirty and sick." Did he mind people going to his plays for what he considered to be the wrong reason? "Not so long as they don't come out of them with the same opinion. B esides, a playwright has two alternatives -- either people go to his plays or they don't. And while there are only two bad things for a playwright -- failure and success -- the second, I think, nurtures him better."
With the waning of Inge, Albee joined Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller in the reigning Broadway triumvirate of playwrights, though, of course, at that point he had but one Broadway play. But he was already working on his adaptation of Carson McCullers's Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and he had several projects lined up, including a play called The Substitute Speaker, which years later surfaced as The Lady from Dubuque, and a play about Attila the Hun, often announced and never written. There was also the opera The Ice Age that he was writing with Flanagan. It had been commissioned by Julius Rudel at the New York City Opera. Albee wrote one act of the libretto (dealing with Utopia in an insane asylum) and Flanagan wrote very little music. As the months passed, Flanagan was becoming increasingly frantic while lying to Rudel about progress being made. The opera was never finished.
After Virginia Woolf opened, countless people emerged from academia claiming to be the models for George and Martha. Often when Albee would speak on a college campus, which he now did frequently, he would be approached by someone saying, you must have been writing about so-and-so and his wife. How did you know them so well?
At Wagner College on Staten Island, there were many people who thought that Jack and Elaine Boies were the originals for George and Martha. Jack Boies taught English at Wagner and his wife occasionally acted. In July of 1962, months before Virginia Wool f opened, Wagner had held a writers' conference, the second one in which Albee participated at the college. That year he, Kenneth Koch, and Kay Boyle were the writers in residence. In the fall, the Boieses saw the play on Broadway. They began talking about it at a party at their house -- Virginia Woolf was a favorite topic on campuses -- and Boies said, "Who do you think it was about?" There were stares and doubletakes. The rumor started that evening and spread. A mutual friend, Dominic Lagotta, recalled, "From then on, they were under constant scrutiny. We would look for a glimmer of Martha in Elaine's eyes, a trace of Arthur Hill in Jack's voice." Elaine Boies always categorically denied the report and, of course, the chronology was wrong. In the summer of 1962 Albee had already finished writing the play. But the story continued to spread. Thirty-two years later, the long-running rumor appeared in an article in the Staten Island Advance suggesting that Albee was "inspired by the people he met on campus at Wagner College." Albee has always rejected such possibilities, except in one instance. If anybody inspired George and Martha, he said, it was Willard Maas, a teacher and poet, and his wife, Marie Menken, who was a documentary filmmaker. Maas had been the faculty liaison at the 1961 Wagner College Writers Conference and the director of that conference the following year.
Paul Zindel believes the suggestion that Maas and Menken, as a titanic couple, could have been the real models.
Here you're talking about two people who were intellects, who had a marvelous vocabulary, two people of extraordinary polarities -- and they brought Edward to Staten Island. Willard was small and rotund of varied sexual appetites, very nice, sweet, provocative, knew everybody in show business. Anything bizarre, cutting edge, freakish -- he knew them, and people sometimes spoke of him as a B poet. His wife was huge, six foot if she was an inch -- she was built like a football player. She had a Great Dane or a German shepherd that most of us thought was her second husband. There was a definite liaison between the two of them. It was not a warring relationship in public, but you could see these were two great combatants, almost like Colleen Dewhurst meeting Michael Dunn [in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe]. They were larger than life. Willard Maas died two or three days after Marie Menken did. It sounded like a fiction that they had created, that Willard had committed suicide -- which we assumed -- in order to create another story about their lives.
Zindel is himself an intriguing peripheral figure in Albee's life. A Staten Island high school chemistry teacher who was thinking about becoming a playwright, he took a brief ten-day course in playwriting with Albee at Wagner College. Simultaneously, he and Loree Yerby did their 1961 interview with him. Zindel was an ardent fan, or as Albee says, a "neurotic fan." He followed Albee, hounding him with his presence. Zindel recalls, "I was the world's worst horror, stalking Edward Albee, and wanting his whole career and wanting everything about him, and not the least bit fitting in with any of his thoughts. I wanted all the fun and glamor that he had." At one point, he said, he also "stalked" Tennessee Williams: "Tennessee felt my sting, but Edward Albee was my supreme stalk." Zindel went to the opening of all Albee's early p lays and was "blown away" by most of them. He flooded Albee with scores of letters, filled with wild fantasies and manic theories, and once sent him a present of a bronze crab because he thought he was being "crabby." Trying to explain his obsession, Zindel said, "I might have been in love with him. I think I was in love with a fantasy I was projecting. I was saying, hey, look at me, hey, notice me, let me into your life, let me be a playwright, let me have this exciting world."
He went to a preview of Virginia Woolf in early October and had the audacity to send the author a letter enclosing two reviews he had written, the first one unfavorable, the other favorable. In the first, he said it was "a sloppy half-formed play" written by "the Glimmering Hack of Coffee House Hetairae." In the second, he said that Albee "assured his place in history as one of the most powerful and important playwrights of the 20th century." With a kind of irresistible urge, he ended the second review by saying about the author, "This magnificent young man is vulgar only in that he doesn't pay enough attention to Paul Zindel." Albee generally did not respond to Zindel's letters, although he did read his plays. Occasionally he went to see them, always, said Zindel, "with a kindness, but hardly letting me into the privacy of his world."
Receiving this bizarre double review before his play had opened on Broadway, Albee felt obliged to comment: "I am in the middle of severe facial neuralgia, in great pain. If you didn't mean what you said about my play, please write me immediately and let me know. If you did mean what you said, go fuck yourself." Looking back on his correspondence and on his one-sided relationship, Z indel said, "I felt that was the first time I got through to him." He also believed that "the two reviews marked the end of Edward being nice to me." In fiction, such aberrant behavior might lead to an act of violence. In Zindel's case, it led him to become a playwright who would always be indebted to Albee as mentor. In 1971, he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a play that owes a greater artistic debt to Williams than to Albee. Ironically, that was the year that Albee failed to win the Pulitzer for his play All Over.
Virginia Woolf was such an enormous hit that it freed the playwright and his coproducers from financial concern. One of the direct results of the success of Virginia Woolf was the formation of the Playwrights Unit, created by Albee, Barr, and Wilder, to encourage the work of new playwrights. The workshop was founded in 1963 with profits from Virginia Woolf, and later received additional financing from the Rockefeller Foundation. During the eight years the group was in existence, it became one of the primary training grounds for new writers, and along with La Mama and Caffe Cino made a major contribution to the theater. Some 100 plays were presented, including works by Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Paul Foster, Jean-Claude Van Itallie, Israel Horovitz, Terrence McNally, Adrienne Kennedy, John Guare, Megan Terry, Paul Zindel, and A.R. Gurney Jr. Its two most notable successes were Dutchman (by Leroi Jones, later Amiri Baraka) and The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley.
Most of the people connected with Virginia Woolf, from the stars to the stage manager to the press agent, had at least a small percentage of the profits, which continued to provide them with income for the next twenty-one years, until the rights to the play reverted to the playwright. With his profits, Albee was able to buy a house in Montauk. It cost him only sixty thousand dollars and proved to be a very shrewd investment. Eventually he began improving his property, adding another house and a tennis court.
As the author of a Broadway hit, he was flooded with fan mail. A woman from the midwest wrote him a letter saying that she and her husband had gone to the second night of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and greatly admired his work. As the mother of an adopted daughter, she wondered if his deep sensitivities were the result of his being adopted. He answered: "Adoptions are like all things, aren't they -- marriages, friendships? Some are good, some are bad, even if they are entered into in good faith. The chemistry may not be 'just right.' And maybe the saddest of all things is an attempt at something in good faith where for some reason or another, that nobody can help, things don't work out."
The actress Peggy Wood, who was at the opening, wrote, "I must tell you how moved I was by the play and the performance. Moved to laughter, moved to pity and moved by the impact of greatness which is in that play." She added, "I will repeat to you now that I felt no one since O'Neill had brought such power to the theater, and I think you are better than O'Neill because O'Neill's dialogue was never brilliant." The scenic designer Boris Aronson wrote, "Seeing your play was a great experience. Never was terror more delightful -- a complicated theme more simply handled -- bravo!"
One of the more person al letters came from a woman who had taken care of children of neighbors in Larchmont at the same time that Nanny Church was looking after Edward. Seeing a photograph of Albee in a newspaper, she said, "Although you have gone a long way and so successful, yet there are still the same dreamy searching eyes of yours, and often a little sad -- that is really the way I remember you most."
By the end of the season, Virginia Woolf deservedly collected the major awards. The New York Drama Critics Circle named it the best new play by the narrowest of margins. The vote was nine to eight, with three votes going to Brecht's Mother Courage (which had its New York premiere twenty-four years after it was written) and two votes to The Hollow Crown, the Royal Shakespeare Company's compilation of scenes from Shakespeare. Two of the dissenters, Robert Coleman and John Chapman, voted for Tennessee Williams's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and Sidney Michaels's Tchin-Tchin, respectively, and there was one ballot for Peter Ustinov's Photo Finish. Despite the reservations expressed in his review, Walter Kerr agreed with the majority that Virginia Woolf was the best play of the season. It was nominated for six Tony awards and won five, for best play, best production, best director, best actress (Uta Hagen), and best actor (Arthur Hill). It missed only best supporting actress (Melinda Dillon), with that honor going to Sandy Dennis (for Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns), who would play the role of Honey in the movie of Virginia Woolf.
Albee's play was the obvious choice for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, which would have meant that it had won the tr iple crown for theater, a rare feat for any work. John Mason Brown and John Gassner, the critics who made up the Pulitzer jury that year in the area of drama, strongly recommended it. As was the custom in those years of the Pulitzer, it was the jury's only nomination. In his letter to the Pulitzer advisory board, Brown said, "Although I can't pretend that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? makes for a pleasant evening in the theater, I do know it provides an unforgettable one." Gassner said that the play "towers over the other plays and makes it impossible to make a second nomination" and added that it was "a flashing and penetrating work by the most eminent of new American playwrights." The advisory board of journalists has the final say over the awards in the arts. Three years earlier the board had rejected the nomination by Brown and Gassner of Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic and had given the drama prize to the musical Fiorello! Again rejecting a Brown-Gassner nomination, the board of journalists decided to give no theater prize in 1963. There were fourteen members on that board, and the vote was split. Barry Bingham, publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and Turner Catledge, managing editor of The New York Times, both voted for Virginia Woolf, Catledge saying that it was "the best play I knew of in New York." W.D. Maxwell, vice president and editor of the Chicago Tribune and a self-styled censor in his home city, voted against it because he thought it was "a filthy play," which, he said, was "purely my personal opinion and it's narrow-minded and bigoted and anything else you want to call it."
The advisory board's decision was a shocking disregard of the advice of its expert jury and also a radical attack on the theater. When their Hellman nomination had been rejected, Brown and Gassner said that "if the trustees overruled us on future occasions and gave the award to a play other than the one we selected, then the trustees would have to announce what our selection was." By not giving any prize, Gassner said, it seemed "to be an indirect way of getting around our vote." As a result, Brown and Gassner resigned in protest. "This is a case of advice without consent," said Brown, accusing the board of making "a farce out of the drama award." He added, "Whether you like it or not, Mr. Albee's play is the biggest and the strongest play written by an American this year."
Albee's public response was seemingly without rancor: "I'm glad my play was recommended by the jurors, but I really don't see what reaction one can have to an award that wasn't made...I wasn't counting on the award. If you start counting on winning prizes, you get disappointed. And if you don't count on them, it's a very nice surprise if you do win them." On the other hand, Barr rose in high dudgeon. He was "shocked and appalled," and because some board members had voted against the play without seeing it, he suggested that the awards be "reformed or discontinued."
The Pulitzer rejection turned out to be a foreshadowing of controversies to come. In common with poems and novels of the Beat Generation and with Lolita, Virginia Woolf was condemned by self-proclaimed moralists as a decadent work. In part that was a manifestation of the times, the early 1960s, before the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. and long before Watergate, when cynicis m was not yet endemic. Albee's play was a shocker, especially because it was on Broadway, an arena known more for its timidity than its temerity.
While the play was still running on Broadway, other productions began spreading out. Nancy Kelly and Sheppard Strudwick led the American touring company. The play was censored in Boston, where the head of city licensing said "it would be a mortal sin to sit back and do nothing while this cesspool backs up." He sent a letter to the theater manager asking for alterations in nine "irreverent references to the Deity." The producers agreed.
After about a year on Broadway, the play was licensed for foreign production. The first, starring Jerome Kilty and his wife, Cavada Humphrey, toured South Africa, where the actors had previously traveled with Dear Liar, Kilty's dramatization of the letters of George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. At Albee's insistence, Virginia Woolf was to be presented only before integrated audiences. The play opened in Port Elizabeth and then moved to Durban, receiving strong reviews (favorable and unfavorable) in both cities, with a more negative response in Durban, where one critic called it "dirt-laden debris." In Johannesburg, the press was more positive. But people who may or may not have seen the show expressed their outrage in letters to the government. In response, Jan de Klerk, the South African minister of the interior, ordered that performances be suspended in Johannesburg while waiting for a report from the official Board of Censors to insure that the play was "not contrary to public interest or good morals." In effect, the play was banned. Molly Reinhardt, writing in the Sunday Times of Johan nesburg, was furious, saying that the banning made South Africa "once again the laughing-stock of the thinking world." In order to resume performances, the producer suggested possible alterations in the text, including the substitution of ridiculous euphemisms like "jeepers" and "hell's bells." Imagine Martha bursting into her home and saying "Jeepers H. Christ" or "Hell's bells, what a dump." In spite of that attempted whitewash, the censors still continued the ban. In the Cape Argus newspaper, Owen Williams objected -- to no avail -- calling the play a masterpiece and "a very moral" work.
Looking ahead to the first anniversary of the New York production, Hagen wrote to Albee with deep affection, as "Eduardo mio": "A year ago you didn't have two homes and I didn't have this one which I can only bear to leave because I have to be so grateful to the play that I can't (shouldn't) let it down now...Well neighbor mine. I can't wait to see you on any occasion. I keep telling you I love you and I REALLY do."
Three foreign language productions of Virginia Woolf followed in quick succession in October 1963: in Venice, directed by Franco Zeffirelli; in Stockholm, directed by Ingmar Bergman; and in Berlin by Boleslaw Barlog (who had presented the original production of The Zoo Story). Barr and Mark Wright went to all three European openings. Albee was otherwise engaged with The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in New York.
The day before the critics came, Zeffirelli wrote Albee a long letter about the play and his production. He explained that his changes in the text were largely to clarify American expressions for Italian audiences. Then he confessed to a great loss in the production -- Honey, a character that could not be translated. Melinda Dillon was in fact the most underappreciated member of the Broadway cast. Then Zeffirelli mentioned the fierce opposition to his production, the anti-Americanism in Italy, the bitterness of Italian authors, and the skepticism of authorities. As Mark Wright remembers, "Franco's production was full of vitality and Italian expression, the German one was what I would have imagined as German Expressionism. In my recollection, there was nothing on the stage except big gray furniture and people in gray costumes, and very dour lighting. Of the three, I remember the Swedish one the least, but with the exception of the woman in the Italian one, it was the best acted."
In the Ingmar Bergman production, Karin Kalvi and Bibi Andersson were Martha and Honey (with Thommy Berggren as Nick). Andersson had seen the play on Broadway and suggested that Bergman do it at the Royal Dramatic Theater. "I thought it was Bergman's universe," she said, "with the endless problems with relationships and also that it was very symbolic." The imaginary child was "a symbol of the destruction of love. I've experienced it myself: there can be one word, one line, and it's irreparable and you fall out of love." In the play, "it's a night where everything is becoming clarified. They're testing their love to such a degree that they're destroying themselves. They go down together. It's not one who wins. It's like being in hell." Bergman staged the play starkly, with four chairs and bookshelves, "a little bit abstract, Walpurgis nacht, all in grey and black," she said. It was a highly eroticized production, one of the few Bergman did of a contemporary play. The fight was about ca stration, said Andersson: "The fight between the sexes was very Strindberg. Although it was a small part, it was the most important role I've done because before that I was always cast as very healthy. Suddenly they realized I had some character. I said, if she's called a mouse, I want to play a small town Marilyn Monroe, very sexy. She wanted to be something she wasn't. After that, I did Maggie in After the Fall."
In December, the play was done in Prague, and in a case of local adaptation, the title was changed to Who's Afraid of Franz Kafka?, thereby losing something in the translation.
Virginia Woolf ran for two years on Broadway, giving 664 performances and earning a profit of $750,000. Hagen and Hill were in the show for the entire run, with Ben Piazza and Rochelle Oliver taking over the other roles. Another company continued to rotate at matinees, with Elaine Stritch and Haila Stoddard, among others, playing Martha. Then, led by Hagen and Hill, the play went to London for a limited engagement of three months early in 1964.
With the announcement that the play was going to be done in London, Albee immediately collided with the Lord Chamberlain, who at that time was still the official English censor. His role, said Albee, was "to make plays safe for the Royal Family, if they ever went to the theater." In May 1963, Clinton Wilder and Donald Albery, who was coproducing the play, went to the Lord Chamberlain's office to discuss the matter with two of the censor's colleagues. Albery had made that journey many times before, with Waiting for Godot and other plays. Before the visit, Wilder decided that if the Lord Chamberlain proved to be intractable, he and his partner s were going to make it "a big scandal in the press." Wilder began in a lighthearted fashion, making it clear that they were not taking the possibility of a rejection seriously. The response was good-natured and friendly. As Wilder reported to Albee, "What followed was a hilarious hour of absolutely filthy conversation. Their primary worry is 'bugger.' I felt that we should fight for 'bugger' and then back down after we had won everything else since we don't need 'bugger.' This way we might get 'screw' when it means 'fuck' which is the secondary objection."
The play was approved for production but despite Wilder's optimism, the Lord Chamberlain took exception to much of the dialogue. There were pages and pages of requested changes. When Albee arrived for the opening, he posted the list backstage. "We laughed until we wept," said Hagen, "and we had long meetings about it. You couldn't say, 'screw, baby,' but you could say, 'hump the hostess,' because hump was in Shakespeare. We were allowed three Jesus Christs out of ten." The first line cut was the first line, "Jesus H. Christ." Going over changes in the Lord Chamberlain's office, Albee suggested sardonically that perhaps Martha could say Mary H. Magdalene. To the playwright's astonishment, the censor agreed. But Hagen was so accustomed to the original line that when she came onstage for opening night, she accidently said, "Jesus H....Magdalene," which confused everyone. Hill was not allowed to say "scrotum" in "tiny little slicing operations on the underside of the scrotum." It was suggested that he use the English expression, "privacies." On opening night, he said, "tiny little slicing operations on the underside of the...privacies." Later Hill said, "I'm never going to say that again." Among the Lord Chamberlain's other requests: "cheese" for "Jesus," "bastard" for "bugger," "bowel" for "right ball," and "propaganda machine" for "screwing machine." Barr and Albee suggested that the actors simply forget the Lord Chamberlain's requests, and for the most part that is exactly what they did.
After writing the play, Albee had sent a letter to Leonard Woolf, telling him that he was planning to use his wife's name in the title. Woolf gave his approval. Soon after the play opened in London, Woolf and Peggy Ashcroft saw it together and Woolf wrote to Albee: "We both enjoyed it immensely. It is so amusing and at the same time moving and is really about the important things in life. Nothing is rarer, at any rate, on the English stage. I wonder if you have ever read a short story which my wife wrote and is printed in A Haunted House? It is called "Lappin and Lapinova." The details are quite different but the theme is the same as that of the imaginary child in your play."
In the strange and mysterious story, a married couple in England invent an alternative reality for themselves as an imaginary pair of rabbits named Lappin and Lapinova, and use it as a method of survival. In the end, the wife, suffering what seems to be a breakdown, announces that her character, Lapinova, has been "caught in a trap" and killed. And that, says Virginia Woolf, was "the end of that marriage." Albee says he never read the story. In his play, of course, he suggests the opposite: The loss of George and Martha's illusion will lead to the continuation of their marriage.
Copyright © 1999 by Mel Gussow