For the Proust-Reading Stenographer

On this day in 1962, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered in New York. Despite the success of his earlier Off-Broadway hit, The Zoo Story, the explicit language and emotional battering in Virginia Woolf had made it a difficult sell to many actors and most Broadway producers in the early ’60s. When the legendary Billy Rose finally bought in, he placed an ad in The New York Times that was calculated to forewarn and entice: Rose was offering cut-rate preview tickets, the ad explained, so that “the Proust -reading stenographer can afford to blow herself to an intellectual binge.” To the stenographer’s boss, the kind of guy “who used to smirk at the naked tootsies at my Diamond Horseshoe nightclub a few years back,” Rose advised differently: “Pass this one up, sire. Edward Albee and Virginia Woolf are not your cup of oolong.” One bespattered opening night reviewer described the play as being “three and a half hours long, four characters wide, and a cesspool deep,” but others voted it Play of the Year. Virginia Woolf ran for two years in New York and was soon playing around the world — including Prague, where the production was retitled, “Who’s Afraid of Franz Kafka?”

The biographers say that people were afraid of Virginia Woolf — of her moods, her eccentricity and iconoclasm, mostly of her intelligence — but Albee said that he meant no allusion to this. One of the Greenwich Village bars where he liked to drink in the ’50s was called “College of the Complexes.” It featured a large mirror, and the real or weekend Beatniks who drank there were encouraged to express themselves upon it with bars of soap; Albee saw his title written there, and borrowed it. For whatever reason, the widowed Leonard Woolf went to the London premiere and wrote Albee to tell him how much he had been moved and amused by the play.

Woolf saw a slightly different play than Albee intended, the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship office having forced some rewrites. The British actors were not allowed to say “screw, baby” but they could say “hump the hostess” because “hump” was in Shakespeare. The opening line, Martha’s “Jesus H. Christ!” was not permitted, this replaced by “Mary H. Magdalene!” — except that on opening night Uta Hagen, the actress playing Martha, fumbled this revision, saying Jesus H…Magdalene.” Arthur Hill, the actor playing George, struggled similarly with the taboo on “scrotum.” In one of his longest and nastiest drunken tirades, Hill had to do his best with “millions of tiny little slicing operations that will leave just the smallest scar, on the underside of the…privacies.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at