Edward Albee had an affinity for telling the truth. Not the truth that elevates the soul, but the truth that hides beneath the surface and forces us to reconcile with ourselves.
In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee wrote a snapshot of life on a New England college campus in the early 1960s. As with most of his work, he had no interest in what life was supposed to be, but instead delved into the actuality of life itself. This is not the typical mid-20th century life that we often see depicted on television or in the movies. In Woolf, we are presented with the portrait of a family brought to the brink by fatigue, alcohol and a secret that both sustains and destroys them.
Albee’s portrait of George and Martha’s lives is specific to the family that he was fleeing, as well as the time and people he depicts. So much of what Albee captured, or rather exposed, is specific. In a time of white picket fences, manicured lawns and perfect nuclear families, Woolf takes a look at the ideal family of the era and shows what happens when that ideal isn’t achieved, but the picture of perfection must be sustained.
The picture of the perfect American life has changed significantly in the last 60 years and the ideals that made up the American Dream then are no longer the only standard by which modern-day Americans base their success. Supportive single family homes and the idea of stay-at-home-dads are now part of the new norm. There are just as many blended families with step-parents as there are not, and nuclear families include interracial and same-sex couples. Today, the American Dream is a personal quest as specific and distinctive as each individual attending the theatre or reading this blog.
At its core, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a period piece. The Edward F. Albee Estate intends the play to be produced and presented as such. You will not see an “updated” version of the play because it is so strongly a reflection of American society at a specific time. However, there is something we can learn from this theatrical time capsule.
As Albee himself once said, “I like to hold a mirror up to people and say ‘Hey, this is the way you behave. This is who you are. If you don’t like what you see, maybe you should change.’”
Shayla Roland is former special programming manager for Ford’s Theatre. She is currently assistant producer for the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A version of this post appears in the playbill for Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Ford's Theatre