1963. Night. The parents have gone to bed. Both my brother and sister married and now have families living elsewhere. I am the last chick in the nest. I'm a high school senior in the wilds of eastern Lancaster County, PA. I've tried my wings a couple of times and feel more and more ready to fly. Still, ...
The only light in the living room is the from the control panel of the Grundig-Majestic AM/FM/ Stereo. I've put the records on the spindle; the first record is about to drop onto the turntable.
I'm not a stranger to theater, although I'm a lot more familiar with movies. Still, my drama club has taken me to several productions at Franklin & Marshall College's Green Room Theatre. I was spellbound by All the King's Men. I loved a comedy about talking scales. Lancaster's Kiwanis Club (I think) annually put on a musical. I have acted in several of my high school's productions and stage managed others. I like and am comfortable with the theater.
I'd read about the controversy over this play. Since people were upset about it, I wished I could go to New York to see it...especially since others defended it as one of the best plays of the 20th century. I'd also read that a recording was to be made with the original cast. I was prepared to camp out in front of the record store in Lancaster, not unlike people do now for new Apple products. My favorite clerk at the record store knew I'd want to know the release date. He said he'd make sure there'd be a copy for me.
Original Broadway Cast (OBC) recordings were standard. Traditionally, they were recorded the Sunday after opening night. Even musicals that wound up being flops were recorded and, to try to recoup their money, the records would be released anyway. But these were recordings of the music, not the full show, and they had to fit into the limitations of the 12-inch vinyl disc -- about 25 minutes per side -- so the dance breaks and sometimes entire songs were cut. It was extremely rare that a new play would receive a full recording. And it would be on 4 LPs. I started saving money.
I turn on the turntable. The sound is turned way down...I know the parents probably would not approve. Still, ... I rest my head on a pillow facing the stereo. The dog watches, ready for me to lie down. Thump goes the needle, and my perception of the theater changes within seconds.
A woman's husky laugh. The handle of a door rattles, and as the door (presumably) opens, the woman, still laughing, nearly shouts, "JEE. ZUS. H. kir-REIST!" A man tries to get her to lower her voice. "Sh. Martha. For god's sake, it's 2 o'clock in the morning." "Oh, George," she replies. The two characters are perfectly limned within the first minute of the play. I've memorized the pictures on the cover and in the inside booklet, so I know what they look like and what the set looks like.
I grew up during the tail end of radio as a source of comedy and drama. By the '60s, all of that had become TV's domain. The general public's imagination, I now think, lessened. We no longer had to make up the characters, their movements, the set...it was spoon-fed to us. Obviously, one watched plays and movies, but that was different. That was in public. Radio and television were meant as home entertainment, and as such, imagination became a less-needed power.
Arthur Hill was an actor I somehow knew about. I liked him. I saw Uta Hagen's name in the Times' theatrical ads from time to time, mostly in connection with an acting school. George Grizzard made a few movies. I hadn't a clue who Melinda Dillon was. And yet with the help of the pictures I'd memorized, the effective use of stereo and sound effects, the words, and those voices -- God, those Voices! -- I had an encounter with theater that truly changed everything. By which I mean everything.
Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of a few major touchstones in my appreciation of theater, plays, drama, and music. I'd seen plays, although few were professional productions. But this was in a class by itself. It's a 2-1/2 hour roller coaster ride of language (not just the swearing, but the entire script) and surprise and hurt and hate and love. I felt guilty laughing at a line during a fight, but why not? Everything else about this experience was new, why not laughter during a knock-down-drag-out verbal battle?
I had the play pretty well memorized by the time I got to college. As I've said before, it was a small Christian college for small Christians. Nevertheless, there were a few people I played the recording for and they were as stunned as I. Twice, I was part of a reading/performance of it, always for invited friends only and never with the college's blessing or knowledge (although a couple of professors were invited because we liked them). I played George both times, frequently off book, and knew that I was born to play him onstage professionally someday. (Never happened.)
One performance was played as written; the other we dubbed as "Shakespearean casting," meaning 4 guys. Martha was played by a friend who really, truly wanted to play Martha. Frankly, it was more satisfying playing to his Martha than to the co-ed's Martha. Nick was played by a jock who also liked acting and did a damned good job. Honey...
Honey is maybe the toughest role in the play. George, Martha, and Nick are pretty well set, but Honey is kind of out there. The young woman who played it never really understood her, even after hearing the recording. The young man who played her also had trouble connecting. Understand, he was perfectly happy that Nick was his husband, and he knew there was more to Honey than a being an innocent. It finally clicked. He listened to the recording again and realized why Melinda/Honey had two infinitely different readings of the line, "I dance like the wind." It clicked. And he briefly stopped the show in the third act with his "Why would anybody want to wash somebody who's 16 years old?" I always enjoyed acting with him.
Liz Taylor and Richard Burton? Seriously? I couldn't imagine. I was somehow forced to go see the movie version....I really didn't want to go. I hated it. The script had been re-written so it would be palatable for the American public. It was a movie, so it couldn't remain in the house. I saw most of it on TV a few years ago. I was surprised how much better it got. Actually, Miss Taylor was pretty good with the script she was given. George Segal and Sandy Dennis did all right. Burton? Not so much.
I've seen two stage versions of it and tolerated both. In each, the actors (and director) were aware that what they were doing was Controversial and Dramatic. They were actors who were afraid of letting the characters take over. Most disconcerting, no one understood the rhythm of the language. Without understanding that there is a rhythm, a flow, a rare use of English and interaction of each character's words and language, it's just another play, at times not all that interesting.
As with the young actor's revelation about his Honey, I came to understand after the first live performance I saw how different my perception of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was. It wasn't just that my first experience of it was with the original cast; it was that I had to imagine it. And free from being mesmerized or dazzled by the acting, I was exposed to the voices, the rhythms, the delivery, the sentences, the words. It became one of those things that no other production or circumstance could compare, and that's because it was mine to imagine. I never ever felt cheated that I didn't get to see that cast perform live and in person because I had it live and in my imagination forever.
Even actors who are aware of the once-controversial nature of the play and their characters need to understand the language. It IS similar to music. I don't mean Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: The Musical, but take the 3 acts as 3 movements in an instrumental piece...I don't like comparing it to a symphony or a concerto because they're too big, and a quartet doesn't fit it either. But there are distinct patterns in the speeches of act 1, act 2, and act 3, with act 3 being the most amazing. I don't know that I'd have noticed it if I'd seen it first, but that idea of language being musical is crucial.
Sony has made available a CD reissue. Mine's on order, finally, thanks to money someone gave me on my birthday. I don't know that she'd like what her money was spent on, and I don't think she'd appreciate the significance. Nor can she know how anxiously I anticipate once again hearing a woman's husky laugh, the doorknob twisting, and the woman, still laughing, nearly shouting "JEE. ZUS. H. kir-REIST!" Or to hear the towering masterpiece that is the third act.
I have appreciated many of Edward Albee's plays, but Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a one-of-a-kind experience. Close your eyes. Imagine.