Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

186. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by author
Publication: Signet; 15th THUS edition (March 1, 1983), Paperback, 272pp / ISBN 0451158717
Genre: Play
Read: September 2010
Source: Library
Summary from Amazon:

When Woolf debuted in 1961, audiences and critics alike could not get enough of Edward Albee’s masterful play. A dark comedy, it portrays husband and wife George and Martha in a searing night of dangerous fun and games. By the evening’s end, a stunning revelation provides a climax that has shocked audiences for years. With the play’s razor-sharp dialogue and the stripping away of social pretense, Newsweek keenly foresaw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as “a brilliantly original work of art-an excoriating theatrical experience, surging with shocks of recognition and dramatic fire that will be igniting Broadway for some time to come.”


First off, two things:
1. I don’t feel all that “qualified” to review plays beyond “I liked it/I didn’t like,” just because I don’t have as much experience with them as I do with, say, YA fantasy novels. However, I’ll try my best!
2. Reading plays is a lot less fun than watching them. This is true for Shakespeare as well as Albee– and I’d lean more towards saying “watch the movie” and THEN read the play, because you might like it better than if you did it the other way around.

The author in 1961

That said, I actually really liked Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I read it twice: first just by itself, and then again after I had seen the movie. After watching the movie I could “see” how the characters acted with each other, how they moved around the stage and how they said certain lines better than when I had just read the play. An actor, especially a good one like Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton, makes all the difference in a character’s portrayal, I think. Without them, all you’d got is dialogue and maybe a few stage cues, and that’s really only PART of what makes a play.

Anyway, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? moves very quickly. It’s quick dialogue, a lot of vibrancy, a lot of movement between characters and their lines. It felt a bit like I had been caught up in a snowball, with no way to stop it from rolling downhill and getting bigger and bigger before it smashed through a house. By the time I got to the end my mouth was hanging open and I could barely breathe.

In other words, it was really fantastic.

In our modern times we’re used to plays being in your face and realistic. We’re used to weird settings and weird characters and generally, I think, we’ve become used to the more “modern” sort of plays, the ones where a character sits on the stage drinking a glass of water for ten minutes. You know, something like what Joey from Friends would be in. We’re a little bit more jaded, now, I think, than maybe the audiences of 1960 were towards their plays. So reading (or watching) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and still feeling that OOMPH of emotional impact is a really great thing, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough.

I must say that it’s not even really the emotional impact of something the characters are doing, because on the whole I don’t think they’re meant to be likable. My prof kept saying that they were realistic couples, and maybe Nick/Honey are realistic– but Martha/George? I don’t know anyone who treats each other the way they treat each other…but that’s not really the point. The point is that I don’t like any of them, but I got rolled up in their dysfunctional snowball anyway and couldn’t get out even after it smashed the house. It was enthralling. I’m still reeling from impact, so much so that I don’t know what I want to say about the themes and such in the play, except that if I ever get stuck in a house with a couple like Martha and George I am leaving ASAP. Seriously.

One of the best things, though, is that because George and Martha are so horrible it really brings home the fact that this was an unusual play to produce in the 1960’s, when most people were obsessed with keeping up the status quo and seeming “normal.” I don’t think you’d have seen many plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1961, no way. I like things that mark a clear starting point of some massive cultural/social shift, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of those things.

Anyway, I just really liked it. Anyone wanna get in this snowball here with me? I could use some company.


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The movie is great, btw. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor = YES PLEASE.

3 thoughts on “Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee”

  1. I completely agree that plays are hard to review from just the text. I’ve been toying with reviewing film adaptations of plays for my blog, but I’ve never worked up the courage to review just a play. You do wonderfully here.

  2. Whenever I read plays, I feel like there’s so much that I’m missing. Some playwrights (Tom Stoppard) are such incredible witty writers that I can read and enjoy the plays, but mostly if I don’t have some play/movie as a point of reference in my mind, I enjoy the plays far less.

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