Few plays are as raw as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The great American playwright Edward Albee’s 1962 magnum opus is over three hours long, has two intervals and fizzes with the fury of a vicious marriage between two bitter intellectuals who hold each other in even more contempt than their youthful, vacuous guests, Nick and Honey.
The play steamrollers you like a train, the dialogue thundering from the stage at a furious rate of twisted knots. It is funny and witty, vulgar and peculiar, intense and, sometimes, impenetrable. Like Harold Pinter, but (even) less nice.
The violence of George and Martha’s relationship and the verbal assaults they launch on each other are so absurdly aggressive that, even after the source of their mutual disdain and delusion (spoiler: their inability to have children) has been revealed at the play’s climax, it still seems more than a little overwrought. It feels, somehow, a bit much.
Albee won three Pulitzer Prizes during his illustrious career, but was denied a fourth for Virginia Woolf, because of the “vulgarity” of its language, according to the judges. The point, of course, is to depict not only a marriage, but a civilisation, in meltdown. It is no accident that it is set in the fictional, surely doomed, New England university town of “New Carthage”. Despite the triumph of Trumpian politics and speech across the Atlantic, Albee’s depiction of the pure coarseness of American society still sounds outlandish, perhaps, to timorous Scottish ears.
Their use and abuse of the old ‘demon drink’, however, is all too familiar to an Edinburgh audience. The quantity of alcohol consumed by all four characters is vast. It is at once their medicine and destruction; it both keeps them going through the need for sleep, numbing the pain of a life of disappointment, and fuels their endless fights, both petty and profound. Then as now, here as over there, it seems that capitalist society simply cannot survive with, or without, inebriation.
Half a century after the famous film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, a new production by Rapture Theatre came to Scotland’s capital for a short run of five performances (24 – 27 May). The Friday evening performance was particularly intense in the King’s Theatre, because of the remarkable early summer heat. The nearby Meadows was heaving with students and littered with disposable barbecues in the 32 degree glow until the late sunset. Inside a stuffy theatre was not exactly where my friend and I longed to be on such a glorious night, but, for art, we nobly suffered.
Albee withheld his blessing from a production of Virginia Woolf before his death in 2016 which wished to reimagine and cast George, Martha, Nick and Honey as two couples of gay men, despite being gay himself. (His estate recently courted controversy by also rejecting a proposed staging of the play involving a black actor, arguing that Albee’s characters, as he originally wrote them, are not just unambiguously straight, but unambiguously white.)
For Albee, as he said in 2011, a writer who “happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay.” Many gay men and women, whether in public life or not, understandably express a similar reluctance to Albee to having their sexuality as a constant prefix to their lives and careers. They do not want to be seen or referred to as a “gay politician”, a “gay footballer” or a “gay teacher” – they simply want to be politicians, footballers and teachers like everyone else.
But all art is unavoidably autobiographical, in one way or another. All art, like everything brilliant or banal that we say or do, is both reflective and constitutive of who we are – that is, it both mirrors us and makes us.
What we say and do – and write – is who we are or, at least, who we become. As former Prime Minister, bouffant connoisseur and virulent homophobe Margaret Thatcher was supposedly fond of incanting: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny”.
It is surely inevitable in this way that the experiences, predilections and prejudices of the artist slip into the art. They are, at the very least, hardly irrelevant. The identity of the writer is hardly unrelated to the prose. The French reactionary Michel Houellebecq, whose forceful, fascinating works have an almost confessional quality, noted in his 2015 novel Submission: “To love a book is, above all, to love its author”. “Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships,” he writes of authors, “we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know.” Indeed Albee himself, in the very same year as he elsewhere disavowed his status as a “gay writer”, told the Telegraph: “The work is the essence of the person”.
Whether we intend this or not scarcely matters. As Albee’s Guardian obituary put it: “Although Albee disliked critical analysis of his plays, especially when the readings were autobiographical, even he would concede in interviews that the recurrent concern of his plays with ambiguous identity and parental failure – or failure to become parents – was likely rooted in his own experiences”. He even admitted, for example, to playing “get the guests”, George’s rather disconcerting party “game” which dominates Virginia Woolf’s second act, in real life.
Yet Albee continued to resist this narrative by which he could not abide, but from which he also could never escape, throughout his life. “People don’t know anything about themselves,” he once said. “They shouldn’t write about themselves.” Albee, on the face of it at least, had little time for the familiar maxim to ‘write what you know’ – despite the fact it has given us countless celebrated works, not least by great gay writers like James Baldwin, L.P. Hartley and Colm Tóibín.
All this is not to say that gay writers should not “transcend self”. Albee was right: they should – and they do. Rather, it is to say that gay writers do not have to produce ‘straight art’ to do so, as the critical and commercial success of Baldwin, Hartley and Tóibín testify. It would be absurd to suggest that, say, the 1956 Baldwin classic Giovanni’s Room was somehow hampered by its gay and semi-autobiographical content.
Art is universal and speaks to the human condition. But the implication – inherent in the insistence that “I am not a gay writer” – that writers who “happen to be gay”, as Albee puts it, must write about straight characters, straight culture and straight issues in order to “transcend self” is, frankly, bollocks.
It implies that gay art by gay artists is not universal or cannot be understood by a straight audience. Are straight writers required to write about gay characters, gay culture and gay issues before they are taken seriously? Do publishers and readers demand that male writers write about female characters, female culture and female issues? Are white writers writing about white people attacked for tunnel vision? Are black writers addressing black history, or Scottish writers addressing Scottish history for that matter, dismissed as narrow-minded and self-obsessed? Of course not.
And yet, these absurd requirements are often still applied to gay writers. Talk of gay writers being “stuck” in a literary “gay ghetto” is as frequent as it is idiotic. The existence of a literary straight ghetto, populated by the legions of straight writers for whom the mere thought of writing about gay characters, gay culture or gay issues has never even occurred to them, is never contemplated and would, presumably, be considered utterly mind-blowing.
Gay men and women are entirely absent from the overwhelming majority of films, novels and plays. Award-winning US films of recent years like Moonlight and Carol have been revelations partly because their gay content, even in modern Western cinema, is so rare. Despite the prominence of the likes of the late Edwin Morgan or our current ‘Makar’ Jackie Kay, Scottish cultural output is, it has to be said, very, very straight.
This should hardly be a shock in a straight society, even one as comparatively progressive as ours, but it does raise the question: If gay artists do not produce gay art, who will? Who will tell our stories to ourselves and to others, the stories which will become our destiny, if not us?