Lessons from a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play about two dysfunctional married couples.
Nineteen years ago, I had the pleasure of working on the costumes for a production of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Intiman Theatre in Seattle. The 1962 award winning drama revolves around the tempestuous and volatile relationship of George and Martha, who cleverly share the names of America’s first couple, George and Martha Washington.
Intiman’s production of the play featured Denis Arndt and Elizabeth Huddle as the bickering duo. The characters are heavy drinkers, chain smokers, and are quite bitchy. Twenty years of marriage made them hard. The childless couple live in denial and slam each other like it’s a sport in front of their guest Nick and Honey.
“…Get The Guests”
It may sound kind of crazy, but I used my comp tickets to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to test a new guy I was dating. Phillip was very preppy: a gay Ken doll. What better way to get to know him than to see how he reacts to the drama at George and Martha’s house.
My date had never seen the play or the movie. Phillip asked me what it was about and I told him simply, “It’s about two dysfunctional married couples,” and left it at that. We planned to go out for a drink after the show and I assumed the play would be a great springboard for a conversation about relationships.
I was curious to see what kind of sense of humor Phillip had. Let’s face it: the play is campy. The subject matter is serious, but at the same time, it offers some tragic humor. The character’s sharp banter has earned itself cult status over the years in the gay community with much help from the Oscar winning film starring Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, there has been much speculation that Albee based his George and Martha off of the stereotypical interactions of gay men. The playwright adamantly debunks the rumors.
“Never Mix, Never Worry!”
Phillip and I were enjoying the first twenty minutes of Act One, when out of nowhere, we heard strange noises coming from somewhere near the stage.
The actors flinched from the noise but kept the play going. I looked towards the sound and spied a young man in the third row opening a can of beer and sipping from it. His companion in the seat next to him was doing the same thing. How could they not know the rule that no beverages were allowed in the theatre?
Martha was just gearing up for another round of verbal sparring with George when all of a sudden it sounded like something was wrong with the theatre’s sound system.
There was an echo.
One of the beer drinking guys was saying Martha’s lines along with Martha. Then the other beer drinking guy started answering Martha, saying George’s lines along with George. The two patrons were having the time of their lives. I almost expected the men to get up on stage and do the blocking with the actors.
The actors, as well as all the patrons, were stunned by the interactions of the two men. It was like the guys thought Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was being done in the style of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Some people were upset while others were amused. I thought it was a hoot, but Phillip was very turned off.
“SNAP…It Went SNAP”
Knowing there would be a lot of discussion about the incident, I went backstage at Intermission. I dragged my date along with me.
Elizabeth Huddle was a solid actress. She already had a long, successful acting career by that point, but she was shaken when she got offstage. She didn’t feel comfortable finishing the play with the two boozing patrons thirty feet away from the stage.
Back to the lobby, Phillip and I saw the House Manager and Stage Manager talking to the young guys. The men were obviously boyfriends and explained that they were big fans of the movie and watched it on their VCR all the time. They confessed that they had never been to a live play and were quite excited. Yet, they assumed a stage theatre was like a movie theater or a stadium and it was acceptable to drink and talk in the auditorium.
“It’s like the Superbowl,” one of them said with a tipsy slur. “It just wouldn’t feel right to watch George and Martha without drinks.” I kind of understood where the guys were coming from: the play is a game of offense and defense. Martha’s quite the quarterback.
The gentleman surrendered their beer and were reseated in the back of the theatre for the rest of the play. They were told to be quiet or they would be asked to leave.
Act Two and Three went off without a hitch, but my date had a sour look on his face. I could tell he didn’t like the play and he bailed on me after the show.
“I Swear, If You Existed, I’d Divorce You.”
Martha starts Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with a campy Bette Davis impersonation from one of her old movies.
“What …a …dump.”
Sitting with Phillip during the performance, I was doing the same thing the beer drinking guys were doing …privately, in my head. It wasn’t hard for me to learn all the catch phrases and lines from working on the show backstage. I find it fun to act out my favorite movie or play. So what if I always play the women’s roles?
After a couple more quick dates, I learned that Phillip was somewhat conservative. He admitted to me that he wasn’t into camp and didn’t understand why anyone would enjoy watching “that play”.
“I’m Loud And I’m Vulgar, And I Wear The Pants In The House Because Somebody’s Got To, But I Am Not A Monster.”
Nineteen years ago, I thought Phillip and I might make a cute couple. I remember wanting to hold hands walking from the car to the theatre. It seemed too risky …or maybe we both were too self conscious. I was too nervous to learn that he didn’t like me. And even though he was out of the closet, I knew deep down that Phillip wasn’t comfortable being “too gay” in public.
Not all gay men are flamboyant. Looking back, Phillip and I were not right for each other at all. Me and my politics were (and still are) too much like the beer drinking, Martha-want-to-be’s.Today, America is seeing the dawn of gay marriage. We’re already getting plenty of portraits of wholesome gay people having wonderful families. But I am ready for Edward Albee (or Craig Lucas or Tony Kushner) to write some gay equivalent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Jorge, Marcus, Nick and Hank. We need to learn about gay divorce some time.
It’s a time of adjustment for everyone. Gay people don’t have to camp it up at home in private anymore.
To Phillip, wherever you are: unbutton your shirt a little if you haven’t already.
Image Credit: Alan Cleaver/Flickr