Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Symbolic Foreshadowing:

Time poor participants to literary material, who perhaps crave relevance and linearity more than ever, should be encouraged to read for clues and to embark on a comprehensive thematic understanding over the briefest possible exposure to the text. By no means does this suggest that a play should not be read in its entirety, but that participants should challenge themselves to perceive its essence from a line, a handful of lines or a single page. Appreciation of the total play is greatly enhanced if a deeper understanding is reached from and by the play’s beginning. This is a surprisingly accessible task because great drama is deliberately accommodating in that it is structurally geared towards foreshadowing through visual clues, logic, focussed action and symbolism.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Symbolic Foreshadowing
Symbolism in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

The Symbolism of Geography in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’:

The immediate impression offered by Martha is that the interior state of their house, symbolic of their marriage, is in decay. She may be exaggerating through her Bette Davis impression, but George takes up a similar line in reference to the stowing of Nick and Honey’s coats: “Anywhere… furniture, floor… doesn’t make any difference around this place.” The sense of decay is clearly mutual. Honey’s “wonderful old house” reinforces the idea of structural decline.

The term, New Carthage, is interesting. The title may or may not exist according to actual fact; but is nonetheless quite real according to the genre of realist-absurdity, and in accordance with how George feels about his life. Taking the cue from history, if George and Martha’s house dwells within the bounds of a “small college” in New Carthage, following the analogy, the original Carthage will have been sacked by the dominant Roman power – in this case the university under the presidency of Martha’s father. Further, New Carthage, or usurped Carthage, will have suffered dreadfully at the hands of this dominant power: slaves will have been made of its inhabitants, the original city levelled and, if legend holds, salt poured into its earth to prevent fertility. This last point provides a clue concerning the childless pair: it is worth speculating on the idea that Martha’s father has symbolically killed any prospect of her daughter having a family because of his dissatisfaction with his son-in-law. He has played a powerful hand in fracturing or neutering their marital bond. The Rome-as-Daddy metaphor is certainly strong for George, and is a potent link to the play’s war references and fractious air. Moreover, it sets up a key idea in the tragedy – the power that parents hold over the lives of their children.

The fact that George’s sarcastic reference to Parnassus, another in a series of examples from antiquity, is lost on Nick is part of the history/biology tension and sets up the idea that history itself might be lost on Nick. The exchange surrounding the abstract painting can be perceived in two ways: either that Nick can’t comprehend the abstract or the absurd, only the rational laws of science and biology; or that George prevents or denies his access to the art, a faculty that is more closely aligned with history, by interrupting the young man’s attempts at expressing his interpretation of the piece. Either way, it marks the territorial domains of the two men, and presages deeper conflict between them.

A half-filled glass of alcohol may depict a number of moods, characteristics, and emotions: hedonism, carelessness, or absent-mindedness to name a few. The fact that, according to George: “We’ve got half-filled glasses everywhere in the house, wherever Martha forgets she’s left them… in the linen closet, on the edge of the bathtub… I even found one in the freezer, once” is perhaps a signpost to Martha’s discontentment, restlessness, and need to bury her pain and to spread this to all parts of the house. It is difficult to understand a drinker, as Martha is, not consuming her alcoholic quarry, other than to suggest an-hedonistic reasons and bitter unrest. In this depressed state Martha’s behaviour may also be symbolic of marking scent – after all, she has been likened to a cocker spaniel and a hyena.

First Line Investigation:

MARTHA: Jesus…

  • How might the ideas of cursing and blasphemy play a role in this play? (destruction / Carthage legend)
  • To what extent is a sense of dissatisfaction, that comes with this line, significant? (pain / loss / expectations / ideals / emotional fragility)
  • Is the idea of a saviour at all relevant? (son / rebirth / fertility / success / need for love and intimacy)
  • In what way or ways is Martha’s altered state of drunkenness that, in part, induces this line, significant to the play? (fantasy / versions of reality)
  • What evidence is there to suggest that Albee is criticising the post-war / post-modern American Christian ethic and the values that accompany it? (illusion / truth / acceptance)

Visualising the Opening Scene:

Prior to the arrival of Nick and Honey, George and Martha illustrate their bond through a turbulent exchange that depicts the unfathomable nature of love, in which acceptance and the tenderness of surprising surrenders are irreconcilably intertwined with discontentment, condemnation, and disgust. The oscillating nature of the scene conveys the elasticity and resilience often required of participants who are in complex, long-term relationships. George and Martha are clearly equals, each possessing an arsenal capable of landing blows upon the other. They are the God and Goddess of each other’s retribution. There is also the sense that George and Martha, in accordance with the ironic title of the first act (fun and games), are warming up, exercising, or practising for the main event; that they are, in essence, bringing us the Pre-game: a perverse test (not unlike the Crash Test or trial that cars are put through) to probe each other’s durability for the crucible of the long game – in which their love will be challenged to the brink of destruction.

Thematic Foreshadowing:

In the brief pages before the arrival of guests, Nick and Honey, there are definite insights into the problems within the marriage of George and Martha, reflecting a range of themes and their oppositions that will be carried through and inform the play’s catharsis.

The theme of discontentment within marriage is immediately felt by George’s shame at Martha’s boisterous ingress. That Martha is loud and insensitive at this time of night provides the suggestion of her moral compass, about which George is often appalled. Her response, “What a cluck! What a cluck you are” although endearing enough at this point, reflects her own dissatisfaction with her husband’s sense of propriety. It is also a mild attack on his masculinity and presages deeper, more personal insults against his manhood. That she persists in her demands for him to know the name of the Bette Davis picture tells us that the conversation has little to do with movies. That her demand is for one thing (“One single little epic.”) reads: “God knows, I don’t ask for much!” From Martha’s point of view there is also the suggestion that in a perfect world her husband would be more fashionable, more fun, more willing to engage and, of course – younger. Not remembering is a sign of ageing and the streamlined participation that accompanies it. In Martha’s eyes it is failure, even though she cannot remember the film’s male lead. Within the first half page the manifestation of her discontentment with George has moved from the moderate and endearing cluck to the altogether harsher dumbbell. Despite George’s weary disengagement, his belated single offering of 1930s musical, Chicago, fails to appease Martha or elevate his masculinity.

Symbolically referencing Bette Davis’ discontentment in the unnamed film might seem like a heavy-handed way to convey the couple’s situation at an early point. However, by underscoring discontentment so strongly, Albee is bringing to mind an important counterpoint. When people are discontented, not merely with their partners, they often develop the need for illusion. In defence of his failure to recall the film’s title, George’s relatively innocuous “Well, that was probably before my time…” brings Martha’s utterly mirthless overreaction: “Can it! Just cut that out!” Martha’s offense at the suggestion of her age demonstrates the vanity and emotional fragility of a person who can only perceive herself as a young woman. It comes as a shock to learn that she is six years older than George. From this tiny crack on the second page of the play it is possible to speculate on the depth of Martha’s illusion, and the gravity of the couple’s private pain and loss: she is clearly fixated on the time of her fertility and potential to yield the ideal of familial success – or upon the life-stage when it was socially expected but denied to her through circumstance or health.

The ideal of success naturally extends to employment and status, and forms a significant adjunct to the theme of discontentment. Martha’s condemnation of George’s lack of ambition, drive, and energy in his job: “…you haven’t done anything all day… you never do anything” reflects an era in which a husband’s success often elevated the wife. From the stagnation and bitterness evident in the opening pages it is possible to observe the nexus that so often entraps couples. Reasonably, at some point, George perceived gain by marrying the daughter of the president of the university, while Martha’s self-interest lay in marrying a man who would rise within said university under the tutelage of her influential father. The festering wound of these failed expectations, soon to be aggravated by the young guests and the ambitious Nick, further prefigures the need for the cleansing power of truth, acceptance, and rebirth made possible through the destruction of illusion. Indeed, a common interpretation of the play’s title takes from the musical theme of the original nursery rhyme of the Three Little Pigs (Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?), reflecting the fear of living in absence of illusion.

George and Martha’s volatile and often fluctuating relationship is summed up in these pages by two opposing ideas: the suggestion of Martha’s need for and history of infidelity, and Martha’s need for love and intimacy with her husband:

MARTHA: …He’s in the math department… about thirty, blond, and…

GEORGE: … and good looking…

MARTHA: Yes… and good-looking…

GEORGE: It figures.

That George can’t remember meeting anyone at the faculty party doesn’t stop him from possessing an accurate assessment of the nature and appearance of the impending guests. In her attempts to seduce much younger men it would seem that Martha has form, and George is emasculated and further disempowered in the wake of Daddy’s directive. Yet, moments later, after a potentially violent and aggressive moment between the pair softens, Martha asks for a “big sloppy kiss” and is palpably hurt when George rejects her. Perhaps George is withholding to retain a degree of power and status in the relationship – a theme further explored in the standoff to open the door. Perhaps he oscillates at all times between attraction, tenderness, and repulsion.

As the scene unwinds and plunges again into anger and mutual contempt we are introduced to the couple’s central illusion:

GEORGE: Just don’t start on the bit, that’s all.

In the instance that this is brought to light there can be no understanding of what it might convey. Nonetheless, a ‘bit’ is a term used in stand-up comedy, reflecting an element of a comedian’s routine. Only through Martha’s probing do we discover that George is referring to “the bit about the kid.” She understands implicitly, taking equal possession and rising to the challenge. In spite of the reference to stand-up comedy this is not a moment for levity. George and Martha’s ‘bit’ is a secret, private fantasy that reflects a profound need for game playing. The gravity of “the bit about the kid” will become horrifically apparent as the play unfolds; but of interest here is George’s suspicion that Martha will use it against him to engineer a calamitous betrayal of trust.

An exploration of marriage’s false public image can now take place against the voyeuristic vision of George and Martha’s private world. Moreover, the roller-coaster opening scene – a mere eight and a half pages – foreshadows the unfathomable depth and changeability of long-term relationships, the complexity of love and its versions of reality, and the many faces of those who remain within the married state.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Symbolic Foreshadowing – Summary:

This resource shows how to identify and locate acute detail and trains participants to interpret significant physical signs, portentous events, circumstances and symbols within the initial stages of a dramatic text. The idea that so much can be gleaned from so little is an inviting prospect for many time poor actors, theatre directors, educators and learners. Paradoxically, the monumental question of anticipating thematic concerns from such small, incomplete, or introductory extracts presents a manageable task through close study, and is an excellent means of conveying how great writers concentrate meaning with economy and purpose. ‘Predicting’ the through-line to a play, of the scale of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from limited evidence, furthers the analytical skills and guided imagination of participants; empowering them to glimpse the totality of the work ahead of them and to propose plausible resolutions. Participants should emphasise the appeal of visualising and locating a play from a line or a handful of pages, and that there are patterns of logic in the ‘decoding’ of dramatic material based on its crucial early moments.


Albee, E. (1979) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019

A review of actor, Jenny Rainsford (Fleabag), in William Congreve’s, The Double Dealer

On listening, preoccupation and physicality (and the comic genius of Jenny Rainsford!):

Orange-Tree Theatre, London, January 2019

Many directors will insist upon the importance of actor listening because true authenticity can only occur when actors are listening to others present in a scene. Listening certainly does enable greater connectedness.

But how do you tell an actor to listen, or that she isn’t listening enough? How do you encourage better listening among actors and, dare I say it, greater truth in a scene? Is this a question that can even be asked?

I recently saw Congreve’s restoration comedy, The Double-Dealer, in London. The actor, Jenny Rainsford (Fleabag), about whom this review is centred, gave the most thrilling comic performance I think I’ve seen because her listening was first rate. Consequently, every twitch and turn came with an embodied focus on her acting partner(s).

Here’s what appeared to be happening with Jenny Rainsford:

The conflict between presence and absence was played out because in each scene she appeared both fascinated, often mockingly so, and slightly appalled or disgusted by her scene partner/s. Physically, she was drawn in and simultaneously repelled by a factor that her imagination had engineered. It was as if her internal monologue read:

‘I know this person; I saw him yesterday. He had a nose; today he doesn’t have a nose. Where is his nose? Why has he gone into public without his nose? I better not let on that I know he has lost his nose. Does he look better or worse without his nose? I think he looks a lot better without his nose. No, come to think of it, he looks much worse!’

The effect of this, physically, on her performance was the persistence of an angular head and, at times, a slightly stooped, subtly liminal body that clearly communicated the corporeal reality of being caught between the states of certainty and uncertainty – a body that reflected the quizzical, inquiring, mildly incredulous, fascinated yet appalled, character; a character so deeply intoxicated by the preoccupation that her imagination had conjured, that listening appeared effortless and automatic. In short, it was the kind of physical performance that lifted the audience forward in their seats because the actor was at once coming and going, and dwelt intriguingly in this between-state.

She embodied the idea that action and truth in performance is, indeed, a by-product of preoccupation; presenting, at all times, the duality between the need to be present and the burning inclination to be absent. Clown coaches often stress the importance of an actor remaining uncomfortable at all times. In this respect, the discomfit of Jenny Rainsford (Fleabag) appeared to be palpable.

Click here for information about The Sticking Place Acting Masterclasses!


Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019

To the modern playwright…

Unfortunately, it is the spirit of risk management in the arts that has corralled the modern playwright into taking photographs from the known world. Rather than holding a mirror to society through the creation of fiction born of fact, modern plays reflect a quality that, more than ever, is too anchored in the rational world and too prone to offering information over drama. Pinter would be turning in his place of rest.

An example is Tricycle Theatre’s response to the riots in Britain in 2011. Such verbatim theatre leaves little for the imagination, despite a keen devotion to pluralism. Moreover, such plays have a limited lifespan, despite currency that gives them gravitas and sales dollars. Plays should be much more than a populist scoop or a disposable act of cultural realignment. For the accountant, sadly, artistic imagination is too terrifying. The issues-based play is the new symphony.

Pinter plays

The ideal… a case for Harold Pinter

The ideal is a play blurred slightly from the image or events of contemporary life. We watch it and say: Oh, that’s like such and such or, that could be about such and such. We use what we see and relate it back to our own experiences or events that have taken place in the world. Through this process we have a far greater capacity to analyse ourselves. We may be entertained, but we learn how to empathise. Our imagination is sparked because we are asked to use it in order to fill in the blanks that the playwright has deliberately left.

It’s not a compliment for an illustrator to be compared to a photographer.

This requires great courage on behalf of the modern playwright to not over expose the image (the working title of this essay fragment ‘Pub. 1977. Spring’ is the first note from scene one in Harold Pinter’s work from 1977, ‘Betrayal’. The modern artistic director or script reader would probably demand specificity, or ‘verification’ as Pinter himself would have lamented); but above all it requires patience to not reach for the loudest sound, the most obvious shape, or the most immediately newsworthy idea.

Some History…

The story of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Hothouse’ is interesting. Written in 1958, he left it alone for more than twenty years until the play premiered in 1980. The ambiguous institution that is the setting for this work and the ensuing bureaucracy stemming from it are clearly adaptable to all eras. It is subject to interpretation: it could be the NHS; it could be an asylum, and a comment about a nation’s treatment of its mentally ill. Ask the full houses that attended the Trafalgar Studios production in Whitehall in 2013 if their experience was lessened by the absence of absolute facts. They seemed to find the language manageable as well, and no less relevant or obscure by the sheer excess of words – that landed like jewels from within a thankfully sparse design.

Indeed, it was often the absence of certainties that transmitted a play to wider levels of interpretation. ‘The Birthday Party’, Pinter again, is a seminal example. In Goldberg and McCann, we happily concede to not absolutely comprehending two of the greatest characters ever written. Naturally, the play was a commercial flop at the time of its premiere in 1958.

The lack of absolute contemporariness is also the key ingredient in a play’s endurance. Shakespeare’s Tempest was ostensibly relevant to a society that was starting to dominate the world. One would have expected its stocks to rise by the fact that the ‘new world’ had recently been discovered. Perhaps human beings of the early seventeenth century genuinely were debating the soul, or the responsibilities of a civil society in relation to the ‘uncivilised’ or indigenous natives of the Americas. However, the play is not specific as to place or geography. It is an island. Somewhere. There is no mention of Bermuda and what that conjures, much less Jamestown, Virginia. The title does not help us either, other than suggesting the significance of a storm.

It is little wonder that ‘The Tempest’ gained little immediate attention – yet, had Shakespeare written an issues-based play drawn from the ethical and rational considerations of Europeans discovering the new world (sans magic), and provided a title that offered greater specificity, we wouldn’t be reading it today. Furthermore, it is the amalgamation of sources that influenced the play – as opposed to a single popular event – that has guaranteed its immortality. Shakespeare certainly understood the long game.

The Present…

Although I was a privileged theatre-goer during my period of study in London (and in two subsequent trips), where I completed an MA in Theatre Directing, I was also witness to prominent new writing theatre companies programming cabaret, music and dance. My experiences have reinforced the view that the quest for more measurable and immediately consumable subject matter in theatre has made language less prevalent and more linear. It is a war against uncertainty, and from Melbourne to London, the Aristotelian language-based play is under tremendous threat. Language decline is not just a problem for art and theatre. To reduce language jeopardises access and works against equality in society, by limiting the expression of thoughts and ideas.

A valid question, then: does the modern playwright have time for patience (to edit a play over twenty years in the manner of Harold Pinter), given the fight for relevance in the increasingly competitive entertainment market? The world honours the changing image, the stimulation and severing of attention, and filmic production values. The known image is the trusted image; the trusted image is the economically viable image. ‘Safety first’ was once the private murmur from funded theatre environments. It has long been a catch cry. If all art is quite useless, art that attempts to be ‘useful’ is a deadening experience. Art is a question, its imitation an answer.

To the modern playwright: news is for issues. Information is the natural enemy of the dramatic situation. Just because it happened doesn’t make it news; just because it’s of popular significance doesn’t make it drama. Just because we cannot completely unlock a subject has never diminished our capacity to enjoy it.

In far too many cases…

A word on contemporary theatre and the objectively dramatic situation. People often say that they’re doing theatre or that they’re in a theatre show. They become annoyed when I tell them that the show they’re in wasn’t in any way dramatic or that it failed the test of the objectively dramatic situation.

What’s happened to contemporary theatre, particularly in Australia (with its parlous arts funding state and the obvious cultural issues surrounding language-based performance art), is that it has become a mish-mash of styles and genres. This has essentially occurred, not because humankind has developed greater or finer means of artistic expression in the theatre, but because the opposite has occurred, in an age that has never been more accommodating to and inclusive of the mediocre, and more prepared to accelerate or fast-track the incomplete project due to process-based endeavour becoming increasingly, or generationally, unfashionable. It’s cruel to judge some of these projects too harshly: there is precious little assistance provided from above, and many of these projects exist because they are manageable and lack rehearsal and script-based complexity; given the immense pressures that are inherent within a capitalist apparatus that does not comprehend the benefits of artistic subsidy.

In eighteenth century Austria, if you purported to be a violinist, but couldn’t play, you were presented with two choices: starve to death or find a different occupation. However, in a wealthy, semi-literate country, the singular acts of writing, directing, and performing intensely challenging, language-based stories have been rendered less important, culturally, because they are less achievable and/or less attainable by the theatrical participants of the culture. An unconscious morphing or dilution of these artistic processes is the result in so many instances, manifesting as a kind of substitute theatre of not easily discernible artistic identity that seeks to accommodate, and to hide, the aforesaid deficiency. To sustain the above analogy: the contemporary Australian theatre landscape is replete with appalling violinists.

Theatre-makers, writers, directors, and actors: if audience members are leaning back in their chairs (or if they are not suspended in the liminal state between leaning forward and leaning back), it is because you have failed to ask dramatic questions, such as what occurs in the scene above from Macbeth (see above post). What has likely transpired is that you have become so enamoured with a scene or idea; you have said that it is important. The mistake you have made is that sociological importance has never naturally equated dramatic potential. I’ll say that in a different way: we can’t assume that just because something is important, sociologically or historically speaking, that it lends itself to being communicated in an objectively dramatic fashion.

The importance that you have placed upon the scene, moment or idea has likely meant that you have expressed this moment or idea in a way that rather loudly tells the audience. You know it so well. It’s so important. The absolute importance of this idea or moment, as you see it, has meant that you are likely to have killed the discovery by being overly literal. Killing the discovery kills the mutuality between stage and audience. It is probable that your production is some kind of biopic, perhaps a one-person show, or one that, nonetheless, takes advantage of pre-existent literary fame and populism; or one that explores a vital issue in society, or an injustice, in which because of your steadfast devotion to the idea of its importance, you have mistaken it for the collision of physical moments that are driven by credibly motivated dramatic potential.

Perhaps you are involved in the staging of an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays, again chosen because of its importance. The mind-set of ‘why this play, why now’ is likely to have escaped you, too, because it is unlikely that you are familiar with any form of pre-production planning rigour. You will justify the staging of Macbeth because it’s important. This cultural absence will see you trot out familiar tropes, and repeat or regurgitate the populism of the Bard, in large part because you are in a see play, do play culture that doesn’t have time or doesn’t understand the important role that time plays in the evolution of vision. Setting the play in 1960s Havana or reaching for some other historical hook or aesthetic is not the same as creating an overarching metaphorical blueprint. It is a cheap cosmetic or distraction that attempts to mask the lack of originality of the production: a trick that only works on the majority.

Or perhaps it wasn’t that bad; perhaps it was merely too profoundly culturally accepted. Either way: you will go to war about the importance of your subject, that was perhaps chosen because you overestimated its shock value or because you anticipated its popular appeal against a range of measurables. You feel that it is a story that has to be told. This makes you particularly self-indulgent (all participants in art are self-indulgent). You say that it’s a deeply moving or emotional devised piece. You assert that the emotions you present on stage are deeply relevant because they are felt by real people who are experiencing things. The possibility that emotional restraint on stage is linked to dramatic potential has quite possibly escaped you. The possibility that withholding emotions, from time to time, when emotions are justified or anticipated, asks a dramatic question that encourages the leaning forward of audience members has also, quite possibly, escaped you. Moreover, it’s a self-driven project because no-one gave you money. However, in telling it, what you have in fact done is to offer up the didactic regurgitation of information and the presentation of behaviour. This is the opposite of drama because it pushes people back in their seats. It is a type of answer; not a question. It makes the audience passive: they begin to wonder if they couldn’t have found this content online. And although it is likely that your sound design is excellent; you’re only fooling the people with the keys in this age, and the subscription or season ticket holders (who need to be fooled).

An old man yelling at clouds? No doubt. But don’t mistake being on the stage for being involved with drama. You are on the stage to play a role in communicating the dramatic situation. Nothing more. If there isn’t a dramatic situation in the work that you are doing, no amount of participation, wellbeing, texture, or singing will change the fact.

Drama is the tension between presence and absence.

Click here for information about The Sticking Place Directing Masterclasses!

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019