On October 13, 1962, Edward Albee introduced Broadway audiences to George and Martha—a feuding, liquor-swilling married couple who changed the landscape of contemporary American theater. Exactly 50 years after its premiere, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is being revived at Broadway’s Booth Theatre in a crackling production starring actor and playwright Tracy Letts and Tony nominee Amy Morton. Read on to revisit the gin-soaked history of Broadway’s most tumultuous man and wife.
That’s New England For You
Before he became a legendary playwright, Edward Albee wasn’t much of a student. As a teen, he was expelled from both Lawrenceville High School and Valley Forge Military Academy. He eventually landed at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, but was soon dismissed, yet again, for skipping classes. Frustrated with the education system, he quit school and headed to New York City.
Albee moved to Greenwich Village, where he found inspiration in a 10th Street saloon. “I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror,” he told The Paris Review. “Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf…who’s afraid of living life without false illusions.” Nearly a decade later, the graffiti would become the name of Albee’s first full-length play.
Setting his drama on the campus of a New England university, Albee described an evening in the life of an educated, middle-aged and incessantly feuding couple: George, a witty history professor, and Martha, the sharp-tongued daughter of the college president. Enter Nick, a new teacher, and Honey, his wide-eyed wife. When the young couple accepts an invitation to George and Martha’s house for drinks after a faculty party, they unwittingly step into the lion’s den. Let the battle begin!
Fun and Games
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered at Broadway’s Billy Rose Theatre on October 13, 1962, starring Uta Hagen as Martha, Arthur Hill as George, George Grizzard (later a Tony winner for Albee's A Delicate Balance) as Nick and future two-time Oscar nominee Melinda Dillon as Honey. New York Times reviewer Howard Taubman called the production “a wry and electric evening in the theater.” But the abrasive language in Virginia Woolf wasn’t everyone's cup of scotch. In New York’s Sunday News, John Chapman suggested the play was fit for “dirty-minded females only” and contained “the most soiled and fruitiest language I have yet heard on a stage.”
Albee proved Chapman wrong when Virginia Woolf swept the 1963 Tony Awards, taking home five trophies, including Best Play. The play was initially selected to receive the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but the award’s advisory board objected to the controversial language and subject matter. Rather than award the Pulitzer to Virginia Woolf, the board opted not to grant an award at all.
Mike Nichols' film adaptation, starring volatile real-life spouses Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, was released in 1966. Taylor, who was only 34 at the time, gained weight and donned a gray wig to play Martha, a woman in her fifties. Burton, meanwhile, had to be convinced to play George, commenting, “He’s not me, that moon-faced chap beaten down by a woman.”
Going head-to-head with the Motion Picture Association of America, Warner Brothers managed to keep George’s line “hump the hostess” intact in the film…although the word “screw” was, sadly, removed. The movie was a success—Virginia Woolf remains the only film to be nominated for an Oscar in every eligible category, and took home five awards, including Taylor's second Oscar and a supporting actress win for Sandy Dennis as Honey.
We’ve Got Guests
In 1976, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was revived at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre, directed by Albee himself and starring Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara, both of whom earned Tony nominations. The drama was revived in 2005 at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin as Martha and George, with David Harbour (headed back to Broadway in Glengarry Glen Ross) and Mireille Enos (star of TV's The Killing) as Nick and Honey. All four actors received Tony nods, with Irwin taking home the award for Best Actor.
With its take-no-prisoners performance style, Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company would seem to be a natural home for Virginia Woolf—except for the fact that Albee had turned down every request to produce his edgy plays. "Mr. Albee was probably aware of Steppenwolf in its early days, with its reputation as a wild, rock 'n' roll kind of theater, and thought, 'Well, that's great, but not with one of my plays," actor and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts explained to the Chicago Tribune. In 2010, however, Albee was smart enough to sanction a revival starring Letts and Amy Morton, directed by his trusted collaborator Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park). "I can hold a grudge for no more than 25 years," the acerbic playwright said.
Hailed as “wholly fascinating” with a “consistently dazzling” performance by Letts, the production enjoyed sold-out runs in Chicago and at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in 2011. Next stop? Broadway.
In honor of the play’s 50th anniversary, the Steppenwolf cast (Morton, Letts, Madison Dirks as Nick and Carrie Coon as Honey) began previews on September 27 at the Booth Theatre and will have a rare Saturday night opening on that magic date, October 13. Dirks and Coon are making their Broadway debuts alongside Letts, who won a Best Play Tony Award for August: Osage County but has never acted on the Great White Way.
“It’s more of a football game than a play,” Letts said of Albee’s seminal work, adding, “It’s very exciting. It’s part of our cultural heritage now, this play, so it deserves to be celebrated. It deserves to be seen again and again and again.”
The production features Albee’s original script (“hump the hostess” and “screw” included), clocking in at approximately three hours of boozing and brawling, with two intermissions. “It’s a bitch of a play,” Amy Morton told Broadway.com. “It’s incredibly hard to do, and it’s very daunting when you start chomping into the thing.”
But those challenges are exactly why Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains fresh and irresistible half a century after its debut. “We keep surprising each other, night after night,” MacKinnon told Broadway.com. “Edward asked the company after our fifth preview if we were having fun yet. I know I am. Mountain climbing can be great fun.”
See Amy Morton and Tracy Letts go head-to-head in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, opening October 13.