When I was in sixth grade and my sister was in high school, I happened upon her copy of the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf screenplay in a family car ride to D.C. While she slept against the window with her headphones blaring, I diligently read the entire screenplay, for lack of anything better to do. When I had finished it, my middle school mind teemed with questions and confusion. Why was everyone so angry? How could all of these characters mistreat each other with such violent, hateful games ? What was the point? And, most importantly, why was that the play's title? Several years, a high school diploma, and a soon to be bachelor's degree later, I have the same questions.
I thought it would be interesting to watch the movie now, with an older and hopefully more mature mindset, to see what my then 11-year old mind was missing. Though I was still confused and tired after watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who play the main married couple in the movie) tirelessly berate and deride each other, taking with them their youthful and idealistic guests, I was able to pull a little more meaning from the story as well as the characters in it.
The story begins on a university campus, after an apparent party among the university's teaching staff. George and Martha, a middle-aged married couple stumble drunkenly home. Once home, it is clear that their relationship is less than perfect. George is sarcastic and demeaning, while Martha is taunting and vulgar. Neither gives each other a break and therefore, never receives one in return. While they fix themselves yet another drink (a pattern throughout the movie), Martha informs George that the young, new professor in the Math department will be coming by with his equally young wife for a late drink. It is gradually exposed that Martha's father is the president of the university and that George, a once promising history professor, has proved to be an academic and therefore familial failure in both Martha and her father's eyes. The story moves on from here in a haze of cocktails and crude, emotional games between Martha and George. Their repulsion for what the other has become is so tangible, the young professor and his wife are rapidly and unknowingly wrapped up in it. Throughout the movie, we witness the revelation of dark secrets and harsh betrayals, inflicting pain upon themselves and their guests.
However, the movie ends, surprisingly, quite calmly. The long night is over. The sun begins to rise. The frenzy of the evening cools and, like in the beginning, George and Martha remain, holding each other's hand.
The movie is both tiring to watch and intriguing. While I found many of the disagreements and behaviors of the characters disturbing, there is a sort of intrigue to the relationships in the movie, and a feeling that you are watching something too personal to see. The movie, as a whole, is not a feel-good flick. It's subject matter is dark and the characters are painful, pitiful creatures who emotionally and physically unravel throughout the film. However, it's unabashed desire to catch and display human beings at their most primal is something I have rarely seen in a movie before. The complexity and depth of human relationships is what this movie relentlessly explores, placing it's characters in abhorrent positions and testing the difference between passionate love and passionate hate. While I still don't know why the movie is called Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" I can surmise that it serves to make a mockery of the people that this particular movie centers around. The title is a song that Martha repeats numerous times in the movie, alluding to a joke at the party the couples had attended earlier that evening. It is here where the mockery may begin. Clearly, this is an intellectual joke, these people are supposedly academics, the movie is literally set on a college campus. However, despite their supposed intellectual facade, they behave like animals, selfishly and recklessly destroying each other with very little sign of remorse.
Therefore, though I didn't care for the movie much more than I cared for the screenplay after I read it, I can now recognize the boldness of the script as well as the hypocrisy of institutions such as academia, and marriage that is so definitively parodied.