By Peter Filichia – All of us remember the time when we got interested in theater and, for the first time, we read raves for a certain show that had just opened. “Oh,” each of us recalls exclaiming, “I’ve GOT to see that!”
For me, it was Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962. Although I was a very young teen living in suburban Boston, I’d already been following Broadway for more than a year. But until the morning of Oct. 14, I hadn’t yet run into a show that had so greatly impressed Howard Taubman of the New York Times.
“Towers over the common run of contemporary plays,” he had written. “It marks a further gain for a young writer becoming a major figure of our stage.” Richard Watts, Jr. in the Post was even more enthusiastic: “The most shattering drama I have seen since O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Mr. Albee can without any danger of fulsome exaggeration be placed high among the important dramatists of the contemporary world theatre.”
The following week, I saw what the magazines had to say: “The season’s most explosive drama … a night of electric entertainment, thanks for masterly acting directed by Alan Schneider and Albee’s ability to make audiences howl with laughter even as they wince with pain.” (Life) . “The highpoint of the theater season … a brilliantly original work of art – an excoriating theatrical experience, surging with shocks of recognition and dramatic fire.” (Newsweek) . “In the theater, there are ultimately two kinds of drama, the quick and the dead. Virginia Woolf? belongs articulately and terrifyingly among the quick.” (Time).
I HAD to see this play! But as a young teen, I had neither money nor parental permission to go to New York. I’d have to wait for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to come to me.
I was taunted that spring when it was named “Best Play” both by The New York Drama Critics Circle and the Tony Awards. No, it didn’t win the Pulitzer, but the fact that the awards panel wanted to give it the prize but the trustees didn’t – and didn’t because they felt it was “obscene” — only whetted my prurient teen appetite more.
Finally I was assuaged to hear that a national company would open on Labor Day at my nearby beloved Colonial Theatre. True, I wouldn’t see Tony-winners Uta Hagen as Martha or Arthur Hill as George – who were Nancy Kelly and Shepperd Strudwick, anyway? – but I’d already believed a statement that I’d later hear from Hamlet: the play’s the thing.
The moment tickets went on sale, I rushed to the Colonial box office and asked for a front-row orchestra seat for opening night. Hey, if I were to spend $5.40, it was going to be for the best seat in the house.
None was available for Monday, Sept. 2, but I could have A-5 for Tuesday. And that’s what I took.
In those days, my mother talked to each of her four sisters each and every day of their lives; everyone knew everyone else’s business. “Petey’s going to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? tonight,” she told Sally, Teresa, Elaine and Vera in that order. Well, the title did sound innocent enough, for it brought to mind the Disney ditty “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?”
Well! You’ve heard the expression “Banned in Boston”? That didn’t quite happen with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but those Boston bluenoses who’d attended the premiere got all their objections in order for Wednesday morning’s papers. The censors demanded that Albee make cuts or else they’d close down the show.
The news got our phone ringing feverishly in the early hours as Sally, Theresa, Elaine and Vera were screaming at my mother “Don’t you pay attention to what he goes to see?!?!?!?!?! What kind of mother ARE you?!?!?!?!?”
After each and every castigating call, my mother stormed over to me and roared “You are NEVER going to see another play as long as you live!”
Needless to say, it was a command and prediction that turned out to be quite inaccurate.
So imagine how surreptitious I had to be a few weeks later when I’d saved up enough money to buy the four-record set that waxed for posterity Albee’s play with Hagen, Hill, George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon. I snuck in the side door and hid it in the cellar until later that night when mom and dad were in the living room watching Lawrence Welk with the rapturous attention they always gave this pathetic entertainer.
Once I got it upstairs and hid the box under my bed, I quietly pulled out my lower desk drawer, behind which I’d hidden another cellar-to-bedroom-via-Welk purchase: the expensive ($1.45) trade paperback of the play. (Other kids had Playboy hidden in their bedrooms; I had Virginia Woolf.)
My parents had always accused me of playing my show music too loud, but they didn’t that night, for I put the volume on the lowest possible level. I wasn’t able to totally tune out the ersatz charms of Welk, The Lennon Sisters, Norma Zimmer or Myron Floren, but I did my best.
I’d read along to see if indeed every word would indeed make it to the album. Yes, the first words “Jesus H. Christ” were indeed there, getting the play off to a rip-roaring start and making me assume that it would be unexpurgated.
Almost, but not quite. Soon after George re-entered with a rifle, pointed it at Martha’s head, pulled the trigger – only to have an umbrella come out rather than a bullet. Martha in the script I was reading called her husband what we’ll delicately refer to as the p-word: the vulgarism for the male organ. Funny, isn’t it, that record producer Goddard Lieberson obviously felt that the word “bastard” was preferable to “prick.”
Flash forward many years later, when I’m living in New York and am planning to paint the walls of my apartment. What to listen to while I’m working? It’s going to take a while, so I’ll play something lengthy. Ah! I know! Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?!
Good Lord, it seemed to me that no sooner had I got on the stepladder that I was coming down again to change sides or records. Seven times I had to descend, take off the record, either flip it over or replace it, reset the tone arm and stylus (as we used to call them) on the edge of the record and start climbing again. The play and performances were great, but the medium was not.
Now it’s all on two discs, so those intending to paint their apartments (or do anything else) will have almost eighty minutes of uninterrupted drama before disc two is ready to take over. Of course, if you have a multi-CD player or work with downloads, you won’t even have to do that much.
While Virginia Woolf ran 664 performances – enough to then make it the 18th longest-running drama in Broadway history – this cast stayed in place for only eleven months. So it does capture a little less than a year at the Billy Rose Theatre – now the Nederlander where Newsies plays.
You may appreciate Mike Nichols’ Oscar-winning direction of Oscar-winners Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis, but you may well find Hagen and Dillon more to your liking. Taylor’s voice had a native sweetness; Hagen’s did not. And while Dillon mewed a bit, she didn’t have that strangeness of voice and mannerism that were Dennis’ trademarks.
No question that in the film Richard Burton sounded right for the professor he was asked to play; he was, you’ll recall, IN this university’s history department (as opposed to BEING the history department). And yet, his sounding so erudite and strong didn’t quite mesh with the oppressed husband that George was. Hill is more apt.
When Grizzard took the role of Nick, he was best-known as a light comedian; he’d just played the lovable if harried ex-spouse in the commercial comedy Mary, Mary. Here he had a chance to explode and show his real acting chops, and did. Albee was so pleased with Grizzard that he would suggest him for revivals of his Seascape and A Delicate Balance in the decades to come.
Virginia Woolf was one of the first plays to take a chance of playing previews and not braving an out-of-town tryout. (Well, where were they going to go? Boston?) When interviewing Hagen in 2000, I asked her how she felt during rehearsals and before those previews started. “I was the only one who believed in it 100%,” she said, squishing a cigarette butt into an ashtray. (For the record: I have never seen any human being smoke so many cigarettes in so short a time. As soon as she extinguished one stub she was lighting up again. And she lived to be eighty-four.) “I knew it would be a smash,” she continued. “It was too powerful not to be.”
It was such a smash that Goddard Lieberson felt compelled to pay attention. Not many plays have ever been recorded, but this one was. So put on this landmark, Grammy-winning recording and listen loud and proud — as long as you’re not a teenager living at home.