Last season on Broadway, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a stellar production that starred Tracy Letts (George), Amy Morton (Martha), Madison Dirks (Nick) and Carrie Coon (Honey). The production, which was directed by Pam MacKinnon, open on October 13, 2012, exactly 50 years to the day when the play first premiered on Broadway.
The Original Production
When Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? it made headlines. The play, which was directed by Alan Schneider, featured Uta Hagen as Martha, Arthur Hill as George, Melinda Dillon as Honey and George Grizzard as Nick.
It was 1962, a time when the American theatre was breaking new ground and dealing with themes and subjects it had never before broached. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was one of those plays that scrutinized American morals and hypocrisy in an open fashion. This made it controversial, as did its use of profanity and focus on blatant sexual themes.
The Times They Were a-Changin
American and the Broadway theatre was certainly changing and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? captured the energy of an era that was soon to ask the question “Is God Dead?” It seemed in Albee’s play that if God was not dead that he was certainly taking some time off to allow moral decay to reach new heights.
Using a combination of dark comedy, absurdist technique, and deftly dramatic timing, Albee’s deeply psychological characters were desperate, lost, and vicious in their attempts to survive an alcohol drenched evening that would destroy private worlds, which took years to manufacture.
New York Times reviewer Howard Taubman wrote, “Thanks to Edward Albee’s furious skill as a writer, Alan Schneider’s charged directing and a brilliant performance by a cast of four, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a wry and electric evening in the theatre.”
It was truly an evening in the theatre unlike any other, and Uta Hagen’s performance as Martha became legendary.
The original recording.
The evening that Nick and Honey spend with George and Martha was so renowned that it resulted in a four-LP recording of the play that was released on Columbia Masterworks (1963). It featured the original Broadway cast performing the entire show. The recording included in 16-page booklet that featured essays by director Harold Clurman and reviewer Walter Kerr, biographies of the cast, director, playwright, and designers, and original production photos.
It was a great mistake that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was not awarded the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. To date, Edward has three Pulitzers, or we might say three-and-a-half. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was selected by the Pulitzer Prize committee in 1963 to receive the award, however, the advisory board, which was comprised of the trustees of Columbia University, withheld the prize. They felt that the drama was too controversial and overruled the committee’s selection, deciding not to present an award for drama that year.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did win the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play and the 1962–63 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill won Tonys for their roles.
Edward Albee’s Career
Early in his career, American playwright Edward Albee created two masterpieces, the full-length play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the one-act The Zoo Story (1958). His three Pulitzer Prizes were for A Delicate Balance (1967), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1994). In the late 1970s through the 1980s, many reviewers were highly critical of Albee. Some openly ridiculed his work during that period, and others said they thought he should stop writing.
But Albee continued to write, creating, along with his third Pulitzer play, Three Tall Women, the acclaimed The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (2002). Albee, who was born on March 12, 1928, will be 86 years old this year. He may certainly be America’s greatest living playwright, and historically stands as one of the most important dramatists of the mid-to-late 20th century. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the keystone of his long and amazing career.