What ‘The Overnight’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ Say About the Evolution of Marriage

As Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey noted in his Sundance review of Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, the character dynamics of the recently released comedy and Edward Albee’s acid-washed play (which became a classic film) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are rife with parallels. In each, a naive married couple moves to a new place, where they’re welcomed into the home of another married couple whose personal history is steeped in that place. The act of hospitality at first seems like a nonchalant, spontaneous gesture, but over the course of an interminable evening, it becomes clear that ulterior motives are rampant and involve all sorts of fantasies of cross-pollination (of the genital order, if that wasn’t clear) between couples.

In both, the couples are divided, in a sense, along the lines of power. The subjugated couple passively excavates truths — simply by being present — about the other, more established couple’s deteriorated marriage, leading to revelations (in The Overnight: couples therapy, and in Who’s Afraid: the confrontation of the fear of reality). Meanwhile, the almighty couple simply uses their charisma and command to extract truths from the meeker couple (in The Overnight: that their sexuality has been stifled by body-image issues, and in Who’s Afraid: that they’re puppets of societal conventions).

But despite the similarities, there’s a major disparity in tone. Who’s Afraid is histrionic with a deep, dense core of acrimony, while The Overnight is full of levity and relatively self-aware in its shallowness; the sharp contrast shows the interestingly restorative place marriage may be in in our era. Indeed, we’re long removed from the postwar decade, when the American marriage was so absurdly venerated as to need to be attacked by authors, as in Woolf; now, oddly, in a time when we’re generally less trusting of the institution, it seems statistically to be thriving — at least compared to the ’80s and ’90s, when it was still experiencing fallout from those earlier decades. An article in the New York Times last year noted:

The people who married soon before the feminist movement were caught in the upheaval. They had married someone who was a good match for the postwar culture but the wrong partner after times changed. Modern marriage is more stable because people are again marrying people suitable to the world in which we live.

Since divorce is more accepted (but not more enacted) than ever, marriage is also approached with less absolutism than ever, at least amongst the likely liberally minded audiences that would consume the likes of Who’s Afraid and The Overnight. To make a piece of art solely about debunking marriage, as Albee did, would seem too obvious. It would feel almost like kicking the institution while it’s down — marriage has been through the wringer. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, when divorce rates almost reached 50 percent, it debunked itself plenty.

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was first performed in 1962, the immense value placed on marriage and — most importantly to the play — the nuclear family seems to have, as Albee foresaw, made it topple under its own societal weight. Starting in the next decade, divorce rates spiked significantly, exposing the marital pressure of the former decades as self-destructive. However, last year, a  series of myth-busting stats were released in the New York Times (accompanying the aforementioned piece), invalidating notions of the continued deterioration of the institution: in the last 20 years, fewer and fewer marriages had been ending in divorce. The Times cited “later marriages, birth control and the rise of so-called love marriages” as the cause. (Interestingly, it’s predominantly among privileged, college-educated couples — i.e. the demographic both Who’s Afraid  and The Overnight prod — that the divorce rate has declined.) But the article noted that society still thinks of marriage with a sense of defeatism, and that the false 50 percent divorce rate statistic is falsely touted everywhere.

As the tone of The Overnight depicts it, disenchanted secular, liberal America, operating outside of religious — or really any — expectations of marriage, can see it as deeply flawed, contrived, and also at times genuinely beautiful. The Overnight’s two nuclear families are at different distances from their breaking point — though they may both be nearing it. Jason Schwartzman’s Kurt and Judith Godrèche’s Charlotte at first seem like wild, experienced swingers who have it all, but then just turn out to be a couple who desperately wants to figure out a way to stay together despite no longer being sexually attracted to one another.

Meanwhile, Taylor Schilling’s Emily and Adam Scott’s Alex have just relocated to L.A., and the change in scenery is starting to underscore elements of stagnancy in their sexual regimen. The film sees the characters using each other for exploratory purposes. When the characters meet up for a dinner, which turns into a very gradual seduction, the power play is not, as in Who’s Afraid, an act of antagonism. Writer/director Patrick Brice isn’t so much attempting to make his characters dismantle each other’s relationships — and thereby allegorically dismantle the institution of marriage — as he is showing the newfound flexibility of marriage in this era. With less emphasis on marriage as something compulsory, couples can fight to stay together out of veneration for whatever remains of their love, as opposed to veneration of the institution. The Overnight exposes the bruises and shortcomings in these marriages to strengthening, almost therapeutic effect.

On the flip side, in Woolf, both couples are false nuclear families, whose delusions only become more elaborate (before they’re finally quashed) throughout their warlike evening. Honey and Nick — the young, new-to-campus guests of older academics George and Martha — are soon-to-be-parents… of a phantom baby. And George and Martha, it turns out, have sustained (if you can call it that) their marriage through a series of intricate games of pretend, the most powerful of which involves the detailed fabrication of a son. Despite being academics who constantly question — and attack — all comfortable norms, the fundamental framework of their marriage is a fiction surrounding the procreative lifestyle seen as an adult necessity of the time.

Albee’s aim was to, poisoned bit by poisoned bit, destroy the delusions of the previous decade. In The Overnight, the couples, immersed in their era’s form of (normative) bourgeois liberal looseness (which of course has its own prison walls — though they’re made of a more supple material) are less desperate to meet perceived norms. They already have their spouses, they already have their (tangible) children. Rather, they’re interested in nonchalantly upending the relics of the Who’s Afraid era. Their increasing openness to experimentation, and the notion that it’s not a deal breaker but rather just a deepening of the conversation about what a marriage needs and what it lacks, leads them, through a very strange night, to constructive rather than destructive ends. When marriage isn’t a necessity — and when the end of a marriage wouldn’t be the end of the world — it might actually work.