Relevant or Relic? ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ Turns 50

America now operates within separate realities — one where hetero nuclear familial norms are deeply internalized by religion, and one where they aren't.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was first released on June 22, 1966 — 50 years ago to the day. At the time, the film, taken pretty much verbatim — with the exception of some scenic switches to alternate locations — from Edward Albee’s 1962 play, was lauded by critics who seemed to be just as disenchanted by their nuclear familial-prizing era as the play itself. This scathing, wholly unsubtle deconstruction of two marriages (that of a New England college president’s daughter, Martha, and a history professor, George, both middle-aged, and biologist Nick and housewife Honey, both in their late 20s) was an encapsulation of the tensions brought about by the heightened marital/childrearing ideals that invalidated all existence beyond them in the U.S. in the 1950s.

As I mentioned in a piece about Who’s Afraid…’s relationship to the 2015 film The Overnight, marriage may still in conservative circles be the only answer to living a full life, but after the divorce boom of the late 20th century and more central discourses about the deinstitutionalization of love, marriage has become an option and not the option. With that, the knives that protrude somewhat ostentatiously from every inch of Woolf’s surface now, to contemporary viewers, can seem like they’re simply prodding the air, unless taken particularly within the context of the film’s era. Outside its great performances, particularly by Elizabeth Taylor as Martha, the film’s overwhelming acclaim has a lot to do with how it made explicit so many things that’d gone unspoken in mainstream cinema in the 50s and early 60s. (It’s noteworthy that the film Mike Nichols released directly after this, The Graduate, was another scathing look at its era, and I’d say one that still feels more emotionally vital.) So is there any way for this film to retain social relevance now, or must it exist solely as a great relic of something that was potent then? The answer might be found in the splitting — rather than the total evolution — of American ideals.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Woolf is the fact that it involves the collision of two childless married couples, and the collision of their own self-preservational fictions about their nonexistent children. Throughout the play, George and Martha slowly drop hints about their son — Martha first casually mentions him, and this, for reasons we soon learn (the fiction of the son is a strictly private game), infuriates George, and soon they begin to use the son, now publicized, as a weapon against one another. It just so happens, though, that he’s a particularly flexible weapon, as he doesn’t exist.

This fact becomes especially clear towards the end of the film, when George decides to “kill” him by fabricating a telegram saying he’d been in a car-crash. Due to infertility, George and Martha cannot procreate. (Interestingly, rumors abound that the same can be said about the founding American couple, after whom the characters were named, as a clear gesture of sweeping American critique). Meanwhile their houseguests Nick and Honey, paragons of white Midwestern normativity (Nick, a biology professor, is a light eugenicist), are young and fertile — except it turns out that Honey seems to be using birth control, and when that fails, secret abortions, to nip every pregnancy in the bud.

The shock value of Albee’s play/Ernest Lehman’s hyper-loyal screen adaptation in contemporary times is of course not particularly shocking. (Though the playwright himself also shifted his own visions to be a match for what’d shake the zeitgeist: no longer able to scandalize audiences with the sheer deconstruction of marriage through arguing, he threw bestiality and incest into the mix in his 2003 play The Goat or Who Is Sylvia). Nowadays, it’s far less likely that overeducated liberal arts professors would be so thoroughly haunted by their failures to live up to a nuclear familial dream as Woolf’s central characters, George and Martha. Marriage may not seem as crucial, and thus would not seem like quite as much of an essential prison to an archetypal academic couple. Procreation isn’t as expected, and thus one’s inability to do so wouldn’t have to be compensated within a private, elaborate fantasy, as it is in Woolf. 

The emphasis on the shame of not having children now seems relatable to a more stratified America, and to the demographic that’d like to see Planned Parenthood taken down. That expectations of child-bearing should lead Honey to need to secretly get abortions (as is implied) as her one form of agency, that it should lead Martha and George to fabricate an elaborate fiction of a child, and that the climate of baby-booming reproduction fetishism results in two couples’ lapses in sanity over the course of an evening doesn’t really particularly vibe with the climate of the U.S. as a whole. But it certainly has its place.

The anxieties Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf depicts still apply to part of American culture, albeit one that’s now no longer a total majority and likewise seems, from the perspective of the socially liberal, a relic of older anxieties that were once more universal. What’s interesting is seeing how specific to the policed norms of a bygone era Woolf seems, while also considering how much those norms have moved towards the Right of a polarized country and still manage to exert control.

Watching Woolf, it’s easy to say, “people were worried about such different things back then” — contemporary love horror stories seem to focus more on the disconnected/gamified state of dating rather than the pressures of marriage. So it’s odd for a movie’s themes that now seem so disconnected from contemporary reality (or at least, the liberal mindset of contemporary reality) to still be threatening their governance over our reality. Watching Woolf, in which character action feels very propelled by era, and which — in its heightened, witticism-and-insult-heavy style — specifically attacks that era, one becomes aware of the total splitting of American realities since that time.

In recent years, ten states have made major strides in defunding Planned Parenthood, and 24 altogether are looking to do so, regardless of the fact that that may, according to the Obama administration, be in violation of federal law. Major parts of the campaigns of both previous campaigning candidate Ted Cruz and now (very waveringly) Donald Trump have involved antagonizing women’s reproductive rights. If postwar prosperity and the idea of retaliating against an era of mass tragedy by populating the world with babies is what led to the idealization of parenthood in the ’50s, the fervent protection of the nuclear family — and the idea that babies that don’t even exist yet are more important than the lives of women that do — has shifted over the years to have more strictly religious connotations and defenses. Though the general prizing of procreative norms has dwindled (thanks, overpopulation fears!), so has the need for separation of church and state in the Right’s eyes — and thus the intense pushes for both anti-abortion legislation and sanctity-of-marriage legislation. (DOMA may have been repealed, but Cruz certainly wanted to reinstate anti-gay-marriage laws, and Trump, as a manipulative panderer, has again wavered on issues of LGBT rights.)

The country now operates within separate realities — one where hetero nuclear familial norms are deeply internalized by religion, and one where they aren’t. As baby-booming and the protection of the sanctity of the nuclear family has shifted to become the norm only among the religious Right, the American Left still finds itself antagonized by that side of the country’s now-split consciousness. In Woolf, failing to live up to an overarching societal ideal is internalized by the film’s liberal-minded characters. Now, the antagonism still exists, but it’s coming externally. The film’s self-consciously sharp critique may feel a little duller in this day and age to the liberal audiences who’d likely watch it, but the fact that it does feel that way suggests that while these anxieties may not be as huge a part of our consciousness as to make this movie resonate as much, they’re now weighing on us from the other side of a vastly split national reality.

(Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was released on Blu-Ray in May.)