Culture  /  Book Review

The Drama of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” Spilled Into Real Life

After "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," the nightmare of American familyhood was the only game in town.

In many ways, both the play and film adaptation of Woolf established themselves in the collective psychology of ’60s America as a sort of primal family romance of Mommy and Daddy and Sonny and Sis that wasn’t as ugly as it might at first seem. Certainly it brought the representation of American family dysfunction a little closer to reality. Next came along PBS’s An American Family, in which the photogenically smiling Brady Bunch–like Mom, Dad, and kids slowly dissolved (before our weekly eyes) into George and Martha–like scenes of sadness, embitterment, and loss. From which point the nightmare of American familyhood was the only game in town—whether it was Archie Bunker perorating about race from his antimacassar-adorned armchair, or Homer Simpson belching out beer and donuts, or the Addams family colonizing suburbia with happy monsters.

For as Gefter makes clear in his charming book, filled with enjoyable anecdotes and recollections of how Hollywood accidentally makes great movies from time to time, the saga of George and Martha isn’t really a tragedy of failure, in which (like Richard Yates’s Wheelers in Revolutionary Road) a marriage falls apart; rather it’s a comedy in which the principal characters almost inevitably go upstairs to bed together in a nightly reiteration of the marriage ceremony. As Martha confesses in her penultimate monologue—and in Taylor’s unforgettable performance—the only man who ever made her happy was always and forever the endlessly tormented and tormenting George:

George, who is out there somewhere in the dark. Who is good to me, who I revile. Who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy—and I do not wish to be happy. I do wish to be happy. George and Martha, sad, sad, sad. Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest, having seen me, and having said, yes, this will do. Who has made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me. I must be punished for it. George and Martha, sad, sad, sad …

It’s almost like hearing one of Schubert’s Lieder with the dark undercurrent of sadness and remembered happiness all rising and subsiding together with the rhythms of words and emotions. George and Martha. Sad, sad, sad.