Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the blockbuster sensation of 1962. At first greeted with shocked incomprehension (‘a sick play for sick people’; ‘for dirty-minded females only’) it went on to win numerous major awards, transferred to Broadway, was made into a multi-Oscar-winning film and took Europe by storm (in Prague it was billed as Who’s Afraid of Franz Kafka?). As a study in matrimonial attrition it went deeper, was more savage and uncompromising than anything yet seen in the American theatre. ‘Total war’ is the formula George and Martha agree on in Act Two; and in Act Three, George, humiliated and angry, avails himself of the atomic option.
The title was a major part of the play’s success. It originated from 1954. Albee was in the habit of drinking at an establishment in Greenwich Village called ‘The College of Complexes’, and behind the bar was a large mirror on which patrons were free to scrawl messages in soap. One night he saw the legend ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and it amused him. But it was not originally the title of anything: in the early stages of writing, the play was called Exorcism, and ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ was merely a line in the play. The line later moved to become the play’s subtitle, and then, at some point in the writing, with ‘Exorcism’ relegated to the third-act title (the first two acts are ‘Fun and Games’ and ‘Walpurgisnacht’) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became the main title. Albee said that its meaning was ‘who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf, which means who’s afraid of living life without delusions?’
Strangely enough for a title with such a concrete starting-point, there was at least one other possible influence on it, in the work of James Thurber, an author whom Albee admired (and admires) greatly. Thurber was, to many, the greatest twentieth-century observer of marital conflict, particularly in his short stories: much of the dialogue of these pieces, in which contests are played out between domineering wives and resentful husbands, finds an echo in the private-language bitching of Albee’s play. There is ‘The Curb in the Sky’ (‘He always gets that line wrong’), ‘Am I Not Your Rosalind?’ (‘Shut up, George, and give me some more ice’) or ‘Mr Pendly and the Poindexter’ (‘What’s the matter; are you in a trance, or what?’). There is even a Thurber short story called ‘The Interview’ in which the protagonists are a husband and wife called George and Martha, and in which George, a writer, gets drunk and taunts Martha, in front of a guest, over their failing marriage. More pertinently as regards the title, in 1939 Thurber co-wrote, with Elliott Nugent, the play The Male Animal. Its main character is Tommy Turner, a college professor (like George) with an emasculating wife (like Martha) who is attracted to a younger football-player (like Nick, the boxer and biology professor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Turner wants to read to his class a letter by the anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti, but is warned by his wife that if he does so he risks being fired. He must make a decision either to stand up for himself or back down, and if he backs down he will very probably be cuckolded too. ‘I won't,’ he says. ‘I'm scared of those Neanderthal men. I'll talk about football.’ But then he sings: ‘Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? The Big Bad Wolf? The Big Bad Wolf?’ Staking all on one throw, he reads the letter and is supported not only by his faculty but, surprisingly, by the football team.
A second possible influence came from the work of Virginia Woolf herself. In around 1962 Albee wrote to Leonard Woolf to ask him if it would be all right to use his wife’s name as part of the title. Leonard Woolf said it would. Later, when the play transferred to the West End of London, Woolf went to see it with Peggy Ashcroft, and wrote to Albee: ‘We both enjoyed it immensely. It is so amusing and at the same time moving and is really about the important things in life. Nothing is rarer, at any rate, on the English stage. I wonder if you have ever read a short story which my wife wrote and is printed in A Haunted House? It is called “Lappin and Lapinova.” The details are quite different but the theme is the same as that of the imaginary child in your play.’ Leonard Woolf was perhaps being tactful. ‘Lappin and Lapinova’ is about a married couple who, in the absence of children of their own, invent a secret fantasy-world. In it the husband is a rabbit and the wife a hare:
Thus when they came back from their honeymoon they possessed a private world [...] No one guessed that there was such a place, and that of course made it all the more amusing. It made them feel, more even than most young married couples, in league together against the rest of the world [...] Without that world, how, Rosalind wondered, that winter could she have lived at all?
But the breakdown of the marriage leads to a breakdown of the shared fantasy, and it is dealt a cruel coup de grâce by the husband:
‘Oh, Ernest, Ernest!’ she cried, starting up in her chair.
‘Well, what’s up now?’ he asked briskly, warming his hands at the fire.
‘It’s Lapinova...’ she faltered, glancing wildly at him out of her great startled eyes. ‘She’s gone, Ernest. I’ve lost her!’ [...]
‘Yes,’ he said at length. ‘Poor Lapinova...’ He straightened his tie at the looking-glass over the mantelpiece.
‘Caught in a trap,’ he said, ‘killed,’ and sat down and read the newspaper.
So that was the end of that marriage.
Albee claimed never to have read the short story.
Ardolino, Frank: ‘Nugent and Thurber's The Male Animal and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Explicator (Spring 2003)
Bigsby, Christopher: Albee (Oliver & Boyd, 1969)
Gussow, Mel: Edward Albee: A Singular Journey (Oberon Books, 1999)
Woolf, Virginia: ‘Lappin and Lapinova’, A Haunted House and Other Stories (Harvest, 2002)