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The Lying Game: Edward Albee’s [Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?]

Originally performed in 1962, Edward Albee’s dark comedy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, centers on the collapsing marriage of George, a middle-aged history professor who works at a university in New England, and Martha, the daughter of the university’s president who is six years older than George. The play opens with George and Martha arriving home at 2:00 a.m. from a faculty party–where they wait for the arrival of Nick, a newly hired biology professor, and his wife, Honey. The first act of the play focuses significantly on the violent and volatile relationship between George and Martha. Their conversations are almost always antagonistic in nature, and most of their discourse is characterized by being spiteful, bitter, and fraudulent. Even more so, their banter is explicitly approached as a “game” designed to toy around with the emotions of other people. Nick and Honey’s seemingly normal and flawless marriage, at first, seems to provide a contrast to the unstable relationship between George and Martha. However, the games that George and Martha play ultimately bring out the ugly truths and moral blemishes that both couples desperately try to conceal.

The word game is a very appropriate term to invoke when approaching the interactions between these characters. First and foremost, dialogue manifests in the play as a competition between the characters. Not only do George and Martha compete to see who can do more damage with stories and words, but all the characters bicker (constantly, I might add) about what words are the most appropriate to use in conversation. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, it seems that the goal of this competition is to see who is or isn’t able to uphold an image of perfection. Since upholding such an image is nearly impossible, the stage becomes an arena where all characters strive to tarnish the image and perception of the other characters. For instance, Martha constantly brings up George’s failures in life and in academia as points of conversation–she alludes to George’s inability to follow her father’s footsteps, his failure to obtain an administrative role in the university, and she even points out how George was unable to publish his novel (due to its violent nature) because it would tarnish the university’s reputation. On the other hand, George constantly brings up Martha’s infidelity, and he exposes other disastrous truths, such as the fact that Nick married Honey only because he thought she was pregnant, and the fact that Honey is an alcoholic who has no interest in bearing any children.

As a character, George serves as the agent who constantly up the ante in terms of the precarious nature of the games that he plays. At one point of the play, after being embarrassed and ridiculed by Martha when she discusses how she knocked George down during a boxing match, he grabs a  short-barreled shotgun and points it at Martha’s head. In a moment of black humor, it turns out that the shotgun is a gag pistol that only shoots out a flag. Although we feel relief that the gun isn’t real, this revelation does not dissipate the tension invoked during this scene. We suspect that George really possesses the potential to hurt or kill Martha–a suspicion that turns out to be true in the scene in which George strangles Martha after she discusses his inability to publish the novel he has written (p. 138). It is in this moment that the violent nature of their discourse reifies as actual violence–leading readers/spectators to question the “playful” nature of the game that is taking place.

Mendacity reigns supreme as the play’s plot unfolds. George and Martha, for instance, constantly refer to their imaginary child–although we are led to believe that their son actually exists, it is revealed towards the end of the play that they “couldn’t have” (239) any children. This fabrication increases the voltage of the tension that exists in their marriage. George and Martha view this imaginary child as a force that keeps their marriage intact; referring to the child becomes a game in and of itself. The rule of this game, however, is that they can never refer to the child to anyone other than themselves–a rule that Martha breaks at the beginning of the play: “You broke our rule, baby. You mentioned him . . . you mentioned him to someone else” (237). The reason that this rule is imposed is because it is a lie that would be difficult to defend and uphold since it is not hinged on reality in any way. As soon as Martha mentions the existence of a child to Nick and Honey, the couple argues about their child’s basic facts and traits, especially in terms of his physical appearance:

MARTHA (To George)

Our son does not have blue hair . . . or blue eyes, for that matter. He has green eyes . . . like me.

GEORGE

He has blue eyes, Martha.

MARTHA (Determined)

Green.

GEORGE

Blue, Martha.

MARTHA (Ugly)

GREEN! (To HONEY and NICK) He has the loveliest green eyes . . . they aren’t flaked with brown and gray, you know . . . hazel . . . they’re real green . . . deep, pure green eyes . . . like mine.

NICK (Peers)

Your eyes are . . . brown, aren’t they? (p. 75)

In this instance, the child’s existence as a game becomes even more obvious. The child induces discussions of a schizophrenic nature: Martha and George approach the child as a reflection of their ideal selves, and even more so, they approach the child as a scapegoat figure meant to absorb the tensions that exist between them. Rather than dealing with their problems in an explicit and honest fashion, they express their problems through the medium of the imaginary child. The child is simultaneously a son who reaches out to the father instead of the mother because he is looking for “advice, for information, for love that wasn’t mixed with sickness” while also being a son “so ashamed of his father he asked [Martha] once if it–possibly–wasn’t true, as he had heard, from some cruel boys, maybe, that he was not [their] child” (226). In due course, it becomes clear that they weren’t supposed to talk about the child with other people for it would force themselves and others to confront how truth is twisted and fabricated by the couple. This avoidance is impossible because it is based on trying to create a sense of organization within an environment that thrives on chaos, as George makes quite clear in the play:

You take the trouble to construct a civilization . . . to . . . to build a society, based on the principles of . . . of principle . . . you endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man’s mind . . . you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same . . . you bring things to the saddest of all points . . . to the point where there is something to lose . . .then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. (117)

Towards the conclusion of the play, all of the characters are not only forced to confront the information that they have deliberately concealed, but they also come face-to-face with the inability of constructions to fully support the weight of their realities. Despite the image that they try to convey to the world, they cannot escape the grip of veracity. Even more so, both couples realize that they cannot comply with the stipulations and expectations of grand narratives such as marriage and family: both marriages in the play are unable to uphold an image or harmony and perfection, both unions are sterile in that they won’t produce offspring (thus challenging associations of family and futurity), and furthermore, love is not the element that brought these people together. The play shows the lengths that people go through to comply with grand narratives while simultaneously overthrowing the validity of these narratives in the first place. Their games, their lives, are based on constructed ideas and ideals that do not necessarily reflect the reality or the truth of their situations.

The play strikingly concludes with Martha confessing that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf. Her fear is completely grounded and rational because Virginia Woolf knows. After all, Woolf’s works are known for their use of uncensored stream of consciousness, in which readers gain an all-access look into the thoughts that are running through a character’s head. Unlike the world of George and Martha, Virginia Woolf’s world holds little room for secrets, and even less room for contortions of truth or reality. The figure, or better said, the idea of Virginia Woolf would be able to look beyond the game that these characters desperately try to play.

You can purchase a copy of Albee’s play by clicking here.

Work Cited

Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Scribner Classics, 2003. Print (hardcover edition).

Relativity

What is Postmodern Literature?

Defining the parameters of postmodern literature is a daunting task, due not only to disagreements about what texts can or can’t be approached as postmodern, but also to the paradoxical and elusive nature of the postmodern movement. Paradoxical seems to be an effective word to invoke when approaching postmodern literature–as Barry Lewis points out in his distillation of Linda Hutcheon’s views in his essay entitled “Postmodernism and Fiction,” postmodern works simultaneously create and destabilize meaning and conventions in their ironic or critical use of works from the past (171). Given that the postmodern movement embraces instability and skepticism as its main traits, how do we even begin to grasp what literature can or can’t be approached as postmodern? In this post, I will briefly trace out the major components of postmodernity and postmodern literature using the 2011 edition of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (RCP)–and when appropriate, I will bring in original examples to illuminate some of the points made in the text.

Before addressing the issue of postmodern literature, it’s important to quickly overview elements, trends, and perspectives that can be approached as postmodern. In the introduction to the RCP, Stuart Sims points out that postmodernity is characterized by skepticism and rejection, particularly the rejection of cultural progress, and even more so, the implementation of universalizing theories or grand narratives (sometimes called metanarratives). I am reminded of a universalizing theory when recalling a conversation I once had with one of my literature professors, in which she claimed that all narratives are either about “sex or war.”  A postmodern stance against my professor’s claim would argue for the inability of sex and war to constitute the totality of a particular narrative. The issue with grand narratives is that in their effort to generalize, they fail to account for experiences and beliefs that do not fit within their parameters or confines. To claim, for instance, that literature is the study of the ideas of “dead white men” would imply a failure to recognize other literatures produced by non-male and non-white authors.

In the TED-ED video entitled "What Makes a Hero," Matthew Winkler discusses the elements and conventions that most stories on heroism embrace. Winkler identifies a blueprint that most epic tales share--thus developing a universalizing theory of the elements that shape heroism in fiction. While postmodernists do not deny the existence of universalizing theories, they are skeptical about them. Wherein lies the "danger" of approaching all epic tales through this metanarrative? Another question we can ask is: how do postmodern tales on heroism challenge or refute the hero's grand narrative?

Postmodernists not only reject grand narratives, but they also embody an “anti-authoritarian” position when approaching and analyzing the world and its cultural productions. In other words, postmodernists distrust any entity or agency that tries to control or regulate what people can or cannot do, and they also distrust any agent or element that tries to fixate the meaning that something possesses (or can ultimately possess). As Sims states in his introduction to postmodernism, “To move from the modern to the postmodern is to embrace scepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for” (vii). It might become clear at this point that the aims or stances of postmodernity and poststructuralist theories go hand-in-hand. As Sims puts it,

Poststructuralism has been an influential part of the cultural scene since the 1960s, but nowadays it can be seen to be part of a more general reaction to authoritarian ideologies and political systems that we define as postmodernism. (x)

Thus, it is unsurprising to observe that after the advent of postmodernity, ideas such as Barthe’s death of the author began to emerge in the study of literature and the arts; even theoretical fields such as queer theory arose after the advent of the postmodern movement. Both the death of the author and queer theory are anti-authoritarian in their outlook: the death of the author discredits the ability of an author to dictate what his/her work can or can’t mean to an interpreter, whereas queer theory is designed to assume a position against normativity to challenge binaristic thinking and the regulation of identities. Much more than being a genre or a typology, postmodernism can be approached as an attitude that is reactionary, especially towards the ideas and ideals perpetuated in the modernist movement (e.g. the divide between low and high culture, the view of humanity as an entity that is perpetually improving and progressing, among others). As Lloyd Spencer puts it in his discussion on “Postmodernism, Modernity and the Tradition of the Dissent,” postmodernity’s anti-authoritarian alignment is the element that continues to give this attitude strength and relevance, even in the face of its critics:

One way of drawing the line between postmodernism and its critics is to focus on postmodernism’s refusal of the utopian, dream-like elements which have accompanied the constant change of modernity. Modernisms, including Marxism, dreamt of a better world. Legislating for this world on the basis of this dream of a better one is seen as the cardinal sin of that modernism which postmodernism seeks to go beyond. (220)

Returning to Barry Lewis’ essay on “Postmodernism and Fiction,” he claims that postmodernism underwent an “epistemic break” during the 1990s, creating a distinction between what he calls first-wave postmodernism and second-wave postmodernism. During the first wave, postmodernism referred to “an overlapping set of characteristics that applied to a particular set of novelists, bound together by their simultaneous acceptance/rejection of earlier traditions of fiction” (169). First-wave postmodern texts not only challenged the divide between high-literature and low-literature that was fostered by modernists such as Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, but they were also known for being “self-reflexive, playful and exceedingly aware of the medium of language in an attempt to revivify the novel form” (169). A good example of how this self-reflexive and playful nature manifests in a literary text can be seen in John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” In Barth’s short story, what at first seems to be a conventional coming-of-age story quickly metamorphoses into a critique on literary conventionality and ordinary structure. The text not only exposes how conventional plots work, but it actively highlights and questions its own structure, plot, and content.

When Lewis refers to the literary characteristics that postmodern authors embrace and reject, he is referring mostly to well-known literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme. These conventions are challenged and shattered both in first-wave and second-wave postmodernism through features such as:

    1. Temporal Disorder – This refers not only to the disruption of the past, but also the disruption of the present. Anachronism in historical postmodern fiction is an effective example of temporal disorder because it flaunts “glaring inconsistencies of detail or setting” (173). For an example, take Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which depicts and alters the biographical facts of the 16th president of the U.S. Other postmodern novels alter the present by deviating from ordinary time (chronos) and focusing on various instances of significant time (kairos), as exemplified by novels such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow–which is known for its overwhelming plethora of events and characters.
    2. Pastiche – Alluding to the act of piecing things together, as in the case of a collage, pastiche is a postmodern aesthetic that “actively encourages creative artists to raid the past in order to set up a sense of dialogue between it and the present” (231). Pastiche came to prominence when artists realized that the contemporary moment presents little room for originality because everything has been said and done before–leading postmodern artists to “pluck existing styles higgledy-piggledy from the resevoir of literary history” (173). A good example of pastiche would be Art Spiegelman’s Mausa graphic memoir that depicts a son who tries to create a work based on his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust.
    3. Fragmentation – Perhaps one of the most prominent elements of postmodern texts, fragmentation refers to the breakdown of plot, character, theme, and setting. Plot, for instance, is not presented in a realistic or chronological fashion, bur rather, as “slabs of event and circumstance” (173). Take for instance Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street (1984), which is told through a series of memories or vignettes rather than through the traditional narrative structure expected from a coming-of-age novel.
    4. Looseness of Association – The incorporation of chance into the reading of a narrative text (e.g. pages in a random and disorganized order, or a program that scrambles the order of the pages in a text).
    5. Paranoia – Paranoia refers to the distrust in a system or even a distrust in the self. Postmodern texts often reflect paranoia by depicting an antagonism towards immobility and stasis. A notable example of a literary text that invokes postmodern paranoia would be Tony Kushner’s 1993 play Angels in America
    6. Vicious Circles – These circles manifest when the boundaries between the real world and the world of the text are collapsed, either through the incorporation of the author into the narrative, or through the incorporation of a historical figure in a a fictional text.

If first-wave and second-wave postmodernism share these traits, what differentiates the two? According to Lewis, the differing element would be experimentation. Whereas the features mentioned above were employed in first-wave postmodernism as a way of challenging the authority and dominance of literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme, they are employed in second-wave postmodernism simply because they have become integrated with the dominant literary culture. Thus, fiction produced during second-wave postmodernism is crafted during a time in which “postmodernist fiction itself became perceptible as a kind of ‘style’ and its characteristic techniques and themes came to be adopted without the same sense of breaking new ground” (170). Notable examples of second-wave are novels such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I hope that this post gives you a better idea of the notions that constitute postmodernism and postmodern literature. I highly recommend The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism if you want to learn more about this “attitude” and “genre” with more nuance, and if you want to better understand how postmodernism manifests in other areas besides the literary, such as genre, sexuality, music, and popular culture, among others.

You can purchase a copy of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism by clicking here.

All essays cited in this discussion can be found in:

Sims, Stuart (ed.). The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.