Will American Future Be A Continuation of Fight For Power and Wealth Or An Alternative To Such Fight?

We live perilously close to semantic collapse. Americans are in danger of losing the metaphor and of becoming hopelessly mired in escapist entertainment. We are too fascinated by fantasy. What I hope is that my plays will encourage people to participate in their own lives more.
Edward Albee

The problem – and not only in the United States – is getting people to listen to the words. They prefer to listen only to what they want to hear and then translate it into something they can live with. I don’t like to let them off the hook.
Ph. Colin (Ed.), “Conversations with Edward Albee”, Un. Pr. of Mississippi, 1998, p. 99

You have a responsibility to educate other people, educate your children; this is part of the responsibility of democratic life… all serious theater is corrective. You have to show people things that aren’t working well, in the hope that people will make them work better.
Richard Farr, Interview with E. Albee, “The Progressive”. August 1996, p. 41, p. 39

We see here one of the “good” moments in the life of the agonistic spouses, George and Martha. But how “physiological” their laughter is! It is that of a sarcastic familiarity rather than a relaxed mutual positivity.

Scenes like this one are much more common occurrence in George and Martha’s everyday life.

When the young guests, a new faculty member and his wife, have dropped in, they were shocked by the intensity of what looked like adversarial exchanges between their hosts.

Martha using Nick as an ally (with his calculated collaboration) has a good time giving the newcomers ridiculing stories about George.

Nick follows Martha’s lead (she is the daughter of the President of the University where he has just been given a teaching position, and with her connections can be of some help).

George has decided to give his wife’s “demons” a major battle. In this shot we see him trying to liberate Martha from her complex that makes her behavior and thinking less and less sober (more and more obsessive) and pushes her to act out.

George uses a sophisticated psychotherapeutic pseudo-exorcism tactics to try to save Martha from her private obsession that carries within it cultural and unexpectedly political overtones. Most spouses are not able to psychologically help their beloveds – for this task they don’t have enough intelligence, education and guts. They expect help from marriage counseling and divorce lawyers, and the chance to grow inside their relationships is lost.

For the first time in many years Martha (whose dream about having a perfect child reinforced her need for a dominant position in human relationships and her orientation on social success as a primary motivation in life, instead of dedication to the value of love, humility and understanding), felt softened, without walls inside, and… living, and thinking about life while living it.

After the intervention of her husband who is a rare person capable of helping the one he loves – to overcome a serious psychological problem (we all are prone to psychologically drift and are at risk of suddenly finding ourselves in a strange spot), Martha became able to be “afraid of Virginia Woolf” (somebody who is meek and intelligent, and not frightening at all).

How beautiful it is to have children, to care about them, to help them grow up – physically, mentally and spiritually. But in real life our natural desire to have children is never so pure, innocent and disinterested, never completely natural. Our prejudices and complexes glue to our dream of having children like bees to flowers, flies to greasy crumbs and caterpillars to gentle leaves. Unconscious or semi-conscious fight for domination as a part of intimacy finds its way into the very need to have children – in a form of megalomaniacal dream of producing progeny you can be proud of, as if children exist for parental pride (as George, the main character of the play/film says derisively about their son with “blue hair and blond eyes”, alluding at racists connotations of “perfect progeny complex” of his wife Martha). Perfect progeny complex is the twin of the widespread desires to out-profit other profiteers, to have a solo-solid career and to be fluently-influential. For some people, especially for those who are too socio-morphic in their orientation – too dependent on how other people assess their personal value, the pleasure of imagining having children is not free from feeling oneself “stronger” – ontologically more rooted than they felt before. These kinds of feelings can be a substantial component of our reproductive, social and intimate behavior and equally can affect both, men and women. This situation is depicted by Albee in “Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

The marriage of the main protagonists Martha (the daughter of University’s President) and George (the modest Associate Professor of History) is childless. Albee’s seemingly superficial sweeping analogy between this couple and George Washington and his wife Martha gives him the chance to expand personal story by making it historically meaningful and relevant for every American couple. Albee’s Martha’s observable behavior (her treatment of her husband as an extension of her impulsive self and her despotic expectation of him to always respond to her in her terms – not recognizing him as an otherness, her vulgar emotional familiarity with him and open contempt for him for failing to make an exceptional academic career and be financially more successful than he is, her permanent verbal abuse of him and her demonstrative promiscuity that she explains away by his worthlessness) is combined with her inability to have children and her much more important inability to live with the truth, to be free from the conformist need to pretend socially that they have a promising and successful son.

According to Albee’s images, Martha’s normal dream of having a child – with accumulating years of marriage becomes a kind of a goal in itself, a corrective measure not for her barren marriage as a factual situation but for the “imperfection” of this marriage in terms of “objective achievements”, a sign of symbolic, almost an ontological failure that, as she felt, George is responsible for. Here the analogy with George Washington and his wife becomes more tangible – is US about objective achievements, the ascent of entrepreneurial and consumerist materialism and power in history and intensification of rivalry and competitive adversariness, or is it about (democratic) humanism, humility and empathy and spiritual progress? Albee’s Martha’s dream becomes the opposite of love, of empathy in personal relationships and modesty in social relations, a diversion from what for Albee is the ultimate value of a developed internal world and of critical understanding of cultural rigidity and the maniacal pursuit of might. Martha’s dream becomes for her the opportunity for (regressive) self-aggrandizement through possessing a super-baby, a super-husband with a super-career and super-wealth as a result.

Is “American dream“- about private, social and financial success (individual angle) and in building economic and technological super-might (socio-political angle), or, mainly, about developing our humanity/humanness and the ability to love, understand and sympathize with other people and life in general? That’s what Albee’s play is all about.

George feels that what started as an innocent “as if” game has become Martha’s morbid obsession that generates changes in her personality – makes her more materialistically fixated and obsessed with fight for a higher place in the social hierarchy and intolerant of any other life style. Eventually, in the name of his love for Martha, George decides to create, in the presence of their new friends, a psychodrama with his wife – to try to exorcise the spirit of their false son from her soul.

Because of the fact that Martha and George’s child is Martha’s imaginary construction and is hidden from the audience, and we, together with their guests, Honey and Nick, are sure that their son is a reality, it is very difficult to understand on time what’s going on, but the rhetorical trick gives the author and director the opportunity to make a tough psychodrama with the audience. The viewers find themselves mystified and fascinated, and the exorcism of Martha’s complex – her yearning for a progeny that is capable of promoting and enhancing her self-image – becomes a catharsis for viewers’ similar complexes – the widespread orientation on external achievements (instead of being occupied with internal growth) and on building wealth and power instead of being oriented on humanism, morality and spirituality as ultimate values. The film helps us to clear our dreams from latent adversariness and unconscious or semi-conscious aggressiveness.

The questions to help those who are ready for deeper acquaintance with the film

1.Can the following two texts be helpful in better understanding of Martha’s psychological condition?

“The development of ‘the capacity for concern’ (Winnicott)… occurs at the early stages of development. According to Winnicott, however, it also repeats itself in later relationships involving various forms of transference: projections, idealizations, and destructive fantasies… The ‘subject’ has to come to relate to the ‘object’ as something external, as fundamentally different from self… In the first stage the subject relates to the object as a bundle of projections – as a part of, as an extension of the subject. The transition to the second stage Winnicott describes as ‘the most difficult thing, perhaps, in human development’. What is involved is ‘the subject’s placing of the object outside the area of the subject’s omnipotent control’… The subject’s perception of the object has to become the perception of it as an external phenomenon, not as a projective entity but recognized as an entity in its own right…” (Brook Hopkins, “Jesus and Object Use: A Winnicottian Account of the Resurrection Myth”, in Donald Capps [Ed.], “Freud and Freudians on Religion”, Yale Un. Pr., 2001, p. 23)

Can we say that Martha in relations with George has reached the Winnicottian second stage of perception of another person as psychologically really external to her? “The capacity to feel grief for others and guilt for the suffering one has directly or indirectly caused, depends on the capacity to experience empathy for the other as other. This capacity in turn depends on the successful working through of those experiences of mourning which first consolidate the boundaries between self and other, thereby opening up the space for empathy.” (Erik L. Santner, “Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory and Film in Postwar Germany”, Cornell Un. Pr., 2001, p. 7)

Can we say that Martha in her psychological development has established “the boundaries between self and other” that make it possible for her to feel empathy? Can it be said, that Martha’s sexual escapade with Nick is also result of the absence of boundaries between her and the other person, that their behavior in relation to one another is psychologically on an immature (primitive) level?

2. What is the meaning of the fact that Honey has hysterical pregnancies – unable to conceive and unconsciously tries to imitate the ability to do so? Can her symptom be compared with Martha’s make-belief dream of having a son?

3. Why near the end of the film when Honey understood the essence of what was going on between Martha and George she got a sudden real urge/desire to have a baby?

4. How to characterize the very atmosphere of human interactions in the film? Can we see here the case of “innumerable instances and kinds of aggression, conflict, hostility, confrontation tactics, and other adversative manifestations”? (Walter Ong, “Fighting for Life (Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness)”, Cornell Un. Pr., 1989, p. 17) Why the protagonists of the film: people with education and sophisticated minds harbor so much aggressive energy?

5. Why Martha decided to have a sexual encounter with Nick? Why did Nick decide to do it? How does the film depict their sexual mutual attraction – as “romantic”? – As “physical”? – As a mutual aggression toward George? – As a calculation? – As an agonistic activity with each other? How the film characterizes the psychology of Martha/Nick togetherness through their body language? Can the following text help us to understand something else in Martha/Nick one night stance? – And also something important in Martha/George relationship?

“More and more people long for emotional detachment or enjoy sex only in situations where they can define and limit the intensity of the relationship… The flight from feeling…The most prevalent form of escape from emotional complexity is promiscuity: the attempt to achieve a strict separation between sexual feelings.” (Christopher Lasch, “The Culture of Narcissism [American Life in the Age of Diminishing Expectations]”, W.W. Norton, 1991, p. 199 – 200)

6. Why Honey, after many times of interrupting the conversation between Nick and Martha in the first scene, let them sit close and be occupied with one another, and decided not to intervene anymore?

7. What does the fact that Honey throws up after dancing with George around Martha and Nick, can tell us about her existential situation, her destiny, and her sudden awareness of this destiny?

8. What to make of the fact that when Nick sits, during the first scene, either near Honey or with Martha, his knee is shown as always pointed toward the women?

9. Can the body language between Martha and Nick, the very physicality of their gestures, Martha’s “animal noises”, physical confrontation between George and Nick, and Honey’s endless somatic reactions and the “bodily density” of her voice and intonations be compared with the universe of somatization and acting out depicted in Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (SND)?

10. Doesn’t the film depict Martha/Nick‘s brief sexual affair by mixing private and public space? For what purpose the director emphasizes the public aspect of private behavior?

“Competition of the sort that males typically and passionately practice in business, politics, academia, and elsewhere, is based in great part on gaming to stand off others.” (Walter Ong, ibid, p. 86)

11. What does the difference between the humanistic orientation of George’s scholarship and Nick’s orientation on applied research tell us about Albee’s view on American culture?

12. With which character in SND can we identify Martha before her psychological transformation as a result of George’s psychotherapeutic help? With which character in SND can we identify the already transformed Martha, Martha who is able to be afraid of Virginia Woolf?

13. Why George makes a point about Nick being a “blond” and “well-built”, and why he calls Honey, in his improvisation, “Blondie”? What can be the political connotation of these allusions?

14. How can we classify the three male characters of the film (Martha’s father, George and Nick) using historic-political perspective? How can the political reading of these characters help us to understand the crystallization of political powers in US today? What politically influential type of people today is not among these three characters and why?

15. Can we make analogy between Shannon/Hank dyad in “The Night of Iguana” by John Huston and George/Nick dyad in Albee’s play?

16. What is “sobered space of object relations” in human psyche and how to open this space? What is “the labor of mourning” and how can it help in person’s development? How can we use these two concepts to describe George’s psychotherapeutic help to Martha?

17. What is equivalent of Martha’s dream in American cultural-political situation today? What category of people is afflicted by this political Martha’s-like dream?
18. Can we, following Albee’s George, call the unlimited money-profit dream of the one-percenters as a dream about blue-haired/blond-eyed money-profit?

19. What is “primitive narcissistic injury as a traumatic shattering of the specular, imaginary relations”? Relations between whom amongst the characters can be called specular/imaginary in “Who is Afraid…”? – In Kazan’s SND? – In Huston’s NI?

Posted om Nov 5 2014 –   “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”(1966) By Mike Nichols (Based on the Play of Edward Albee) by Acting-Out Politics