One evening last week, I watched a rather well-dressed husband and wife stumble into their middle-class home and then, moving about their living room like boxers in a ring, spew vitriol and words of varying cruelty, truth, illusion, and vulnerability at both one another and the young couple they had invited over. It was just me and a couple dozen others — not including the full house in London’s Harold Pinter Theater, from which National Theater Live was broadcasting the performance — who had paid to see the battle of words and wills between George, Martha, Nick, and Honey, the four characters in Edward Albee’s seminal play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A few hours before the broadcast, however, the 55-year-old play was receiving attention of a different sort, much of it stemming from a Facebook post by Oregon-based theater director Michael Streeter (relayed on Twitter by writer Mark Harris), claiming that his attempt to cast a black actor (Damien Geter) in the play (as Nick) had been blocked by Albee’s estate.
In a letter sent to Streeter, the estate argues that the text clearly states Nick’s race. “[It] is important to note that Mr. Albee wrote Nick as a Caucasian character, whose blonde hair and blue eyes are remarked on frequently in the play, even alluding to Nick’s likeness as that of an Aryan of Nazi racial ideology,” the letter states. It goes on to argue that, were “non-traditional casting” utilized in the play, thus making either or both of the marriages “mixed-race,” this “would not have gone unacknowledged in conversations in that time and place and under the circumstances in which the play is expressly set by textual references in the 1960s.” Streeter, who was still negotiating the rights to the play for his production when he received the estate’s letter, told me he expressly wanted to cast a nonwhite actor in an attempt to “add depth to the play.”
Albee was both notoriously difficult to collaborate with and infamously rigid about how all his plays (and this one in particular) could be read and thus performed. Of the many proposed all-male productions of Virginia Woolf, which have sought to highlight its queer subtext, all have been halted. According to Mel Gussow’s 1999 biography of Albee, when Dov Fahrer tried to stage an all-male production of the play in Arlington, Texas in 1984, the playwright responded by saying that the approach “constitutes a gross distortion of the intentions and context of an established piece [and] reflects a kind of arrogance for which there can be no excuse.” Albee challenged the casting of black actresses in productions of Virginia Woolf by making similar arguments. “That would instantly raise a lot of questions, since it’s a totally naturalistic play,” he said in one such instance, according to Rakesh H. Solomon’s book Albee in Performance. “Is this a black college? Do we have a black president of a white college? Not very likely.” Nevertheless, there have been exceptions to Albee’s stringent casting demands, as the New York Times reported.
The latest Albee casting dispute seems to revolve primarily around a few issues: whether the wishes and demands of the playwright should be adhered to; whether theater is indeed a breathing, living artistic medium; and whether it is right to adhere to any of these ideas. Little has been said about the text itself and what it does or does not say about race, most notably about tenuous constructions of whiteness and their potential to be undermined.
In the editions of the play published in 1962 and 2005, the sole implication of any character’s race is that two of them (Nick and Honey) must be “blond,” but there are no specific indications of skin color. Rather, it is by implication that Albee tries to establish whiteness, through social and class context. By a combination of this implication and a “default” white gaze, Albee characterizes Nick as an All American young man, he and Honey chasing the American Dream; conversely, George and Martha have already struggled and failed to achieve that dream. During one of George’s tirades against Nick, he says: “I suspect we will not have much music, much painting, but we will have a civilization of men, smooth and blond, and right at the middleweight limit.” A little earlier, George sneers that the scientists like Nick will create a “race of men” that “will tend to look like this young man here [Nick].”
The mythic American Dream has long been inextricable from whiteness, and vice versa, just as whiteness became fundamental in media representations of idealized life in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. From the work of Norman Rockwell to sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, a middle-class, nuclear family in the suburbs was presented as both a fantasy and an achievable reality. The most innocuous-looking white family still maintained power, which philosophically and semiotically persists in contemporary iterations of “Americanness.” But hasn’t Albee’s play, which depicts the untwining of four people’s illusions about themselves and their realities, been interpreted as a critique of this concept? Wouldn’t that make whiteness a crucial part of its critique?
To take Albee and his estate at their word is to be married to authorial intent, which would then be to suggest that there were no black or nonwhite professors in New England in the 1960s (or associate professors, as Martha would remind you), and that no black or nonwhite people lived in or migrated from the Midwest, both claims that seem unverifiable and preposterous. The estate’s defenses and demands suggest that the play is not about race and that it does not say anything about race, but it absolutely does: it deconstructs notions of white fragility.
Mike Nichols’s 1966 screen adaptation, written by Ernest Lehman, might offer the best articulation of this reading: whiteness, for George and Martha, is inseparable from the academic milieu that they struggle to operate within, the class status that they’ve fought to maintain, and the success that George never achieved as a writer. It is the art that hangs on their walls while books like The Decline of the West and gin bottles are strewn across their floor. Whiteness is fundamentally a construct, as fragile as the other illusions that the two have made for themselves, including their son. It is something they want and have and can’t have and don’t want. None of the four characters, through their respective scheming, has gotten what he or she wanted. They’re bitter about it, but they also constantly question whether they would have been happy if they did get it.
If Albee and his estate stand by the idea that the Nick’s “blonde hair and blue eyes” constitute an assignation of whiteness or, at the very least, a kind of homogeneity, then it is curious that, in the play, George and Martha’s “son” is said to possess the same features. The Albee estate’s allusion to Nazi ideology makes sense, but the presence of similar physical traits in the son who does not exist suggests a certain ambivalence on the parts of George and Martha toward this kind of whiteness.
Albee presents his characters as pitiable to varying degrees and for various reasons, and the empathy he lets the audience feel for George and, especially, Martha, has a whiff of condescension. One might ask: How could these ostensibly respectable middle-class white liberals self-destruct in such a way? The spectacle of loquacious sadism situates the audience as empathetic with distance, never siding entirely with any one character but relishing the battle for its own sake. Albee (and, in his adaptation, Nichols) keys into the same fear that he instills in George and the same heartbreak he writes in Martha, getting at the broader question of what will happen to the whiteness of the American Dream. Nick’s great ideological threat to George is that, while embodying an idealized humanness, he also represents the potential disappearance of the culture George and Martha value — he embodies the possibility that the homogeneity of the future will paradoxically exist as whiteness and erase it.
In the film adaptation, Nichols’s direction of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, tailored to the screen, makes the tragedy of their lives more casual and thus more heartbreaking. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography conveys a subjectivity specific to these characters’ experiences, as opposed to just a festival of voyeurism in which we peer in on the mean parlor games of quasi-bourgeois people. Dancing until Honey is sick, looking into the barrel of an umbrella gun, watching dirty ice cubes bathe in hard liquor — Nichols places you right in the arena with the fighters to experience their depression and collapse firsthand.
What is frustrating about the demands of the Albee estate is how feeble the evidence is. At best, it’s using a weak justification to champion a narrow understanding of the play; at worst, it venerates whiteness unironically and uncritically, which seems antithetical to the play itself. Virginia Woolf has been read as an allegory about the decline of Western civilization, but outside of its examination of a toxic relationship, what seems to be rarely analyzed is how whiteness has to be a central part of that reading. If the failure to achieve an American Dream or the desperate, dirty attempt to ascend to it is what shapes these four characters’ experiences and verbal arsenals, aren’t whiteness and racial and economic sameness part of that?
Race bending the play would only accentuate its critique of whiteness and make it more powerful. A black actor playing George could convey resentment at Martha’s white privilege and an inability to live in the world of white liberal academia — a denial of access. As Streeter argued, a black actor playing Nick would amplify and texture the tension between that character, George, and Martha. “The play is filled with invective from Martha and particularly George towards Nick,” Streeter said. “With each insult that happens in the play, the audience will wonder, ‘Are George and Martha going to go there re: racial slurs?’” A black actress playing Martha would precipitate questions related to old stereotypes about black women, emotion, and sexuality, as well as allowing a complex dynamic to play out between a black woman and a white woman (if Honey were cast as white), with the ambiguities of race and gender at once creating alliances and tensions. And so on. But if Albee’s estate insists on an all-white cast, it must also assert that the play is fundamentally about the fragility of whiteness and its centrality in the American Dream — that it is a concept with which all of its characters have an inextricable relationship. The final game of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? could be called, “How Fast Will the Whiteness of the American Dream Fail?”