Commentary Magazine

Edward Albee: Red Herrings & White Whales

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no self-respecting piece of writing, if it wishes to be taken seriously, dare appear in public nowadays without three or four levels of meaning. The convention is part of our heritage from what in ancient times was called New Criticism and it has become the most expedient way a writer has of handing in his artistic credentials. Literature thus becomes a kind of graveyard to which the reader goes to dig up all the cadavers that have been carefully buried and labeled by the writers. And with the discovery of each new corpse, the reader cries, “Eureka!” or “Aha!” as if he never expected to find it there; the writer is held in higher esteem, and the work is recognized to be of merit. At both ends of the graveyard, it is a diverting and respectable pastime—like making up and figuring out the Times crossword puzzle. When all the graves have been plundered, and all the bodies sniffed and prodded, we have “the meaning” of the work.

There are any number of variations on graveyard technique, the most awesome being the one which invites the reader to do not only the exhuming, but the planting and labeling as well. We are told to supply our own meaning—“you read into it whatever you want to read into it”—and the instructions are conveyed to us by leaving out some key factor in the work: a motive, a quality of character, an object, anything whose absence functions as an absence rather than, as Mersault’s lack of motive does in Camus’s The Stranger, as a presence. J. D. Salinger, in the days when his fictions made him the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, used the absence-as-absence technique in a sickeningly disingenuous story of enormous polish called “A Perfect Day for Banana-fish.” Seymour Glass (I feel as though I’m name-dropping) shoots himself for no apparent reason, but any old reason would obviously do, and we are asked to supply not the reason for the suicide but the meaning of the work. To the credit of his conscience as a man and an artist Salinger is evidently spending his literary life in atonement for that sinful story, though only with “Seymour—An Introduction” has he come to observe, or acknowledge, the rigorous difference between atonement and justification.

Now, these necrophilistinisms, while they may provide us with pre-packaged ideas, do not provide us with meaning. They may indirectly suggest the meaning of the culture that encourages them or of the person who employs them—but since the meaning of a work of art comes through the blood and nerves of the artist, we can’t know the meaning except through our own blood and nerves, through our feelings. Mind comes lagging along afterward with thick lenses on, correcting themes, organizing logic, justifying diction and contradiction, and so on. To examine literature “in depth,” as it is called, is to examine it at its most superficial and external. The vision and feelings of a writer are not to be found in his acquiescence to the fashion of graveyards; when the fashion changes, the graveyard will be locked (except to scholars with library passes), but the work will still exist. And its meaning will be where it always was. And except when the works are openly symbolistic or allegorical, if something in a piece of writing smells fishily symbolic or allegorical, it doesn’t matter whether you uncover a red herring or a white whale, you will have uncovered nothing—you will have obscured. Melville’s passion is not to be known by attributing an abstraction to Moby Dick. Kafka’s anguish is not to be felt by substituting another word for castle.



The much celebrated one- and two-act talent of Edward Albee has at last come to Broadway-sized fruition and is packing them in at the Billy Rose Theater. It is a considerable talent. Albee has a sense of character and drama that isn’t ordinary. He can put two people on the stage and make them immediately lifelike: they respond to each other at once, which is exciting, especially since the response is usually revulsion. He handles demotic and clichéd speech in such a way that it seems fresh. He has a sense of humor which, though it is practically always exerted at the expense of his characters, can often make you laugh out loud. And best of all, he isn’t afraid of corny theatricalism—in this of course he has the blessings and the precedent of contemporary French playwrights—and possesses an energy that never seems to flag. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has all of Albee’s virtues in over-abundance, and so it is a very entertaining play, witty, absorbing, even morbidly fascinating, and sincere in that peculiarly American use of the word—that is, when the feelings in the work refer us directly back to the author rather than to his characters. Naturally, Albee is there with his literary credentials, and in a huge way; in fact, one might say that he purveys to Broadway the largest graveyard ever, not excepting Tennessee Williams. But, to his credit, Albee keeps Virginia Woolf so diverting that up until the end of the second act you hardly notice the smell.

Since I want to go into this play in some detail, and since there may be readers who haven’t managed or wanted to get past the jammed lobby or outrageous prices at the Billy Rose, a summary of the action may be helpful. Virginia Woolf gives us four almost unrelievedly nasty people who for something like three-and-a-half hours, our time and theirs, take part in a drunken orgy of backbiting, bitchery, humiliation, verbal castration, exposure, and physical mauling. Among them are the following weaknesses, crimes, and sins, imputed or established, sometimes duplicated or even quadruplicated: deceit, treachery, impotence, alcoholism, abortion, incest, patricide, matricide, attempted uxoricide, phantom filicide, and others more trivial like adultery and pederasty (this last is suggested by Martha and George who refer to their son several times as “the little bugger”). The major crimes or sins, or whatever one calls them nowadays, belong mainly to the older couple—and more specifically to the husband—who are George, a history professor, and his wife Martha, daughter of the college president. Aside from their violent battles, they are notable for making frequent provocative remarks about their twenty-one year old son who is away from home. The impression given the audience is that there is something about the boy they want to hide, and that they are as mean and merciless to him as they are to each other. The younger couple, guilty of relatively puny and typically modern offenses, are Nick, an ambitious biology professor (who is a naturalistic reminiscence of the young man in The American Dream, and Albee doesn’t like him any better) with a smug, belligerent manner, and Honey, a simpering alcoholic; they are more or less indifferent to each other, and they have no children—a fact about which much is made. You can, perhaps, already make out the design of the play, and even though there is no vital interaction or fusion between the couples (except as Nick is used by Martha to hurt George), there is enough contrast and parallel to hang an evening on.

As a result of Martha’s continual exposure of George’s failures, the humiliation she causes him, and her final adultery with Nick, George revenges himself by inventing a telegram which purports to bear the message that “the little bugger” is dead. The invention takes place at the end of the second act (called “Walpurgisnacht”) but isn’t sprung upon Martha until the end of the third. What happens then is better told after taking a look at Albee’s method. One good way of doing this, since it leads us through the play, is to trace the gradual revelation about the sexuality of Honey and Nick.

The first important item comes in Act One when George questions Nick as to whether he and Honey have children. Nick says no, not yet, and then, further on, we hear:

George: But you are going to have kids . . .

Nick (Hedging) : Yes . . . certainly. We . . . want to wait . . . a little . . . until we’re settled.

Not odd really, but odd. And about five minutes later, we have the following:

Honey: Oh, it’s late. . . . We should be getting home.

George (Nastily, but he is so preoccupied he hardly notices his own tone) : For what? You keeping the baby sitter up, or something?

Nick (Almost a warning) : I told you we didn’t have children.

George: Mm? (Realizing) Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t even listening . . . or thinking . . . whichever one applies.

Nick (Softly, to Honey) : We’ll go in a little while.

Now we smell a set-up. George is preoccupied because his wife, Martha, has mentioned the little bugger—in spite of George’s warnings—and also because she is changing her clothes. If Nick speaks warningly, he has already proved so belligerent that we cannot distinguish one more hostility; and when he says to Honey that they will soon go, he is merely replying to her statement. It is all so neat and crafty, we almost overlook the fact that they are talking about children again, but when we do realize it, the deviousness of the writing raises the subject to prominence. Suspense enters, very subtly, very cleverly.

Things become more obvious in the second act, in dialogue between George and Nick, while Honey is off stage sick-drunk with Martha attending her.

George: Your wife throws up a lot, eh?

Nick: I didn’t say that. . . I said she gets sick quite easily.

George: Oh. I thought by sick you meant . . .

Nick: Well, it’s true. . . She . . . does throw up a lot. Once she starts . . . there’s practically no stopping her. . . I mean, she’ll go right on . . . for hours. Not all the time, but . . . regularly.

George: You can tell time by her, hunh?

Nick: Just about.

George: Drink?

Nick: Sure. . . .I married her because she was pregnant.

George: (Pause) Oh? (Pause) But you said you didn’t have any children. . . When I asked you, you said . . .

Nick: She wasn’t . . . really. It was a hysterical pregnancy. She blew up, and then she went down.

George: And while she was up, you married her.

“Throws up” and “regularly” and “tell time by her”—what George has in mind is clear, or anyway clear enough, though the references are still veiled. Then Nick does something which is preposterously out of character, given what we know of him and his relationship to George: he tells about his marriage. The strangeness and suddenness of this confession make us hark back to the set-up in Act One, and we accept the unlikely because it explains what has gone before. Now, his confession is: “I married her because she was pregnant,” and not: “because I thought she was pregnant.” However, a moment later Nick admits to having married Honey because she was rich and suggests that he did not sleep with her before they married. Now the complications really abound, a new “depth” is achieved, and another character has been made to reveal himself as a cad of the first water; in this case Nick, through all these present betrayals of Honey and past betrayals of his own feelings.



Matters come to a head through George’s treachery, but nothing is clarified. Having been humiliated and exposed by Martha and having been humiliated also by Nick who flirts openly with Martha (Honey is too drunk to notice), George tells an animal story in which he makes it clear to Honey that Nick has told him of her pregnancy. Honey realizes that Nick has betrayed her, and though she becomes hysterical, she too gives away no vital information. So if we come out enlightened in any way, it is with the knowledge that everyone on stage, except poor Honey, who will have her turn later, is if possible fouler than we thought.

And this brings us to the climactic dialogue, or monologue à deux, at the end of Act Two. Martha and Nick are off in the kitchen making—it would be silly to call it love—preparing, then, additional torments for George as well as a possible step up the ladder of success for Nick (Martha’s father being head of the college). George, on stage alone, is joined by Honey, who has until then been sleeping it off. She enters, stupefied. This stupor, which at first looks like a clumsy technical device justifiable only on the grounds that the playwright is determined to make even egoless, stupid, terrified Honey an active as well as passive perpetrator of horror, is really part of Albee’s plot to get us, willy nilly, into a position where we will have rather more than one foot in the graveyard.

Here is the relevant speech made by Honey in her stupor: “No! . . . I don’t want any. . . I don’t want them. . . Go ‘way . . . (Begins to cry) I don’t want any . . . any . . . children. . . I . . . don’t . . . want . . . any . . . children. I’m afraid! I don’t want to be hurt. . . Please!” Ah, at last, Honey Macbeth is going to spill the beans. In fact, it seems, she has already spilled them, for what follows is:

George (Nodding his head . . . speaks with compassion): I should have known.

Honey (Snapping awake from her reverie) : What! What?

And we cry with her, what, what?

George: I should have known . . . the whole business . . . the headaches . . . the whining . . . the . . .

Honey (Terrified) : What are you talking about?

Yes, George, what are you talking about? Hangover? Frustration? Frigidity?

George (Ugly again): Does he know that? Does that . . . stud you’re married to know about that, hunh?

More confusion. More suspense. And more and more when Honey suddenly reacts not only to what George says but to George himself.

Honey: About what? Stay away from me!

Does she want George because of what he’s discovered and is she therefore projecting her heat upon him? In any case, George assures her that his intentions are not sexual, and he adds “. . . How do you do it? . . . How do you make your secret little murders studboy doesn’t know about, hunh? Pills? Pills? You got a secret supply of pills? Or what? Apple jelly? Will power?”

So the truth is out at last. But what truth? We are being dumped into the graveyard. “Murder” (even when qualified by “little”) is a loaded word here: its violence is intended mainly to remind us that George has not denied killing his mother and father and has, before our eyes, attempted to strangle his wife. For we realize that, after all, Honey has said nothing, and George’s mind has said all. But if Honey is by turns conveniently stupefied and conveniently silent, she is also conveniently frightened. Somehow George has hit home. And so has Albee—he has impugned Honey and further impugned George by showing his cruelty to her. We begin to realize that the “truth” about Nick and Honey’s reproductory dilemma will never be revealed as an objective fact—and things galore start happening in the graveyard. Rashomon looms up, Ionesco gets to work, Pirandello pirouettes upon a tombstone. The inscriptions are tantalizing insofar as they are a little blurred. Excitement. Of course, my dear, the truth is that we cannot know the truth! All the red herrings, since they’re meant as red herrings, are magically turned into big white whales.



If there are any further doubts that the play has been relegated to the graveyard, they are allayed at the beginning of Act III, when Nick is revealed by Martha to be impotent, and since he doesn’t deny it—“You should try me some time when we haven’t been drinking for ten hours, and maybe . . .”—and since there is no evidence beyond the confusion I’ve indicated, his impotence becomes dramatic reality. Looking back upon everything, we can come up with gorgeous variations and conjectures. Yet, it all seems so trivial; and the more Albee imposes his method, the more trivial it seems. His design—scheme perhaps would be a better word—is so labored, so crafty, so unfree, and the satisfaction it gives us is the satisfaction of noticing an intricate shelf-arrangement at the supermarket. Look at the climactic scene once more, the scene between Honey and George. Shortly after the dialogue I’ve reported, George gets the idea for the telegram, and this perfects the climax. It links up both couples and their respective reproductive organs, and completes the balance. We have one pair, Martha and Nick, in the act of creation (offstage, to be sure) and the other pair in the act of destruction. And what irony there is when you reflect that Nick turns out to be impotent and that Martha is probably past menopause. Yet the total effect is, finally, that it is all contrivance and that if the contrivance functions at all in the play, it functions to conceal the fact that the author is really out to do one thing: get his characters. And this impression becomes stronger during the last ten minutes.

For then! Oh, then! Symbols crashing, all styles mashing, allegories splashing—Enter the Playwright, in the guise of gravedigger.



As Albee did in his first play, The Zoo . Story, so does he in Virginia Woolf, but on a much more lavish scale—and why not? This is Broadway. He introduces a new, and apparently vital, element just moments before the show ends. It is a surprise, but no ordinary surprise ending, with the usual little thrill and the usual little shadow cast upon the author’s integrity. It is, in its way, a surprise beginning, for it informs us that it has been on stage the whole time only we haven’t known about it, and it makes extraordinary retroactive claims for having been chief motive, main symbol, and primal blueprint. In The Zoo Story, it isn’t until the suicide-murder is effected that it goes back to become Jerry’s aim throughout the play. And in Virginia Woolf, it is not until George tells Martha their son is dead that we discover there is no son and never was one, that “the little bugger” is an invention, and that the couple are barren and have been play-acting at having a son for the last twenty-one years and/or three acts and/or three-and-a-half hours.

Albee prepares for it, first of all, by calling attention to the play itself, to the fact that it is Théâtre, and that it is all absurd and ridiculous anyway, just like the French playwrights say, so let’s make fun of it for a minute.

George (Appearing in the doorway, the snapdragons covering his face; speaks in a hideously cracked falsetto) : Flores; flores para los muertos. Flores.

These flowers are, I don’t have to tell you, that bunch of forget-me-not red herrings that passed behind the scrim in A Streetcar Named Desire. Later, still calling attention to the play by the use of ritualism, Albee calls attention to the Church by the use of prayer. Martha and George go trancing and prancing, she into rhetoric, he into Latin: “Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda. . . .” And then we have the surprise itself. And we are nose-deep in The Play, Absurdity, Truth, Illusion and Reality, Faith and Science, the Past and the Present, the Emptiness of Human Life, and all the other carrion of fashionable intellect. I know it isn’t cricket to ask, but what is the relationship between the surprise and the body of the play? What is different if we know the “truth” at the beginning or at the end?

The imaginary son, when revealed to be imaginary, has two seemingly equally important heads: one of them says that his parents are barren and the other one says they have created an illusion to sustain themselves with. Now, while the little bugger may be imaginary, he is neither the product nor the means of self-deception, for Martha and George are perfectly conscious of the fact that their son is a fiction.

George: You know the rules, Martha! For Christ’s sake, you know the rules!. . . . You broke our rule, baby. You mentioned him . . . you mentioned him to someone else.

In other words, they know he isn’t real—or why would they want to hide his existence? They know he is an illusion, and I can’t, whether Albee wants me to or not, accept that human beings may be sustained by illusions they know to be such. What might possibly sustain them is the anguish, the lovely anguish, that comes when a man pretends to believe in what he wishes were true but knows is not. And this, directly more than indirectly, is an acknowledgment of reality, a facing of reality. So if the little bugger has two heads, the second does nothing but talk of the first, and the first says: sterility.

Sterility is our enlightenment, Albee’s surprise. And in looking back upon the play, we find that the difference is all in ourselves. We feel something we didn’t feel when the play was in the cruel fertile land: compassion. Every time the little bugger is mentioned, we hear “barrenness” instead. And Martha and George become less horrible. Anyway their blackness is less black, somewhat grayer. But our compassion comes only through our rewriting of the play—and evidently Albee did not want this or he would have done it himself. What he allows us, in fact, after the surprise, is pity, and the feeling of pity is always a kind of judgment. Our feelings tell us the truth. The playwright has walked out on stage with bench and gavel, full of self-righteousness, and has passed sentence on his characters: “Martha and George, for abominable behavior, for immoral actions, for being wicked parents and evil people, I hereby sentence you to sterility by retroaction.” They become sterile by decree, not by virtue of dramatic reality. And no sooner do we feel this than we are aware that he has been imposing punishments on these people from the beginning—the chiefest of them being the length of time they must appear before us naked, deceitful, gruesome. It is only then, after the completion of their tortuous punishment, that the spectator is permitted some pity. And Martha and George go hobbling off alone, barren. No wonder the play is successful on Broadway; it provides the audience with a guided tour away from, and safely back at last into, the most repugnant kind of puritanical priggishness. The morality of Virginia Woolf is one which conceives that folly, desperation, frustration, hate, are not themselves their greatest penalties—as virtue is said to be its own reward—but must be judged and punished from above, beyond, without.

With our new knowledge, we look back upon Honey and Nick, and what do we see? The same unlovable pair. But now perhaps we see something we noticed earlier in a clearer light. In literature, as in life, unlovable people often get that way because they are unloved. And Mr. Albee does not love Honey and Nick; he hates them, maybe even more than he hates the other couple. He has pursued them through the play, tirelessly, relentlessly, whispering and shouting dark accusations, and although he has imposed upon them the same sentence given to Martha and George, he has done it so deviously that they can never come to Edward Albee’s kind of grace—pity from the audience.



An excellent theme for the graduate student: the artist as judge. And it might prove interesting as a sociological phenomenon: “In the mid-20th century, writers, conscious of the moral breakdown . . . etc., etc.” To all the other judges, the artist is now added. He too joins the world of loveless, wisdomless, truthless people who despise rather than comprehend. It is certainly a tempting thing to do in the face of the horror that surrounds us—to say: world, you are so awful and disgusting, I will not understand you. But who except saints and artists ever tried to understand mankind? Everyone else always tried to improve it—or own it or destroy it. Well, perhaps mankind cannot be improved, only made more comfortable. Or, perhaps after all it can. But no one was ever made better by judgment and hate, and it seems a bit silly for a writer deliberately to limit himself to the useless, even for the pleasure of sticking his tongue out at the world. It only means the world has finally won, that stupidity and lies have triumphed. And then, of course, the only proper place to look for art, as well as meaning, is in the graveyard.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.