Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opens with a beautiful theme from Alex North. It is melancholy, mournful, and achingly beautiful. At the same time, a scene has started to play out: two figures are walking (if you look really closely, intoxicatedly staggering) towards us. However, we really do not take particular notice —the music is simply too gorgeous. Suddenly comes a hideous and wildly intrusive cackle. It is on this rather ghastly note that the two hours of ‘fun and games’ officially ensue.
To explain why I have such a particular fondness for this film is difficult. (One cannot really cite Virginia Woolf as a favourite without seeming to harbour a hidden mean streak.) “It concerns a perpetually drunk middle-aged couple,” I tell my friends. “The pair of George and Martha are perhaps the most cruel, twisted and deafening ever caught on celluloid.” (By this point they’re shaking their heads and rolling their eyes.) Yet to me, theirs is a story at once both beautiful and ugly; both of the everyday and the extraordinary.
Undoubtedly, one of the core reasons for the film’s success with audiences is its unequalled cast of actors. The story goes that Warner originally wanted James Mason and Bette Davis to play the ‘harridan and the wimp’; (just imagine what that would’ve been like!). Then he actually realised that he was casting a movie about a harridan and a wimp… and, saavy Hollywood moghul that he was, decided to go with the relatively safer bet of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Anyone who has seen this film though can tell you this: there is nothing “safe” about this movie or the great performances on which it stands. Even today, Virginia Woolf is a rather discerning, albeit completely thrilling, ride. One still feels a tingling touch of voyeurism as we see these intensely personal happenings unfold; (not to mention, a slight embarassment over the fact that we cannot help but laugh at George and Martha’s wickedly hilarious jokes.)
But most of all we feel profound sadness, which mounts steadily throughout and leaves you in emotional tatters by the time the credits start to roll. In amidst the shouting and the braying, the lies and the deception, there are glimmers of truth and true sincerity. One of the loveliest examples of this is when Martha reveals to us the great love of her life: her husband George. In this heartfelt monologue, Martha gives us a glimpse also of the doubt and the self-loathing which pervades her life. Here is an excerpt:
George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me – whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy.
As she speaks, Martha looks out of one of those old screened doors. The image gives us a sense of her own entrapment; Martha can see the outside world, a world which is true and free of illusion. Yet she chooses, or perhaps is forced, not to be a part of it.
Indeed, the play (or perhaps war; either or applies to the games of George and Martha) between truth and illusion is the central conflict of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Note, for example, the rather unorthodox way in which Martha cleans the house: crumpled piles of clothing are shoved under the covers; ash trays are slyly slid into cabinets; alcohol is fed to the household plants. Nothing is really gotten rid of, but merely temporarily hidden from view.
As for the title itself, it is the ultimate ode to these two conflicting forces. Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? In other words, who’s afraid of living life as it really is, free of fantasy? If you were to ask the characters, they would first lie, but you would realise anyway the answer to this question: every single one of them. That’s the essential tragedy of George and Martha. They live their lives in delusion, practically on the verge of insanity. They hurt each other in such a way that it actually hurts us to watch them; they hurt each other to disguise and to forget the heartbreak which constantly looms above them.
I thought I would end by writing again about the title theme of Virginia Woolf, which appears once more as the film draws to a close. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a fitting soundtrack. It is intimate, just as the film deals with the deepest and most personal thoughts of our characters. It is a contrapuntal composition, almost Baroque in style; this mirrors the opposition between George and Martha, as well as the intrinsic dependence they have on each other. Finally, it is rather sombre, but possesses also the quiet promise of a new dawn.