In 1962, it was shocking and titillating.
Though the Pulitzer Prize committee handed it a Pulitzer, it was revoked for language, for sexual situations.
When it ran an England tour, Lord Chamberlain made the playwright, Edward Albee, change the swear words, “Jesus Christ” to “Cheese God.”
Half sarcastically, Albee asked, “What about saying Mary M. Magdalen” instead of “Jesus H. Christ” — the opening words of the play — and Lord Chamberlain thought that would be acceptable.
This is just some of the history, some of the gossip, of the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the Guild Society’s first production this season.
You might as well ask “Who’s afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Elizabeth Taylor was. She blamed it for the end of her marriage to Richard Burton after they both starred in the movie version.
The Motion Picture Association was. They fought and wrangled to edit out the swear words, especially the evocative “screw you”.
Sarah Rodgers isn’t afraid.
Vibrant with curly fox-brown hair, Sarah Rodgers is thrilled at the chance to direct the play. “It’s a director’s dream.”
Based in Vancouver, Rodgers was brought up to the Yukon by Eric Epstein. She has an MFA in Acting and Directing from UBC and is a professional actor and director. She’s been here before, performing in The Number 14, 10 years ago.
“Loved it. Dead of winter. Loved the community, the arts, the great musicians.”
We talk about Albee’s play, and all the gossip surrounding it, all the ways it confronted audiences in 1962.
“I’m surprised at how shocking and titillating it still is today. These people are so despicable, but you feel for them at the end,” she says.
Despicable people? Yes, George and Martha have gained quite a reputation since 1962 for being the couple who rip each other apart in front of guests between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. after the close of a dinner party.
“It’s that bewitching hour when everything becomes real, and all the facades drop, all the chitchat of a cocktail party is over. If you stay at a party that long, you’ll see it, too. Everything after 2 a.m. has a core of truth in it.
“This is where people feel the most alive. Ask them. It’s not pleasant. But you are vibrating.”
Edward Albee put on the first production during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was an era when the family was revered as perfect. Whatever little problems you might have, you hid them.
But George and Martha weren’t going to hide any longer.
“Thank God for the humour,” Rodgers says. “It’s hilarious. It’s a huge comedy.”
The film version, which Rodgers has purposely stayed away from, plays up the darkness, but what she loves about the play is that it is a comedy that makes you laugh and moves you at the same time. “We just ran Act 3, and I’m surprised at how moving the end is.”
She stops for a moment, maybe her first somber moment since we sat down to talk, and then immediately she jumps across the table, smiling. “What an exciting roller coaster ride!”
Knowing that the play was so shocking when it exposed the raw underbellies of some marriages, I asked her what the play had to offer today’s crowd who have been used to seeing rocky marriages in the media. They’ve lived through Archie Bunker, the Bundys, the Gosselins — what can’t they handle?
“I think this couple and this writing are unique. No one can shock with such delight, zing with such wit.”
In the play, George and Martha invite a young couple over to the house for drinks after a party is over. Nick and Honey are the more innocent versions, perhaps, of George and Martha, and they’re gonna get a full show of how a couple can go to seed.
“Nick kind of represents the hope that George once had, the potential.” But this reflection of George is all the more reason for the bickering between the couple to turn outward toward the guests.
And this is where it’s still shocking as well. Watching this kind of verbal train wreck happen is fascinating for Nick and Honey and therefore fascinating for the rest of us who — as normal humans — are a little addicted to watching the lives of others.
“We’re not skimping on the truth or the rawness of this play. That’s what makes it a masterpiece,” Rodgers says about directing.
Her goal is to really bring out the ensemble quality of the piece. “It’s been used as a star vehicle by past actors. Uta Hagen made it all about Martha. Richard Burton made it all about George. But it’s an ensemble. George and Martha wouldn’t play out this night in this way without Nick and Honey to watch them. Nick and Honey are integral witnesses to the game.”
The cast includes Eric Epstein, Bronwyn Jones, Mike Ellis and Justine Davidson.
“I love my cast! I love the Yukon talent.”
They’ve done two weeks of rehearsals so far of a four-week stretch. It’s short, she says, for such a mammoth piece, but the rehearsals are intense.
“You could live six months inside this play.”
The playwright, Edward Albee, couldn’t stop tinkering with the play and in 2005 he edited Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and this is the script Rodgers and cast are using.
“When I came, the cast all had the old version of the scripts. Most acting companies do that version — it’s the prize-winning classic. Few remember that Albee rewrote it for the Broadway revival in 2005. So we ordered the new version.”
It’s shorter, for one, and the swear words got updated. Scenes were cut or rewritten. The power is all still there. This is the version that audiences will see, the final version that Albee wanted us to see.
“There are a lot of mysteries in the play. We get to unlock them.”
Yukoners get a nice run from the Guild. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be shocking and titillating audiences from Sept. 24 to Oct. 10, Thursdays to Saturdays, at 8 p.m. at the Guild Hall.