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October 18, 1962, Vol. VII, No. 52

A New Kind of Play

By Michael Smith

Do not be fooled by appearances. Edward Albee has written a play about truth and illusion, and the evening's number one illusion is that this is a conventional play -- extraordinary in its emotional persistence, its vital language and corruscating wit, and its all-round technical superiority, but conventional and ordinary in its form and devices. This is, I repeat, an illusion. "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?" (at the Billy Rose) is, subtly but critically, a new kind of play.

Edward Albee, whose reputation previously had -- by his own admission -- outstripped his achievement, has now stepped clear of the derivativeness, self-consciousness, and technical angularity of his first works and come up with what is first of all a real play. The characters are specific and identifiable and entirely credible. The play's events happen in a real place and a real time span. No event occurs on the stage that could not actually happen in this living room of this college assistant professor. There are, in short, no tricks; the audience is not held by theatrical gimmicks. What happens on the stage is exactly what we think of as drama: people talking to one another, interacting, revealing themselves to each other and to us, revealing more than they want each other to know, rising to emotional challenges and crumbling beneath them. And this is executed so excellently -- by the playwright and his director and actors -- that the audience is held for three and a half hours, longer than any Broadway play has held it since "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

But the superior drama is all a disguise; it is what holds us, but it is not what hooks into our minds, what finally engages us. Since the play is not in its innards a conventional drama, it has a number of faults when it is seen as one, and these give the clue to what it really is. It is too long for the material of its plot, what there is of plot: why? It is written and played at a high but almost uniform emotional pitch: why? Its characters do not captivate us the way we expect to be captivated, we do not like them, we cannot identify with them, we cannot empathize with them, we do not really care what happens to them: why? And the conclusion of the play, the final revelation, is distinctly out of key with the kind of resolution that lets us leave the theatre feeling, for want of a better word, satisfied: why?

...We are not moved or entertained by the play, we are transfixed. We are drawn smoothly into a world that we manage only to skirt in our ordinary lives, and then the gates are locked behind us, and the leafy hedges separating us from the people next door become impenetrable walls, and the clocks are stopped, and we are denied any reference to the selected reality we try and ordinarily manage to see around us.

And the final moment and final "fault" of the play is as devious as the rest. We are given a sham resolution, a reconnection with reality which we can, if we absolutely need to, see as a potential up-turning in these ruined lives before us and in us; but this ending is equivocal in the extreme, not really a resolution or finality at all, and we leave the theatre knowing for sure -- but not knowing why -- we have not got away unscarred.

Director Alan Schneider has confronted the challenge of the script directly and unblinkingly, and his work is a complete success. The actors -- Arthur Hill, Uta Hagen, George Grizzard, Melinda Dillon -- give performances that could not be better: they have with courage and determination given us the play itself. William Ritman has created the perfect setting. Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder (Theatre 1963) are the producers.

The experience is irreplaceable. Edward Albee has found fire in the soggy ashes of naturalism and forged a technique of inestimable potential. This is a crucial event in the birth of a contemporary American theatre.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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