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Psychological Warfare and Marriage in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?

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Mar. 30th, 2011 | 10:47 pm

Mike Nichol’s 1966 film adaption of Edward Albee’s “Whose Afraid of Virgina Woolf” offers a disturbing and thoroughly compelling glimpse into the psychological warfare waged by George and Martha, a couple whose violent relationship reveals the destructive nature of a mutually unfulfilling marriage. Director Mike Nichols employs standard Hollywood techniques like the long shot to capture the sustained movement and unpredictability of the characters. Like George and Martha’s guests Nick and Honey, we never know when the verbal assaults will erupt into physical violence or spill onto us.

George is a history professor at a prestigious New England university of which Martha’s father just happens to be the president. After a party one evening Martha invites a young biology professor named Nick and his wife Honey over for drinks. As the night wears on, the group becomes increasingly intoxicated. This is when George and Martha really lash out at each other both verbally and physically.

The first part of the film takes place within the confines of George and Martha’s large house. As the visiting couple and the audience learn more about their dysfunctional relationship, the space grows claustrophobic. Medium to wide shots at the beginning of the film become close ups as the fighting turns vitriolic. The camera compels the viewer to continue watching even though we are witnessing human behavior at its worst. Director Mike Nichols heightens the intensity of the fighting by shooting long takes with no cuts. The viewer is only given a temporary reprieval when the camera cuts away to the young couple or closes in on the face of either George or Martha.
The camera zooms in George and Martha each time they start verbally sparring. Martha operates on the surface; her teeth are bared in an animalistic display of ferocity while her eyes are wide and wild. George is more controlled and mops his hair back from his eyes while hurling barbs meant to crucify his wife. Both use body language ranging from obvious and subtle to underscore the anguish and hurt in their speech. Mike Nichols builds the tension by ensuring that none of the action takes place off screen. In fact, George and Martha very are very rarely shown apart. This strategy creates a feeling of battle weariness in the viewer. Indeed, we feel rather as though we had been sitting in their living room, drinking their bourbon while nervously eyeing the exit as they go another round.

One scene in particular highlights the crisis point that George and Martha have reached in their relationship. After publicly humiliating her husband in a café by dancing seductively with the Nick, George uses private information that the biology professor has given about his marriage to humiliate both guests. Martha chastises George that he has “really done it now” and leaves the café. George chases after her and confronts her in the parking lot in a scene that defines the rage, frustration and disappointment inherent in their marriage.

“SNAP! It went SNAP! I'm not gonna try to get through to you anymore. There was a second back there, yeah, there was a second, just a second when I could have gotten through to you, when maybe we could have cut through all this, this CRAP. But it's past, and I'm not gonna try. I looked at you tonight and you weren't there...SNAP. And I'm gonna howl it out, and I'm not gonna give a damn what I do and I'm gonna make the biggest god-damn explosion you've ever heard”.

The snap that Martha is referring to is the final release of tension in a relationship pulled taut with anger, fear, confusion and, surprisingly, love. Like a rubber band, their pathologies have stretched their marriage to its breaking point. Having no ability to extricate themselves from an arrangement that both feel powerless to control, they have fallen into roles so distasteful that they ply themselves with alcohol. Two very intelligent people are trapped in a marriage that they regret but that also take provides them with some level of comfort. It is the snapping of the silent agreement to mutually endure this emotional abuse that Martha is voicing.

This scene is different from the all of the previous scenes in the film as it is the first one that takes place out in the open. No longer confined to a space that one or the other can dominate, both characters must face each other alone and out in the open. Martha paces up and down what appears to be the corner of a football field during her “snapped” speech as though she has finally found words to express feelings that have previously gone unnamed. Again, Mike Nichols employs one sustained shot for this speech. George is, for the most part, viewed in profile during the proceedings. The only times we see him standing face forward at his full height is when he threatens to put Martha away for alcoholism and mental derangement. Here, Nichols conveys George’s short lived power through making him appear tall and dominant. In Martha’s snapped speech, George is seen slouched and rumpled.

The entire movie takes place at night. The late evening into early morning setting conveys the murky realities that each character fears facing about themselves and their relationships. Like George and Martha, Nick and Honey have a less than perfect marriage. Nick and Honey are initially portrayed as innocent bystanders to George and Martha’s rage. However, we discover that the young couple is in the early stages of contending with the anger, jealousy and dishonesty of the older couple. George and Martha can be seen as the future incarnated for Nick and Honey.

The exterior shots in the film are set in total darkness which underscores the dubious nature of truth and sanity in relationships. In love as in one’s self reflection, choosing to remain in the dark is both frustrating and comforting. Only in the light of morning will long held illusions be shattered and the promise of reconciliation blossom with promise. Until then, each couple must face the squalid truths that the night has forced out of them.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” still carries as much force as it did in 1966. While the characters of George and Martha operate as extreme examples of unhappiness and delusion, pieces of this relationship ring true in the greater scheme of human relationships. We all have the potential for the same emotional violence that makes George and Martha tick. Through conventional filming techniques director Mike Nichols brings the turbulent, roiling world of George and Martha to life and challenges the viewer to examine the nature of sanity, love and emotional responsibility.

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