‘Get the Guests’: Post-modern Gaming as trauma and tragedy in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Sayan Dey

By Sayan Dey

The representational definition of the term ‘tragedy’ has undergone multi-dimensional transformations from the Aristotelian ‘imitation of an action’ to the postmodern contemporary experiences that pervade our daily life. Within the contemporary dramatic compositions, especially with relevance to American Drama there is a usual tendency of discarding the classical Greek norms or the typical Aristotelian norms as cloistered and outdated. This kind of misrepresentation not only demeans the rich classical forms but also alarmingly exposes our consistent failure to transcend our dramatic/theatrical vision over different segments of time and space. In the process of embracing modernity American Drama often failed to re-interpret Aristotelian elements of tragedy which still functions in the form of language, narrative forms and emotional implications. This paper makes an effort to re-define the creative, thematic and aesthetic centrality of tragedy through re-interpreting Aristotle’s ‘Catharsis’ as ‘Postmodern Gaming’ with respect to Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Introduction: Locating the Spatio-Temporal and the Ideological Shifts
Since time immemorial, American theatre has played a critical role towards shaping a grand narrative identity. It engineered a positive, nationalistic image, which created ‘a sense of harmony and purpose imbued with nationalism’ (Tushnim Gangopadhyay, “Social Criticism in the Plays of Edward Albee” 1). However, in the twentieth century, especially in the aftermath of two successive World Wars, America’s national and global impression changed drastically. The long arc of American history reveals that there are three definite moments which have ‘disproportionately determined the course of the Republic’s development’ (David M. Kennedy, “The Great Depression and World War II”).
From 1776 to 1789, the Revolutionary War and the evolution of the constitution, generated national independence and established a basic political framework within which the nation would be governed. From 1861 to 1877, the Civil War and Reconstruction resulted into the integrity of the Union, officially ended slavery, and laid the foundation for embracing the Declaration’s promise – all men are created equal. And from 1929 to 1945, the Great Depression and the Second World War not only re-defined the government’s role in the American society but also transformed United States into the world’s hegemonic superpower (Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression: America 1929-1941 47). These three crucial historical moments vastly influenced the American theatrical platform.

American Tragic Plays: Mapping the Development
Aristotle defines Tragedy as, ‘Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play in the form of action; not of narrative through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions’ (S.H. Butcher, The Poetics of Aristotle 23). The six crucial elements of tragedy as outlined by Aristotle are – plot, character, thought, diction, melody and spectacle. He believed that the strict observation of all these elements is extremely crucial for the success of a tragic play. The ‘Plot is the imitation of action’ (Butcher 25) and therefore the writer, director and the actor is expected to be careful while formulating it.            
He also philosophized that, ‘Dramatic Action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as a subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and plot is the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character’ (Butcher 27). The analytical perspective of Aristotle clearly reveals that his notion of Tragedy was exclusively designed for textual and on-stage representations.
Prior to our understanding of the representation of tragedy in American plays and delineating its shift in the post-World War era, let us slightly reflect upon the development of American theatre in the pre- World War era. Before the advent of the English colonizers in 1607, there were Spanish dramas and Native Americans who performed theatrical events (Carlos Solorzano and Don Rubin, The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: The Americas 394). It is usually believed that the birth of professional American theatre must have taken place with the arrival of Lewis Hallam’s theatrical company in Williamsburg in 1752. Lewis and his brother William (who arrived in 1954) organized a company of actors in Europe and channelized them to the colonies. They mostly enacted the popular plays of London like Hamlet, Othello, The Recruiting Officer, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III etc. (Arthur Hornblow A History of the Theatre in America from its Beginnings to the Present Time Volume I 67).
After the departure of the Hallam Company to Jamaica, Lewis Hallam Jr. founded the American Company, opened a theatre in New York and presented the first American stage play in 1767 – The Prince of Parthia by Thomas Godfrey.  It is a neo-classical tragedy set in the far away Persian Empire during the reign of the Parthian dynasty. It strictly abides by the unities of time (happens in a short period time, usually 24 hours), place (happens in one place) and plot (one or few plot lines). The beginning of the Revolutionary Period widened the theatrical scope of America. The severe political debates that featured within the American socio-political existential framework were projected in the form of satires by Mercy Otis Warren and Colonel Robert Mulford, and heroic plays by Hugh Henry Brackenridge. The post-war period saw the birth of American social comedy through Royal Tyller’s The Contrast that satirized the Americans who got affiliated to the British cults and practices (Meserve, An Outline History of American Drama 31).
The nineteenth century pre-war American theatrescape was congested with general buffooneries, slapstick comedies, melodramas and Victorian burlesques. William Shakespeare’s plays were commonly performed along with melodramatic Tom shows (the adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). There were attempts to introduce serious African-American theatre and The Drama of King Shotaway by William Henry Brown is believed to be the first play by a black playwright in the United States. But its impact didn’t last for long as the minstrel shows started dominating the scene. The Victorian burlesques in America were farcical in nature with females enacting male roles and mocking the culture of the day. In a nutshell, the pre-war American drama was a symbiosis of the derivative, European melodramas and romantic tragedies on one side and an appeal to popular nationalism on the other (Meserve, 35-42).
Spectacles, melodramas and farces remained popular in the post-war nineteenth century scenario but poetic drama and romanticism were slowly withering away, giving way to realism (Robert Allan Gates, 18th- and 19th- Century American Drama 62). James Herne’s Margaret Fleming was one of them. It is believed to be the first modern drama that focused on the psychological complexities of the characters, rather than on the dramatic and the melodramatic expressions. In a nutshell, the pre-war and the post-war situation of the 19th century and prior to it (Civil War and Revolutionary War respectively), did not see much of serious plays and just a handful of tragedies which were mostly fictional and melodramatic in nature, strictly adhering to the Aristotelian grammar.

Re-Reading the Aristotelian concept of Tragedy: Experiences of Life
The situation drastically transformed in the twentieth century, especially during the war torn years. At the beginning, the Great Depression widely influenced American drama, and comedy was highly cherished as a medium of escape from the prevailing socio-political situations. Lawrence Willey’s Personal Experience (1934) was one such production (Susan C. W. Abbotson, Masterpieces of 20th-Century American Drama 84). Gradually the war climate became dense with widespread dislocation of people, familial loses and the dismantlement of the socio-political global structure.  The regular tragic experiences of the common folks gradually dissipated into the platform of dramatic and theatrical expressions. This, altogether, re-interrogated the constricted definition of ‘Tragedy’ as a mere on-stage ‘imitation of an action,’ and re-learned it as the ‘mirror reflection of real life actions and experiences.’
            Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon (1920), which is regarded as the first Native American tragedy by the theatre historians (“Playwrights in America” 7), is about, what Virginia Floyd reads as, ‘the necessity of the dream to sustain man, the wife-husband and father-son conflicts, the contrasting value systems of the idealist poet and materialist businessman, the lure of the land versus that of the sea’ (Robert M. Dowling, Critical Companion to Eugene O’Neill 142). This play eludes tragedy as a natural phenomenon, which is entrenched in our regular existential experiences. The lineage continued through African-American plays like Theodore Browne’s Natural Man (it projects how the protagonist, John Henry, is trapped in a physical stereotype which is highly paradoxical in nature, that is, both revered and reviled), Abraham Hill’s Walk Hard (it exposes the experience of entrenched racism and ghetto mentality in the States) and Owen Dodson’s Garden of Time (a re-telling of the Greek tragedy Medea, taking place in the antebellum South) (Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch, A History of African-American Theatre 251). Though the last one is a re-telling of the Greek tragedy, yet, spatially and thematically, it is set within the then contemporary geography and ideology of America.
Keeping this analytical framework at the backdrop, Tragedy could also be proposed as – Tragedy is a real life action and/or reflection of a real life action that generate sufferings (directly and/or indirectly inclined, individual and/or collective) of any magnitude, in a language unembellished and natural, through the different segments of the play, in the form of both actions and narratives, ‘to generate, rather than to purge pity and terror; to disintegrate, to atomize rather than to create a community. In the more immediate language of existentialism, it exists to generate anxiety or dread: to dislodge the tranquilized individual from the “at-home of publicness”, from the domesticated, the scientifically charted and organized familiarity of the totalized world’ (William Spanos, “The detective and the boundary: Some notes on postmodern imagination” 155). In other words, the concept of tragedy is no longer a distant phenomenon, situated in different (and often inaccessible) spatial, temporal, ideological and geographical zones, like the Greek and the Roman tragedies, which were usually invoked as a medium of aesthetic communication between the actors and the audiences. It is no more necessary to interpret tragedy under the canopy of personages ‘who are renowned and prosperous – a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families’ (Butcher, The Poetics 45-47). It is the habitual realizations and experiences (both individually and collectively divergent), within which the borderlines between the text, the stage, the actors and the spectators get obliterated, and ‘no single definition will ever embrace’ (Arthur Miller, “Tragedy of the Common Man” 166) it. Altogether, there will be a diametric shift from the form of a tragedy to the content of a tragedy (i.e. shifting the focus from the plot to the theme).

‘The Animal is indeed within us all’: Albee’s vision of Post-modern Tragedy
Edward Albee confronted the audience with the vision of a society which was crumbling into consumerist decadence and complacence, in a mockery of the American Dream. His plays seek to depict the post-war citizenry, who had either lost their will to carry on or were suffocating with pent up anxiety. The plays relentlessly interrogate the social, emotional and the existential security and dislodge them in order to awaken the audience to its reality through rants, insights, futile struggle and deaths, represented on stage. They were an attempt to dispel the popular glamour over the horror and anguish of the mid-twentieth century (Mel Gussow, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey 171).
Albee’s characters, Nick, Martha, George and Honey, in Who’s Afraid are metonymic representations of the widespread agonies of post-modern existence. Post-modernism has undergone a ‘wholesale paradigmatic shift in the cultural, social and economic orders … which distinguishes a postmodern set of assumptions, experiences, propositions from that of a preceding period’ (Ana Fernández-Caparrós, “Post modern American Drama: An Introduction” 6). It is primarily underlined with two core perceptions, as eluded by Fernández-Caparrós – ‘ontological uncertainty, that arises from an “awareness of the absence of centers, of privileged languages, higher discourses” [and] a postmodern self, [which is] no longer a coherent entity that has the power to impose admittedly subjective order upon its environment. It has become decentered’ (6).  This generates a highly depressive and a confused climate that compels individuals to escape ‘to the promised land of happiness, a paradise’ (Walter D. Mignolo, “De-linking” 450) where the real/virtual dichotomy is diminished and the tragic experiences of life gets interweaved with virtual happiness. It also adds new dimensions to the presence and the meaning of tragedy.
With the end of the Second World War, the American society was flooded with ‘unprecedented wealth and power’ (Arnold Aronson, “American Theatre in Context: 1945-Present” 89) and generated a fundamental perception of an ‘affluent society’ (John Kenneth Galbraith The Affluent Society 1). It implied a general material prosperity underlined with a democratic distribution of wealth. Undoubtedly, the general standards of the society improved but the social disparities were still prominent. While the United States was busy in proselytizing its global moral obligations – guarantying freedom, establishing international free trade, feeding the world’s population and channelizing technology and culture (Henry R. Luce, “The American Century” 160), the native society was reeling under the ‘overwhelming fear of nuclear Armageddon that pervaded consciousness during the Cold War’ (Aronson, “American Theatre” 92). This terrorizing impact undertakes a tragic turn in Albee’s Who’s Afraid, which demonstrates tragedy as a ‘speciesist’ discourse that ‘involves systematic discrimination against an other based solely on a generic characteristic’ (Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites 1). It gets clearly elaborated from the very beginning of the play, when George defines Martha as ‘a cocker spaniel’ (164), ‘a hyena’ (171), or a ‘sub-human monster yowling at ‘em from inside’ (167).   During the game of “Get the Guests” by George and Martha in Act II, the revelation of their animal selves further locate their disconcerted position in the society.
The recently burgeoning field of animal studies has not only enabled the scholars to analyze the significance of animals in literary works but also the way ‘animal’ is used as a metaphor to forge power over ‘abnormal’ individuals. Albee, through this play, incorporates the concept of cyborg, or the body as a human-animal hybrid. Through collapsing the human/animal binary, Who’s Afraid, is a tragic demonstration of the ‘Mid-20th century American panic towards the fall of human privilege, embedded within both Cold War rhetoric and the changing social climate of America’ (Ryan Thomas Jenkins, “The Animal Within: Edward Albee’s Deconstruction of Human Privilege in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF” 5).
The perception of the animal, which often adjectivizes humans as inferior and uncivilized, are embedded ‘within one’s self, not external, not through the Other before us or the death far beyond us, but within the real that we believe to be contained within the shadows and under the reins of our control. However, the animal is indeed within us all’ (Jenkins, “The Animal Within” 3). The theatrical spectacle has often been criticized as diseased and murderous, and is often denominated as the representation of the apocalypse of the post-modern civilization. The language and communication breakdown bears a testimony to the animalistic, tragic experiences of the twentieth century United States. The play was composed during a significant moment in American history in 1962, ‘a time in which there was the burgeoning of civil rights, the panic of the Atom Bomb, and a ubiquitous aporia towards the future of the United States’ (Jenkins 8).

‘Get the Guests’: Post-modern Gaming as trauma and tragedy
George and Martha’s illusionary engagements and Nick and Honey’s alienating tendencies demonstrate ‘the vacuity underlying the social façade, and with stressing the need for courage and truth’ (C.W.E Bigsby, “Who’s of Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Edward Albee’s Morality Play” 258). It is, as Martha philosophizes, ‘the refuge we take when the unreality of the world weighs too heavy on our tiny heads’ (277). But the latter’s ‘illusionary,’ ‘perfect’ and ‘superior’ state of existence is imploded, and is compelled to be a part of the former’s games and tensions. This is evident in the following conversation between George and Nick:
      NICK [even angrier than before]: And when my wife comes back, I think we’ll just …
     GEORGE [sincere]: Now, now … calm down, my boy. Just … calm … down. [Pause] All  right? [Pause] You want another drink? Here, give me your glass?
      NICK: I still have one. I do think that when my wife comes downstairs …
      GEORGE: Here … I’ll freshen it. Give me your glass. [Takes it]
      NICK: What I mean is … you two … you and your wife … seem to be having some sort of a …
       GEORGE: Martha and I are having … nothing. Martha and I are merely … exercising … that’s all … we’re merely walking what’s left of our wits. Don’t pay any attention to it.
      NICK [undecided]: Still …
     GEORGE [an abrupt change of pace]: Well, now … let’s sit down and talk, hunh?
      NICK [cool again]: It’s just that I don’t like to … become involved … [An afterthought] uh … in other people’s affairs.
      GEORGE [comforting a child]: Well, you’ll get over that … small college and all. Musical beds is the faculty sport around here. (175)
 It also projects ‘the primacy of human contact based on an acceptance of reality’ (Bigsby 264) which is prominent in Martha’s words after the game “Get the Guests” get over:
You know what’s happened George? You want to know what’s really happened? (Snaps her fingers) It’s snapped, finally. Not me…it. The whole arrangement. You can go along…forever, and eveything’s…manageable. You make all sorts of excuses to yourself…you know…this is life…the hell with it…maybe tomorrow he’ll be dead…maybe tomorrow you’ll be dead…all sorts of excuses. But then, one day, one night, something happens…and SNAP! It breaks. And you just don’t give a damn anymore. (260)
The second act of the play commences with George and Nick talking to each other in the absence of Martha and Honey. George tells the story of a young boy who killed his mother and was also responsible for his father’s death. Nick reveals that he married Honey after she exposed her pseudo-pregnancy to him. George makes an effort to warn Nick about being ‘dragged down by the quicksand’ of the college, but is of no use. Meanwhile, Martha and Honey returns, and the sexual attraction between Martha and Nick increases. Martha dances erotically with Nick and also provokes her husband by telling the guests about George’s attempt to write a novel, which involves a boy responsible for his parents’ deaths. Infuriated, George physically attacks Martha and Nick intervenes to stop them. George looks forward to seek revenge on the guests. So he narrates a ‘fable’ that mirrors Nick and Honey’s earlier life and their hysterical pregnancy. It humiliates Honey and she flees the room. George and Martha also declare ‘total war’ on each other. The first victory goes to Martha as she openly seduces Nick, but fails to make George lose his temper. Martha directs Nick to the kitchen and George can prominently hear the sounds of carousing coming from there. George makes an effort of final revenge which he believes that will change his and Martha’s life forever. He wishes to tell Martha that their son is dead.
        The play is impregnated with games and gamesmanship, which obliterates the socio-political pellicles and disgorges into the layers and the sub-layers of the post-modern existential tragedies. Several of them are explicitly outlined in the play – humiliate the host, hump the hostess, get the guest and bringing up the baby. Besides these, there are abundant references of games, rules, toys, winners and losers. George and Martha consistently engage in different games and match their wits. Even the playwright compares the scenes of George and Nick with a game of chess, with each player seeking the advantage over other.
          During the second act, Martha and George’s childish games attain a ferocious texture, underpinned with brutal, personal attacks. Highly ambiguous in nature, the bizarre language and the sexual antics of these characters, unravels the uncertainty that was omnipresent in Cold War America. Martha’s speech after the game of “Get the Guests” (which has already been quoted above) ‘subverts the domestic institution by expressing a deep internal need to overcome false illusions that are speciously sustaining her “civilized” order of life – the American family, the “arrangement”’ (Jenkins, “The Animal Within” 31). As a result, after her speech George responds her with, ‘You’re a monster…you are (260). George’s comment re-identifies Martha, not as a woman, but as a sub-human character.  In spite of the eternal impulses, it is an instinctive tendency of the human civilization to organize their life. George’s raucous response to Martha’s attitude towards marriage gets intermingled with the several conflicting and emerging anxieties, surrounding the ideology of the American domesticity in the early sixties.
          The Cold War generated a collective believe that America was the strongest country in the world, especially after its emergence as an economic and political superpower after the Second World War. But with the successful launch of Sputnik I in 1957, followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the insuperable image of America – America’s civility, the privileged position of familial stability and a rightful way of everyday living was bulldozed with the invasion of animalistic savageries (both physically and ideologically). This is very prominent through the underlying tension about the superiority of Biology (or Science and Mathematics in general) over History, that preoccupies the entire play. It also unveils the general post-modern attitude of rejecting historical engagements as redundant and primitive, and generates a rationally conceived, linearly patterned, assimilated future, flooded with super-humans, who are genetically programmed in an identical manner.
          Albee conjures a metaphorical zoo at the heartland of America, in the college town of New Carthage, where ‘normal’ beings Nick and Honey encounter the savage world of George and Martha. The playwright deconstructs American civility through the trope of the animal. On one side the playwright unravels the animalistic side of the characters and on the other side it disintegrates the human/animal binary. The nuclear family as a ‘civilized’ and ‘normal’ structure is consistently interrogated through Nick, Honey, George and Martha. The ‘illusionary is made real [and] … the real is made illusion’ (Julian Wasserman, “‘The Pitfalls of Drama’: The Idea of Language in the Plays of Edward Albee” 32) as Martha and George struggles to tear down the cultural cages and undress the savage side of America.
          Who’s Afraid blurs the human/animal binary, not only to depict the inherent savagery of the human civilization but also to explore the ways in which individuals communicate. In the play, the language is a failed signifier, which is ‘thriv[ing] on a pungent idiom’ (Ruby Cohn, “‘Words; words…they’re such a pleasure’: An Afterword” 217) and ‘bolstered by subtle sonic effects’ (Cohn 219). It gets thoroughly replicated through the constant exchange of confused words, substituting the meaning of one word for another (‘gangle’ for ‘giggle’), subtle shifts in semantics [‘I am in the History Department…as opposed to being the History Department’ (178)], the absurdity of language [‘Good, better, best, bested’ (174)] and the ultimate breakdown of language in the exorcism scene, when George speaks the dead language of Latin to Martha. The playwright’s sense of wordplays and linguistic techniques steers us towards the ‘linguistic modalities outside the human’ (Carrie Rohman, Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal 17), which yields more communicative moments than mere rational discussions. The language that exists outside the human cannot be conceptualized. But in moments of extreme language crisis, though the language doesn’t get transferred, yet communication nevertheless takes place ‘in a revelatory shared silence’ (Jenkins, “The Animal Within” 43). For instance, at the introductory segment of the play, Martha walks into her home, yelling ‘Jesus…’ and George silences her with a hush, while at the end of the play Martha utters in a devastated manner ‘I am..,’ George affirms with a ‘nod’ and silence naturally falls in. This transcendence of language occurs throughout the play.

Altogether, the animal metaphor further coagulates the tragic experiences of contemporary America by disrupting the humanist privilege of progressive rational thought and debunking the illusionary security of the civilization. Therefore, like many other Albee’s plays, the thematic sphere of Who’s Afraid is not limited to the individual onstage characters like George and Martha but appeals to the tragic speciesist attitude of the entire human civilization, within which ‘insanity infiltrates [to] … implicate those outside as well as inside the cage’ (Randy Malamud, Reading Zoos: Representations of Animal and Captivity 129) of post-modern existence.

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