‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ 50 Years Later Drinking With George & Martha is Still Terrifying

Liz

Everybody has shown up to a party and immediately thought, “Maybe we should go.”

50 years ago today, in movie theaters, Nick and Honey wondered the same thing. Nick and Honey are nice young couple who are new at the university, so when the president of school’s daughter and her professor husband invited them to attend an after hours party, they jump at the chance. But upon entering the pair see their hosts George and Martha arguing, they wonder if they made a bad choice. And so begins the cocktail party from hell that has been inspiring movie-watchers for five decades to think twice about late-night invitations.

I watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf a few days ago in preparation for the season 2 premiere of Sloshed Cinema. My podcast “that talks about movies that talk about drinking, drugs and getting sober” has had the film on its list for quite some time. A writer friend of mine,who is not an alcoholic, argued recently that the film and the play it’s based on aren’t really about alcoholism and certainly not about recovery. While I agree on the last thought, I have to disagree that it isn’t about alcoholism. Sure, it’s about A LOT of stuff and alcohol is certainly the lubricant for gnarly topics to come up. But George and Martha don’t drink like people in search of good time. They drink like people who want to forget. They drink like a couple who wants a way out. Edward Albee, the author of the play, from all accounts certainly grew up around alcoholism and is an alcoholic himself. After a bout of really bad behavior at a dinner party, Albee wrote,”By nature, I am a gentle, responsible, useful person, with a few special insights and gifts. With liquor, I am insane.” Sounds like me and every alcoholic I’ve ever known. Certainly sounds like George and Martha.

George and Martha(played with pitch perfect acidity by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton)are bubbling volcanos of emotions who the run gamut between deep marital love and total disgust with one another even before their guests show up. Their house is messy and ramshackled. Martha does that half-assed version of drunken cleaning we alcoholics know so well. Dirty dishes shoved in a drawer, rumpled clothes shoved under the blankets before the bed is made and generally trying to make something presentable that hasn’t been so in a while. This goes double for their marriage. But the effort there is even less inspiring.

From moment one George and Martha set out to, in their words, “get the guests” meaning everything vicious, uncomfortable and unpresentable is now on display and at times gleefully so. In true alcoholic fashion, Martha takes particular delight in tearing George down in public and George can go toe-to-toe with Martha all without spilling a drop of his drink. The writing in those first scenes is solid gold. There’s no wonder the play is performed almost daily on stages of all sizes around the globe. Alcohol, in my mind, is almost the fifth character in the film. It makes George and Martha go wild. It pushes poor Honey to the point of vomiting. And it loosens Nick’s lips and clouds his judgement. The whole charade and destructive dance is familiar to anyone who has ever been in an alcoholic relationship. Sure, in the film you could walk away with the idea that this was a one time thing but for those of us who’ve been there, we assume this is just another Saturday night for George and Martha. There came a point in my drinking that I wasn’t fun to be around. That me and my significant other at the time were toxic and not a couple you wanted to drink with. George and Martha are at that point. There’s something that happens with alcoholics who drink together. They live with lie after lie and pour alcohol on these lies in hopes of having them vanish. Yet at the same time they really want to tell it like it is and let their version for the truth shoot out of their mouths. It’s vital. A lot of this happens in the film. George and Martha want these virtual strangers to know their truths or their lies and they both want to be seen and heard. Albee himself said the title means “who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, which means who’s afraid of living life without delusions?” I’m probably not alone when I say fear and delusion were huge parts of my drinking.

As a sober person, I found myself cringing a lot when I watched this movie again. I’d seen it dozens of times, mostly when I was drinking and caught it a few years ago on stage. It struck me how sharp Albee’s language is 50 years later, how breathtaking the performances are and how Albee, whether he set out to or not, perfectly painted a marriage destroyed by regret, anger and yes, alcohol. I, myself hosted or participated in more than one cringe worthy cocktail function or as the B52-s called them a “party gone out of bounds”. My intention, I thought anyway, was simply to have a good time. But now I’m not so sure. It’s pretty clear what Martha’s intention is which I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it. I didn’t want to feel my life and I wasn’t having a good time. Like ever. Liquor never made it all go away. It made me crazier, sad and terrible to be around. Just like our hosts. I think it deserves a place in the conversation about movies that talk about drinking because it nails the insanity that a couple who drinks together feels on a regular basis.

Yet there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to this film. Some fantastic trivia, Liz and Dick alone could eat up 2,000 words and all of the crazy ass symbolism in the text has been chewed over by drama nerds for decades. So it’s a good thing that Sloshed Cinema is back! There’s so much to gab about with this film, I’ve even invited my buddy Amy along to the party. Join us, why dontcha? I promise you won’t regret it.

Listen to the season premiere of Sloshed Cinema here & here! 

 

To be real

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I want everything to be pretend. I want everything to be shiny. I want things to be plastic. I don’t want things to be messy. Or genuine or uncomfortable or awkward. So god only knows how I’ve been able to get sober. After all,the whole process of recovery is a series of shit-eating humbling events where you have to ask a billion times over, “I need help.” Somehow, thankfully, my circumstances were terrible enough to have those words fall out of my mouth. What I didn’t know was that I would have to continue to get honest if I wanted my life to stay fabulous.

I lived in plastic for years. Hiding out in the worlds of nightclubs and restaurants with other misfits who weren’t to keen on this whole real world idea either afforded me the luxury to play make-believe for as long as I wanted. My partying (which as a verb I think is hysterical, by the way. Like it implies I made party an action and turned every moment into a party. Uh yeah. Let’s go with that.) had a specific goal of erasing currently reality. For the better part of two decades(!!!!) I achieved that goal. I know. I’m really proud. Therefore when I got sober this idea of “getting honest” felt impossible. I’d bullshitted, lied and avoided for most of my adulthood. It was what I knew and how I operated. Thus this new practice in sobriety of being honest and telling people I wasn’t okay, instead of acting like everything was all sunshine and roses, was foreign to say the least. After seven years of sobriety, I still slip into a robotic refrain of “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.”

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I bring all of this up because last night I had the opportunity to share my story at a meeting. As usual, I had over thought it in my brain, planned out a bunch of jokes and also went to the trouble to plan out what the reactions to this speech I had yet to give would be. Yup. Totally sane behavior. The thing is when I finally got up there and opened my mouth all of my genius ideas and all of my witty banter just dissolved. What came out instead was the truth. That thing I had hid from for 20 years. That thing I thought I’d never be able to embrace. That thing turned out to be what saved me last night. Just like it did seven years ago. And thankfully, the truth can be really funny. Embracing reality is something I have to remind myself to do. La La Land is my default location so being real and present for work, my health, my marriage, my family still doesn’t always come automatically these days.  But I know now that even if it sucks and it’s uncomfortable being truthful is always the way to go, even if it isn’t glamourous.

So this great inspirational talk that I had over-planned turned into a truthful, hilarious sharing between people who all suffer from the same thing. I’m sort of at my best when I’m just chatting with friends and once I let go of my crazy ideas that’s exactly how it felt. Dark stuff, sad stuff, funny stuff. All of the stuff came out and it felt like an exhale. And a complete honor too. The fact that anyone would ask me to talk about getting sober still boggles my mind. Each time someone asks me to speak, I think, “Wait. Me? Are you sure?” But last night several people came up and said they could relate and thanked me for telling my truth. Incredible. Listen, my sincere hope when I got sober in 2009 was maybe I could stop being a mess for a little while and then I could maybe drink again like normal people. That never happened. What did happen was something tangible. Something beautiful. Something hilarious. And something real.