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Adapting American Drama to Film. The Transfer From Stage To Screen Of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" by Edward Albee

Bachelor Thesis 2014 48 Pages

Film Science

Excerpt

Table Of Contents

Introduction

The 1960s in the United States

Film Censorship and its Decline

Feminism in the Twentieth Century

Edward Albee and the 1960s

Adapting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Battle Over Censorship

Feminism and Gender

The Rise of Television

Works Cited

Introduction

There is a certain kind of ephemeral magic that only exists inside the theater. Audience members shift in their seat in anticipation, the sounds of actors shuffling backstage seeps from under the curtain, the lights dim, the doors close, and all of the sudden the outside world fades away. Reality seems to shift and take new shape as the curtain rises and you are thrust into a different world. When the curtain finally closes, you sit still in your seat, not even noticing the others around you, realizing that if there is truly magic in the world, you’ve just witnessed it.

The role of theater in our society is difficult to define. Theater functions in different ways for different people who bring different backgrounds, experiences and needs. For some people it offers “needed respite, a chance to laugh, and a chance to escape into a healthy fantasy.”[1] For others, the theater offers an “intellectual challenge , or a challenge to their imagination which they do not find in the rest of their existence.”[2] For some people theater might even serve as a guide for living.[3]

Almost every culture around the world and throughout time has had its their own form of drama. Theater and drama has provided an opportunity for each member of the audience to interact with the imaginative minds that created it, to explore ideas and beauty, and to discover new ways of looking at the world.[4] The theater has been key in understanding the minds and hearts of a community or a culture at large since much good theater is comment upon the human condition.[5] Art, specifically theater, has become a way to help define the culture and the social atmosphere of a community. Major historical events such as wars, natural disasters, a change in political leaders and overall social unrest, to name a few, are reflected in our art, especially on the stage. For example, The Vagina Monologues, a 1994 play written by activist Eve Ensler, is a direct reflection of the feminist movement.[6] The Broadway sensation War Horse tells the story of a young boy and his horse fighting in World War I.[7] We look to art and drama to help us understand and process what is going on in the world outside the theater.

When the moving picture was introduced to the world in the late 19th century, the world of theater was inevitably changed. Almost every aspect of performance and storytelling took on a new meaning. Not only was the profession of acting affected, but this new technology opened up a world to a brand new industry. With the success of “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” and other films such as “Le Jardinier”, also made in 1895, the Lumiere brothers were able to open the first cinema in 1897 with their film “L’Arroseur arossè”.[8]

From religious rituals to vaudeville, live theater had been the public’s preferred source of entertainment and the most popular venue for storytelling.[9] However, with the opening of cinemas around the world in the late 19th century, the theater had its first rival and competitor. No longer was the theater the only place people could look to for diversion or depictions of real life. The mass consumption of film, beginning with the opening of cinemas, completely changed the culture of entertainment.

As new technology developed throughout the 1900s, film became more widespread and affordable to the general public. The introduction of 5 cent theaters where almost anyone could come and see a film began the Nickelodeon Era in film, and introduced this new form of story telling as entertainment for the masses, not just the privileged elite that could afford tickets to the finest theaters. The 5 cent theaters continued to increase the appeal of film and allowed it to generate a larger profit. The film industry was soon recognized as not only a new form of entertainment, but a cutthroat business that had the potential for large profits. Studios such as Paramount, Fox, Keystone, Warner Brothers, Universal and MGM were soon to be household names and would soon be the major producers of films in the United States.[10]

In his book, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, Robert Skar states that “ For the first half of the twentieth century…movies were the most popular and influential medium of popular culture in the Unites States. They were the first of the modern mass media, and they rose to the cultural consciousness from the bottom up, receiving their principle support from the lowest and the invisible classes in American society.”[11] According to Sklar, this form of mass media emerged as such a cultural influence because of the change in the basic structure of the United States. America was becoming a predominately urban industrial society where diversity in language, religion, race and income changed how people lived and consumed media. With the success of film and the cinema houses, the demand for more films and more material put pressure on the cinemas, filmmakers and producers to make films the public would keep coming to see.

The relationship between theater and film has been a complex one. Some believe that the introduction of film caused the slow death of American theater. Others believe that there are specific and loyal audiences that have stood by and cultivated their love of live theater in spite of the popularity of film. When these two worlds combine, and works are transferred from the stage to the screen, a whole new realm of possibilities and creative opportunities present themselves.

Adapting material previously published in another genre was not an idea that originated with film. The theater had been using this technique ever since its beginnings. The ancient Greeks adapted myths, Shakespeare appropriated materials for his plays from numerous different sources. When the film industry almost immediately moved away from simply depicting reality and everyday life to actually implementing a narrative, movie makers realized that there was a plethora of stories already available that could be translated to film. Novels, short stories, poems, myths and theatrical plays began to be adapted to film. However, the respectability and cultural superiority of these other genres made it difficult for film adaptations to gain the same respect and status as, say, a novel or a play.[12]

The renowned film critic for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael, summed up how many critics of adaptation felt in 1976. She stated, “If some people would rather see the movie than read the book, this may be a fact of life that we must allow for, but let’s not pretend that people get the same things out of both, or that nothing is lost”[13]. The idea that a story originally told through the written word or on the stage will “lose” something if it is adapted to film is not an uncommon opinion.

Certain stories are important to certain cultures at different times. For example, Brokeback Mountain could be considered the first blockbuster film about gay men, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that it was released during a time when gay marriage was at the forefront of political and social discussions all around the country. The 1946 film, It ’s A Wonderful Life, speaks quite blatantly about the “American Dream”, capitalism and the perfect American family, all topics that were extremely important to the American public after World War II. The values, traditions, politics, fears and triumphs of a culture at large can be observed through films. What do films say about the society at the time of their release, and what affect do they have on their audiences?

As mentioned before, adapting into film material previously released in another genre was a commonplace practice. Both film and theater have traditionally been collective experiences, where large groups of people can participate in and enjoy the entertainment together. With the advent of television, VHS and DVD, film can now be experienced by hundreds of people at a time or just one. However, in its beginnings, film was viewed by many people at once, similar to theater, where the audience’s reaction mattered and had the ability to have an impact on the culture. Therefore, the choice to adapt a particular play at a particular time allows the viewer a glimpse into what was important to Americans at that time.

The 1960s in the United States

The 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, written by Edward Albee, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. When the play was adapted to film in 1966, American culture was at a crucial stage of great change. There was upheaval in all sections of society, from politics to technology to family dynamics. The 1960s in the United States was rife with political and social change. Americans defined themselves different in the 1960s than they had defined themselves in previous decades. Numerous social issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia began to be challenged and labeled as “ wrongheaded products of American imperialism.”[14] A sharp division took shape as the younger generations challenged the America their parents had created. An unpopular war in Vietnam sprouted “flower children” and political protesters on college campus all over the country. Cultural icons such as Timothy Leary and The Beatles preached the power of psychedelic drugs to open one’s mind, and millions of fed up Americans joined Dr. Martin Luter King in the fight for racial equality. “Negros became Blacks and then African Americans, and slogans like “Black is Beautiful” began to transform what Black people saw when they looked in the mirror.”[15] Homosexuals became gays and lesbians, “Miss” and “Mrs” merged into “Ms” and “feminist” became a word that described a legitimate movement and not a man-hating spinster.[16] According to John Houchin in his book titled, Censorship in the American Theater, the “sixties” was not a fixed passage of time, but really “ an altered state of mind brought about by significant changes in the nation’s moral, political and cultural attitudes.”[17]

In almost every culture, art tells of the cultural and social atmosphere of its time. Art is a commentary on real life experiences, a way for a society to better express and understand itself. The art produced during the 1960s in the United States is no different. The 1960s was a golden age for many artists, as they finally found the freedom and the platform to comment on and contribute to the changes happening around them. Americans had spent almost two decades producing art that either supported the war, or promoted traditional American values and morals.

Much of the art produced during WWII and during the Cold War, specifically films made during this time, were made with one purpose in mind; encourage people to enlist, boost moral of the troops and Americans at home, promote strong, traditional family values and anticommunism. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, these themes dominated Hollywood, an industry that had tremendous influence, large audiences and the responsibility of helping shape American culture. However, after WWII and the ideological battle of the Cold War, Americans began to be disillusioned by industries that worked to distract and deflect, and began to seek out those who were concerned with revealing the real America that had been hiding behind the glossy, picture perfect images of the 1940s and 1950s.

American theater was also going through an exciting new era. In his book, Censorship in the American Theater, John Houchin states that the “radical theater of the 1960s freely combined the moral license of the 1920s with the political activism of the 1930s to create arguably the most explosive theater of the century.”[18] Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reflects the shifting culture in America during the 1960s. The 1960s provided a perfect platform for this story to be told on film. There are three major cultural factors that made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? successful in America in the 1960s: the decline of censorship in the film industry, the challenge to traditional gender roles and the rise of feminism, and the popularity of television and its affect on audiences.

Film Censorship and its Decline

The end of World War II and the twenty years that followed were a time not only of great social and political change, but also of great change in the film industry. When World War II ended, soldiers returned home and the American public attempted to come to grips with the changes that had taken place during the war. In 1945, Americans were able to shift their focus from the war to other issues on the home front that they hadn’t been able to address before. After the war ended, the United States experienced an economic boom that brought prosperity to many citizens. Equality for women and African Americans moved to the forefront of the politics of the time, as did the struggles that came with it. The growth of the suburbs began to change the geography of the country and began to give the “American Dream” a whole new meaning.

The film industry also worked to adapt and reflect what society in the United States had come to look like. Hollywood was a very active participant in shaping the nation’s views and expectations during the war. When the United States joined the Allied forces, Hollywood films sometimes functioned as propaganda.[19] Even before America joined the war, Hollywood was churning out opinionated films like the 1939 Warner Brothers film, Confessions of a Nazi Spy. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was released which showed Hollywood was becoming more radical in expressing its opinions about Nazi beliefs.[20] The film industry truly joined the fight when The Motion Picture Committee Cooperating for National Defense was created in 1940.[21] On December 17th, 1941, only ten days after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt appointed Lowell Mellett to serve as coordinator of government films, acting as a liaison between the government and the motion picture industry and advising Hollywood in its support of the war effort.[22] Hollywood’s influence on the public was no secret. In his letter of appointment, FDR told Mellett: “The American motion picture is one of the most effective mediums in informing and entertaining our citizens.”[23]

The entire film industry entered into World War II with the rest of the country. Major film stars like James Stewart, Clark Gable, and Ronald Reagan joined the armed forces and set a national example for their adoring fans.[24] Those who were once reluctant to join soon flooded enlistment offices following in the footsteps of their favorite stars. By October of 1942, more than 2,700 members of the Hollywood film industry had joined the Armed Forces[25], and at least one-fourth of the male employees at Warner Brothers Studio alone had entered the service[26]

Hollywood’s influence during the war was vast and far reaching. Not only did the films produced during this time effectively convince thousands of soldiers to enlist, but the films also were able to keep up morale and provide a sense of calm and camaraderie in a turbulent and uncertain period. The war movies boosted the confidence of Americans, and Hollywood as an industry was able to help provide funds and support for the war effort.

In 1948, a federal antitrust suit was filed against the five major and three minor studios which ended in the “Paramount Decrees.” This forced the studios to divest themselves of their theatre chains and mandated competition in the exhibition sector.[27] After the Paramount Decrees, very different films were made than had been made before or during the war. “Instead of depending on spectacle and special effects to create excitement, the new lower-budget films tried to develop thought-provoking or perverse stories reflecting the psychological and social problems besetting returning war veterans and others adapting to postwar life.”[28]

Film scholars have long been fascinated with Hollywood’s treatment of the period following the end of World War II, most commonly known as the Cold War. Much like films produced during the war, Hollywood continued to make films that supported the dominant ideology of most Americans, and more specifically, the American government. America’s “ideological battle with international communism” could be seen across numerous genres, including James Bond, monster movies with creatures created from nuclear warfare, science fiction movies, and even westerns.[29] By 1950, however, certain factors had made the Cold War an increasingly militarized struggle. The communist takeover in China, the pronouncement of the Truman Doctrine, the advent of a Soviet nuclear weapon, tensions over occupied Germany, the outbreak of the Korean War, and the formulation of the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as rival alliances had all enhanced the Cold War's military dimension.[30]

The threat of Communism was on the minds of every American during this time. “Training films, booklets, bomb shelters, and drills prepared citizens to respond to attack warnings and evacuation orders.”[31] What it meant to be an American during this ideological struggle played itself out in countless avenues of cultural expression, such as books, television, radio, religion, college campuses and, of course, film. “The Defense Department created a special unit, The Motion Picture Production Office, in 1949 to help Hollywood promote the Armed Forces. Scripts that were deemed helpful to the cause of the cold war got free use of military bases and equipment.”[32] Censorship became a common practice, which caused tension to rise between government agencies and film studios. Hollywood became a visible target for the House Un-American Activities Committee during the late 1940s and 1950s. “Cooperators” were blacklisted, and some even served time in jail, like the Hollywood Ten. 10 Members of the Hollywood film industry, or the Big 10, publicly denounced the tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee during its investigation of alleged Communist influence in the motion picture industry.[33] These prominent director and screenwriters received jail sentences and were banned from working in the major Hollywood studios.[34] However, by the mid 1950s, Senator McCarthy’s increasingly reckless and often baseless attacks led to his fall from power and the anti-communism crusade began to lose momentum.[35]

The true mark of the decline of censorship in the American film industry was the dissolution of the Hays Code and its replacement, the ratings system. The Code had its beginning in the early 1920s after a series of scandals in Hollywood that had religious groups and individual censorship boards clamoring for a stricter set of rules for the motion picture industry. To avoid government censorship, film industry leaders rallied together under a politically active lawyer, Will H. Hays, to create the Hays office. In 1930, the Hays office released the Production Code, which detailed what was morally acceptable on the screen.[36] Throughout the 1930s, 1940s and into the 1950s, the Production Code was the standard for censorship practices in Hollywood. However after World War II and the encroaching competition of television, film studios became less inclined to rein in filmmakers “who couldn’t wait for the rules to catch up.”[37]

After the gender bending film Some Like It Hot was released in 1959, a film that not only had cross dressing but also gambling, racketeering and a booze buzzing Marylyn Monroe, the MPA suggested that some sort of classification system might be more beneficial than a code that no one was paying attention to.[38] The Hays Code was replaced with a ratings system in 1968, shifting from full on censorship to simply alerting audiences of possibly offensive or mature content.[39]

Feminism in the Twentieth Century

American women’s history throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century is fascinating, complex, and sometimes unfortunately neglected. During the nineteenth century, the process of industrialization in the United States continually re-defined women’s work and their role inside and outside of the home. World War I was a defining moment of the twentieth century and also played a large role women’s history as well. Women went to work in department stores and offices, played a large role in the war effort and continued to develop new ideas about sexuality, reproduction, family, marriage and education. The shift from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, or the shift from a preindustrial to industrial society, affected women in all different sectors of society.[40] Industrialization drew women into the work force in great numbers, employing older married woman as well as young single women.[41]

The ideas of the 19th century regarding the separate and opposite natures of men and women seemed to be further exaggerated by the industrial revolution, even though more women were present in the work force. In times of great transformation, like the rapid and intense change of industrialization, “there is a resurgence in the enforcement and belief in classical, or traditional gender roles.”[42]

However, there were also advocates for change during this time, most importantly the suffrage movement, which after being derailed by the Civil War, resurface in the early twentieth century.[43] Women began to play a more active role in public life, yet the majority of the power was still held by men. Woman began to get more access to education, for example the opening of Vassar, the first college aimed at educating women, in 1865. With the success of Vassar and other institutions aimed at educating women, the idea that women could in fact be equal to men and hold professional jobs such as doctors and lawyers, bean to take hold in American society.[44]

Underlying these issues of professional work were other long standing issues such as the vote and birth control. In 1920, the 19th amendment was finally passed and women gained the right to vote. Some scholars argue that the 1920s marked a time when gender roles for men and women began to be publicly questioned and thwarted.[45] Woman began to participate in typically “male” activities such as drinking publicly, cutting their hair into short “bobs”, smoking and embracing sexual freedom.[46] Skirt hems raised, makeup got more dramatic and the “flapper” was born just in time to set fire to the “era of wonderful nonsense”.[47]

However, just as quickly as the changes began, they halted abruptly with the stock market crash of 1929.[48] Gender roles tightened up again and society began to encourage men and woman to return back to their “natural” roles and turn away from the loose morals and recklessness of the previous decade.[49] The depression had a large impact on gender roles for both men and women. Men, who had traditionally defined themselves by work and their profession, now found themselves out of a job and unable to provide like they had been able to before. At the height of the depression 33% of the labor force was out of work.[50] If work became available, men were almost always chosen over women for jobs. However, even in a time when work was slotted for men, Roosevelt appointed he first female federal judge and women began to fill other government positions. Even though times were tough economically and many revered back to traditional gender roles, parts of the American public still fought to challenge the status quo.[51]

As America moved into the 1940s, World War II challenged gender roles once again. The war changed what it meant to be both a man and a woman in American society. Men went to war and women filled the gap by taking jobs in offices, factories and other traditionally male occupations. Women working was seen as a financial and national necessity a well as their patriotic duty.[52] Interestingly enough, propaganda and the media worked together to encourage women that they could still hold on their femininity while holding traditionally male jobs.[53]

When the war came to a close in the late 1940s, men returned home and wanted their old jobs back, which meant that women were fired even though they had become skilled, educated and resourceful, and true assets to the work force.[54]

The 1950s can be defined as a decade of consumerism. Many feminists today see the 1950s as perpetuating traditional gender roles for men and women on television and in advertising almost everywhere.[55] According to them, advertising of the time portrayed women as stupid, submissive and purely domestic creatures.[56] However, through the re-examination of original advertisements in a variety of magazine from the 1950’s while keeping in mind the culture of the time, it becomes increasingly evident that often these ads were neither belittling to women or antifeminist. In fact, the historical truth is that they were sometimes just the opposite, picturing women in varied roles and positions of power.[57] This fact adds an interesting dimension to what many people assume about women in the 1950’s and leads one to better understand the transition to the full fledged feminist movement in the 1960s.

American society as a whole in the 1950’s had geared itself towards the family and marriage and children became part of the national agenda.[58] Embedded in the propaganda at the time was the idea that a strong nuclear family was what made Americans spurious to Communists.[59] Many women in the 1950s felt tremendous societal pressure to get married and couples were getting married on average much younger than they had before, putting the marriage rate at an all time high.[60] There are numerous stereotypes about women that were created by the media and advertising during the 1950s, and though not all of the media portrayed women as homemakers, many did. “Despite the fact that employment rates also rose for women during this period, the media tended to focus on a woman's role in the home.”[61]

This “perfect” lifestyle woman were encouraged to aspire to left many women feeling isolated and restricted. A growing number of women turned to Betty Friedan’s book published in 1963, to search for an answer to what Friedan called, “the problem that has no name.”[62] Their life and purpose was so connected to the home and the family that many women felt the need to go in search for a life apart from the family, a personality which would be different from their husbands; therefore their fight for autonomy began.[63]

When the men returned home from war, many women were forced back into the home and out of the fulfilling jobs they had excelled at during wartime. The American government even launched an official campaign to encourage women to go back to the home and to do their patriotic duty by giving the jobs back to the retiring solders that had fought so bravely for our country.[64] Even though many woman did return to the home, a large number of lower class women decided to either stay in their jobs or go back to work to help supplement the family’s income. Historian William Chafe made the observation, “Any change in the nature of and female roles thus automatically affects the home, the economy, the school, and perhaps, about all, the definition of who we are as human beings.”[65] This statement can perhaps help us understand why American society put so much effort into campaigning for the return of the traditional feminine model housewife.[66]

Woman began to become more and more vocal about their role in society and the need for change in the 1960’s. Arguing that throughout the 1950’s, many women often had no outlets for expression other than "finding a husband and bearing children," Friedan encouraged her readers to “seek new roles and responsibilities and to find their own personal and professional identities, rather than have them defined by a male-dominated society.”[67]

As early as 1961, President Kennedy had created a Presidential Commission On the Status of Women, who’s report titled “ American Women” brought a new found awareness to many issues.[68] In 1963, The Equal Pay Act was passed and feminism saw its first, if not completely successful, step towards positive government action since the 1920s. In 1966, 28 professional women, including Friedan, established the National Organization for Women, ”to take action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now."[69]

Women’s roles in the 1960s did not only change because of their departure from the home to the work place, or because of a shift in how the media began to portray women and men on television, advertising and on film. Woman began to have a new found ownership over their bodies and sexuality thanks to advancements in contraceptives and an open dialogue about sex and family planning. The idea of “ the modern marriage” allowed partner to share tasks, priorities and decision making.[70] Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex published in 1949 was an early text suggesting that gender is not biological, but a mix of nature and nurture.[71] All of these changes and cultural shifts, beginning in the 1920s to the 1960s affected women’s role in society and how the sexes interacted not only in real life, but it also affected how gender roles were portrayed in the media, more specifically on the screen. The Challenge of Television

The Cold War was not the only factor influencing Hollywood and American post-war film. By the 1950s, Hollywood found itself faced with a new threat: television. Following the Paramount decrees, the studios seemed to be losing control over not only the nation’s theaters, but also their audiences.[72] Therefore, the studios attempted to exploit two major advantages they had over television, the size of their images and, at a time when all television broadcasting was in black and white, the ability to produce photographic color.[73] During the late 1940s, making a film in color proved to be an extremely difficult and expensive process, and fewer than 12 percent of Hollywood features were produced in color. However, in 1950, “a federal consent decree dissolved the Technicolor Corporation’s de facto monopoly on the process, and Kodak simultaneously introduced a new multilayered film stock in which emulsions sensitive to the red, green, and blue parts of the spectrum were bonded together on a single roll.”[74] Patented as Eastmancolor, this process allowed studios to make films in color at a much lower cost because it could be used with conventional cameras. By 1954, 50%. percent of Hollywood films were made in color.

These changes in the industry did affect how films were made, both the artistic value of films and the cultural value; however they did not seem to encourage more Americans to go to the movies. In a study done by the US Census Bureau, weekly attendance dropped from 80 million in 1940 and 90 million in 1946 to 60 million in 1950 and 40 million in 1960.[75] The decline in the late 1940s was due mostly to the readjustment after unusual wartime and post wartime conditions. After the war, many people had more money to spend and relatively few ways to spend it. Americans began to purchase more big ticket items such as homes in the suburbs, which took audiences further and further away from downtown movie theaters.[76]

Edward Albee and the 1960s

Edward Albee, who wrote Who ’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? grew up during this time and was a witness to all of the changes that took place after the war. Abandoned soon after his birth in 1928, Albee was adopted into a family with a long history in show business. Albee’s adoptive father, Reed A. Albee was the wealthy son of vaudeville magnate Edward Franklin Albee II of the Keith-Albee Theatre Circuit, and made his fortune owning a chain of theaters.[77] Edward was raised in Larchmont, New York, surrounded by wealth and privilege from a very early age.[78] Edward’s relationship with his adoptive parents was fraught with discord and he freely admitted that he was a “problem child”.[79] Young Edward’s performance in school left much to be desired, prompting his parents to send him to a number of schools, many that expelled him for rebellious behavior, poor grades and a refusal to participate in school activities.[80] However, in 1944, he entered Choate School, where his teachers first started to encourage his writing.[81] In 1946, as World War II came to a close, Albee entered Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where be briefly tried his hand at acting. In the end he was asked to leave and aside from brief stints at Columbia University and Washington University, this was the entirety of Albee’s formal education.[82]

In 1950, Albee found himself at odds with his parent’s politics, morality, and, as he states, “bigotry,” and subsequently left the family home for good. Some speculate that his departure may have had more to do with his homosexual identity, however Albee himself denies this, saying, “that was never discussed between us.”[83] Throughout the 1950s, Albee worked numerous odd jobs and moved around quite a bit. He continued to write but found himself artistically frustrated and produced nothing of real substance.[84] In 1958, Albee finally found success with his first play, The Zoo Story. Albee wrote the play in three weeks and though it was initially rejected by several New York producers, it premiered on September 28, 1959 at the Theater Werkstatt in Berlin.[85] Over the course of the next year, Albee went on to write his next three plays, The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox, and Fam and Yam. During this period Albee began to find his voice and individuality as a writer. His early work attacked certain features of American society and tended to reflect his lifelong tendency towards idealism.[86]

Just a year before he wrote Who ’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee produced The American Dream. This bold play explicitly criticizes the many shortcomings of American values. Because of its blatant condemnation of certain values that many American’s held dear, The American Dream received poor reviews from many theater critics. However, in response to this, Albee stated, ““The play is an examination of the American scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society . . . it was my intention to offend as well as amuse and entertain.”[87] The themes presented and questions raised in The American Dream reflect what many Americans, especially the younger population, were discussing in the 1960s. This kind of social criticism was not only happening in the theater, but in music, art and other forms of expression all over the country.

The American Dream and Who ’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? both center on a married couple. Also, in both plays, the wife is domineering and controlling while the husband is emasculated. The idolized idea of the “American Dream” is shattered and the layers upon layers of cultural beliefs we have adopted are painfully peeled away to reveal the truth. In the preface to the play, Albee writes that The American Dream is , “…a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation, and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.”[88] It is no surprise that Albee continued to examine the intricacies of American culture and family life in Who ’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962. The play was an enormous success on Broadway, running for a total of 644 performances as well as establishing Albee as a major playwright.[89] Though society in the 1960s was beginning to shift towards a more liberal viewpoint, Virginia Woolf? was not chosen for the Pulitzer Prize because of its controversy. Some members of the committee who supported Albee’s nomination resigned in protest.[90]

“Heralded by many as the playwright of the 1960’s, he challenged the orthodox aesthetics of Broadway, refusing to repeat dramatic formulas that might raise his reputation in commercial and even critical terms.”[91] Albee’s work tends to be dark and challenging, focusing largely on themes of solitude, death and loss.[92] For him, a playwright has two commitments: to make some statement about the condition of ‘man’ and, second, to make some statement about the nature of the art form with which he is working. In both instances he must attempt change.[93]

Because Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? only has four characters, some viewers mistakingly assume that the plot is simple, or that it only focuses on one or two themes. As I discussed earlier, Virginia Woolf? focuses on the deconstruction of the American family and traditional American values; however it also examines a theme that has been the inspiration for artists since the beginning of time: love. “Popular taste has often cloaked unpopular themes, and Albee has used the popular taste for punch lines to expose an anatomy of love.”[94] The play’s three acts focus mainly on the relationship between the principle characters, George and Martha, a childless couple who “express their love in a lyricism of witty malice.”[95] George and Martha’s relationship seems to be based on their undeniable yet destructive need for one another and the fictionalization of their child. One could say that they privately nourish their love with this lie. Albee’s unholy lovers even evoke America’s first, and childless, White House couple. As the legendary George Washington could not tell a lie, Albee’s play fights and struggles to reveal the real truth about love, about family, about marriage and about American’s preoccupation with illusion.[96]

Adapting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In an article titled, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Patterns of History,” Orley Holtan discusses the shattering of the “New Eden” myth in America. According to Holtan, one of the principle myths of American society is that the country was to be the New Eden. People could come to America and start over again, “freed from the accumulated sin and corruption of Western society”.[97] However, such a perfect dream could not exist in an imperfect world, and when the dream shattered and the troubles and complexities that had plagued people throughout history manifested in America, we turned our gaze to the past, relishing in the golden age when the dream still seemed within our grasp.[98] Having begun with a dream of purity, morality and innocence, much of the American experience from the 1960’s on involves a deeply felt sense of loss and failure.[99] More and more, Americans went in search of “the truth” instead of the “perfect dream”, whether it was through drugs, music, activism, education or religion. Self discovery and understanding was the ultimate goal, and artists and consumers of this time began to peel away the layers in search of the real America and the real American experience, a true an accurate depiction of their own daily lives, no matter how sordid or disillusioning it might be.

Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is primarily concerned with “the truth”. The play “remorselessly peels off protective fantasies in order to reach ‘the bone…the marrow’”.[100] Alan Schneider, the play’s Broadway director, stated that Albee was dedicated to “smashing that rosy view, shocking us with the truth of our present day behavior and thought, striving to purge us into an actual confrontation with reality.[101] The social, cultural and political changes that took place in the 1960’s shaped a new kind of audience that consumed American- made films, an audience ready to see the truth portrayed on the screen. Works originally exhibited in the theater, a platform that welcomed more liberal works long before the film industry, were now able to be adapted to film, and had the opportunity to be successful. The play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pushed the boundaries of traditional American values that had been accepted in previous decades. A work so controversial had little chance of being adapted onto the screen before the 1960s; however as I have stated, three major factors, unique to the 1960’s, paved the way for this work to be successful not only on the stage, but also the screen: the decline of major censorship in the film industry, the challenge to traditional gender roles, specifically female gender roles and the influence of feminism, and the increasing popularity and competition from television.

The actual process of adaptation is a complicated and complex. One must first find a competent and trusted screen writer to adapt the original script into a screen play, and decide how faithful the screenplay will be to the original work or how much it will stray from it.The filmmaker must decide on the cinematic elements that best illustrate how hey want the film to eventually look and feel, and how they can best convey the actions and themes to the audience. A myriad of technical choices must be made about setting, costuming, casting, editing that requires both the producers, filmmaker and screenwriters to work together to translate the original work successfully.[102]

Ernest Callenbach, author and film critic, points out the complicated relationship between film and theater, stating that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a “good play”, and a “good filmed play”. He goes on, explaining that the play is highly theatrical and “deals with stage events not as if they were sociological verities duly established by statistics, but as constellations of moving human emotions and speeches.”[103] Albee reintroduces the spirit of theatrical “games” and masters the difficult reversal effect where characters exchange dominant/submissive roles.[104] His assertion is that the filming of Albee’s play remains successful because it retains the plays theatricality. The movements and focus of the camera, emphasizing the person’s physicality, allows the camera to undermine and redefine what is being said.[105] The process of adaptation is also extremely telling of how a work reaches its final product and what the cultural influences on the decision makers were. Audiences are able to witness the original work, then see what influences either personal, cultural or political, seeped their way into the adaptation.[106]

Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, according to Stanley Kauffman in a 1966 film review for the New York Times, “ violently candid”.[107] The play centers around a middle aged married couple, Martha and George. Their highly charged relationship seems to be fueled by a combination of vitriolic verbal battles, an unhealthy emotional dependance on one another and copious amounts of alcohol. George works as a history professor at New Carthage College, where Martha’s father is also the President. The plot begins late one Saturday night after a faculty mixer when Martha and George invite Nick and Honey, and enterprising young biology professor and his diffident naive wife, over for a nightcap. As the evening progress and the alcohol flows more freely, Nick and Honey get caught up in Martha and George’s abusive and manipulative games. Night turns into morning, and the tension rises even more as the private lives of both couples are exposed, revealing painful secrets, regret and bitterness hidden just beneath the surface.

By utilizing black and white cinematography at the the very moment when that style was in eclipse, director Mike Nichols and cinematographer Haskell Wexler were able to bring George and Martha’s living room to life with unforgettable dark imagery.[108] The harsh grays and blacks only intensified the dark and twisted relationship between the main couple and added to the suspenseful and dramatic tone. “ Nichols realized right away that the film's cramped emotional landscape, and the dingy, flyblown interior of George and Martha's house, could be amplified by the limited palette of black and white.”[109] The first half of the 1960s marked the last great revival of black and white cinema in the United States. “ The use of faster film stocks, smaller cameras, and a generation of cinematographers who'd been influenced by combat and newsreel photography, gave to black and white a brief, brilliant Indian summer.”[110] Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the work of cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Harry Stradling. Stradling was already a veteran of color photography, and the film was originally to be shot in color.[111] Haskell Wexler was brought in relatively late to the project and was fluent with the smaller-scale technology and subtler effects of black and white film. Wexler understood how the melancholy blacks and greys could effectively mirror George and Martha's bitterness toward one another. However, because Stradling had done so much work on the film during the preparation phases, its his name that appears on the credits. Yet it was Haskell Wexler that was awarded that year's Oscar for Best Cinematography.[112]

1966 film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was brought to fruition by a group unusual collaborators: Producer-screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, director Mike Nichols and studio boss Jack L. Warner.[113] Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? was Nichols’ first film, leaving behind a career as successful as a comedian.[114] The screenplay was adapted from Edward Albee’s play of the same name, and Nichols was quick to champion the original work and discouraged Warner from making too many changes to it during pre-production. Tension rose between the three parties over the adaption of the script that resulted in three major questions in bringing Virginia Woolf to the screen: Should Virginia Woolf have greater clarity? Should it have less talk and more action? Should the profanity be eliminated”?[115]

The first issue, clarity, did not pan out to be a major set back for the adaptation. On Broadway, Albee’s play had been criticized as lacking clarity, so naturally the filmmakers were concerned about the issue in the film adaptation. Thus, ultimately, American films in the 1960’s had not risked that kind of ambiguity.[116] The play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seems at first glance loud, boisterous and for lack of a better term, “in your face”. However, beneath the surface, the play is filled with subtle tension. A glance or a single word could reveal the whole agenda of a character. The things not said during the play are undoubtedly just as important to the story as the things that are said. Fearing that the subtleties of the script would be more confusing than enlightening for audiences, Lehman attempted to clarify the more ambiguous or subtle parts of the script in early drafts. However he later realized that these deviations tended to impoverish the text instead of improving it.[117] Leff gives examples of European films like La Dolce Vita (1961) and Last Year at Marienbad (1962) as successful films that left American audiences puzzled and confused about basic narrative elements.[118] Thus, the ambiguity was left in the screenplay, without a discernible negative effect. Interestingly enough,, Nichols was not the only one that felt loyalty to Albee’s work. Lehman and Warner were also hesitant to make too many changes to the original script. Nichols viewed the adaptation as more of a “restaging" than a rethinking.[119] The studio had bought Virginia Woolf for $500,000 and Leonard claims that they were hesitant to tamper with an established work of art.[120]

Another issue that presented itself in the early drafts of the screenplay was the supposed lack of “action” in the play. Leff states that to successfully adapt a play to the screen, one must realize its full visual potential as well the its verbal potential.[121] Warner was a strong believer that the film needed more action because of the heavy and lengthy dialogue. However, Nichols believed that the play’s central action lay in its talk, and that the main task of the screenwriter was to find action to support the talk, instead of replace it.[122] He was once quoted as saying that “all you need to film Virginia Woolf was the actors and a cameraman.”[123]

One of the reasons Warner might have seen a need for more action could have been the fact that there are only a few different settings in the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. They consisted of Martha and George’s living room as well as a roundhouse. This fact sparked the discussion of whether the play should be “opened up” when brought to the screen. Though not all film scholars agree that cinema mandates scenic variety, theorist Erwin Panofsky implies that “opening up” is both natural and desirable in a medium know for its movement of space “approaching, receding, turning, dissolving and recrystallizing as it appears through the controlled locomotion and focusing of the camera and through the cutting and editing of various shots.[124] Though the film was somewhat “opened up”, Lehman liked Albee’s original intention of creating a enclosed and sometimes suffocating space that Martha and George’s living room helped create. This environment heightens the tension not only between the two couples, but also for the audience. Film has the ability to make a story seem larger, grander, more epic, simply because it is not confined by the limitations of scene changes in the theater. In one moment a character can be standing in a field in Switzerland and in the next be standing in a house in San Francisco. The design team for Virginia Woolf, as well as Warner and Nichols, were aware of the possibilities that could be explored when bringing Virginia Woolf to the screen. However, the fact that Albee’s original settings, as well as much of the language, were respected and kept almost identical in the film adaptation speaks to the idea that many films in the 1960s had already adopted. Film did not need to be flashy and ostentatious to be successful. Films could be artistic with layers of meaning, much like theater, and works could be adapted without losing artistic value.

The Battle Over Censorship

The battle over how much or how little the film Virginia Woolf should be censored is a perfect reflection of how the film industry was changing its approach to censorship as a whole. Since the work was relatively widely known because of its success on the stage, audiences would be much more aware of how much it changed in its move from the stage to the screen. Screen censorship had been in existence since film became a mass medium. The Motion Picture Production Code was created in 1930 to protect the public from what was considered inappropriate or obscene. The code stated “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. Correct standards of life shall be presented on the screen, subject only to necessary dramatic contrasts. Law, natural or human, should not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.”[125] Films throughout the 1930s and 1940s were held to these standards. Many filmmakers during that time felt that they lost artistic freedom because of these strict and unrelenting guidelines, while others were forced to express themselves in more subtle and covert ways on the screen in an attempt to bypass the code’s regulations. However, with the break up of the studios and the rise of television in the 1950s, censorship in the film industry began to lose much of its power. As television became the site of “mainstream” and “family” entertainment, the movie industry sought new demographics, by embracing a ratings system in 1967, “designed to direct not the ‘masses’ but audience segments to products tailored specifically to them.”[126]

By the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood was abandoning the rules that had shaped the industry in previous decades. A range of themes such as “abortion, homosexuality, racial inequality, incest, the corruption of public officials and religious prejudice” became legitimate subjects for movies.[127] This change can be attributed to the change in American culture during this time. Audiences were becoming less accepting of the fact that their entertainment was so heavily censored. Hot button topics that were extremely controversial before were now being discussed openly and were seen as issues that needed to be addressed, not ignored or swept under the rug.

The film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was made in 1966, when the Production Code was on its last legs. The Code would be set aside for a ratings system just one year later, 1967, and the strict standards that had ruled Hollywood started to seem outdated and unnecessary. The fact that censorship in the American film industry was in its decline when the film was made played a large part in creating the film we know today. If the guidelines set out by the PCA had been followed as strictly as they had been before, the film would have strayed extremely far from the original content, which would have inevitably taken away from its artistic and cultural value. Even though the PCA did not have the same influence that it did, however, it did still have a say in this production. The battle over what should be censored in the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was long and complex, focusing mostly on one major issue: Should its profanity be eliminated?[128]

The profanity in the play was a big concern for Warner and for the studio. During pre-production, Warner made it clear that he believed that all the profanity should be eliminated. However, Albee refused to change the language, so Lehman was left with the task of pleasing both the studio, the PCA and Albee himself. The task was not easy and the script went through multiple drafts. Religious groups and organizations that had extreme cultural influence at the time also had their own opinions about the controversial script and made it known to the studio that they had every intention of upholding their duty to protect religious moviegoers from unsuitable material.

In 1963, only three years before Virginia Woolf was released, The Production Code Association released a list of words that were deemed offensive in Albee’s script. They stated that unless all the profanity and blunt sexual dialogue was removed, the film would be denied a Code Seal.[129] Even though The Motion Picture Production Code was losing some of its influence in the industry, the ideas and standards that it generated still held sway. The studio had already made an agreement with The Production Code Association that to “protect the public from immoral, indecent and profane works” the studio would not release any films without a Code Seal.[130] Acquiring a Code Seal was crucial for any film if it had any chance of being successful, or even being released to the public.

To be removed were "Goddamn" (over twenty citations); "Jesus Christ"(over fifteen);"bastard"(over six); "son of a bitch"(over six); anatomical allusions like "right ball," "my scrotum," and "ass"; and some stage directions ("her hand is moving up and down his leg" and "side breast"). Even the mildly suggestive - for example "apple jelly" and "what they say about Chinese women"-was singled out for deletion.”[131]

In the end, Lehman did edit out many words and phrases that were causing issues and made substitutions for them. “ Hump the Hostess” became “Make the Hostess” , then “ Hop the Hostess.” “God damn” and “for Christ’s sake” became “ gah damn” and “ for cry sake”.[132] Yet even in early drafts, he realized that much of the controversial language in question was necessary to the story. The strong and offensive language used by Martha and George is a crucial part of their relationship. If the language was removed, it would be more difficult to fully grasp the manipulative and strained relationship between George and Martha. While most of the public at the time would have been shocked at such language, George and Martha do not even give it a second thought. This fact truly highlights their difficulty, some would argue inability, to communicate with each other.

When the first drafts of Virginia Woolf were being reviewed, Warner was left with two options regarding the profanity in the film. He could either distribute the film without the PCA’s approval, or he could require Lehman to conform to PCA guidelines.[133] Outside of these two very limiting choices, Warner was left with one final option. Richard Burton’s 1964 adaptation of Hamlet was filmed as a stage play, and was able to keep the text intact and avoid the PCA’s strict guidelines and demands.[134] However, the poor cinematic quality and financial loss associated with this route discouraged Warner from choosing it.

The language in Virginia Woolf was not simply a political or moral issue, but also a monetary one. Releasing the film without the PCA’s Code Seal was financial suicide for many films. However, in this case the notoriety tied to the abusive and sexual language did not alienate audiences; instead the controversy sold tickets. The play had already gained a reputation all over the world. It had been denied the Pulitzer Prize, banned in St. Paul, and expurgated in Johannesburg, London and Boston.[135] Audiences would naturally be curious about a play that had caused such a stir and they were guaranteed to be curious about the film. In May of 1966, the Virginia Woolf team met with the Production Code Administration. It was recommended to Warner to appeal to the review board for exemption from PCA rules and in the end, the film was granted its Code Seal.[136] The anxiety over how the public would react to the film was quickly dispelled. Reactions to the film were overall favorable. It became the third highest grossing film in 1966 and is considered one of the most successful conversions of an American drama into cinema.[137] Virginia Woolf is an example of The Production Code’s fall from power and the studio’s eventual victory over censorship. Leonard J. Leff states :

“No one had conspired to kill the code, no one was capable of saving it. Warner Brother’s commitment to film Virginia Woolf largely as written, internal changes at the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, a concentrated fiscal, social, and political pressure on the Production Code Administration-these cohered at one moment in history to change the face of American film censorship.[138]

In the end, the choice was made by Nichols to not follow the PCA’s guidelines. Leff, in his article Play into Film: Warner Brothers' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” attributes this to the fact that the American film industry and its audience were changing in the 1960s. More and more often, studio bosses were relinquishing creative control to directors, who were arguably more attuned to the taste of younger move-goers.[139] Nichols dedication to Albee’s original script and Warner’s trust in Nichols and Lehman’s judgement ultimately paid off. Virginia Woolf is a shining example of this new freedom in Hollywood in the 1960’s and the risks filmmakers were taking in order to produce film adaptations that were brave, accurate depictions of American life, artistically and culturally valuable, and true to the integrity of the original work.

Feminism and Gender

The film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a prime example of how Hollywood began to openly challenge the traditional roles of men and women on the screen. In fact, some argue that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? should be regarded as an early feminist text.[140] Bonnie Finkelstein writes that the 1962 play “ portrays and analyzes he damaging effects of traditional , stereotypical gender roles , particularly for women; the play serves to point out how unrealistic , useless and extraordinarily damning they are.”[141]

In the United States by the mid 1960s, a new idea of gender roles in society was emerging. The traditional domestic role that had been attributed to women in the media was soon becoming a thing of the past. “The challenge appeared from a number of different quarters; African American women in the civil rights movement; young female students discontent with their treatment in the youth/student movement; middle-class, professional white women addressing employment discrimination; and housewives responding to Betty Friedan’s exposure of the ‘problem that had no name.’”[142] The “problem” that Friedan spoke of had a lot to do with women feeling trapped by the 1950s domestic lifestyle and their desire to find purpose and meaning outside the home, outside of the family. These changes in society’s view of gender roles was mirrored on the screen. Hollywood began to react to Americans’ desire to break free from these constraining labels and rules concerning gender, and big ticket films made by major studios like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, were allowed to explore and discuss the idea of how gender should be portrayed on the screen.

According to Anne McLeer in her article about nannies in films in the 1960s, to understand the upheaval of men and women’s role in the domestic and public spheres, one must first understand the prescriptions of the nuclear family in the 1950s. In postwar America, a new ideal of the nuclear family was being widely circulated in cultural texts. This ideal domestic configuration consisted of the “bread-winning father and the appliance-dependent, housekeeping mother of four.”[143] Many scholars have found that the ideal differed greatly from the reality of the 1950s suburban lifestyle. Spurred by financial necessity, many women worked outside the home during and after WWII. To achieve the middle-class suburban ideal, many families depended on the income of both the wife and the husband. The idea that most women stayed at home all day cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children was invented by mass media.[144] Even though many women did work, their chief concern was still with the home and the children. The contradictions surrounding women in the 1950s provides a sometimes warped understanding of how women were truly living during this period. American society did indeed encourage women to return to the home and find their purpose through family, marriage and children through mainstream media and advertising. However, women of the 1950s responded to this propaganda in different ways, some embracing this lifestyle completely, while others sought freedom from what they saw as a restrictive and unfulfilling way of life.

In her book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler states that there is a distinction between sex and gender, and that gender is culturally constructed.[145] She states, “ On some accounts, the notion that gender is constructed suggests a certain determination of gender meanings inscribed on anatomically differentiated bodies, where those bodies are understood as passive recipients of inexorable cultural laws.”[146]

The two main characters in the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? combat the ideals put forth by most media in the 1950s. Martha is a middle-aged woman who drinks until she descends into a sloppy state of drunkenness, chain smokes cigarettes , uses profanity, is violent, is highly sexualized and is likely unfaithful to her husband. She lacks the selflessness and maternal qualities that many female characters were attributed, a fact that is punctuated by her childlessness and possible barrenness. The character of Martha is set up to be the opposite of the feminine ideal that had been held in such high regard in the media. She showed the audience a sharp and jarring contrast between the “illusion” Hollywood has created of the perfect woman, and the sometimes unpleasant reality of family, marriage and the American Dream that Albee strived to unearth in his plays. Possibly the most shocking subversion of traditional feminine behavior is the way Martha drinks. One character comments on her habit by stating, “ My you an swill it down, can’t you?”[147] She drinks straight, strong drinks that are stereotypically male drinks like whiskey and bourbon. She no longer favors the more feminine drinks of her youth: “brandy Alexanders, creme de cacao frappes…seven-layer liqueur things…real lady-like little drinkies.”[148] In contrast to Martha, Honey is a caricature of the stifling, unfulfilled woman that was a result of what 1962 American society told her to be. In order to show that Honey was a pre feminist- era ideal woman, “Albee makes her uninteresting, unintelligent and absolutely loathsome.”[149]

The idea of masculinity, or what it meant to be a man, was also being discussed at great lengths in the 1960s. Thousands of men had returned home from a horrific war less than two decades ago and the after affects were still extremely prevalent. Post war sociologists and psychologists “discovered” a so called “crisis of masculinity” evinced not only by the men who could not cope psychologically with the trauma of combat, but also by rising level of male homosexuality…” By the 1960s it was a widely circulated notion that men’s position in the public and private sphere was being challenged by women’s employment and consumer power.[150] In the film, George is a clear example of the fears spurred on by this “crisis of masculinity”. He is a history professor at a college however, according to his wife and subsequently her father, he has been anything but successful in his career. In fact, Martha goes as far as to call him a failure. He is constantly demeaned by his wife, who on many occasions upstages George’s hurtful jabs with a more caustic one of her own, or in other cases simply yells louder than he does. He is portrayed as a cuckold, because his wife attempts to seduce a younger, more handsome, more successful man. Just as Martha does not fulfill her prescribed role as mother, George also evades his role as father. Since George does not fit the image of the hyper masculine man, he almost feels invisible, unimportant or even nonexistent. At one point, George makes the comment, “Don’t I sort of fade into the backgrounds…get lost in the cigarette smoke?”[151] The four characters aren’t exactly the real-life result of gender roles, they are examples to get across Albee’s ultimate point that gender roles destroy the idea of “man” and “woman”, and make determining personal identity difficult for those that don’t fit the mold.[152]

The casting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ultimately made a statement, not only about the preferences of American audiences in who they wanted to see on the screen, but also about who had the power to add to the artistic legitimacy and cultural influence of the film. The changing role of women in the 1960s, combined with the feminist movement and its push for a more open dialogue about women’s rights and freedoms in the U.S., most likely had an effect on the casting for the difficult role of Martha. In her book Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, Camille Pagila speaks about Elizabeth Taylor, who was ultimately cast as Martha in the film, becoming Hollywood’s pagan queen, a symbol on the screen of a new state of mind in American culture and American film.[153]. Pagila colorfully describes them as “so chirpy, peppy and pink, so well-scrubbed, making the world safe for democracy.”[154] In 1958, the raven-haired temptress, Elizabeth Taylor, made headlines by stealing Eddie Fisher away from one of these beloved sweethearts, Debbie Reynolds. This act made Taylor a pariah to the press, however it was symbolic of the shifting culture during the 1960s and a new definition of who audiences wanted to see on the screen. “Antiseptic American blondness was being swamped by a rising tide of sensuality.”[155]

Taylor’s rejection of the squeaky clean female identity created by the media throughout the late 1940s and 1950s parallels the character of Martha, a woman who is also rejecting every stereotypical and “correct” way to behave as a woman. The boldness by which she lived her own life, displayed prominently in the gossip magazines and tabloids, was not only an incentive for audiences to see the film, but also showed Taylor’s ability to fearlessly embody a woman who wasn’t perfect or even functional all of the time.

However, the choice to cast Taylor in the role of Martha was not universally liked. An article in the Chicago Tribune discussed the fact that in 1965, when Virginia Woolf was to be filmed at Smith College, many of the alumni were furious, specifically the women. Jesse Leavenworth writes, “Their letters to college President Thomas C. Mendenhall were peppered with such words as "bad," "vulgar" and "profane" to describe marriage-challenged actress Elizabeth Taylor and the controversial play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- which, the alumnae had learned (from newspapers, no less) was to be filmed in part at the elite Northampton, Mass., women's school.”[156]. “Writing about Taylor, who had already burned through four marriages by age 33, Madeleine Baxter, Class of 1922, asked Mendenhall, ‘Why should we help support a college that entertains such an unsavory female?”[157]

Elizabeth Taylor’s husband on and off the screen, Richard Burton, brought a different quality to the film. He was also a major film star that attracted the tabloids because of his public and tumultuous marriage to Taylor, however, he also had an extensive background in the theater. He made his first appearance on stage in 1943, in the play Druid ’s Rest. [158] He went on to be a part of several successful and respected productions throughout the 1940s and 1950s, cementing his image as a seasoned and talented actor. Burton also had experience with classical theater, performing Measure For Measure (1944), Henry IV, Henry V (1951), The Tempest (1951), Hamlet (1953), King John (1953-1954), Coriolanus (1953-1954), Twelfth Night (1953-1954), Othello (1956) and Hamlet again in 1964.[159] His reputation as a respected stage actor gave the film an added sense of legitimacy. Because the film was adapted from a stage play, some audiences might feel that actors used to acting on film would not be able to live up to the roles or wouldn’t understand how to translate the story to the extremely different medium. However, Burton’s experience on the stage as well as on the screen gave him the tools to make that transition gracefully and prove that the story was just as powerful and relevant on the screen as it was on the stage. Taylor’s star power and undeniable allure combined with Burton’s respected acting reputation was the perfect recipe for not only a hit film with the ability to make a lot of money for the studio, but also a film that would be respected artistically.

Since the film was adapted from such a popular play, it already had a built in audience. Theatergoers who were fans of the show itself and also of Edward Albee would have definitely been interested in seeing the film adaptation of it. A younger audience that frequently read the tabloid and gossip magazines might also have been attracted to this film because of the two Hollywood stars that were playing the lead roles, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who were married at the time. This film was during the height of both Taylor’s and Burton’s careers, following films like Giant (1956) ,Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Cleopatra (1960).[160]

The Rise of Television

By the 1950s, the film industry and its audiences would be forever changed by the introduction of a new technology: television. By 1948, television was perceived as “practically a member of the family.”[161] Between 1948 and 1955, televisions were installed in nearly two-thirds of the nation’s homes. By 1960, nearly 90% of American households had at least one T.V., with the average person watching approximately five hours of television a day.[162] Film, print, and radio were no longer the only mass media available to the American public, and watching T.V. soon became a ritual of everyday life. This new rival in entertainment not only changed how the film industry made and marketed their films, it also changed the American audiences that were consuming films and television.

Television went through a period of censorship, much like the film industry did. Fears about the new technology and its power and influence over the public, only spurred government officials who had appointed themselves guardians against communism in the United States. Programs such a Leave it to Beaver idolized middle class suburbia and promoted “good clean fun” and stable family units. Like many Hollywood films, television fed into this rush to conformity, giving the masses tuning in a shared experience of accepted social patterns and cultural belonging. Classic television formats like the sitcom and the soap opera emerged during this period, and these particular types of programs still reflect the conformity and consumerism of that time. However, as the United States moved into the 1960s, social unrest was both provoked and documented by television. Images of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and political protests were broadcast all around the country and audiences were able to witness in real time the shifting atmosphere of the country. The advent of T.V. news allowed Americans to stay connected and up-to-date with current events with the added bonus of visuals instead of only audio. Before television, American’s relied on with the radio or newspaper as their main source of information when it came to the news. However, when networks began to broadcast the news on T.V., viewers were able to watch events unfold. The rising popularity of television made American culture an increasingly visual one and many of the major events that happened 1960s are remembered through images.

As television grew in popularity, the film industry sought ways to stay competitive. Audiences could watch numerous shows of all types of genres without leaving their homes. The film industry needed to find a way to keep drawing audiences to the theaters and away from their T.V. sets. At first, the major movie corporations (Paramount, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO) simply cut costs by ordering layoffs, reducing salaries, and lowering the number of films produced.[163] When the American Motion Picture industry began to run out of cost-cutting strategies, Hollywood began to bring out motion pictures in color in wide-screen aspect ratios.[164] The industry understood that this new medium was becoming a real competitor, which was obvious by the dwindling audiences actually going to the theaters to see a film. The film industry adopted two deliberate strategies to capture a significant share of expected television business. Hollywood majors attempted to win valuable television licenses in larger U.S. cities. Instead, however, dominant radio networks, NBC, CBS and ABC acquired rights to stations which would make them the dominant television networks.[165] Second, during the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood attempted to bring to movie theaters their own form of television. According to this strategy, audiences would consume narrative television entertainment in theaters, not at home. This was called theater television, and, in the end, never proved profitable.[166]

The competition between the two media prompted audiences to weigh their differences. The key to the difference between film and television was the “quality of intimacy.”[167] Television is projected into the home, into a family group, which may be one or two people, usually no more than 10. This specific characteristic posed both advantages and limitations on television in comparison to film.[168] Television producers created programs keyed to the intimate family approach. However, it was understood that television’s full potential could not be recognized without additional income from advertisers. As the cost of television production steadily rose, studios resorted to films and programs that were low in cost as well as in ingenuity and originality. This practice of making lower quality, cheaper programs for television continued as television developed. One source, a former movie maker who moved to making television films stated that “he aims his productions at an intelligence level lower than that aimed at by movie studios - and that works.”[169]

Hollywood also created telefilms specifically produced to be broadcast on television. This strategy to stay relevant and to also acquire some of the profits of the television business only furthered the idea that television was made up of lower quality, cheaper products. In a 1952 New York Times article, critic Jack Gould denounced these “dogeared films that Hollywood is turning out for television, the pedestrian title half-hour quickies that are cluttering up the facilities of even the best networks.”[170] The motion picture industry risked reaching too far into the television business and possibly violating the anti-trust act. When Hollywood realized that television was causing them to lose the control they once had over the production, distribution and exhibition process with film, they attempted to regain that control with the production of telefilms. NBC’s president Robert Sarnoff argued against Hollywood film interests eager to unload a flood of film programs and feature films on the medium, thereby reducing network television programming to “ the lowest common Hollywood denominator…a continuing flow of stale and stereotyped film product.”[171]

Television networks in the 1960s were greatly focused on producing programs quickly and cheaply to keep their growing audiences happy and entertained. Both radio and television rely solely upon the advertiser for the money with which to produce programs. “This fact has not only cost them their independence in production but it has made them aesthetically stunted media which can rise to their full potential only through the happy but rare coincidence when such a costly enterprise will also sell soap, automobiles or gasoline.”[172] This fact left an opportunity for the film industry to tap into a market that was being largely ignored by television producers. The film industry could take advantage of the fact that there were so many choices for entertainment and market films as more “high brow” or “ artistic” than television programs.

Like film’s relationship with television, the relationship between film and theater is separated by the fact that many regard theater as a fine art and film as mass entertainment lacking the same cultural and intellectual value. The Great American Theater lost much of their audience when film began to rise in popularity, however the respect and admiration that live theater has always had as an art of high cultural and intellectual value remained.

During the 1960s, the overflowing number of choices viewers had when it came to entertainment, as well as television’s preference for cheap programming, brought about an interesting era in the arts. During this period, numerous important novels and plays were adapted into film. For example, novels like To Kill a Mocking Bird, Fahrenheit 451, Doctor Zhivago, Inherit the Wind and Oliver Twist were all adapted to the screen during the 1960’s. Plays such as Pygmalion, The Milk Train Doesn ’t Stop Here Anymore and The Children ’s Hour were also adapted for film. Studios realized that there was a large market of intellectuals that revered and respected these plays and novels. The respect and cultural value that the original works already possessed had the ability to carry over to the film version, providing entertainment that was not only enjoyable but also intellectually stimulating and artistically esteemed, which had the ability to set it apart from other forms of entertainment such as television.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? fell into this category of admired plays that, when adapted to film, had the ability to reach audiences hungry for something television couldn’t give them. The competition of television in the 1960s and audience’s pursuit of more cultured and sophisticated content provided the perfect atmosphere for a play like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to be adapted to film and for it to be successful.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues to be one of the most successful conversions of American drama to film. Despite the differing artistic and commercial concerns of Lehman, Nichols and Warner, Virginia Woolf ultimately respected and stayed loyal to Albee’s original work, yet still provided the blueprint necessary for the completion of a well received, successful film. The atmosphere of 1960’s provided the perfect platform for this Albee’s masterpiece to be adapted. The decline in censorship in the film industry allowed Albee’s controversial yet riveting script to stay intact, which allowed the artistic integrity of the play to also be realized on screen. The feminist movement and the changing ideas about gender roles allowed characters like Martha and George to be understood and related to in ways that would not have been completely possible in the previous decades. Television became a source of competition that forced the film industry to seek new ways to draw in audiences, which led to films that drew on the American theater’s respected artistic reputation to create films that aspired to a higher artistic and intellectual value. The film is a “time capsule now of all that was considered controversial and gutsy in 1966”[173] and is indeed, a “goddamn Warner Brothers epic”.[174]

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[...]


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Details

Pages
48
Year
2014
ISBN (Book)
9783668107496
File size
558 KB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v311816
Institution / College
Lake Forest College
Grade
Tags
film cinema studies theater Edward Albee Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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Title: Adapting American Drama to Film. The Transfer From Stage To Screen Of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" by Edward Albee