"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Marriage, The Crucible Of Maturity? Edward Albee’s Brutal Vision Of Men And Women Together

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is Edward Albee’s best known play and by far his most frank and troubling play about the relationships between men and women.  In it George and Martha ‘flay each other to the bone’, stripping away years of resentment, anger, and hostility in one brutal evening of drunken savagery.  They hold nothing back, spare no feelings, ignore nothing hurtful.  Theirs is a pitched, drawn battle where only one will be left standing.   

In Martha's venomous view George is a weakling, a second-rate academic, in his position only because of her and her father, the president of the college.  According to him, she is a vixen, a harridan, a shameless succubus living in the past, an emotionally incestuous daddy’s girl with outsized, irrational aspiration – a soulless, ambitious, destructive woman.

They have remained married because of the social expectations of the times.  Divorce was too revealing of institutional failure, a crack in the perimeter of Fifties propriety and rectitude. It was a last resort, and in the narrow confines of their small university town, the prestige of her father and the school would be tarnished by such disruption of the moral and civic order.  Yet as their deep, murderous hostility is progressively exposed, one wonders why this destructive, hopelessly selfish and desperate couple remains together.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | play by Albee | Britannica

Albee has the answer – it is only through such flaying attacks, a brutal disassembly, a tearing to shreds of every false notion of self, can they find themselves and the nature of true, respectful emotional expression.  At the end of the play, tired, drunk, and emotionally drained, they see hope.  Now that the past has finally been dealt with and put to rest, and now that anger and hostility have been exhausted, they can begin again on an even keel with understanding and respect.

There is no way, explained Albee, that in a ‘normal’ marriage can anyone mature.  The doors to the ‘hidden rooms of the soul’ will always be closed, and individuals will never be forced to open them.   People prefer to keep their demons in the dark, unexposed and uncontested except in nightmares in which they slink into every corner of the dreamer’s troubled brain.  Better to have it out, to attack, flay, and end up bloody but whole.

Yet few married couples ever take Albee’s advice.  Most marriages quickly become quiet reserves of resentment and only partially disguised anger.  Deceived women remain in a marriage but with certain conditions.  Straying husbands are not worth the finality of divorce.  The pleasure of tormenting them, taking their pound of flesh, makes the stay in a bad marriage worthwhile.

At each new stretch of the woman's rack, men’s resentment increases.  Far from reforming them, it incites them to their own fashion of abuse – belittling silence and indifference.  Women feel they cannot be ignored.  Especially those old enough to have been brought up by adoring, generous fathers need constant recognition and complete love.  They will never get it from husbands who are the offspring of these patriarchal figures whose wives were addenda, never to be taken seriously, mothers and housewives and little more.

My Heart Belongs to Daddy (1942) - IMDb

Despite feminism, this socio-dynamic persists.  Men and women have not altered their inner wiring just because they have been told that radical realignment of the sexes is the sine qua non of sexual and social harmony.  Straying husbands are still taken to task and hectoring wives are still ignored and dismissed.  

The same unwritten rules of institutional integrity are still in place– marriage is still seen as a moderating, necessary social construct – but the suspicion if not the opprobrium of divorce has gone. Individual integrity has risen to the top of the social pyramid.  By all means free yourself from unhappy entanglements and from eventual, certain misery.

This cannot possibly be, say the old couples living a happy retirement in Florida; but they have been numbed into complaisance by the thought of oncoming death.  No matter what the insult, no matter how deliberately tormenting the insinuating remark, and no matter how innately hostile the accusation, death is too terrible to face alone.

Florida jumps 9 spots to claim title of best state for retirement: report -  News - McKnight's Senior Living

Tolstoy wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, a conclusion that was fuel for his potent family dramas.  Writer after writer since Sophocles have come to the same pessimistic conclusions about marriage, couples, and sexual intimacy.  There is no way that two separate, distinctly brought up, genetically dissimilar, and environmentally indisposed people can possibly live together in a romantic idyll.  

Marriage was better off when arranged as a matter of convenience.  Whether at court or in the peasantry, mating was based on economic or hard social principle.  It was only the early Middle Ages that Petrarch through a spanner in the works with love sonnets to his beloved.  Before him, before knights and their fair maidens, before chivalry and the whole notion of romantic love,  couples were joined on the basis of objective, verifiable worth.

This tradition of marital value still persists in the more traditional Indian families.  Marriages are arranged, prospective husbands and wives are vetted for financial worth, professional prospects, likely fertility, caste, and social prominence.  Western love is dismissed as a faulty notion, an illogical, social anomaly; and who could argue?  Marriages fall apart and are dissolved at historic rates.  Women still take their bitchy pounds of flesh; men still dismiss, shelve, and ignore women. 

Both Albee and Tennessee Williams hedged their bets in  the final scenes of Virginia Woolf and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  In the Williams play, after years deception, moral failure, greedy ambition, and family-driven aspiration, Maggie tells Brick that she really loves him. If only that were true, says Brick, a false hope given Maggie’s duplicity, his own moral failure and self-consuming doubts.  But hope nonetheless.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Golden Age Cinema and Bar

Shakespeare seems to suggest in his Comedies that men and women can find each other, and the jousting before marriage is preliminary sexual testing enough to assure marital harmony.  But the women run rings around their male suitors, and one suspects that after the marriage ceremony they will attempt to control and dominate their new husbands who will tire of them and stray.

Nothing in literature or in life suggests the opposite.  While there may be the occasional hopelessly romantic union, it is the exception and.

Albee was right in suggesting that marriage has a purpose, an exposition of inner pathologies that the best psychiatrists are unlikely to discover, but that, like Jesus' disciple Paul who warned men against marriage in his epistles, Albee said happiness lies in the opposite direction.

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