60 years of Woolf

By Lindsey Delahunt

60 years ago on this date in 1962, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? exploded on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre; the author was an acclaimed Off-Broadway playwright, Edward Albee, whose previous successes had included The Zoo Story, An American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith.  The director was Alan Schneider, whose reputation soared after this production and went on to direct several Albee plays (Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance, and The Ballad of the Sad Café) as well as major productions of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and Robert Anderson. His life was tragically cut short when he was killed in an accident in London, when he looked to his left for traffic on a cross street, forgetting that motor vehicles traveled on the left side of the road, and was hit by a motorcycle. The play won Tony Awards for its leading actors, Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, who were supported by George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon and became a cause celebre, as well as the talk of the town, when it was passed over for a Pulitzer Prize despite the recommendation of the advisors to the Pulitzer Prize board.  It was said to have been denied the award because of its frank language and explicit sexual themes. It played for 664 performances, it did not have an out of town engagement, there were only five previews when it opened in New York, and the first-string critics all attended the opening night.

One of the intriguing anecdotes concerning the production was the potential involvement of Henry Fonda, the great film actor who periodically returned to the stage every few years beginning in 1948 with Mister Roberts, then Point of No Return, then The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Two For the Seesaw and Critic’s Choice. His agent rejected the script out of hand, without consulting him. The agent gave as his reason the assertion that, “You don’t want to be in a play about four people yelling at each other all the time.” Fonda, who was an admirer of playwright Edward Albee’s talents, reportedly was furious. Finally seeing the show himself, Fonda was duly impressed by Arthur Hill’s performance in the role, and conceded that he couldn’t have played the part any better.

In 1970, he and Richard Burton approached Albee about doing an all-male version; for the younger couple they wanted Warren Beatty and Jon Voight, but the playwright turned them down.

Virginia Woolf didn’t come to Broadway again until 1976 when Ben Gazzara and Colleen Dewhurst co-starred in a production at the Music Box Theatre. It played for slightly over 3 months and unlike the original production, which had a second company doing matinees due to the length and the fierce, uncompromising battle of the sexes (that second company by the way included Elaine Stritch at one point), Gazzara and Dewhurt played all eight performances.

By that time Virginia Woolf had entered into the canon of major American plays, helped also by the film version which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, with Sandy Dennis and George Segal in support. Major artists who interpreted the roles over the years ranged from Mike Nichols and Elaine May to a recent production in Los Angeles with Zachary Quinto and Calista Flockhart.

Zachary Quinto and Calista Flockhart (photo by Justin Bettman)

The next time that Virginia Woolf appeared on Broadway was approximately 28 years after the first revival, which was 14 years after the original. Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin were Martha and George and Irwin won a Tony for his performance. He had earned the admiration of Albee when he stepped in to do The Goat after Bill Pullman had departed. The play alternated seven and eight performances bi-weekly and played for 177 performances. Since the 60’s when Hagen and Elizabeth Taylor (who won an Oscar), the role of Martha has eluded the top prize but George in the three out of four major Broadway productions has provided Tony Awards for its interpreters.

The most acclaimed revival came to Broadway in a very roundabout way just seven years after the Turner-Irwin. For the first time the artist who staged the play was a woman who had done resident theatre productions of The Play About the Baby (Philadelphia Stage Company), The Goat or Who is Sylvia (the Alley Theatre) and the world premiere of Pete and Jerry at the Hartford Stage Theatre; the latter served an opener to The Zoo Story.  Pam Mackinnon, the director, had the previous season brilliantly directed the award-winning play Clybourne Park and wanted to do Virginia Woolf with Amy Morton as Martha Henry. Molly Smyth, Artistic Director, was all set to do the production, which had been approved, when Martha Lavey, the Artistic Director of Steppenwolf, insisted that as Amy Morton was a member of the company it had been to be done at that theatre first. Albee had never allowed a play of his to be done at Steppenwolf, but Mackinnon was persuasive and the play began its life there in 2011-2012 and then traveled to the Arena Stage. The response to the production was overwhelming, there were two performances left, when Lavey called the New York producer Jeffrey Richards and ask him to come and see the production, noting his relationship with Amy and Tracy Letts (portraying George) from August: Osage County and Superior Donuts. The matinee performance was magnificent, so much so that Richards and his producing partner Susan Gallin immediately decided to bring it to New York. Albee’s agent, Jonathan Lomma, was called who met with Richards the next afternoon and granted the rights. The play now titled Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? again awarded the George (Tracy Letts) with a Tony Award, Mackinnon with the Best Director Award, and the play won Best Revival. Noteworthy note: it was the first time two American women directors had won the Tony Award in the same year (Mackinnon for Woolf, Diane Paulus for Pippin).

When Richards met with Albee, he asked why it was now called Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  Richards had retitled, with the playwright’s permission, the generic The Best Man to Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. Albee said he had seen a program of a production in a resident theatre in which his name was so small that he felt that it would never happen again if his name was in the title.

At intermission when the play opened, 50 years to the actual date of the first production, Albee agreed to come onstage at the end of the performance and received a standing ovation.  It was the last time he was to appear on stage at the conclusion of one of his plays.

A production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was scheduled to open in March 2020 with Rupert Everett (initially Eddie Izzard had been announced) and Laurie Metcalf as George and Martha and Joe Mantello was the director.  Sadly it was one of the productions which never reopened after Covid and it was the production which signaled the beginning of the Broadway shutdown when an usher at the theatre was found to have Covid.  

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