In 1962, Edward Albee debuted his play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to stunned audiences everywhere. We were not used to seeing a married couple fight in mixed company. The play was unsettling, audacious, and successful.
Diana Trilling was the lone critic in 1962 who had the genius mind to catch and interpret what Albee was tossing at us from the stage.
Diana Trilling taught us Albee had crafted the post-war, pre-modernistic, marriage of an impending millennium where husband and wife were no longer partners — they were now in competition with each other. In Albee’s worldview, marriage was now about one spouse defeating the other and writhing in the enjoyment of the conflict. We’d won Word War II, the children were raised, and now it was time to turn on each other for sport. Albee laid the public groundwork to make hating your spouse acceptable.
In the play, Martha clarifies the context of her marriage when she tells us, “George makes the rules, I breaks them, and then he makes new rules!”
Albee’s public shattering of the marriage meme had profound aftereffects beyond the proscenium. Today, there are few modern marriages where both husband and wife are truly equal, supporting partners in moving the relationship forward. The thirst for money, prestige, and power are now the fallow hallmarks of so many of today’s marriages — where once faithfulness, love and morality were the cornerstones of saying, “I do.”
In 1975, playwright Harold Pinter and author Antonia Fraser left their spouses for each other:
Fraser first clapped eyes on Harold Pinter across a crowded restaurant, and she liked what she saw. But the bolt of love struck only on their third encounter, at a gathering to celebrate the first night of The Birthday Party, directed by Fraser’s brother-in-law, Kevin Billington. At home time she approached the playwright, who had black, curly hair and pointed ears “like a satyr”, to tell him she’d enjoyed the play. Pinter looked at her with his black eyes. “Must you go?” he asked. Fraser wearily considered the logistics of tomorrow: the school run, the research to be done on her biography of Charles II. “No,” she said. “It’s not absolutely essential.” They talked until six in the morning. At this point, Harold and Antonia had both been married for 18 years: he to the actress Vivien Merchant, she to Hugh Fraser, the Conservative MP. Between them they had seven children.
Harold and Antonia stayed together for 33 years. Their marriage, starting in immorality and in the betrayal of others, turned into something special, and unique for them — in a post-Albee-ian purview — in that they loved each other, they were both writers, and yet they were not in competition with each other. The success of one, became the success of the other — and they were sustained, not by competition, but by the company of each other:
In the 1980s Harold is admittedly beset by an existential despair at the state of the world. But there is always the consolation of his wife. “I love you wildly, and that is my solace,” he tells her. There are other consolations, too, like the validation of their marriage, a delightful show of Catholic sophistry in which a priest agreed to a “dispensation” for Pinter so that he and Fraser could have the church ceremony she craved – without conversion, or even instruction.
As we touch 1962 from 2011 — one cannot help but hope Albee’s architecture of modern married life will not be sustainable in our compressive futures. We cannot tear each other apart in the workplace and in the street and also at home and hope to survive as a civilized society.
We are seeing the malicious and marring aftereffects of an “anything goes” competition in our national political lives and it is infecting our relationships at home and abroad in foreign lands.
We need to resurrect the sanctity of a cooperative marriage that is based on mutual respect and honor and joy — and forsake the easy evil of hating your spouse because it conveniently feels good and momentarily nutritionalizes your self-esteem as you routinely conquer your partner in life — because we can’t live in crass times forever and we cannot fathom being truly alone in the living of a dead end marriage.