Monday, May 4, 2009
I love fashion. I also love London. I'm still trying to decide which I love more and if such a decision is even possible. Because of these loves, my ears perked up at the name Mrs. Ebury--a very, very minor character in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts. Mrs. Ebury, mentioned only once, "had forbidden Fanny to act because of the nettle-rash" and with that, had completed her role as concerned townsperson. She might be completely forgettable, except for her name...Ebury. I'd heard that name somewhere before.
Ebury Street is the name of a street in London. But more importantly, Anya Hindmarch, one of my favorite British designers, had named a handbag after the street. I think that the handbag reference is what made the name stick. It really is a great bag, sturdy and classic, there's even a "bespoke" version that can be made in the buyer's (or recipient's) choice of leathers and then inscribed with a note, in the buyer's handwriting, above where the inside lining begins. I dream of having one of these bags given to me. But I digress.
The bag was named after a street and I wondered what significance the name might have for Woolf. Several of Woolf's characters, particularly in Mrs. Dalloway, seem to have names that are anything but random. Septimus Smith--a common surname, combined with a first name that bears the weight of the world. Septimus is every young man in England that was lost or damaged by World War I. Clarissa's last name, Dalloway, is perhaps a play on "dally"--she takes her time with everything, dallying in flower shops as well as her past. So, I figured I'd have a look around and see if Ebury Street could mean something special for Virginia Woolf. And it looks like it just might.
First of all, Ebury Street is located in Westminster, London. Nothing particularly special there, except that Clarissa Dalloway lived in Westminster. Perhaps Woolf, by using Mrs. Ebury as the character who takes Fanny out of the show because of nettle-rash, is making a comment on the upper-class Londoners who inhabit Westminster--maybe they're too cautious, unfair, or just not very much fun. I think that might be stretching it a little. Of more interest to Woolf, I think, is the person in her life who lived on Ebury Street: Vita Sackville-West.
Sure, Mozart lived on Ebury Street for a few months when he was writing his first symphony. Alfred Tennyson, a poet laureate who ran in Woolf's parents' social circle, also lived on Ebury Street--apparently spending much of his time there smoking shag tobacco and drinking port as well as writing Maud. However, it's no secret that Vita Sackville-West held a special place in Woolf's heart--their love affair lasted from sometime in the early 1920s until Woolf's death in 1941. I'm fairly confident that Mrs. Ebury was named after the street that Sackville-West (and her husband, Harold Nicolson) called home and a place that Woolf certainly visited more than once.
Call me crazy, maybe I am looking too far into this. I still can't figure out why Mrs. Ebury is the one to pull nettle-rash Fanny (that particular reference a blog post for another day, perhaps) out of the show and Googling "Sackville-West afraid of germs/contagions/rash" does no good at all. Regardless, though, I know two things for sure:
1. There's something there--it seems impossible that Woolf would name a character after the street her lover lived on purely by coicidence.
2. I want the Ebury bag...my birthday's right around the corner..I'm just sayin'.
This is my sixth semester as an Undergraduate and I still don't know the most efficient way to study for an English final. While I love compressing semesters into index cards that I then can neatly file away after finals, the index card is not compatible with Woolf's winding prose. I've also given up on the idea of rereading everything on the syllabus before even attempting to tackle this insane plan. Perhaps blogging will help?
If it wasn't for the very end of Between the Acts, I would have hated Oliver and Isa's marriage. Isa and Oliver both lust after other people; their marriage seems limiting and rather Victorian throughout the majority of the novel.
I began thinking of Isa and Oliver as a Victorian couple while reading Woolf's description of their initial meeting. The two were fishing when their lines got tangled so Isa gave in to her position as an inferior woman to the superior man by letting him take over. The fishing scene and the motif of fish in Between the Acts reminded me of the hacked fish that fascinates James and Cam Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. The hacked fish, which makes its appearance in between Lily's thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay, and all the numerous references to fish in Between the Acts present fish as a symbol for past, or Victorian, notions of traditions, marriage and family. For instance, Oliver follows Mrs. Manresa like a "fish on a line" (p. 74) after the narrator presents Oliver's infidelity as an accepted component of his and Isa's marriage. The fish in Between the Acts are consumed, caught, killed, and ordered for the traditional community play. Woolf presents fish as they are dieing or already dead, implying that Victorian notions of a proper family and marriage hinder modern men and, in particular, women.
While Woolf presents Oliver's infidelity as something Isa is forced to accept, Isa is not passive about the issue after Mrs. Manresa leaves. Isa rejects and insults Oliver during the rather phallic presentation of a fruit: "Giles offered his wife a banana. She refused it." (p.145) Isa remains quiet until she is left alone with her husband. Woolf presents Isa and Oliver on equal footing in a rather tender foreshadowing of their night. Oliver and Isa as husband and wife must openly present their qualms with one another before they can become intimate. Woolf presents the act of creation as one that requires the blending of two essences. Thinking of the girl and guy getting into the cab in A Room of One's Own led me to think that it is the sexual act between a male and female who are open with each other that seems the most balanced and, ironically enough, androgynous for Woolf.
The audience in Between the Acts cannot identify itself during the silent interval that Miss La Trobe labeled as "The Present Day" in the program. Even identifying what the members of the audience are not like proves unsuccessful: "they were neither one thing nor the other; neither Victorian nor themselves." (p. 121) While the audience is uncertain as to who they actually are, they are also unsure whether they are or aren't similar to the Victorians. This passage seems to capture a major Woolfian theme: the transition from the Victorian marriage and family structure into...
Well, that's left as a source of conflict for many of Woolf's female characters. Lily Briscoe triumphantly finishes her painting after feeling validated that the Rayley's marriage fails but her thoughts are paired with tears in To the Lighthouse. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa thinks fondly of Peter Walsh and Sally Seton while married to Richard.
Isa and Oliver's marriage is unique in Woolf's body of work because the lasting impression Woolf leaves on the reader is a unity achieved through a harmonious action: "They spoke." (p. 147) Woolf concludes Between the Acts by describing an England beyond the reach of history books. The Victorians and the entire history of the British notion of marriage is wiped away; Isa and Giles become the model for husbands and wives in a new era of marriage.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
A couple months ago, I went through the process of applying for a teaching position with the Japanese government. The first stages of the application were straightforward and left me more or less in control of the impact of my application; I picked each and every word of my cover letter and employed careful phrasing, indentation, and even font choice on my résumé, carefully crafting an image of responsibility, creativity, and experience; my references were briefed with specific talking points distinct to each of them which, when read in the context of the others' letters, would create a balanced, enticing image. The application was genuinely a multimedia work of art, conceived with of coherent artistic agenda and executed with, I believe, considerable skill.
I lost control with the next stage: submit two passport-sized photos (2 x 2 inches). Left ear must be showing. Applicant should be photographed wearing business attire. Detach reply form from this letter at dotted line. Affix here using glue. Do not smile.
I'm still not entirely sure why that demanding little letter, with its series of staccato strictures, was so jarring, but I think Woolf may be on to something at the end of the Between the Acts, when the players turn the mirrors on the audience, to much consternation:
The hands of the clock had stopped at the present moment. It was now. Ourselves.
So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how. All shifted, preened, minced; hands were raised, legs shifted.
The audience is “laughed at by looking glasses” amid grumblings that the gaze of the mirrors is “distorting and upsetting and unfair”. The distortion is of their self-images, and the unfairness results when they are stripped of these images. The audience and I shared a similar dismay at having all of our calculated facades, the little projections and mythologies we exhibit, shorn away in the face of the determined Gaze.
You cannot argue with a mirror any more than you can with a camera.
Woolf's audience had only to see themselves, but my ill-shaven, sleep deprived, unkempt mug traced a circuitous route from the phototech at CVS's discerning gaze to the halls of the various ministries of the Japanese government, at one of which it remains today, enshrined in a manilla folder with the comments of some bored civil servant scrawled around it. There, prodded at, judged, evaluated, analyzed, and, ultimately, rejected, this utterly truthful, horrifying image, complemented by a series of little black squiggles, arranged in an oval shape and called my fingerprints, was left to plead my case.
In that moment, I became a member of that audience, offended and dejected that the story should end with nothing but the truth about myself.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Yet, as I warmed up to the characters and saw them in different frames of their lives, I began to sympathize with them. There seems to be such an abundance of misery and pain in this world that Mrs. Dalloway, Hugh, Peter, Richard, and Lady Bruton choose to focus on the superficial and less upsetting. Mrs. Dalloway veers around the awkward emotions creeping up on her since Peter has re-emerged into her life. She does not want to worry but knows that they have left things unresolved and unhappy. Will he be the same Peter who I once knew? Will he remember me? Us? Is life happy without me? These are questions that are perceptibly considered during the movie. The questions boil down to the significance of existence and how it shows in the lives of other people. Clarissa, nevertheless, shies away from such depth and introspective thoughts throughout the movie to utter “You won’t forget about my party! You’re coming to my party?” (except throw a British accent on it to pronounce pa-aw-ty).
Nonetheless, Septimus bears much of the depth in the movie, as well as in the novel for me. He is not afraid of introspection but suffers from it. He appears to be encumbered by every other character’s inability to deal with such deep thoughts, pains, and suffering. He endures enough suffering for all of them. When Mrs. Dalloway worries about her party or Peter about why Clarissa doesn’t like him or Lady Bruton about her new and brilliant cause or Hugh about stately appearance or Richard about…about…nothing really, Septimus is on the edge of such trivialities. He constantly hears a cacophony of sounds triggered by one “clamorous sound." He says "all the world is clamoring" and notices that he is finding it insufferably difficult to continue to be in such pervading anguish. He seems desensitized when he feels the most out of all of the characters. Hugh talks to Clarissa about his indisposed wife and Clarissa seems to feel very little when compared to Septimus’s reaction to Dr. Holmes as a “sneaky hunter.” (Dr. Holmes implies that Septimus is feeling lost or displaced mainly because “Men coming back from war…their work has been commandeered by women” and not because he saw a comrade, Evans, blown up in front of him.)
On the other hand, Septimus sets the tone of the movie and gives reason to why these characters are the way that they are. The movie opens with Italy 1918 and Septimus in the trench calling out to his comrade, Evans, before the comrade’s demise. Soft echoing music with still, detached notes resonates. This event is big. Perhaps, it is too big to live up to or to contemplate. It becomes easier to focus on the little things. Shift in the little things like choice of hat or dress or meaningless parties do not have as great or immediate an impact as actually confronting issues like death, the war, or suicide. Mrs. Dalloway’s patrons can experience momentary satisfaction in her parties and can reserve pensive remembrances of the night for later. Clarissa talks about the significance of a party to “give people one night in which everything feels really enchanted.” The aim of her having a party is to give a spark to life and to advocate appreciation for it. She tries to share this enchantment with her guests. Clarissa is connecting and uniting with people in a world with such solitary thoughts and trivial focus where the characters may fail to understand one another because they do not venture deep enough within themselves and each other to comprehend one another. Clarissa connects with her guests, with Septimus as a participant (not victim because she does not see it that way) of suicide and flower-shop onlooker, and with the woman she sees in the window from her balcony at the close of the movie. The difference between Septimus and Clarissa is that, among other things, Septimus turns away from the person he connects with and sees through the window across from Dr. Holmes’s office. He rejects personal connection while Clarissa seeks it and strives to maintain it.
All in all, Mrs. Dalloway was a bit long for me but accurately portrayed much of the novel, except for the car scene—a big scene to me. The hues used in the movie were beautiful neutrals and pastels that mirrored the level of passion and depth within the world of Mrs. Dalloway (tepid with superficialities). The costumes were nice pieces. The actors portrayed the characters well. Mrs. Dalloway is an interesting movie and an individual who likes to see the novel-to-movie transition should see it.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
All three actresses play the parts very well, though I’m surprised Nicole Kidman got an Academy Award for her performance. Although good, it was not anything amazing. More so, Julianne Moore is perhaps the most dynamic of the three, playing Laura Brown who probably is the most delineated from the plot of Mrs. Dalloway. Rather, she is seen reading the book throughout and how it inspires her. Although not directly from Mrs. Dalloway, the character seems to have elements from other Woolf novels: the relationship between her and her son seems to have a touch of Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse and her inability to make a cake mirrors Rhoda’s trouble in The Waves to comprehend numbers.
Were it not for the middle story, the third story would have hardly any meaning. All the events eerily parallel Mrs. Dalloway and even most of the characters retain the names from the novel. Clarissa is trying to throw a party. Richard and Sally are switched as Sally is now in the long-term relationship with Clarissa, but there are obvious clues that Richard and Clarissa had a history. There is a daughter who comes home and a Peter character. What makes the novel so great is the relationship of these stories to the Septimus storyline. Instead, it is Richard who falls out the window (could see that one coming from a mile away) and AIDS is the substitute for shell shock.
It’s sort of comic that the characters know of Woolf’s novel, as it is even mentioned throughout, but do not realize they are carrying out situations and fates that are within the novel. The movie, however, looks great and the cinematography is very much inspired by Woolf, as it pays attention to details within the days of the characters, much as Woolf’s novel does. Phillip Glass’s wonderful music is probably what keeps the stories together. If you have never read Woolf’s novel, the story will probably be much more fascinating, but having read them and knowing how much deeper Mrs. Dalloway is, the movie does not reach to the same level as the novel.
Perhaps that’s why Clarissa Dalloway thinks that is so “dangerous to live for just one a day.” Everyday requires the courage to live with the choices we have made, while simultaneously making new ones.
Mrs. Dalloway, a film directed by Marleen Doris, stays true to that theme. We follow Mrs. Dalloway, played by Vanessa Redgrave (who looks curiously like Virginia Woolf in her physical appearance), during and after she makes the choice of a lifetime to marry the more “safe” and predictable Richard “Dalloway, it’s still Dalloway,” over the brash, young, and pocket-knife-fondling, Peter Walsh.
We also follow Septimus Smith (Rupert Graves). Septimus’ story makes evident that many choices are made for us. The death of his friend Evans, for instance, by a wartime blast was cruel and sudden. Overcome with grief and despair, Septimus cannot use human reason to categorize his friend’s death. The doctors, in turn, can’t seem to categorize Septimus and vow, instead, to “take him away.” Yet Septimus believes that the mark of his own sanity is the choice to go on living as he like and if he can no longer do that, then he chooses to die rather than be “in their power.” It is the audacity of Septimus’ choice as well as the one she made that summer in Borden which eventually posses Mrs. Dalloway's thoughts to the point in which she is compelled to reflect on them: “That young man killed himself, but I don’t pity him. I’m somehow glad he could do it- throw it away. It’s made me feel the beauty. Somehow feel very like him- less afraid.” The simple fact that Septimus made a choice is what is so attractive to Mrs. Dalloway, it recalls in her a time of youth and promise. It makes her realize how much life and promise is still left for her to live.
This is not an easy film to produce, for the obvious fact that it is novel based on first-person narration, which take place in the narrator’s own mind. At times I thought the insert of thoughts by Clarissa were rather forced and intrusive and disrupted the flow of the film, but Vanessa Redgrave's performance is so subtle and gracious, it is hard not to be enchanted by her. I was especially moved by the last scene. After Mrs. Dalloway asks herself: “What makes us go on?” She returns to the party. There she joins Peter, Richard and Sally in a dance. After the years of separation, loss, and defeats small and large, they still find comfort in one another, fun and even laughter. What makes us go on? It is moments like these, among friends and family, who, despite all our choices and whether they were for good or ill, can still gather together to celebrate one another and to celebrate life.
Monday, April 6, 2009
I could argue that Bernard's soliloquy is Woolf's version of bildungsroman for the lost male who finally achieves his destined role as a patriarch. After all, Bernard takes over as the sole voice of the concluding section. While the other voices distinguish themselves against others, Bernard is most capable of self-reflection and defining himself without necessarily comparing himself to the others.
Yet, I referenced to the "self" three times within the last sentence and it is precisely this issue of "the self", self-identity and being that is such a struggle for Bernard: "Let me cast and throw away this veil of being." (p. 218) For a character who has just taken over as the dominant being in the concluding section of work, Bernard seems more concerned with abandoning his self-identity rather than relishing in his maturation into a complete individual. Though he is appointed as the one to reflect upon the others and to stand as an individual at the moment that the sun sets over the waves, Bernard's reflection is a cumulation of experiences bound into the story of one life. Then the waves break on the shore and Bernard's being disappears.
The last line of The Waves could indicate death. It could also indicate a complete transcendence into a realm outside of the confines of semantics and linguistic structures. Woolf is a keen observer of relationships amongst people or, rather, the lack of boundaries between beings. Like the thread that extends between the characters of Mrs. Dalloway, the waves rock the beings within The Waves and unite them. However, Woolf achieves such fluidity in her prose that the beings lose their distinctive shapes until they are entirely freed from the confines of "identity" and "the self."
Just like the waves that dispersed Bernard's identity at the conclusion of Woolf's novel, the rain unbound my presence from the fibers of the book's pages.
This is the umpteenth time I've seen The Hours. I honestly thought the first time I saw it would be the last. It seemed like Michael Cunningham, author of the novel The Hours, was just working out his mommy issues and his obsession with Mrs. D. But then I thought, "There is totally something up with Richard's robe." I watched it again. "OMG his robe matches"--SPOILER ALERT--"his childhood bed sheets!" The second time I watched it, I became obsessed. I noticed the blue and yellow color scheme, how Clarissa and Richard's dad point at Richard in just the same way, and how familiar that woman in the flower shop looked (Eileen Atkins who played Virginia Woolf in "A Room of One's Own" and wrote the screen play for "Mrs. Dalloway"). I love connections and The Hours is full of them. I also love Philip Glass, the composer for the film.
Reading Mrs. D only fed the obsession. I looked for connections with the book. Obviously, there were many. Furthermore, I felt that the pacing of the film and the weaving together the present with the past were wonderfully Woolfian. But what, then, does the film have to offer? It celebrates life. So does Mrs. D. It explores the ambiguity of sexuality. So does Mrs. D. It plays out the legacy of a masterpiece. So does--just read Mrs. D. The Hours, being based on a novel that was inspired by a novel, has a manifold challenge: it must contribut something that its predecessors do not. Perhaps, in that sense, the film fails.
The Hours has this going for it; it's a movie and a beautiful one. Mrs. D is not accessible to all people and The Hours provides a lovely treatment of the themes explored by Woolf. So if you can't read Mrs. D, watch The Hours. Woolf's characters are so elaborate and real that any reinterpretation of them will be interesting. Cunningham has a wonderful imagination and Stephen Daldry, director, knows how to make a film. My reaction comes from someone who's studied the film and Mrs. D many times. If you asked me years ago, in my youth, I'd say that the film was quite moving.
It was with trepidation that I started watching The Hours. I had just finished the book and had heard, for years, about how good the movie was from my best friend and my sister, who had never actually read The Hours. But I picked up the book earlier this year--it was on sale at B&N--and I loved it. It served as a re-introduction to Woolf for me (I had read some of Mrs. Dalloway when I was thirteen, but didn't really like it), and I suppose this may be blasphemous, but The Hours made me pick up and finish Mrs. Dalloway.
The Hours follows the entwined lives of three women: a modern-day Clarissa Dalloway, a housewife reading Clarissa Dalloway in post-World-War II suburbia, and finally, Clarissa Dalloway's creator herself, Virginia Woolf.
Michael Cunningham's Pulitizer-Prize-winning novel is better than its movie adaptation--but the movie itself is about as good as movie adaptations get. Stephen Daldry has remained true to the source material and I doubt that fans of the novel will be disappointed. It is well-shot, well-written, well-scored, well-lit, well-designed, well-acted; all in all, a heart-breaker of a film, from start to finish.
Meryl Streep is luminous (but isn’t she always? What can’t that woman do, seriously?) and I feel like she really gets the essence of Clarissa, both Dalloway and Vaughn down…she flits from scene to scene like a butterfly, and yet when she breaks down, she breaks down. She gets the lightness and quiet despair of the novel better than either Moore or Kidman.
Julianne Moore is gorgeous (but isn’t she always?) and she pulls off the fragile, extremely depressed Laura Brown well. I was slightly terrified watching her, because throughout the majority of the film, she truly conveys the sense that she is a woman on the verge of collapse; that at any given moment, she could shatter into a million little pieces, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to put her together again.
Nicole Kidman tries. She tries really hard (for Nicole Kidman), and while I don’t think she completely succeeds, I think she went farther than where she usually goes, and I think that is why the Academy gave her Best Actress. Kidman gives a good performance; it just happens to be a performance that is somewhat stereotypical. She gets the very British dryness of Woolf down, but can’t grasp the passion and feeling of Woolf, not even in the train station scene. Still, Nicole Kidman tries and her effort is worth watching.
The supporting cast is very solid; surprisingly Claire Danes did not annoy me (I usually can’t stand her), and Ed Harris as Richard was also terrifying to watch, because he was so clearly on the edge and half-way gone. It is the boy Richard, played by Jack Rovello, though, who is astounding.
The look of the film is gorgeous--the lighting is superb and the color palette seems muted but is pleasing to the eye. The most visually stunning scene is unfortunately already given away in the trailer--Julianne Moore lying on a bed, river water rushing up to engulf her--but it is still great to watch. Philip Glass's soundtrack is haunting, and like other reviewers said before me, it ties the three narratives neatly together.
I want to say that overall, the film adaptation of The Hours was delicate--and I am well aware of the negative feminist connotation of the word--and yet it was delicate. It was delicate but razor-edged all at once, as its original source material is.
For a movie which deals so heavily with depression and suicide, it isn't a depressing experience--it is extraordinarily sad and poignant, but it is also clear-cut and truthful--The Hours, like Mrs. Dalloway, shows life, in all its fragility, in all its heartache, in all its light, in all its darkness, and in all its beauty.
Virginia Woolf recognized the importance of having a voice in one's own development, even if others challenge, disrespect or disagree with that voice, and apparently, whether or not that voice was at its most sane. "The Hours" is an applaudable performance, in that it successfully magnified that key interest of Virginia's. I take a departure from my peers' reviews when I say, that I feel the character of Laura Brown is a very true representation of a Woolfian character, and she really possesses a shared quality so often displayed in many of Woolf's novel characters: the need to self-assert because we can and therefore, we should.
What means a good film doesn't mean having virtuous characters. Nicole Kidman's Woolf mirrored the real Virginia Woolf in that she speaks to a greater cause, human dignity. You need to assert yourself against those who try to stifle or belittle the value you see in the choices you wish to make for yourself. When Leonard first confronts Kidman's Woolf and dismisses her plea to return to London, she says, "They [the doctors] don't speak for my interests [...] this is my right, the right of every human being." Leonard moved the press outside of London for the sake of Virginia's health, and now she wishes to relocate despite that gesture. This scene is the vindication of "I will get the flowers myself" or "I will bake a cake," because here we finally have a purely verbal form of self-assertion. Perhaps the most controversial and paradoxical representation of self-assertion in the film is suicide: the ultimate consequence of living the life you wish for yourself, may mean for you, the ending of that life.
Laura Brown continues this circular thought when she ponders, "What does it mean to regret when you have no choice?" At the end of the film, Brown brings us to the root of self-interest by examining it, proving that self-assertion often serves under the guise of selfishness, and that may be ugly and you may not like it, but it must be accepted for what it is because it is human. In essence, you may not have been able to live with the kind of choices I've made, but it is because of those choices I have been able to live with myself. Laura Brown choose not to live with false comforts, as Clarissa Vaughn has been doing.
In response to the melodrama that Brown brings to the film. I think filming Laura Brown as melodramatic is very true to Woolf's own approach to her characters: the internal drama that exists in all of us and that she wrote so uncannily. Very often, Woolf will have her characters leave us off with those one-liners, only to return to that character and never address that suspenseful thought again.
*While I was watching Kidman pace in the train station scene, there was something very familiar about her wardrobe, and I realized Burberry's SP09 line suggested some of that depression chic.
How exquisitely Woolfian of Katherine Mansfield to begin her short-story, “Miss Brill,” by not only comparing the air to a crisp, bright drink but by introducing her heroine by her marital status and intention – a la Mrs. Dalloway. Or, as “Miss Brill” was published in 1920, perhaps Woolf was the mime, choosing to begin “Street Haunting” and Mrs. Dalloway in these veins. As woman modernists, outward shows of friendly camaraderie and private rivalry aside, Woolf and Mansfield are both interested in a similar quandary. Both attempt, through the crises of Mrs. Dalloway and Miss Brill, to illustrate isolation. Through the liveliness of a meticulously plotted party and the buzz that comes with the inauguration of the Season, both writers examine the malaise that accompanies the realization of remoteness.
Miss Brill, exhilarated by the quickening pulse of the public gardens at the start of the French Season, dons her beloved impish fur and perches on her usual bench to observe and comment on the passers-by. Like my Aunt Marian, who enjoys nothing more than keeping a quiet commentary of those who parade down the beach in various states of dishabille (Oh, Di! Take a look at this one!), Miss Brill quietly passes judgment on the strangers who move around her. A lonely woman at her core, Miss Brill establishes false relationships: her fur, her pupils, her geriatric. She fantasizes that her class would be interested in her Sunday tradition and that the old man she reads the newspaper to is dazzled by Miss Brill, the secret weekend actress. While she sits imagining these amicable relations, Miss Brill, stationary in both her pose and existence, casts a discerning eye on the strangers who pass her by. “How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play.” Suddenly, Miss Brill’s Sunday is a matinee and she quickly reasons that she herself plays a part. She is an actress, and part of a cast. She belongs. The band nearly brings her to tears as she imagines they are part of an ensemble whose upwelling notes will lead to a song-and-dance number.
Poor Miss Brill. No sooner has she concocted a delusion of unity and connectedness than it is devastated by her hero and heroine whose conversation she can hear. The lovers turn the tables on Miss Brill. Now, the critic meets criticism. In mocking tones, they scoff at her pathetic appearance and her presence among them. Immediately after finding solidarity with the strollers in the gardens, she is faced with true alienation. Not only is she ignored, but she is scorned by the hero and heroine whose appearance she admired so much.
Mansfield’s Miss Brill, like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, not only wrestles with her own identity, but moreover, perhaps, with the role her identity plays in the lives of others. Miss Brill, accompanied to the park only by her stuffed fur (“Little rogue!”), grows restless with her silence. She yearns to be acknowledged. She yearns for a part. Unmarried, Miss Brill thinks only about her pupils and the sickly old man. Needless to say, it doesn’t sound like the woman has many friends. When she synthesizes a unified world, a structure which she herself helps to support – a play – she is momentarily fulfilled by her role as actress. After the comforting epiphany, the snide comments of the lovers snap her into reality. Miss Brill is then forced to acknowledge her separateness.
In the same way that Mrs. Dalloway attempts to assert herself as hostess by presiding over a dinner-party congregation, Miss Brill inserts herself into the lives of others. By commenting, she silently assumes a role and wields a quiet power. Similarly, Clarissa attempts to solve her issues with her own atomization and privacy, by hosting a party. Clarissa’s dinner party, for her, becomes a sort of play. She carefully assembles the players and designs the set. She buys the flowers and mends her costume. She constructs communication and connection. When the party comes into fruition and the curtain goes up, Clarissa is made to cast off her expectations. Septimus’ suicide, like the jarring comments of Miss Brill’s lovers, infiltrates the diorama and Clarissa retreats to resolve, for herself, the problem of alienation. She is forced to acknowledge human alienation in her neighbor's solitary room and she is forced to interpret the death of a stranger.
Friday, April 3, 2009
On the other hand, if we dismiss the exclamation “What a dump,” we are like George and choose not to humor Martha in her little antics. We progress to the bedroom where, as Roxie beautifully recaptures in her post, the couple is seen as loving and playful. We see the last glimpse of the loving married couple before they are put to bed and before the entrance of their guests, the new couple. We have heard foreboding utterances and a few snide remarks prior to this bed scene but the new characters that arise from the bed give new energy to their bitterness and viciousness to each other. The couple that we see throughout the majority of the film is this couple. They undertake great pains and care to ridicule each other. Martha and George engage in a night-long game with the new couple, Nick and Honey. Martha and George find new ways to best each other and use the new couple for their gains.
Nevertheless, as dawn looms and the couples have bested each other for the night, the couples retire to their corners to review the night’s games in better light. Martha and George are done with Nick and Honey and the new day is fast approaching so they must leave. Martha and George remain to find comfort in each other and their feats from their mean and spiteful games. They find solace in the sarcastic, yet welcomingly caustic, niche of a home that they have created. With the light of day, Martha and George become the loving couple who was put to bed before the night games commenced. They are more sympathetic to each other. George says “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” He tries to console Martha with the song she has been singing and enjoying all night. Her response is thought provoking. She says, “I am.” The audience wonders if the Virginia Woolf reference is an actual reference to the literary figure or to the boogeyman (wolf) or to their academic lifestyle.
Considering the reference to Virginia Woolf, one may wonder if the characters of Virginia Woolf are representative of Virginia, Leonard, Vanessa, and Clive(*skim Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1974). Martha could be a character who has similarities toVirginia Woolf. Both are gregarious, sociable, and intelligent women who are not really able to have children. Leonard Woolf was attentive and bowing to Virginia. We know George plays games with Martha and entertains the guests, though he is exhausted. Honey, Nick’s mousey wife, could be an auxiliary character like Vanessa in Virginia's life. Nick could be Clive who thinks that he is more intelligent than he really is and is clandestinely misogynistic in his attempts to profit in life. The relationship between George and Martha or Virginia and Leonard could be an example of an atypical marriage. They do love each other but instead of candy-sweet remarks to one another all the time and children they substitute caustic remarks tied with endearing nicknames and a phantom child.
Still, let us look at the last two possible references of the song before we decide if the literary figure trumps the boogeyman or academic explanation. As Kathleen Kane mentions in her post, the reference may be academically centered. Rather than big bad wolf, the song substitutes Virginia Woolf. The substitution has a similar rhyme, differing in the addition of one syllable. It also maintains the wolf with differently spelled “Woolf” that is apparent to the literarily aware, or academics; therefore, the change and joke hinges on wolf-Woolf which can refer to a menacing animal or to a prominent female literary figure. In this case, if Martha is afraid of Virginia Woolf she could be scared of this hinge, the scary and academic where illusions and reality are restlessly muddled or tested. In the history field the, the historians, like George, create stories of the past and of past historical figures. They take pieces of exhumed fact and couple them with assumptions of how things were. In the field of biology, the biologist creates a past and pieces together the present to the past in cladograms and phylogenies. In the lives of Martha (daughter of the president of the university) and George (a professor in the history department rather than the history department), illusion and truth have no definite boundaries:
Martha- Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference.The characters get lost in their games, their creations, and their academic lifestyles. They grope through critically acclaimed films, quotes from acclaimed plays, and get lost in their literature. They may even be like the big white rat with beady red eyes that George says is a fitting description for Martha’s father or a description fitting for Honey’s father. They may be smaller rats running the maze of life as Martha’s father or Honey’s father constructs it.
George- No,but we must carry on as though we did.
George- You take the trouble to construct a civilization…to build a society based on the principle of…principle…you endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man’s mind…you bring men to the saddest of all points…to the point where there is something to lose…then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.Could this be a comment on society? Their marriage is not what one expects from a typical marriage. Although they are learned individuals, they are not models of sophistication or civility. From the opening scene, they appear to be civil and genteel but, like Nick who is chastised by Martha for dealing too much in appearances, we must not trust appearances. Things are not that clear cut. Perhaps the significance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is not that definite either.
Although Edward Albee tries to explain the significance of the title, his explanation seems incomplete:
having beer one night, and I saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf…who’s afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical university, intellectual joke.(Paris Review interview with Edward Albee http://www.theparisreview.com/media/4350_ALBEE.pdf).I am left with no definite conclusion, except that the reference is for all of the aforementioned reasons. Despite this befuddlement, I think the film is fantastic. The actors employ an emotionally unstable environment that functions on dysfunction and tantalizingly portrayed raw emotion. The audience feels the chillingly warm embrace of anger, lowered expectations, bitterness, resentment, and discontentment as the characters open their home, secrets, and vulnerabilities to us. Every word is enacted with the utmost feeling, save when George tells Martha to show Honey the euphemism because ironically bathroom or lavatory is too dirty a word to utter. Plus, I've always enjoyed the late 50s to 60s saying "Come off it." Twilight Zone uses a form of it in The Afterhours when characters say "Climb off it, Marsha." It is similar to the line in Albee's play, "Come off it, Martha."
See Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf asap.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
George conceals his fears of impotence and castration by confronting others with intellectual mind games. He attempts to assert his superiority with his brain, because he cannot do so with his bank account, or presumably with his sexual prowess, as his wife constantly cuckolds him. As with the absentminded Richard strolling in the park, constructing grumpy neighbor laws against horseplay in his head, George lives so much of his life in his head that it is impossible to believe he has a heart. He even goes as far as to rehearse the precise tone, inflection, and body language with which he will hurt his wife by telling her that their son has died. Similarly, Martha expresses her disappointment with George's relatively small salary so ferociously that one can hear in her tone of voice the yearning of Clarissa Dalloway to be at the top and center of her social circle.
I would like to emphasize one aspect of the film a bit more strongly than my classmates--the role of alcohol. If our actors did not actually imbibe some "Bergen" of their own as part of some pleasantly sacrificial method acting routine, they certainly deserve the Oscars for which the entire credited cast was apparently nominated (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061184/trivia). Liquor serves as the perfect metaphor for the permeation of reality into fiction, and fiction into reality. Our characters spend nearly the entire film in a drunken haze, as the saying has it, to forget their troubles, but instead end up revealing their deepest insecurities, and confronting each other with the harshest truths imaginable. In our attempts to escape reality, we only drive ourselves further into insanity, into illusions, which our nature prevents us from maintaining for very long. The characters make the inevitable re-entry into reality that much more striking and terrible for themselves. We are reminded of Raymond Carver's injunction against drinking and thinking.
As with the children's song of which the film's title is a mini satire, the answer to the question ends up being "We all are." Even as children, we develop Freudian defense mechanisms such as sarcasm to counter the feelings, people, and experiences we find unpleasant. While we are unlikely to encounter any literal claws and fangs in our urban setting, Woolf's modernist dilemma knocks patiently on our door.
Sometimes I forget that the really great book I’m reading was written by someone who probably had a few bad days. It’s hard for me to imagine that works of literature do not just make themselves appear in perfect form, but that they are created by other people—people who are talented, creative, and patient. It’s seems absurd that someone like Virginia Woolf had to deal with things like writer’s block, or any of those other frustrating interruptions that other not-so-talented, not-always-so-creative, and extremely impatient people like me deal with on a daily basis. That being said, this quote from A Room of One’s Own reminds me that even the greatest novels are not miraculous, neat packages of literary perfection, as they may seem to be. Most likely, Virginia Woolf did not just wake up on a Tuesday morning and say to herself, “I think it would be rather pleasant to write a work of literary genius today. And then perhaps I’ll have tea and do some gardening.” Really, it’s no mystery that writing well is difficult. So, if I’m having this must trouble writing a coherent blog, I can only imagine what someone like Virginia Woolf, or Jane Austen, or William Shakespeare must have felt like when they were writing their masterpieces.
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf remarks that, “...to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire.” This is a four-hundred word blog that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a work of genius (though perhaps my mother would say otherwise...she’s very encouraging). And even now as I try desperately to finish this assignment in peace, there are interruptions. I have a room of my own, which is a good start according to Woolf. The problem is that in the room of my own, there are also two loud roommates. And a television. And facebook. And I’m pretty sure the “world’s notorious indifference” is just outside my window in the form of a particularly thunderous lawn mower. I’m glad that we read A Room of One’s Own, because Woolf reminded me to appreciate the person behind the writing as an actual human being who struggled with normal, human interruptions. Occasionally I find myself separating the writing from the writer, because like Woolf said, geniuses like Austen and Shakespeare are difficult to find within their work. But they did actually write them. And if I want to call myself an English major, I really shouldn’t forget that.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
1923 was the year that Woolf wrote the book, Laura reads it so she won’t succumb to boredom and Richard (Clarissa’s ex-lover) jokingly calls her Mrs. Dalloway which is also ironic because Clarissa was Mrs. Dalloway’s first name. “The Hours” is a great movie that shows how important it is to be true to ourselves, that mental illness can be passed down and that love is blind.
Nicole Kidman is made to look like Woolf with a prosthetic nose, mousy-brown hair and plain clothes. Kidman’s version of Woolf is a great and albeit true one. Woolf is intelligent yet somewhat cold and snobbish. Woolf seems to want to be left alone but when she her sister and her sister’s children come to visit she seems to enjoy the company. But it does get a little weird when Woolf kisses her sister. Woolf was a lesbian but maybe she was just trying to seek comfort and solace with someone. It was clear she wasn’t happy: she repeatedly told Richard she hated Richmond and was lonely. When Woolf commits suicide by filling her pockets with rocks and drowning herself it is a sad and short scene.
Laura, played by Julianne Moore is a secretly sad and lonely housewife who reads “Mrs. Dalloway” so she wont succumb to boredom. Laura looks like any other housewife but she doesn’t feel like one. She’s pregnant with her second child and is always with her clingy son Richie. When her friend Kitty comes over to tell her that she is sick Laura kisses her. Here we see one of the reasons why Laura is unhappy. She is secretly gay and has to hide her feelings. Coming-out in the 1950’s was simply unexceptable back then. The ideal woman was supposed to stay home, cook and clean for her husband and raise her children. Richie also seems to view everything about his mother, so it seems to effect him. After the kiss Laura goes to a hotel to commit suicide by taking pills. But she later returns home and throws the birthday party for her son. It’s a good thing that she didn’t commit suicide but it’s sad that she has to go on living a lie. This is similar to what Woolf says in the film: “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”
Clarissa is a lesbian living in the modern day. She has a daughter that is of college-age played by Claire Danes who joins her when she is preparing Richard’s party. Richard appears ravaged by AID’s: he is shockingly thin and depressed. Although both are gay, both Richard and Clarissa dated in college. Clarissa seems to still love Richard, and it is evident by her affection and kindness toward him. Also when Clarissa says, “That is what we do. That is what people do. They stay alive for each other,” we can see that she is thinking of what life would be like without Richard. But Richard later succumbs to his depression and kills himself. We later find out that he is Laura’s son. He believes that his illness was passed on to him. But what illness he is talking about? It could be that he thinks that he inherited being gay from his mother. Or his mental illness, as he is suicidal and his mother was too. Although she came back from the hotel Laura later left her family after giving birth to her second child. When she hears of her son’s death she thinks that maybe that was a horrible mistake.
I think that if she had seen it Woolf would’ve been proud of “The Hours”. It did not paint a false version of her and it discusses the message she wanted to live her life by. Which is being true to oneself. -- Baha Awadallah
Friday, March 27, 2009
It’s the sort of theme inspires rainbows, the last days of summer, and that farcical “bag scene” in American Beauty. Since I discovered this little phrase, it has been my favorite theme, and I look for it everywhere- in books, films and even in the people I meet.
In all my reading, though, no where do I find this theme of transience more prevalent than in the works of Virginia Woolf. It is why, considering all her works as a whole, she is my favorite writer. And the work that I believe is most exemplary of this theme is in Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse.
Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. –Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
It’s one of my favorite last lines I’ve ever read and, if you don’t take my word for it, the American Book Review lists it as the tenth best last lines in all of literature: http://americanbookreview.org/PDF/100_Best_Last_Lines_from_Novels.pdf.
In a conversation I had with Julie Crosby, professor of English at Columbia University and director of the Women’s Project (the very woman who produced Freshwater), she summed up one reason to her what the ending was so meaningful to her: “One of my favorite moments is near the end of To the Lighthouse. I take such comfort in Woolf’s idea that the artistic visions of women can be realized with such deep satisfaction.”
The reason, though, why it is my favorite line is that, up until this point, Lily has suffered the “extreme fatigue” of life; she has seen the aging of children, the deaths of people she cares about, and withstood innumerable failures. The beauty of that one singular moment in Lily’s life is at the cost of all the hours, days and months that came before it. And even though her painting will one day be “junk in someone’s attic,” Lily acknowledges the value of what she has accomplished and literally sees her “vision” through her painting. She achieves something that even her male counterparts, Mr. Tansley and Mr. Ramsay, who are plagued with Thoreau’s quiet desperation, have not done. It is what all of us strive for- a moment of being, in which we experience our personhood and our art (whatever it might be) in relation to the world. What’s more is that Lily is able to express that in her painting and, like Woolf, in her words.
I know in my life, I live, if for nothing else, in anticipation of these moments. And while probability is against me, and I may never achieve “my vision,” I am still grateful for the worthwhile occasion when I am able to experience a version of that vision through remarkable characters like Lily and in learning about great writers like Virginia Woolf.
Rebecca West—could that possibly have been her real name? It is far too awesome. No, she would’ve had to ride a horse and carry a holstered gun to be Rebecca West. Or she would’ve had to float down 5th Ave in monochromatic, impeccably crafted clothing from wool coat down to unmentionables. Nope, she was neither of these people. She was Cicely Isabel Fairfield, writer, critic, person. Now who is Evadne? Show me that woman.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony.” It made my blood boil over with hatred for the imperial mamma’s boy, George. I loved the slippery and strong Evadne. Those characters flawlessly represent the struggle between husband and wife, colonizer and colonized—a tasty comparison. But the key word here is “flawlessly.” These characters are not realistic. Evadne is quasi-immortal, seemingly drowned by her husband but still beating him home. Furthermore, she is unphased by all this violence. She caresses him as he climbs in bed. A little much, no? Even Sally in Mrs. Dalloway is not that irrepressible.
Ah, but we never meet Evadne. No, we meet George’s idea of her. Here is the horse I’ve beaten before: men’s mystical perception of women. Septimus and Peter think Clarissa and Rezia can save them; George thinks Evadne has corrupted his soul, that he needs an absolution from the church. He confesses that he wants “a child’s God, an immense arm coming down from the hills and lifting him to a kindly bossom” (a.k.a. his mama). West and Woolf grapple with this same issue: men’s oppressive expectations of women. But in Mrs. Dalloway, we see beyond these expectations. When Clarissa and Peter meet after years of estrangement, we see inside Peter’s head, where Clarissa can make him suffer like no other human being. Then we see inside Clarissa’s, where her need for Peter’s approval renders her somewhat pathetic. Woolf does not leave us with the inflated perception of Clarissa. West, though, gives us only the male gaze. We can only see Evadne as a mysterious, cat-like porpoise thing.
Though Woolf and West were contemporaries, “Indissoluble Matrimony” came before Mrs. Dalloway. It was not influenced by the groundbreaking Mrs. D. West’s characters would be much more relatable if the narration had woven through different psyches the way Woolf’s narration does--perhaps West kicked herself in the pants when Mrs. D was published. Or maybe she didn’t. Side-by-side these texts are wonderful. We have West saying “Yeah, just try and repress us. We can swim better than you.” Then we have Woolf saying, “Ouch, boys, that hurts.” Both are true.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
One review claims both characters are, from the start, equally malicious towards each other, while I found myself sympathizing with the brooding Burton, who, though desperately trying to ignore his wife’s awful stabs, eventually gives into and becomes quite engaged in her harmful games and mockery. He is an associate professor of history, a title that shames poor Martha, for she is the daughter of the president of the university he works at; she and her father were both expecting much more from George, but just look at the lazy slouch he’s become!
Walking into their cramped, cluttered home, inebriated Martha complains immediately. “What a dump!” she says, forcing George to tell her which movie that line is from. “I don’t know, Martha”, he says, but she yells and demands, as they make their way upstairs. They’ll be having company soon, she says, and suddenly a young, well-built professor and his “mousy,” waiflike wife arrive—they begin drinking. “Mousy,” which she is soon deemed by George, orders Bourbons; she becomes more giddy as the night wears on—Martha becomes more flirtatious towards her blonde guest, naming George’s shortcomings with a raspy snarl. As I watched, I grew tired, as did the first reviewer-- for, where was this all going? I felt like “Mousy”, in a way, dizzied and exhausted-- spun around by Burton’s unpredictable character. I chose to pause the movie fifty minutes before the ending and to finish it the next day. I slept on it, if I may, anticipating greatly the ending of this very strange, but fiery film.
Taylor and Burton are an incredible pair, and this is not surprising; apparently, they’d married in 1964, two years before the release of the film. Yet, as, in reality, they were falling in love with each other—were, I assume, happy newlyweds, their portrayal of a failed marriage is shockingly poignant. I returned to the film the next night, and as their night continued before me, each character, with the encouragement of liquor, exposed their deepest, most shamed secrets. We learn that “Mousy” had a terminated pregnancy; soon after, as Martha talks of her own son with such engulfing love, “Mousy” screams and cries, “I want a baby!” And finally, Martha is broken down by George, who tells her their own son never was—shakes her from her comfortable denial, or insanity, which he sometimes shares. Was Martha’s pregnancy terminated as well? Nothing in this film is explicit, which, I believe, is the reason one can’t seem to free themselves from it afterwards. The jingle “Whose afraid of the big bad woolf?” was mistaken for “Whose afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—This is not only a funny coincidence. Martha, who sings this eerie tune at moments throughout the night, is dealing with her own insanity—which she acknowledges at times, saying, how could George love me? Virginia Woolf, as we know, had spouts of insanity-- at times heard voices, and was put in rest homes by worried friends and family. Woolf also grieved over her inability to have children; Martha grieves over her loss of a child, or the child that never really was. Perhaps, Martha really is afraid of Virginia Woolf, of becoming suicidal Woolf. While this is all unclear, there is, undoubtedly, a reason for the daunting mention of Woolf.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play Martha and George, a married couple who host a small get together that pushes everyone involved to the brink of a break down when paired with psychological games and endless rounds of drinks. Kathleen's blog provides an excellent and thorough synopsis of the film so I'll try to stay away from summary to present a commentary.
Filmed in black- and-white, director Mike Nichols uses a camera technique that gives the sense of an amateur home video or a mock documentary (think of the extreme close ups of Michael's face as he makes a desperate announcement in The Office). This blurring between Hollywood film and a home video mirrors the the blurring between truth and lies, as well as objective and subjective reality within the movie. Martha and George declare something only to contradict themselves a moment later. While I don't want to give away any spoilers, I must admit that I enjoyed realizing that nothing is what it seems in this film and discovering that the viewer is yet another player in Martha and George's game.
The movie left me with numerous questions since I found it surprisingly complex. Is Martha a miserable person while George simply enjoys being miserable, or are they both rotten, miserable people? Does this movie document the moment that Martha and George "snap" or is this just a typical night with its typical scenes that occur regardless of who is present? Can Martha or George triumph over one another when they view reality as a malleable thing, or as a game with an endless supply of "Make Your Own Rule" cards?
The film showcases excellent performances by its leading couple. Taylor thoroughly dedicated herself to the role; the wikipedia gods informed me that she gained 30 pounds to become Martha, who is described as "frumpy" and "thick-hipped" throughout the movie. Though Taylor would be more successful at looking frumpy if she took up the role now, her transformation is drastic when compared to how she looked in Cleopatra or even The Sandpiper, which Taylor and Burton starred in only a year prior to the release of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Both actors adapted gestures and mannerisms that enhance their characters; Taylor's yelling and wild eyes make Martha seem vulgar while Burton's slumped shoulders and side glances reflect George's sense of personal failure.
I can't imagine many actors pulling off the complex and intimate relationship of Martha and George besides a pair that has worked together in previous roles. The dynamic between Taylor and Burton's Martha and George is impressively realistic. For instance, Martha accusingly asks George why he didn't put any ice into her drink when the couple is laying on their bed during the first scene. After he mumbles that she always eats her ice, Martha rolls over George, reaches into his drink, and drops the retrieved ice cubes into her own glass with a hand now dripping with alcohol. This moment is executed so flawlessly that, paired with the intimate camera technique, the viewer feels that Martha and George have been together for years and, though their marriage is dysfunctional, they share a deep emotional bond. Of course, it might help that Taylor and Burton were actually married off-screen. Twice.
As for the reference to Virginia Woolf, I have to admit that I don't get it. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is an alteration of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf." I see that the this movie makes a jab at academics who view themselves as intellectually superior though they might be more ruthless and primitive than the average person, but I doubt whether this joke actually contributes anything to the film. I found more connection between the characters' inability to name and know anything with T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," rather than finding a connection between the film and any of Woolf's works. Perhaps Woolf was regarded in a negative light during the '60s due to her association with stigmatized feminism. Perhaps this "joke" is simply in the same vein as describing something as "kafka-esque." Regardless, I found that the three times that this joke was forcibly brought up were the only moments of the film that I disliked.
Overall, I recommend this film with much enthusiasm but advise viewers not to distract themselves by attempting to find a connection between the movie and Virginia Woolf.