Written for the university course Staging and Screening America in 2011.
The plays named in the title have been linked by earlier critics and theatre reviewers. Noël Coward’s Hay Fever has been described as ‘an early prototype’ of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Bowden). In a similar trend, Charles Spencer called Hay Fever ‘less savage’ but proclaimed that it has ‘a similar ruthlessness’ and is a ‘forerunner’ of Albee’s play. Alternatively, Laurence Johnson described Coward’s play as ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the venom.’ Meanwhile, David Finkle commented upon the similarities between Albee’s play and Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band in a review on a production of the latter play. He stated that ‘an inebriated protagonist insisting on a game owes more than a little to Edward Albee’s 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.’ Additionally, the characters in The Boys in the Band explicitly name Albee’s play in a discussion (Crowley 514). Various critics have also commented on the homosexual elements, references and connotations in each individual play.
It is therefore not a new endeavour to compare these three plays in particular. Yet it is interesting to note that comparisons between these plays have not been specifically focussed on the one thing they have in common: their characters play games. These games are not a mere trivial or amusing addition to the respective texts, but are in fact an essential element in the structure of each play. The characters of each text interact with one another through playing these games. Therefore, these games serve as a springboard for communication, conflict and confrontation between the characters.
Before moving on to a more careful analysis of the games and their function, it is important to note that each play is rooted in American culture, which is significant for the interpretation of the plays. While Coward is known as an influential English dramatist, who set ‘the theatrical tone between the [two World] wars’ (Innes 399), he wrote Hay Fever over a period of three days just after returning from the USA. He based the play on his experiences as a guest of Laurette Taylor and Hartley Manners who often invited him to gatherings at their home (Morley ix). Simon Baker takes the argument a step further when he argues that ‘so much of what we think of as quintessentially English and Cowardian … – the speed and precision, the outrageousness, the eccentricity – was largely based on an American model’ and that Hay Fever is ‘filled with the vividness of [Coward’s] American impressions.’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, on the other hand, is undoubtedly American. Christopher Innes calls Albee ‘the major American dramatist of the decade’ (433) and his play ‘openly allegorical, with the protagonists named after George and Martha Washington, … and their imaginary son the deluding American dream’ (437). Finally, Crowley sets The Boys in the Band in New York and it was, in Clive Barnes words, a marked ‘breakthrough in the American theatre’ (494).
In order to be able to draw parallels between the plays, it is important to first carefully examine how the games function and what their effect is in each respective play.
Hay Fever is set in the Blisses’ house in Cookham, England somewhere in June. Each member of the Bliss family, consisting of Judith and David and their children Sorel and Simon, has invited a guest over for the weekend without consulting, or informing, the rest of the family. The first hint that the family loves to play games can be deduced from that initial fact: each member of the family intends for their guest to sleep in the Japanese room. This miscommunication allows the family to play out this conflict to its utmost dramatic possibilities.
This can be seen in the first act: Sorel and Simon are casually talking about Judith, when Sorel states that she hopes her mother did not invite anyone down. She repeats this statement with emphasis a few lines later stating: ‘Oh, Simon, I do hope she hasn’t asked anyone down to-day’ before letting on that she, Sorel, has (Coward 4). When Judith later comes down and reveals that she also invited someone, a brief bickering match ensues after which Simon lets on that he too invited a guest, so that the argument can continue. Judith insists, despite indications to the contrary, that she has told the rest of the family about Sandy’s eminent arrival stating that she has ‘talked of nothing but Sandy Tyrell for days – I adore Sandy Tyrell’, to which Simon responds: ‘you’ve never mentioned him’ (Coward 9). All characters play out their emotions and act hurt and disgruntled, but as Myra, Simon’s guest, later tells Judith, it was in fact Sorel who invited her (Coward 21).
For a watchful audience, this supposed dramatic tension and family conflict at the beginning of the play takes on a different interpretation with Myra’s revelation. It becomes obvious that the family’s dramatics are not necessarily utterly serious, or rather that what the Blisses say and what they mean are not necessarily the same. In other words, an audience is warned that there is a subtext present, which is perhaps as important to the conversation as the actual words are. It is also an audience’s first experience with the reality behind Sorel’s later statement: ‘one always plays up to Mother in this house; it’s sort of an unwritten law’(Coward 47).
There are more explicit references to games in Hay Fever. Judith, Sorel and Simon amuse themselves by acting out a scene from a play of Judith’s earlier acting career. They act out this scene two times and the lines that start it off are, curiously enough, ‘is this a game?’, ‘yes – and a game that must be played to the finish’ (Coward 16, 57). It is through acting out this scene in the second act that the guests are, after an evening spend with the family, convinced that the Blisses are truly mad. Therefore, when meeting at the breakfast table the next morning, they decide to flee the house immediately before the Bliss family will join them at the table.
Naturally, there were several events that pre-empted the theatrical scene at the end of the second act. It is significant to note in this respect that this act starts off with the company playing the adverbs game. This game, where each member of the group is asked to act out a certain adverb whilst one member has to guess which adverb is acted out, is enjoyed by the family whilst the guests are getting increasingly uncomfortable. Therefore, the game breaks up and the characters pair off with other people’s guests. The Bliss family then starts to play a different game: ‘Get the Guests’. This phrase is not mentioned specifically in the play itself, but it does predate its later occurrence in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for, as Sheridan Morley explains in her introduction to Coward’s Collected Plays, Marie Tempest, who would later instigate Hay Fever’s first performance, originally rejected this ‘story of a theatrical family inviting some unsuspecting outsiders for a weekend of “get the guests”’ (x).
The game that the Bliss family plays is perhaps most clearly described by Robert Kiernan: ‘bored to the point of impatience with their guests, the family members begin instinctively to improvise a substitute game in which each pretends that a small attention from some other person’s guest is a declaration of undying love. This strikes panic in the guests, who find themselves unexpectedly affianced to the wrong persons’ (28). What becomes obvious from the quotations of both Kiernan and Morley is that there is a clear character hierarchy in this play. The Bliss family are effectively using their guests as pawns; they are in control of the situation, and the guests blunder about trying to make sense of the sudden turns and shifts in a game they do not even know they are playing. This is even made more explicit by David’s comment about Jackie, his guest, at the beginning of the play: ‘She’s an abject fool, but a useful type, and I want to study her a little in domestic surroundings’ (Coward 13). It is curious that he does not really see her as a person but as an object to be studied.
As Kiernan states, the guests basically serve as foils for the characters. An audience should therefore not necessarily place much weight on the guests’ statement that the Bliss family is mad; something they might be tempted to do when they do not pick up on the subtext of the dialogue, or when they disregard potential body language. That this works in a performance is evidenced by Spencer’s statement in his review when he mentions ‘the constant realisation that the characters are actually thinking very different things from the banal platitudes they actually utter.’
Kiernan picks out one interesting occasion where attention to subtext is absolutely necessary in order to understand what is happening between the characters. When Judith discovers her husband and Myra together, she reacts uncharacteristically calm and the following dialogue develops:
Judith (coming down C.): Forgive me for interrupting.
David: Are there any chocolates in the house?
Judith: No, David.
David: I should like a chocolate more than anything in the world, at the moment.
Judith: This is a very unpleasant situation, David.
David (agreeably): Horrible!
Judith: We’d better talk it all over
Kiernan compellingly argues that in the subtext of this dialogue, David is ‘telling his wife that Myra leaves him hungry and that their embrace was nothing more than a passing desire for sweets’ (32). Reassured, she can act out the rest of the scene indulging in theatricality. Myra, however, does not pick up on the subtext and spends the rest of the act protesting against the situation and therefore, in Kiernan’s words, cannot ‘see things as they are’ (32). It is important to note here that Kiernan obviously favours the Bliss family over the guests, calling the latter ‘bromidic, unoriginal, sluggish of mind and temperament’ (30), which is a too negative portrayal and does not do justice to their characters. Carefulness in blatantly accepting his interpretation of the play is therefore warranted.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf uses a similar structure to Hay Fever. George and Martha are the two protagonists, whereas their guests, Nick and Honey, take a more submissive role. Nick and Honey are used as pawns by George and Martha in essentially the same manner that the Bliss family uses their guests. The games that are played in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf also symbolise this. The four main games are explicitly named in the play: ‘humiliate the host’, ‘get the guests’, ‘humping the hostess’, and ‘bringing up baby’. All these games are played by George and Martha, whilst Nick and Honey do not even know they are playing half the time.
In contrast to Hay Fever, however, George and Martha are much more open and explicit about the fact that they are playing and that it is not the guests, but the confrontation between them that matters. Nick and Honey are at times equally bewildered as the guests of the Bliss family, but they are also more aware of the fact that they are to take a back seat in this play. This is made explicit at the beginning of the second act, when George and Nick are talking about George and Martha’s behaviour and confrontations of the first act. Nick says ‘(with great distain) I just don’t see why you feel you have to subject other people to it’ (Albee 59 author’s italics). Thereby, he shows awareness of his role as spectator, but also potentially of his own role as pawn, for he feels subjected to their confrontations. Despite his awareness of this though, Nick and Honey are frequently lost in the games George and Martha play. Their games are likewise filled with subtext and, like in Hay Fever, what is said is frequently not what is meant.
The games and subsequent confrontations between George and Martha are increasingly vicious and mean. The games in Hay Fever are predominantly played to amuse and entertain the Bliss family, and the confrontations between the family members are mainly play-acted and not intended to harm. The games and confrontations in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, however, are not just meant as skin-deep insults, nor even to cut as deep as the bone; as George explains to Honey near the end of the play: ‘when you get down to bone, you haven’t got all the way, yet. There’s something inside the bone … the marrow … and that’s what you gotta get at.’ (Albee 125). The games are a method for George and Martha to reach each other on a deeper level.
The title of the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is frequently taken to mean ‘who’s afraid to live without illusions?’ Through their attempts to reach each other, playing games and using humiliation, vicious emotions and confrontation as a method, George and Martha can reconnect at the end of the play. Matthew Roudané sums this up stating: ‘beneath the play’s devastating gamesmanship, and animosity lies the animating principle of genuine love which – sometimes unspeakably, sometimes ironically, always paradoxically – unites George and Martha’ (43). At the end of the play, George and Martha are therefore stripped bare, not to the bone but to the marrow. Living life without illusion means that they can no longer hide behind games or subtext but that they have to confront life head on.
The Boys in the Band also includes vicious emotions and character confrontations not unlike Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Yet, Crowley’s play shows a more nuanced image. This is because The Boys in the Band includes a broader range of characters and character pairings. Some of the focus lies on Michael en Alan, and the final game, ‘Affairs of the Heart’, where everyone has to call the one person they truly believed they have loved, is proposed by Michael in order to force Alan to admit to his homosexuality. The confrontation between these characters, especially on Michael’s side, is particularly mean. Similarly, when the character Bernard plays the game, he ends up being abashed and embarrassed, starts drinking more and more until he leaves the stage, carried out by Emory, mumbling practically inaudibly, ‘why did I call? Why?’ (Crowley 527).
Yet, other modes of communication are also shown in the play. Larry and Hank have a relationship, but are faced with a problem: Hank prefers monogamy, whereas Larry does not want to give up his ‘single side attraction[s]’ (Crowley 524). This is a long-running conflict between the two, which they manage to resolve, at least temporarily, by talking, understanding and respecting each other. Playing the Affairs of the Heart game, they call each other, state their love for one another, whilst each promises to try and respect each other’s freedom (Crowley 524). It is through the game that this confrontation is started. After doubting each other in the beginning of the play, Hank calls Larry to tell him that he loves him. He then attempts to explain to Alan, who is shocked that Hank despite being married is still homosexual, how the he and Larry got together. This results in an argument with Larry, which leads to a proper communication between the two, concluding with Larry calling Hank to confirm their love and promises.
Therefore, the game has a slightly different function in this play than the games of Martha and George. There is a directness and focus to the games in Albee’s play which are centered around Martha and George and their attempt to reach each other. The Affairs of the Heart game includes a larger variety of characters, and has a distinctly different effect on each character that is playing. It does include viciousness and meanness that is even less nuanced than in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for it is not rooted in a desperate attempt to reach each other, but it also has the opposite effect and the game is used by Larry and Hank to reach an understanding. Overall, though, the main conflicts are not resolved and at the end of the play, the feeling that dominates is that the next party involving these characters will result in a similar game of conflict, confrontation and communication.
In conclusion, there are several developments that can be deduced from a comparison between these plays. In Hay Fever, the Bliss family uses the guests as pawns in their games and play them for their enjoyment. They interact with each other through the subtext and games; the guests do not pick up on this and are unaware of their role. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the games are used not only as an amusement, but are more serious in nature: George and Martha play with a desperate desire to reach and hurt each other. The guests, Nick and Honey, are also pawns, but are aware of this role and alternatively protest and play along. The Boys in the Band, on the other hand, has not just one dominant character who is playing or being used. It is significant that the confrontation between the host, Michael, and a guest, Alan, ends in a tie. Furthermore, Michael is then confronted by Harold, the guest for whom the party is thrown, who lectures him on his, Michael’s, own insecurities. The characters in this play are therefore, almost more than George and Martha, intent on hurting and damaging each other without an view to resolving the conflicts. At the same time, other models of communication are also shown in the characters Larry and Hank. Overall, there is an increasing viciousness between the characters, and the language and games become more hurtful and mean in this progression of plays.
Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1962 London: Penguin Books, 1965.
Baker, Simon. ‘Englishman Abroad’ in The Guardian Online. 10 April 2006. 8 January 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2006/apr/19/theatre>
Bowden, Sandra. Review of Hay Fever, Genesian Theatre in Sydney. In Oz Baby Boomers. 14 July 2009. 06 January 2011. <http://www.ozbabyboomers.com.au/theatre/2009/07_09/hayfever/hayfever.html>
Coward, Noël. Hay Fever (first published in 1925) in Noël Coward’s Collected Plays: One. Hay Fever, The Vortex, Fallen Angels, Easy Virtue. London: Methuen Publishing, 1999.
Crowley, Mart. The Boys in the Band (first published in 1968) in Best American Plays: Seventh Series 1967-1973. Ed. Clive Barnes. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. 493-528.
Finkle, David ‘The Boys in the Band: Still Offering a Gay Old Time’ in The Huffington Post.com. 23 February 2010. 7 January 2011. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-finkle/emthe-boys-in-the-bandem_b_471186.html>
Innes, Christopher. ‘Theatre after Two World Wars’ in The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre. Ed. John Russel Brown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. 380-444.
Johnson, Lawrence B. ‘Review: Forget Plot, Hilberry’s Hay Fever is all laughs’ in The Hilberry Theatre Online. Originally published in The Detroit News. 27 October 2010. 06 January 2011. <http://hilberry.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/review-forget-plot-hilberrys-hay-fever-is-all-laughs/>
Kiernan, Robert F. Noel Coward. New York: Ungar Publishing Company, 1986.
Morley, Sheridan. ‘Introduction’ in Noël Coward’s Collected Plays: One. London: Methuen Publishing, 1999. vii-xxxiii.
Roudané, Matthew. ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Toward the Marrow’ in The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Ed. Stephen Bottoms. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005. 39-58.
Spencer, Charles. Review of Hay Fever performance at Rose Theatre Kingston. In Telegraph Online. 28 September 2010. 06 January 2011. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/8030607/Hay-Fever-Rose-theatre-Kingston-review.html>