With its drinks poured at a rate of knots and spat insults flying even faster, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains the most resonant theatrical legacy of playwright Edward Albee, who died aged 88 Friday.
This savage, funny, and devastating play, whose first performance on Broadway was in 1962, evokes the volatile marriage of the middle class Martha and George, with its carapace of viciousness and underbelly of true, tragedy-scarred love.
It was most recently rendered on Broadway in a 2012 Steppenwolf production with Tracy Letts as glowering George, Amy Morton as the viperish-then-vulnerable Martha, and Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks as the young couple, Honey and Nick, who become enmeshed in George and Martha’s psychodrama.
The influence of the play is enduring: any graphic distillation of marital or family trauma on stage and screen is rooted, or owes an unspoken debt, to the verbal pyrotechnics of Albee’s play.
Woolf reached a global audience through the classic 1966 movie, directed by Mike Nichols, and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Sandy Dennis, and George Segal as Nick—a role for which Segal received an Oscar nomination. (He lost out to Walter Matthau for The Fortune Cookie; Taylor and Dennis, however, won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively.)
Segal is the last surviving cast member of this classic movie version, and spoke to The Daily Beast exclusively on Friday night from his home in Los Angeles.
“We rehearsed it for six weeks,” he recalled. “It was a lot of fun to do. Elizabeth and Richard were the king and queen of the world at that moment, and there was a lot of buzz about it. For any actor, it’s a pleasure to play. I have seen it performed on stage in Paris. It works everywhere, it’s a staggering work.”
Along with Death of a Salesman, which he performed in alongside Lee J. Cobb (in the 1966 CBS version), it’s one of Segal’s proudest achievements, he said. “For me, there was a great satisfaction of being involved with it.”
He recalled meeting Albee only once in New York City. “He was a little drunk, and I was auditioning to replace George Grizzard in the original cast [Grizzard was playing Nick]. I didn’t get that, but I did get the movie role. Albee was kind of rueful, but funny in an ironic way.”
During filming, said Segal, “everyone rose to the occasion, as you would with a piece as good as that. Any actor would, given such first class material. It’s like any great play: it gets to people. It’s moving and funny, but it hits your funny bone but through the use of anger and rage. It’s hypnotic and magnetic. The feeling it gives an audience, as things unfold and get so very dark, is: there’s no getting out of it.”
The cast did not see Albee on the set. “He was never there,” recalled Segal. “We never saw him. I don’t know why. It’s really tough for playwrights to be in that environment, to see even minor changes done to their work. But I also think he got an amazing deal at the time—enough for him to stay out of the way.”
The effect the movie had on audiences was the same the play had, said Segal. “People had never seen anything like it. I spoke to someone in Indianapolis, who told me there had been a sharp intake of breath right at the beginning, and then no-one let their breath out for the entirety of the film.”
For Segal, this is down to not just the power of Albee’s words, but what the play focuses on and deconstructs so explicitly: the rancorous, emotional flesh and bones of a marriage, which up to that point had never been so unflinchingly evoked on film. For Segal, and presumably many other actors, the invective Albee writes is a rich banquet to feast on.
“There was such shock value,” said Segal. “People, married couples like George and Martha, just didn’t talk to each other in that way at that time. Now this kind of thing is all over our TVs all the time. But this was a time of Doris Day. Nobody had ever seen anything like this in movies. And this was no small movie. It had Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in it, the most popular stars of the day. And this film was right out there for everyone to see.”
That’s why actors are so drawn to it. It’s so satisfying to say that stuff. The words, Albee’s words, are all there for you. They come from a real place. He had a way with dialogue…” Segal paused, and recited, as Martha does in one of the film’s famous lines, “What a dump!”
(And here is the 1949 Bette Davis film, Beyond The Forest, Martha was trying to recall):
Later, even the grand Davis told Barbara Walters that Albee had made that line famous in Woolf.
“Albee’s dialogue was singular,” said Segal. “We had never seen anything like it before, or the effect it had on people.”
Segal is now 82, and appearing in popular ABC sitcom The Goldbergs. I asked what it was like to be the last surviving member of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? movie cast.
Segal laughed. “It’s the roll of the dice. I’ve no idea why it is, but it is. I loved all those people.”