The film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s play by the same title. The title references the Disney song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” but, of course, replaces the Big Bad Wolf with Virginia Woolf. I looked into the significance behind this title, and found that Albee added Woolf’s name because the play/film focuses on the lives of well-read, intellectual university professors, the type of people who would appreciate this intellectual play on words. As the characters tauntingly ask one another “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” throughout, the larger question being asked is, “who’s afraid of living a life without illusion and phoniness?” For the couples in the film, the real “Big Bad Wolf” is reality exposed and all its honest ugliness.
And this is just what the film gets at. With Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband George (Richard Burton), the illusion of a happily married couple is instantly shattered through the couple’s drunken, violent, and ceaseless screaming matches. Perhaps the two turn to alcohol to live in an illusory world and escape their troubles and inadequacies, but this only brings each trouble brutally, honestly to the surface. George is revealed to be an unsuccessful professor of History, while Martha feels like a failure as a born-to-be mother who could never conceive. When Nick and Honey, who together seem a shy, perfectly conventional couple, come to Martha and George’s as guests, their own image of perfection also is shattered, as long-kept secrets between the two are slowly revealed. Nick must suddenly face the fact that Honey had an abortion and Honey must acknowledge that Nick only married her for her father’s money. The fighting and mutual destruction is difficult to witness as a viewer, and when all secrets and faults are finally exposed, Martha admits that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf, that she is afraid of living without illusion. And yet, with nothing left to hide, the characters somehow seem better off, even if not content, because they are no longer in denial. The film shows the necessity – as well as the pain and sheer terror - of living without phoniness and delusion.
Virginia Woolf herself certainly upholds this theme in her writing. While a reference to Woolf’s name is her only obvious role in the film, there are some interesting parallels between the film and Woolf’s works like To the Lighthouse. Martha is outwardly everything Mrs. Ramsay is not; she calls her own house a “dump,” is rarely sober, and where Mrs. Ramsay is the ideal hostess, Martha is quite possibly the rudest, crudest, and least hospitable woman imaginable. What I found interesting, though, is the way the film highlights Martha’s dominance over her husband when she drunkenly, unapologetically tears him down and exposes his professional inadequacies before himself and his guests. Mrs. Ramsay would never do such a thing, of course, but through her stream of thoughts we learn that she too is aware of her husband’s insecurities and weak self-esteem. Through these thoughts Woolf shows Mrs. Ramsay’s own dominant role over her husband, who for his own well-being relies on her compliments and reassurances of his success. Woolf thinks it’s important to show that while outwardly Mr. Ramsay has control over his wife, inwardly he is bound to her. In this way Woolf’s stream of consciousness has a similar function to the film’s unfiltered, alcoholic, verbal dialogue between characters. In each case, a character’s honesty and complexity is exposed. What's shattered is the illusion that any person or interpersonal relationship is as it appears on the surface; men and women are equally capable of being vulnerable in some instances and dominant in others.