I had the opportunity to see Edward Albee speak at the University of Puget Sound last week, so I read Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in preparation. Surprisingly, his lesser known work The American Dream is on the list courtesy of the Los Angeles Times' list of 100 Books for the Modern Person, but Woolf is not.
Maybe I'm just not up to 'modern absurdist drama', but I did not enjoy American Dream at all. I much preferred Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It is merciless. Plus, it has a plot and characters with names.
It's an evening with two couples: George, a history professor; Martha, his wife, daughter of the president of the college; and Nick and Honey, a young new biology professor and his wife. The booze flows, the bitterness flows, and it's supremely uncomfortable.
Albee spoke of the role of art in challenging society, and discomfort is what he was talking about. 'Real' art forces the audience to reevaluate assumptions. “The job of the arts,” says Albee in his online biographies, “is to hold a mirror up to us and say: ‘Look, this is how you really are. If you don’t like it, change.’”
Albee was a great speaker. I like his politics, but I can't say I agree with this premise; he draws a sharp line between 'worthless' entertainment, and art with engaging ideas.
Warning: since I know very little about theater, I am about to reference television programs instead.
I think it's obvious that there's a difference between Hee Haw on one end of the spectrum, and C-SPAN on the other. But where do you put works that concentrate on entertainment, but try to incorporate serious ideas as well?
Where do you put Battlestar Galactica, a show that has space ships and explosions and shoot-outs, but also has built an extremely relevant commentary about democracy and government in a time of war?
Where do you put Law & Order, a show that veers close to journalism in its insistence on dealing with contemporary (i.e. ripped from the headlines) situations?
Where do you put The Office, a comedy that specializes in dishing out the specific type of discomfort and horror that Albee invokes with Woolf?
I'm left with the eternal question: It's funny, but is it art?
My next assignments:
1) See the Liz Taylor/Richard Burton movie version.
2) Read some actual Virginia Woolf.