February 23, 2018
Albee's "Cup of Oolong"On this day in 1962, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf premiered in New York. Despite the success of his earlier off-Broadway hit, The Zoo Story, the explicit language and emotional battering in Virginia Woolf had made it a difficult sell to many actors and most Broadway producers in the early 60s. When the legendary Billy Rose finally bought in, he placed an ad in the New York Times that was calculated to forewarn and entice: he was offering cut-rate preview tickets, the ad explained, so that "the Proust -reading stenographer can afford to blow herself to an intellectual binge." To the stenographer's boss, the kind of guy "who used to smirk at the naked tootsies at my Diamond Horseshoe nightclub a few years back," Rose advised differently: "Pass this one up, sire. Edward Albee and Virginia Woolf are not your cup of oolong." One bespattered opening night reviewer described the play as being "three and a half hours long, four characters wide, and a cesspool deep," but others voted it Play of the Year. Virginia Woolf ran for two years in New York and was soon playing around the world -- including a production in Prague, retitled. "Who's Afraid of Franz Kafka?" The original 28 investors who took the risk got their money back 30 times over.
People were afraid of Virginia Woolf -- of her moods, her eccentricity and iconoclasm, mostly of her intelligence -- but Albee said that he meant no allusion to this. One of the Greenwich Village bars where he liked to drink in the 50s was called "College of the Complexes." It featured a large mirror, and the real or weekend Beatniks who drank there were encouraged to express themselves upon it with bars of soap; Albee saw his title there, and borrowed it.
The widowed Leonard Woolf went to the London premiere, and wrote Albee to tell him how much he had been moved and amused by the play. Some of his amusement might have been inadvertent, due to changes in the play's language forced by the watchdogs in the Lord Chamberlain's office. The play's producer had been summoned to a friendly meeting -- later described to Albee as "a hilarious hour of absolutely filthy conversation" -- at which pages and pages of requested changes were discussed. The actors would not be allowed to say "screw, baby" but they could say "hump the hostess" because "hump" was in Shakespeare. The opening line, Martha's "Jesus H. Christ!" was not allowed, but they were told that "Mary H. Magdalene!" would be acceptable. On opening night Uta Hagen, the actress playing Martha, fumbled this revision, saying "Jesus H.....Magdalene." Arthur Hill, the actor playing George, also balked over the taboo on "scrotum". In one of his longest and nastiest drunken tirades, Hill had to refer to "millions of tiny little slicing operations that will leave just the smallest scar, on the underside of the. . .privacies."
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