Sunday, May 9, 2010

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Honey

About playing Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf:

I've been thinking of the play like this: In the face of incontrovertible evidence that the world is not what you expected, that being born human is a cruel cruel fate and that life will ultimately kill you only after it's maimed and castrated you utterly... How do you proceed?  You laugh, you drink, you tell stories...

How do you make Staving Off the Existential Dread into a positive action based in another person?  Are you hoping for collusion in your delusion? Recruiting collaborators for your particular fantasy? And for Honey in particular, how do you not make her the "simp" she's said to be?  What are the defensive and offensive strategies of a "mouse"? What are its advantages?  

It's 1960. Pre pill. Pre Roe v. Wade. Pre lots of things for women. (See Mad Men. Imagine it without its illuminating contemporary perspective on gender behavior.)
What that implies may be harder to deal with for a contemporary actress playing Honey than for one playing Martha. And it's possible that a director who wants to address contemporary issues by updating attitudes a little will put some of that energy into the characterization of Honey. 
Honey’s fear of pregnancy and the way she deals with it spring immediately to mind as stuck a bit in the time period. But there it is and you have to confront it: She doesn't want to go through with birth. She can't tell Nick. She finds ways to deal with it appropriate for the times and for her social class.

One of the most shocking things about Martha when the play appeared was how direct and unapologetic she is. Tennessee Williams put women on stage for the first time as sexually passionate human beings. (Okay, for the first time since Euripides. Well, okay, maybe Shakespeare with Cleopatra. Okay, they're all played by men anyway.) But Williams' women spoke the lyrical, poetic, indirect language of the Southern Lady. 
Albee put Martha on stage with language no woman--and very few men--had ever spoken there. And certainly never anyone from the "educated classes". 
Martha smashed through all the "women's wiles" stuff and the conversational indirection that women were obliged to master. She said things that women not only shouldn't say, but things they had to pretend they didn't even think let alone know about. 
Martha struggles with the social and professional strait-jacketing of women, but she is wrestling and swearing and punching her way out without even being aware of the greater social implications of her actions.

Honey serves as a dramatic/thematic opposite to Martha. She’s not trying to wrestle and swear and punch her way out of anything. Honey has ambition but it is ambition for Nick's career. (Note the different relationship she and Martha have to this same situation.)  
What's most important to her? To see to it that Nick becomes the youngest departmental chairman the college has ever had--and someday the president of an Ivy League university. And so far, she's been pretty successful as the power behind that throne. 
She's the one who insists they go to George and Martha's after-party party. She knows it's important for Nick's positioning in departmental gamesmanship. I'll bet she bought a power tie just for tonight and she made him wear it.  
But she gets in way over her head with G and M. She can't possibly drink as much as they do; she can't possibly play the Manipulate Others games as well as they do. And she isn't remotely as smart and savvy as they are. 
And neither is Nick.

A contemporary actress might rather view Honey's mousy simpiness as the result of inadequate preparation for playing in the big leagues than as inherent simpy mousiness. We all have experience with people who seem like simps more for the way they act in social arenas they're ill-equipped for than for actual ingrained simpitude. 
Improvise determining aspects of Honey's early family life and social and cultural background--the play gives lots of clues. Pay attention to the roles women fulfill (daughter, wife, mother, homemaker) and the ways they must function in them. 
Not so much a simp, Honey becomes a rather ordinary woman who, through a combination of learned social maneuverings and blindered denial and escape tactics, has pursued her life goals and maintained the image of wife and potential mother her particular world expects. She has been living her life in the minor leagues and up to now she has managed fairly well. 
I'll bet the New Carthage College faculty wives don't see Honey as simpy but more small-town middle-Americany naive with tiny hints of way minor league Lady Macbeth--not the only faculty wife they know with that last characteristic.
Put her at this particular party on this particular night with this particularly extraordinary couple, however, and she can't possibly hold her own. She ends up acting in a way that, to George, makes her "sort of a simp in the long run". 

I've always believed that an actor can play any character with utter conviction so long as the character exists in a play whose themes the actor can support without reservation. I imagine playing a weak-willed, cowering, simpering, limp-wristed, self-hating, faggoty wimp of a man who vigorously supports parental abduction of gay children to send off to homosexual-reeducation-and-lesbian-curative camps--so long as he's in a play with themes I embrace. 
In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? one of the major themes lurking subterraneanly is the need for society and culture to recognize how much the world loses by not championing all of the capacities for substantive contribution that women possess. If you play Martha, you demonstrate those powerful capacities more or less directly; if you play Honey, you demonstrate the crippling, stifling effects of societal corseting--perhaps more poignantly in a female character who has little if any awareness of this reality. 
But if both actresses are motivated by a concern that culture and society truly recognize and truly value all people for their fundamental abilities without being blinded by such factors as gender, then it doesn't matter which character you play.

p.s. I regret any disappointment you may experience from my not dealing with Staving Off Existential Dread.


  1. Martha Bozeman May 14 at 11:01am
    I really enjoyed your blog on George, Martha, etc.....

    I think growing up in the South even a contemporary woman might have greater insight into Honey not because she's Southern but because, let's face it, the South is behind the times in some ways culturally. So though it's not 1960. Some of the old norms for women existed in the South I grew up in and still do. I love the fact that Martha speaks her mind. I always say of Southern women, you have to know that fundamental to being a Southern woman is not telling the truth if it will be offensive to others. You never make teling the truth a priority as a Southern woman. The only women who do end up on the Jerry Springer Show.

  2. As for Staving Off Existential Dread, Gustav Mahler has your back on that one...