Chapter 5: Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama, and the Audience
Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994. 209-63. 276-8.
The Academic Festival Overture: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994. 209-63. 276-8.
Albee's Dramatic Prozess: Getting to the Marrow
Drama, Death-Work, and Phylogenetic Regression
Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? deracinates every neurotic fixation in order to expose the underlying psychotic anxieties which neurotic behavior displaces and denies. Albee's goal is to get to the marrow, to expose the deepest layer of human conflict and show how it drives the play by undercutting each game the characters play in an effort to escape or limit it. My goal is to show that the through-line of that drive is the movement to death, self-fragmentation, and the descent into psychotic anxieties. Everything we proclaim about the self and identity is thereby put in question. "Solid" intrapsychic positions — and the games whereby they are maintained — are concretely referred to the deep disorder from which they derive. Once activated, it stalks all the displacements which merely delay its work. The structure that evolves is thus a virtually pure psychodrama of aggression as the power that rules the psyche. As it strips away the language games and roles that couples play in sustaining the great institution of marriage, the audience is exposed to a recurrent eruption of anxiety. This is the process whereby the play gets the guests — and not just the two who find themselves onstage.
George and Martha are a true match — of mighty opposites — because aggression has for each a distinct dialectical telos. The goal of aggression for Martha is to strike through masks in the belief that through this process she and George can regain human contact. Such, at any rate, is her claim. Aggression for George, in contrast, is the perfection of death-work, the attempt to strip away everything that protects us from the void. The difference between George and Martha is the difference between one who oedipalizes conflicts in order to defend against a deeper regression and one who dramatizes the deeper psychotic anxieties which oedipalization displaces and denies. Martha stays at the meat of things; George goes for the crypt. In the process, the issue of psychosexual identity is placed in a context even more radical than the one Tennessee Williams developed in Streetcar. Violence, for Martha, is a turn-on, and twice early in the first act she seems willing to let it all dissolve in love play: but George refuses to kiss her and later says she just wants "blue games for the guests" (59).1 His desire inverts hers: aggression doesn't prime sex; sex collapses before the greater pleasure of aggression.
If renewal demands the surfacing of the greatest disorders, George is its inadvertent priest. That agency is also the source of his most disruptive relationship to the audience: George's goal is to show that devolution is the only way to psychic honesty — and its irreversible result. George knows that all the games people play are attempts to displace death-work and the threat of regression to the crypt. Activating that movement is the through-line of his engagement. In going after the marrow, his desire is to expose the "inadequacy" of roles, in order to activate their repressed.
As his autobiographical narrative shows, George is keenly aware that on the deepest psychic register we are all perhaps already dead. Our oedipal games are attempts to hide that fact. But if the psyche is to know the truth about itself, it must be exposed to the psychotic anxieties that constitute "fear of Virginia Woolf." For George, the purpose of aggression is to bring about a regression which is not ruled by the ego. This thrust gives George his dual role: his power as truth-teller and his identity as "embassy of death." My attempt in discussing his agency is not to empower George as hero but to show his agency as the force that drives the play toward an awareness that deracinates all illusions. The attempt of interpreters to undo George's work and discharge the anxiety he unleashes by reducing his agency to a neurotic motive is not a solution to the threat he poses but a defense mechanism which itself collapses within the play beneath the withering critique he directs upon it. He may perform the right act for the wrong reason, but that does not cancel the psychologically revelatory status of the results. George is that psychological power which enforces "psychosis" as the necessary preliminary to any knowledge or reconstruction of the "self." As death-work, he produces a phylogenetic regression that strips away every intrapsychic structure that "saves" us from Munch's howl.2
For George, however, that process does not produce the possibility of active reversal. His concern with devolution is with the impossibility of reversing oneself. Regression into psychotic anxieties aims, for George, at the void, the prior death, into which everything dissolves when the fight to keep up life has bottomed out. As such, George may not be the last word on phylogenetic regression, but he is the first, since he exposes the psychic register into which active reversal must reach and the necessary direction it must take. One can achieve change in depth, in the basic structure of the psyche, only by actively reversing the wound or "basic fault" at the "core," that is, by assuming the actual self-reference that makes the "self" the unsubstantial shadow that it is.3 To do that, one must know that wound intimately. Progression only becomes possible after one regresses and descends, step by step, into the basement of the psyche. Works like Virginia Woolf are uniquely salutary because they dramatize psychic dissolution as the necessary prelude to that possibility. Self-identity is achieved only through a systematic understanding and outstripping of its counterfeits.
The drama in which George and Martha are engaged is a progressive uncovering and regression into the crypt. One does it wrong to see it simply as a repetitive thrust and counterthrust of oedipalizations, for each attempt Martha makes to repeat that process uncovers deeper disorders. It is as if the oedipal were a vast disguise, a hoped-for closure. Its collapse, through its own machinations, is the true source of drama.
To grasp this process, it is important not to overinterpret the initial form that conflicts take, for one then misses Albee's skill at dramatizing the unconscious of his characters. This is especially the case with George. George generates plot instabilities in act I which he and the play only slowly catch up with. One of the subtle beauties in this play is that George and Martha use every available prop to introduce new games which will alter the terms of the preceding drama. Each keeps redefining the theatrical space, yet in a continuous way, because each redefinition picks up and makes an explicit term of conflict what was subtext — often by strong denial — in the previous movement. As the transformation of the theatrical space proceeds, a scene of insult becomes a scene of seduction, which then becomes a scene of mutual betrayal, and so on, until we finally reach a scene of ritual murder with the identity of the victim richly overdetermined. To grasp the psychodynamics of the play, it is crucial to avoid premature interpretation of character and motives, since the depth psychology of each agent is precisely what the play's movement will reveal.
The dynamic that drives the play is the movement from one text to the irreversible emergence of its subtext. This is the key to analyzing the games these people play. Games are psychodramas that delay and displace deeper psychodramas. When you analyze a game properly, you know the desire it was meant to satisfy and the deeper disorder it strove to displace. The inability to achieve "satisfaction" (Begierde) is the underlying circumstance that dialectically connects both structures. This is the way drama develops. We playa game for a cheap psychological payoff; we fail to get it, or we taste real blood. Either way, the ante goes up, for a deeper disorder surfaces which must seek satisfaction through a more dangerous game. Albee is the dark deconstructor of Eric Berne.
Get the Guests is the game of games, the true space of this theatre. George and Martha hack at each other in order to bring the other, the audience, into the web. Their combined action is similar to Hickey's singular effort — the goal being to implicate the audience in a discovery of their complicity in the disorder staged by depriving them of their hiding place. Nick's greatest need is to say I'm not like you. George and Martha's combined effort is to show him that he is. Through such process, Virginia Woolf puts the audience onstage, then strips away whatever illusions they use to flee the drama.
The Groves of Academe
Given that purpose, why the academic setting? It is far from universally acknowledged, but a play about unconscious envy and the anxiety it displaces could hardly find a better locale. Academe is the privileged site of that drama and of its strenuous denial. Here people are, as the saying goes, so petty because the stakes are so small. The positive side of this circumstance is that small stakes can become the Hegelian battle for pure prestige. In one sense we are fortunate to be the underpaid aristocrats of pure mind. Thanks to this circumstance, the smallest stakes can become scenes for staging the greatest disorders, with the only possible payoff being the one so often lost when real money is at stake: the assumption of the position of the Hegelian Master, seated on the throne, in infinite condescension toward those who lack "his" phantom substantiality. The unspoken "I'm better than you" endlessly transferred to the predicate of one's newest title, publication, or grant is a visible text that reveals the insistent need to exorcise the subtext: the knowledge of one's emptiness and the failure to put anything meaningful there. Academe is primarily a battleground of pure psychic needs and disorders waged through an endless play of surface texts (editorial boards on which one has served, conferences one has attended, the reputation of one's publisher, the length of one's vitae, and so on).
From Hitler's favorite song, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" to its academic parody is but a small step with a phantom difference. Hitler loved the violent subtext of the fairy tale. Academics characteristically turn it into their favorite parlor game — the hollow joke that has no humor except for those who need to be witty to prove their superiority and thereby give their community the group cohesion proper to it. Intellectualized wit banishes anxiety. The fear of Virginia Woolf is one of the most incisive definitions of the academic mind: the flight into poses of intellectual transcendence, always exceedingly au courant, to allay an underlying anxiety. The need to laugh more uproariously each time the stale joke is repeated reveals the collective desire for the big discharge. Academics are already like the group at the end of The Iceman Cometh, only they'll never know it.
In her early review of the play, Diana Trilling asserted that in thirty years in academe she never met anyone like George and Martha.4 The complaint betrays the obvious. And so it goes: "Albee's play is really about how homosexuals relate," and so on. One should never underestimate the automatic, albeit desperate, measures audiences will take to discharge works that threaten them. The simplest defenses are the ones that get you most quickly to the nearest exit — where Sartre awaits with the concept of bad faith.
Structure and Psychodrama: To Speak of the Woe That Is in Marriage
Structure, as Aristotle teaches, is the soul of tragedy. Albee takes this insight and makes method of it. Virginia Woolf comprehends the dialectical interrelationship of the four structures and two options that constitute "modern marriage" and then dramatizes the movement through which these structures pass in their long night's journey into the void.
Four relationships constitute the psychological bond of a married couple. One psychodynamic underlies the relationship of the couple to each other. There are no individuals in Albee; I am my relationship to an other. This is the primary scene and focus of conflict. Couples enact the truth of the disorder they share by adopting competing roles. The roles make no sense apart from their function in a core conflict. A second psychodynamic derives from the relationship of both partners to their parents. This is the source of the original pairing, the seed of discontent, and the sub text that inevitably surfaces as the conflict between the couple develops. A married couple bears the history of their conflicts with their original object-relations as the underlying condition of object-choice. This is the subtext that comes a cropper through time. A third psychodynamic is engaged whenever a couple relates to other couples. This factor dynamizes the first two and becomes their target: the look of the other couple (i.e., "We're happy, while Joe and Jane are. . .") as source of Sartrean battle. A final psychodynamic surfaces out of the relationship of couples to the "child," both their own and those of others. Here the fantasy/possibility of making it different for your children and thereby perhaps even renewing (salvaging) the relationship is submitted to the truth of repetition: the child as savior becomes the child as victim.
Thus whenever a couple is present, their conflict contains both the force of the past (the parents) and the possibility of the future (the child) caught in the staging of their (unconscious) conflicts, which are exacerbated the moment another couple appears. Virginia Woolf takes these four structures and brings them to a head by dramatizing the two options whereby couples can relate to their conflicts — actively, aggressively, as with George and Martha, or passively and by avoidance as with Nick and Honey. The secret thereby revealed is the absence of difference. The plot of the play is the submission of these structures and options to the drama of aggression/regression as an "irreversible" process through which the truth outs, leaving the dramatis personae stripped of all illusions about themselves and their roles.
As a group psychology, the play thus offers us a single psyche which we can know as a whole only by annihilating all the defenses whereby we try to extricate ourselves from it. For in this play, the needs defining all four structures lock the protagonist in a battle in which everything unravels. We can gain an initial entry into that complex by defining the need or desire that "characterizes" each participant. Nick's need, that of the narcissistic pragmatist, is to think he's better than others, especially castrated men. Honey's need is avoidance and the anesthetization of consciousness. George's need as "embassy of death" — group analyst as aggressive demystifier — is to show everybody they are just like him, only they don't know it yet. Martha:s need is to displace psychotic anxieties into oedipalized roles. It is worth noting that in this alignment genders are matched as mirror doubles. Honey hides without consciousness in the place that Martha fears to find herself conscious. George strips Nick's narcissism to reveal his unconscious envy as defense against self-loathing.
The Rites/Rights of Aggression
Aggression is the force that structures the play by ripping through all masks and roles. Anger here expresses its nobility by exposing the great lie of the Berne generation: the belief that when couples honestly express their resentments, they gain renewal. Renewal of love is the guarantee, anger the method. Virginia Woolf takes this pathos and tears it to shreds. The trouble with mqst "domestic quarrels" is that they never get to the real discontents. The "angry" couple may be on the way to a psychoanalysis of the relationship, but as long as they stop short of the unconscious motives that bind them, they're just making wind, exercising, playing a comedy.
If anger is to have any chance, it must t:ouch on real discontents and then draw out the dialectic of the entire complex. But once begin this process, and Pandora's box is open. Moreover, as genuine psychoanalysis shows, you never open the box correctly as long as you preserve a guarantee — such as in sentimental practices of aggression which assume that real love was once there and stays as the substance that is regained by clearing away the detritus.
George and Martha take two steps beyond such commonplaces, Albee a third. The first, their basic contract, is an exemplary and lacerating honesty: aggression must aim at unconscious motives, and nothing can be withheld. In effect, they follow the basic analytic rule. Only by bringing out all discontents can we meet. Implicit in this contract is the possibility that the couple may discover that there is no core of love that was present at the beginning and that survives the process. That romantic guarantee simply disguises the real conditions of object-choice — the conditions of an ideal frustration that it takes "time" to plant and sow the terms of mutual cruelty and soul-murder.
The big lie of "marital counseling" rests on the myth that love and marriage derive from a healthy, conflict-free dimension of object-choice. By clearing away the destructiveness that has arisen, one regains the core. Even when divorce results, one leaves with the illusion that one made a mistake but is now "OK," free to go forth with illusions about one's newfound "freedom and identity" in the confidence that one can (now) build "good object-relations" or at least the recognition that the next marriage had better be a safe one with someone who will show equal care not to disrupt the shared commitment to diminished existence.
Freud formulates the basics simply, yet profoundly: in every relationship there are, at least, four parties — the man and his mother, the woman and her father. A free relationship is possible only after both parties have annihilated the hold of the parents, not before. Before, you either marry someone like the parent or someone unlike the parent whom you turn into or treat like the parent. The ironic truth is this: the marriage "contract" is attained only when the couple has re-created the conditions of their original frustration.
George and Martha strive to bring this condition to light through an exercise of aggression strikingly different from the usual sort (where the same things are said repeatedly without ever being said clearly). And as we watch the drama in which George and Martha lay bare the true terms of their relationship, we also see the disappearance of the guarantees that ego psychologists use to control aggression and communication in order to sustain a social engineering and ideology whereby relationships, even those beyond repair, are protected from their truth.
The alternative to the big lie is of course the petty one: Nick and Honey, the marriage contract as avoidance through false solicitude. If George and Martha do everything to shatter illusions, Nick and Honey do everything to sustain them. Death occurs behind the couple's back. As Albee shows, their solicitude is actually a feast of passive-aggressive behavior used to distance the couple from each other. The ordinary end of such marriages, of course, is the pathetic spectacle of a couple who have never exchanged a harsh word discovering that there is absolutely nothing between them. Putting this audience on stage, Albee offers them a radically different "lesson."
Nick and Honey's desire is to proclaim their difference from George and Martha. This is the reason why they are such an "attentive" audience, so easily drawn into the play so that, in reaction and ideological celebration, they can affirm and represent the "proper balance" and health of the normal couple. As stand-ins, they serve as perfect representations for those who will later leave the theatre proud to assert that their marriage is not like George and Martha's. Nick and Honey are, at the beginning, what that audience must become when the revels are all ended if they are to discharge the play by denial. Once home, they thereby renew the solicitous talk dedicated to resuming the roles they had prior to the play. Denial is, for them, the task of interpretation. But it is trapped in an irony: they can perform it only by giving themselves over to psychological operations which plunge them back into the disorder that the play has carried to the end of the line. They are thus left with the depth charge it has imploded in their psyche as a gaping wound certain to haunt them, but behind their backs. They may even discover that, thanks to Albee's insinuation, there are no longer any innocent remarks.
In striving to deny that condition, Nick and Honey advance it while depriving themselves of any chance to attend to it. The means are avoidance, denial, anesthetization, and, above all, solicitude. Honey only speaks to prop up Nick's narcissism; Nick only speaks to keep her tranquilized. And they give every indication that these are not just the masks they wear in public but also the way they relate in private. Privacy for them is the acting out of the social roles assigned by the Big Other. It is the arena in which subjects try to prove to the socius that they have the kind of normal, healthy relationship it holds up as the "ideal" all must mirror. Nick and Honey are the same in public and in private because for them there is no difference. George and Martha are uneasy in public, given to acting out behaviors, because they see social space (academic evenings, etc.) as a vast theatre of lies. Their desire is to bring the truth of privacy onto the public stage, which is precisely what they will do in the play.
Albee's masterful dialogue lays bare the subtext of everyday speech. Idle talk is not what Heidegger assumes: the attempt to be relieved together.5 Instead, its purpose is to relieve our anxiety by creating anxiety in the other. Idle talk is barbed speech. It works best when we are able to confuse the other while we secrete an aggression that can't be attended to directly. Speech is verbal aggression, and because it is indirect it works best through ambiguity.
Act I: Games Couples Play
“What a Dump”: Language — and Forms of Life
The dreary work of exposition become the spectacle of an unbound aggression: such is one way of defining the work of act I. In many ways the opening is the most fluid yet complex scene in the play. All sub texts are in play, but a general unburdening of conflict, a Thanatos preparatory to sleep, is in process.6 Conflicts are touched gently, one final time. George and Martha try to unburden themselves of aggression by a play of aggression. But working off what's left of one's wits is a dangerous game, and by the end of the scene each character will have made an irreversible choice, with the movement of devolution thereby engaged. Even when energies have run down, motives remain at work, stirring the unconscious back into action.
The evening has stirred up many discontents — as any academic gathering is sure to do — which the characters here try to discharge through a drift, toward sleep for George, toward "reconciliation" and lovemaking for Martha. No remark is innocent of aggression, but here it's a tired game of thrust and counterthrust the couple play together in weary recognition of "truths" they've learned to live with. Neither can resist the chance to deliver a blow, but the blows fall on shoulders already prepared to receive and deflect them. Martha's opening line "What a dump" (3) names the home and underscores George's failure while deflecting the blow toward what he can take as an innocent allusion and question. Basic conflicts are stirring, but both characters want to slide away from their deeper resonance. All of Martha's remarks call attention to George's failures; all of his replies stress her vulgarity as cause. But both here play the game as a sort of foreplay which yields the distinct pleasure each needs in order to discharge psychic tension.
A possible objection to this reading yields the subtext both want to escape but can't. Martha knows the guests are coming and is setting George up. But as the scene plays, she almost forgets this fact as her private game of insult-as-foreplay moves to the point where she wants George to make love to her. It is only when George rejects her sexually that Martha remembers and seizes this safety valve. Had George responded "properly," they could simply have let the bell ring. The implied picture of how they resolve conflict when alone is evoked only to be sundered. Tonight there will be no exit. Playful aggression always holds in reserve a deeper aggression which it primes. The Unconscious is catching up with both characters. Whenever they play one game, another rises to claim it. Aggression as foreplay can't end in sexual release, for Martha's subtext activates the deeper subtext in George it is designed to hold at bay.
The collapse of the initial game in fact reveals a fundamental difference in motives. Aggression for Martha is de Sade's knife held forth "to intensify the love play."7 George's insults turn her on. She readily regresses to baby talk and is willing to end the game with a simple appeal: Kiss me. At this point, however, the real drama begins, for with George's refusal, Martha's fear of Virginia Woolf surfaces. George now has her where he wants her.. Her aggression has awakened another psychodynamic of aggression. She's played the game to its "erotic" end. He abruptly reawakens her with a dose of Thanatos. Recoiling, Martha senses, for the first time, that there may be a death of the soul at work in George. The place where he lives may be one she can't reach. The moment at the party, which she will later recount, of looking at George and seeing him disappear, has returned to haunt her. Her fear is that she's sleeping with the iceman, that the real purpose of games for George is to suck on death.
Martha has one through-line, George another. Martha plays all games so that Eros, however twisted, will win out over death, whereas George wants death-work to cut to the marrow so that the void, not renewal, will emerge. George has played his part in order to frustrate Eros, to create panic in that motive by presenting the passive-aggressive splendor of an unreachable other who has chosen the greater delights of death. When he refers to her two heads and she calls him a "zero," both have hit on the truth they fear. The structuring principle that will drive the drama is now engaged. Each subtext will drive the prior subtext to destruction. The relationship of Eros and Thanatos is, indeed, as Freud feared, dialectical.8
One could of course argue that George refuses to kiss Martha simply because the guests are coming and he knows from Martha's description of Nick that he's in for another castration. He thus responds in kind, before the fact, with a prior desexualization of her. On this level, George's problem is that he simply cannot trust any affection from Martha because she has so often used it to set him up. But on a deeper level, George's reaction derives from his knowledge that Martha is herself acting out a deeper subtext which she must compulsively renew. Eros for Martha is aggression aimed at either sexualizing or castrating the other. The one subtext invariably bears the other as threat, and George chooses to focus on the deeper motive because it activates his desire to bring both texts to zero-degree. Hydra-headed, Martha is trapped in her own game. Realizing that, she will play it brilliantly to stage a counter action.
Another way to look at the opening scene is as preliminary instruction in language as the force that will drive the play. At the start, George and Martha use language to jab at one another in an effort to pin down in words the attributions needed to arrest and discharge conflicts. Verbal aggression is the modus operandi of desire-in-language: the necessary detour through and fixation on speech as the way to rid ourselves of anxiety.9 But language betrays them, here first revealing its power to destabilize every attempt to bring the process it unleashes to a halt. Language continually slips away, bringing the characters back to what they use it to escape. Thoroughly conditioned to aggressive connotation, George and Martha hear the call of battle even when it's not intended. As we will shortly see, a similar fate awaits characters who use language to avoid same. Language bears a history which comes a cropper when all speech drips with results that can no longer be avoided. Martha will later talk about there no longer being any way she and George can touch each other. The fact of the matter — made painful by how close they momentarily come in the opening scene — is that this possibility is no longer present, because, to use currently fashionable terms, language is now speaking them. When that happens, it is because language is now presenting the bill for what has been spoken through it over time.
Ambiguities don't just happen. They are sought and exploited and then, usually, denied, because we use speech to express and conceal our motives. The ambiguity that comes to seize the couple so that nothing said fails to rub raw the sores is not an inadvertent linguistic infelicity but the end product of a complex history. Such are the language games, unknown to Wittgenstein, that will drive this play to the marrow. Language serves this purpose through its collapse. Speech cannot stay safely on the surface, fixated on certainties, because its practice constantly reintroduces the very subtexts it tries to abolish. Language games thereby eventually reveal the true grammar of the "form of life" they reify, which is why linguistic foreplay is the right starting point for a drama in which naturalism and realism will constantly erupt in psychodrama.10
George and Martha are never far away from fairy tales and childhood games. One purpose of the games they play at the beginning of act I is to strip away the veneer of "culture" so that they can indulge in deliberate bouts of childishness. Two kinds of talk are juxtaposed repeatedly: intellectual wit aimed at injury, and baby talk aimed at letting go. The secret is their identity along the lines of a regression which is never in the service of the ego. The fact that one regresses to childhood fantasy only to erupt again in naked aggression undercuts the protective function of the imaginary child before his appearance. Fantasy may be the Emerald City of love play, but aggression is the yellow brick road. Baby talk gives George and Martha only a momentary pause, until the deeper structure again exposes its claws.
We've Got an Audience
Their conflicts in place, the ante is raised immeasurably for George and Martha by the entry of the "force" that will dynamize everything — the presence of an audience. For Albee the psyche is interpersonal; the true Sartrean drama of the pour soi is that of couples looking at and being looked at by other couples. The look that turns us into a thing — compelling the struggle for recognition by inverting the terms — is the look of the other couple. With that threat and invitation present, George and Martha's joint task is no longer to insult each other but to draw the audience into the net. As creatures with a taste for meta theatre, George and Martha know that the best way to do so is to make the audience uncomfortable while using their voyeurism to put them off guard and draw them in. The audience's pose — We are civilized, normal human beings who are politely shocked by your behavior — is what most arouses an actor's aggression. George and Martha now hack at each other to bait and probe Nick and Honey. Working together, they use their relationship to implicate the guests by activating a complex subtext focused on male authority. Martha invokes her father to shame George and to prime Nick's male competitiveness. She baits Nick and George simultaneously: the spectacle of the man who failed activates the other man's need to assume the mask of phallic superiority. George then stirs up the doubts that must underlie that role by calling attention to Honey, the huge hole in Nick's mask, present for all to see.
This is not to say that George and Martha aren't still after each other. But the play of aggression they stage before their audience has as its deeper motive the arousal in that audience of the very disorders Nick and Honey try to repress by positioning themselves as objective observers of the spectacle before them. But aesthetic distance is always a reaction formation derived from a prior involvement that is denied. George and Martha are fascinating lures for both operations, because they display, with such relish, the aggression we all on occasion find in ourselves yet need to deny. The duplicity of that reaction engages two motives: the possibility that normalcy is a sham and that the chance to get a look at the bitter truth about human beings — at a safe remove — is an irresistible theatrical opportunity. Lest the bad faith lurking in both motives retard our pleasure, we displace it onto Nick and Honey. We are now comfortably seated for a safe pleasure: in Nick and Honey we can allow ourselves to indulge the belief that the normal life in which nothing is faced is one in which slow death merely accumulates with no possibility of demanding our attention.
Much has been said about Nick and Honey as surrogate children whom George and Martha want to help by getting them to face their problems. But this sentimental reading, apparently endorsed at play's end, conceals a purpose George and Martha can't control even if they wanted to. Once you start stripping away masks, you can't just stop at some predetermined point and reassert a humanistic core that will deliver you from the game. The darker possibility present the moment one begins is that the real core may be the void and that humanistic guarantees are merely the illusion that survives as proof of little more than exhaustion and the refusal of humanism to dramatize its discontents.
Male Bonding I
Martha dominates the early stages of the play because she attributes the identities that force both men into phallic competition. Everything Martha says makes one statement which both men receive: George failed because he wasn't like what you, Nick, appear to be. By goading the two men into phallic competition, Martha introduces what will become her master plot, only to exit the scene.
In the ensuing scene, George's redoubtable task is to draw Nick into that game by tapping his aggression while getting the goods on him. George isn't after information but a reaction, and he brilliantly uses his own vulnerabilities to draw out his opponent. The game is his version of Twenty Questions. The goal is to find the vulnerabilities that cluster around the three topics men use to measure one another — job, wife, and children. These topics entail a single dialectic, because they are the three contexts through which the male presents his narcissized phallus through the external evidence certain to compel recognition. The scene thus constitutes a parody of male bonding which reveals its subtext. The drama here proceeds like so many early rounds of a boxing match: jabs, feints, light blows, retreats, all meant to get the opponent confused and off balance. Conversation probes for weak spots that will enable one to gauge the true extent of the other's "organ." George is here like Ali against Foreman: he offers his body for a number of heavy blows to tire the opponent, and he exults when Nick gets angry — over his declension game — because he knows he now has the other on the ropes.
George's agency is always grounded in a version of the Sartrean game "loser wins," and he deftly plays it here to undermine each assurance upon which the other's narcissism depends. He grants Nick's superior pragmatism only to suggest that careerism is the pursuit of shallow beings who know nothing about history. Nick provides the perfect response by indicating that he couldn't care less. But George knows that history always carries the larger resonance of knowledge about one's personal history. The narcissistic reassurance he offers Nick thus puts the other so off guard that Nick blurts out the basics about the main impediment in his personal history, his wife. This has been George's target all along because he knows (as he puts it later) that the "way to a man's heart is through his wife's belly" (113), especially when the discrepancy between that man's narcissism and the cracked mirror reflecting it is so apparent.
Opposed motives thus drive both agents to the second topic that invariably attends certain forms of male bonding. After comparing ourselves "career-wise," we "share" complaints about our spouses, the better to prevent their defects from casting a reflection on our substance. (We do so unless, that is, we possess "the beautiful object" which provides the perfect narcissistic complement which activates the other man's envy.) In Honey, Nick has something to hide, but he knows how to distance himself from it. In the Unconscious, however, the conflicts stirred up by the discussion of wives have a direct issue, and in displacement Nick blurts it out: "Do you have any other kids?" (97).
The opening round is a superb illustration of George's ability to depiive the other of the illusion of difference in order to activate his aggression. To win, he must show Nick that he already occupies the position he resists by projecting it onto George. George plays with language to reveal its hollowness, to make speech stop dead in its tracks: "What were the things that motivated me?" (31). He knows Nick believes that the best conversation is one that says nothing, but he turns that principle of avoidance back against Nick. Nick's only out — and George counts on it — is aggression ("You can play that damn little game" , and so on). But once Nick ends the first game this way, he's landed himself in the second. Aggression recognized can now become the explicit target of speech — and action.
Beneath the surface, George and Nick have engaged in a complex drama which reveals the fundamental difference of their psyches. George is a man who can no longer be castrated, but he can be humiliated. He also knows that humilation is the greater threat, because it reactivates regression to the "basic fault." When he is humiliated, his self-loathing becomes unbound. It can gain relief only by getting at the same psychic register in the other. Nick, in contrast, is a man whose psyche is ruled by unconscious envy. That is the instability behind the voyeurism that draws him into George and Martha's net: Nick wants to see the weakness in other men in order to prop up his narcissistic mask. George taps a deeper discontent. Self-loathing, not envy, is the true basis of action. George can be unmasked only when one gets at the experience envy displaces — the catastrophe of humiliation that reduces the psyche to a gaping wound.11 Envy, in contrast, girds the false self of narcissism in order to exorcise that threat. It aims accordingly at the other's self-worth. And it will attack the very springs of .life, if necessary, in order to sustain the narcissistic illusion. Narcissism feeds on the spectacle of the other's failure.
George, in contrast, is curiously without envy because he sees that the other is as unsubstantial as he is. Self-loathing lives on, however, as that will-to-truth which will put an end to all illusions.12 Just as that power enables George to get at the psychotic anxiety beneath Martha's oedipalizing, it quickly puts him in touch with the disorder beneath Nick's narcissism. He knows that he and Nick are the same, only Nick hasn't realized it yet. Nick desperately clings to his difference and needs to identify the weak spot in the other to reinforce his narcissism. That is why he's such a naive player of the game. He can't see that his insistence on keeping everything on the surface and the Image conceals as it reveals the drama that commences once such roles are referred to their repressed.
For now, George deflects that topic by renewing the attack on Martha's father, but his actions at the beginning of the scene show that his unconscious is already racing ahead toward the plotting of a greater drama in which all the guests — present and absent — will be caught. Just before Martha left, he in effect dared her to talk about "you know what" (29). That topic capped the foregoing drama between them by introducing the instability capable of transforming all its terms. George plays Martha's game up to a point because he knows how to exploit it: to claim that his castrated status is the result of the combined action of Martha's bitchiness and her father's power over her. His self-loathing is thereby held at bay. But if "the bit" (18) comes up, George will be put in the slot of the Father, and the whole drama will shift to another stage.
In the scene between George and Nick, an interesting psychodynamic of audience participation comes into play. We are happy to participate when, to invert Aristotle, we are assured that we are better than the characters on the stage. And this works best when their inferiority lies in the realms that most concern us. This is why Nick's statement roughly midway through the scene — "I don't like to become involved in other people's affairs" — rings hollow, and resounds, slumbering in a "foolish ear."
The men end the scene wondering what women talk about when alone. They will shortly learn, and when they do a curious thing about the scene offstage will surface. While changing clothes, Martha in effect does to Honey what George does to Nick. She shows Honey the costume she will use to "seduce" Honey's husband. And while doing so, she invokes the beauty of her son. When alone women talk about their husbands and their children, and this conversation, like that of the men, has a competitive subtext. Offstage Martha adds, before the fact, the missing link to the scene she will now stage — castration of the other woman.
Martha's Sunday Chapel Dress
When George hears Martha is changing, he knows they have now moved toward a major staging of the two grand games they are always playing: Humiliate the Host and Hump the Hostess. Martha previously set the terms for what she's after in this drama by casting the husband as castrated male before the other man as oedipalized rival. The next step is to phallicize the other man in George's presence while belittling George's "organ." Career will again be the focus: it is an offer the two men can't refuse, given the fact that they have just activated its phallic subtext.
Martha's purpose in positioning both men for a drama she will control is to trap them in reified roles in order to foreclose the deeper drama she fears George is after. Its expulsion is her deepest sub text. For while Martha's target is George's body, George's target is Martha's mind, which he has already identified, in commenting on the painting on the wall, as the unity of surrealism and psychosis. Martha thus knows that George has already sounded his later threat to have her committed. The game in which they are both engaged is properly called "driving the other person crazy."13
But Martha's dilemma is that she can win only by endlessly castrating George. Her self-contradictory project is to stir him into an action that will prove his affection for her and thereby allay her fear that his only target is her psychic "integrity." Martha wants George to move from one oedipalized role to another, whereas George wants to strip away all roles. She wants him castrated so that he'll get on his feet fighting. He wants her dead, defeated, humiliated, and rejected — refused once again the kiss she's after.
Nick's role in this drama is a good deal more complex than it appears, because he has been placed in a complex slot. The mousetrap Martha here sets entails the following conditions. Martha will recount, with glee, before a younger man, the story of her husband's castration by an older man, her father, in order to cap the process by using the story to seduce the younger man. Martha enacts a double castration of George by telling Nick, the surrogate son, the story of George's defeat by her Daddy. George is thereby cut off at both ends, as it were. This movement is crucial to the psychological structure of act I, because diffuse aggression now focuses on a potential scapegoat which Martha and Nick can both exploit for different ends. As we'll see, the slot this puts George in leaves him with no option but to go after both "sons."
For one who claims he doesn't like to get involved, Nick shows little resistance to Martha's come-on because his narcissism is such that it feeds on the other's castration. Nick, in fact, loves aggression when the other is its object; it only becomes unfair, as we'll see, when he becomes its object and the defect in his image its target.
Career and being "at the meat of things" (63) are now one. In responding to that fact, George chooses to activate one of Martha's subtexts, which he will keep alive until he reverses it in act III. For in refusing to light Martha's cigarette, George declares that he is not a houseboy. Martha retaliates with the first extended narrative in the play: the scene in which that attribution was first solidified. In doing so she reintroduces one of the two absent presences, Daddy, whose specter will drive the act to the point where all subtexts and its complex psychodrama will fully emerge.
Daddy and Martha cast George in Daddy's phallic boxing match, and Martha, following her trainer's directions, threw a sucker punch. George's retaliation — with the fake gun — reveals the rage smoldering beneath his passive-aggressive stance, but Martha misses the point because she's still playing the scene to get from George the kiss he earlier refused. She will not quickly renounce the claims of Eros to another dynamic of aggression. Martha's belief is that if she can drive George into rage, that means he loves her: "You? . . . Kill me? . . . That's a laugh." George's stated belief is somewhat different: "Well, now, I might. . . someday" (60). And this is the force that now drives the drama as George redefines Martha's desire for a kiss as "blue games for the guests" (59), thus putting Nick back center stage. Martha was playing the game for one end, in which Nick, as displaced foreplay, was really peripheral, but George now insists that it be played out for another. Martha's hope to arrest the drama by reawakening the erotic bond is already effectively dead, because the presence of the third has inserted Eros into another drama which it cannot contain. The pathetic side of Martha's character is that she keeps trying to reassert it. George knows that this desperate hope is the key to getting at her marrow.
That drive is now introduced, as George replaces the image of "loving" Martha with the reductive picture sure to drive her up the wall: Martha, the drunk bitch with hot pants whose vulgarity knows no bounds because she is defined by one uncontrollable need — to get at "the meat of things." The erotic game ended, the oedipal one will now drive the drama by creating a context in which all the participants, two of whom aren't present, will find themselves fully engaged.
Humanism, According to George
This is the day George will kill her, and the attack begins with her body, now pictured in images of disgust — excessive, rutting. The prize thereby defined, he ups the ante by characterizing the mental endowment of her academic "suitors." Since this is one of the spots where Diana Trilling must have squirmed, it is worth noting that dismissing George as a mocking inversion of the humanist ideals he has failed to fulfill conveniently displaces the possibility that George has a deep understanding of what has happened to humanism — especially in the university. The humanist audience must, of course, externalize the threat by attacking George, lest they internalize his point: that humanism perhaps survives as little more than an exhausted defense mechanism, out of touch with its own basement and thus an easy prey to the "wave-of-the-future" (107) boys bound to replace it.14 George knows that Nick will take over the History Department. We know he has triumphed throughout the humanities. If George is bitter toward humanism, it is because his is a humanism that has always been open to the tragic and that put that imperative before career. He knows that the only humanism worthy of the name is one that is willing to descend, without reserve, into the Crypt of the psyche.
Humanism is for George what it was for Nietzsche: an attempt to restore psychology to its position as the queen science through a critique of the essentialistic rationales humanism uses to hide its psychological disorders and appeal. Contra the thematic abstractions that have gathered around Albee's use of the humanism-science opposition, George grounds that issue in the psychological meat cleaver that cuts both ways. Humanism brings forth the full measure of his despair while goading Nick to an assertion of the resentment behind his pragmatism — "I'm going to be a personal screwing machine" (69) — with the object of that act being to top "you ineffectual sons of bitches" (111) who got sidetracked from pragmatism by inwardness. "The meat of things" may be a real presence for Martha. For George and Nick it's the symbolic object whereby they wage, in a battle for pure prestige over the possession of the phallus, the deeper Hegelian drama of Recognition and Unhappy Consciousness.
While this drama has been heating up, much to Martha's delight, Honey has not, appearances to the contrary, been in the ozone. In fact she never is. She always knows when to intervene, and careful attention to her interventions shows she isn't a cipher or spectator but an acutely engaged audience who hears everything because she listens with an Unconscious that is always right out on the surface, verging on hysteric collapse unless she can banish the conflicts that threaten her by displacing everything onto a new scene that will enable her to slip back into the privileged space of her self-anesthetization. The irony is that, in running from itself, such a consciousness invariably introduces the terms that will later trap it. She thus tries to reclaim Nick, and escape sexual conflict, by shifting to the new topic — Tell us about your son — which will drive the drama to its next stage.
Fathers and Sons
The fantasy child is the safety valve that has always limited George and Martha's destructiveness and restored their illusions. Once it is mentioned before the Other, however, it becomes a term in the game. Both its functions are thereby unhinged: they will collapse together because they are actually mirror images of each other.
A child for any couple holds the irresistible appeal of magical thinking. By making the child imaginary, Albee is able to highlight the psychological functions actual children perform. A child conceived to heal a couple becomes the psyche produced by the parents to project their conflicts — the battleground in which they act out what amounts to soul-murder, even though they often do it in the terms of idealization and sacrificial love. As a Brechtian device, the imaginary child with one stroke clears away the "empirical" details that can so easily distract our attention from these psychological facts. Naturalistic and realistic dramas about the family spend most of their time cutting away the details so that they can finally get to the place where Albee begins. The story of the imaginary child is perhaps the true story of every real child — the story of the binds the child's psyche finds itself in thanks to the desires of the parents.
The deepest resonance that is touched whenever the child comes into play is the shared illusion of the loveless couple, the "what if" which reawakens the founding illusion about what has become a nightmare — that there was "love" in the beginning and it must therefore still be present somewhere beneath all the crap. But that myth begins to totter the moment the topic of the child comes up. The child is the repetition in fantasy sustaining the myth of origins, and the mirror which eventually shows the truth both agents refuse to face about the original terms of their relationship. The latter begins to surface the moment the "little bugger" is mentioned. George and Martha want to keep the child free of their conflict, but Martha can't resist using him to further the attack on George: "Deep down in the private — most pit of his gut, he's not completely sure it's his own kid" (71). Even the attempt to retreat into lyricism over the son's "deep, pure green eyes. . . like mine" is barbed with castrations soon to be recounted: "Daddy has green eyes, too" (75). Martha wants to protect the child and shift to the topic sure to "get" George. Questioning George's paternity serves both ends. George's counterattack, though muted, is already in progress, as he tries to unhinge Martha by contravening her lyricized descriptions of the son. The child is never shared; it is a weapon used by each for furthering what has become a sexual battle, oedipalized in all directions, from beginning to end.
From the moment George dares Martha to mention the child, he is, in his Unconscious, in the process of killing it because his master plot requires using this force to get at the vulnerabilities in Martha that will lead to the marrow. Martha's most cherished role has not yet appeared onstage — that of the loving mother who only "plays" the bitch because her spouse forces that role upon her. George will now play up to that contrast to force Martha into a bind. With her two roles simultaneously engaged, Martha is caught: she must strive to keep the fantasized child free of the oedipal game she is playing with Nick at the very m<;>ment George keeps suggesting that Martha is now doing to Nick what she already did to their son. It is a brilliant counterattack, but it doesn't work precisely because it introduces the missing link Martha will use to spring her own mousetrap. The absent Father has always been present. He will now stride center stage, revealing the "wheels within wheels" that establish a far more complex psychodrama than either George or Martha bargain on. Untangling its shifting positions and exposing its core will require the rest of the play.
The question Who is the Father? deepens the instabilities of George's present situation, for the essential definition he offers of fatherhood is revenge. In doing so, he reveals his present purpose: to repeat, with the surrogate son, roles reversed, what Martha's father did to him. Nick is the immediate object of that attack, but Sonny's head has already been put on the block. Do unto others what was done unto you: it seems an inescapable temptation, an ineluctable process. The initial staging of Sonny thus develops through a play of unhinged pronouns that circle around what may be his truest definition: "When's the little bugger coming home?" (70). Such, at any rate, is what he becomes in the course of the playas George and Martha try to place him at that point in the other's anatomy. Sonny is the "little bugger" because he's actually the stand-in and agent of the other absent presence — Daddy. When George and Martha later posit faults in the son — to get at each other — they take care to ground those faults in the partner's neurotic tie to his or her parent. Doing so, they activate the subtext that will undercut every illusion about the protective space they could create through the son by showing that his true function is every cruelty he can be used to inflict. The son's identity derives, George claims, from Martha's perverse relationship to her father. Tyrannical fathers produce bitches who can't keep their hands off innocent kids. Withholding the grand story of George's family romance for later use, Martha replies in kind by reducing George's charge to that of an "S.O.B." who projects his failures onto the son because he "hates my father" (76). George's parenting derives from a double disorder.
To make the accusation stick, however, she must tell the story of George's relationship to her father. It is a dangerous but necessary gambit, because, as all four agents know, everything from the beginning has revolved around Daddy as the unavoidable question everyone asks in trying to account for Martha and George. It now erupts in a context certain to activate all its subtexts. Martha will tell her story in order to castrate George, as father, before the substitute son, as her culminating act in a seduction aimed at tapping Nick's transgressive oedipal desire. The question When is Sonny coming home? haunts the drama, because the home is the one place he has never been. On the psychic register, however, he's finally made his entry.
Daddy: Martha's Master Plot
We must pause here to consider a way of interpreting the conflict between George and Martha that is both true and false, partial and deliberately misleading. George and Martha draw on a romantic myth of origins like a blank check to limit the scope of destructiveness. In one sense, George and Martha are good old romantics at heart, as they were, according to their accounts, when they first met seeking mutual deliverance — she from Daddy and an oedipal attachment, he from oedipal guilt. It's a good story and a convenient one. Each wanted to be healed by the other. Each let the other down, betraying the initial bond of love. All that's happened since is the long, drawn-out revenge and protest over the violation of that initial contract. Martha claims that her true desire was always to be freed from her father. George claims that his desire was to win recognition from a woman who would see that his courage in writing a work of psychological confession made him a man far superior to the blustering assertiveness of men like her father, men devoid of inwardness.
It's a nice story, but as Freud taught us, the conditions of object-choice are subtle. It is not merely that one often chooses a person unlike the parent of the opposite sex in order to repeat one's frustrations with that parent by turning the partner into a replica. The deeper truth is that the depth charge sounded in the psyche when one meets the right other is the recognition that one has finally found the person perfectly suited to this process. George is perfect precisely because he never will stand up to Martha's father. Martha is perfect precisely because she will use George's psychological wounds to destroy him. Love is the myth that hides the truth the couple refuses to face: love was not there in illo tempore, but hate diffused and displaced into a net sure to entangle everything as the couple lives out over time the subtext active from the beginning.
All the better to conceal this connection, the play here first turns to extended narrative as the best way to get an opponent. This, the first in a dialectical series of narratives, is also the first big lie and the first big lure to trap the audience.
Martha's story is supposed to show why George hates Daddy — because of his superior power — but it really reveals how George functions as a term in Martha's hatred and frustration. George, like Martha's first husband, is cast as the oedipal criminal, because Martha's desire is to commit the transgressive crime. Her first attempt, however, was a dream of magical release from her psyche, predestined accordingly to run up against a "No Exit" sign. Martha's quest for erotic escape with an other (her Mellors), totally unlike her father and outside his world, was actually a game played (as this game usually is) to get Daddy's attention — and intervention. It thus served its purpose: to bring her back to the home as the scene where her frustration and her desire are fixated. The dubious battle she must wage there is the situation that meets its necessary condition of object-choice in George. Finding and inserting the other man in Daddy's world is the act needed for the true beginning of Martha's drama. Martha's only chance to free herself from Daddy is to use the other man to triumph over Daddy, but on Daddy's turf and in the terms Daddy dictates. The husband must become the rival of the Father for the daughter's love, and he can triumph (as he must) only by besting the Father at his own game. Martha must marry a faculty memberan "heir apparent" — who must be assigned a predetermined role. Whatever makes the object different from Daddy makes him unfit for battle and thus becomes a target of ridicule. The courtship is almost a blank spot, an insignificant moment in Martha's narrative, because it is only when she shifts to the career issue that the psychodrama is engaged.
The air of defeat and of a darker purpose is already present, however. As Martha notes, George is virtually the only object available. The fact that he is thoroughly unsuited for his role adds to his deeper appropriateness. For through George Martha can reexperience the initial conditions of her frustration, while shifting the burden. Martha and Daddy thus conspire to wage their relationship through the Other. The father's humiliations of George (the key one deliberately withheld for now) are aimed at reestablishing his exclusive possession of his daughter, whose oedipal status has by now been enhanced by a fantasy twice fulfilled — her mother's death and her stepmother's. Martha is on the throne with Daddy, presiding over New Carthage: caught in that toil of desire, she imposes it on George. She can use him both to rub raw her frustration and to reestablish her bond. What she can't do is extricate either of them from the conflict. Instead, she loads the whole thing on George's back — by breaking it.
George's claim to attention for his distinctive qualities can't gain a hearing. He receives instead rejection, played out by Martha and Daddy when they cast him in the role of "oedipal son" with the career game made competition for phallic possession of the daughter/mother. When Martha now reenacts that story, while recasting George in the part of an impotent father humiliated before Nick, the phallic son, she hits the marrow. In implosion, George's psyche momentarily collapses in sheer noise: his chanting of the Virginia Woolf rhyme drowns all voices in endless repetition. All dramas collapse as they rush into that void. Psychotic panic ends the act.
In that eruption of the Unconscious, George is, however, far ahead of himself. Unable to turn the oedipal drama to any advantage, George must activate the deeper psychic disorders it represses. George has always had one foot in that psychic space; he must now make it the boot that will kick them all into a frenzy.
The deepest psychic disorder in George has been pried open and rages within, unbound. He can reverse its force only by becoming its agent. But death-work requires careful plotting, because one must get at the internal structure that keeps the opponent alive. George will shortly begin that process by carrying out the threat he earlier used to delay Martha's attack: If you humiliate me, I'll destroy the son, and I'll do it systematically — first, by exposing the oedipal son, Nick, and then through a direct attack on the fantasized child. George does not yet know he will kill the child, but he does know that its function in the drama must be totally reversed. The safeguard that kept Martha from the fear of Virginia Woolf must now be used to "drive her crazy" so that she can feel what he's now feeling and, her equal again, he can say, Now how do you like it? In its collapse, George's mind races entr'acte to the plotting of a truly systematic mousetrap. The conflicts developed through the psychodramas of act I will now be subjected to the "embassy of death." It will drive them to a deeper psychic register by forcing all the agents to produce a dialectical series of self destructive narratives. There are two kinds: the stories we tell to prevent psychotic regression and the true ones we suppress lest their telling unhinge us utterly. Two kinds of stories, but they will come to the same end — the opening of each psyche to its Crypt.
If that possibility is the implicit danger in all storytelling, it enables us to locate the lure act" has dangled to hook the audience in a process they won't be able to avoid. Martha's story is a first attempt at psychoanalytic interpretation through totalizing narrative. If that interpretation collapses, another supply can be found. We can even take delight in teasing out its subtext (as I have done above), sure that evenrually a story and an explanation that works will be found. That confidence introduces the audience to a process in which interpretations collapse, only to be replaced by the need for a deeper and richer framework of interpretation. Interpretation isn't relativized; it is made dialectical. Following that process, act II will take us into a vast labyrinth of oedipalizations in order to produce an understanding that collapses all analytic frameworks (Freud, Lacan) grounded in the primacy of the oedipus. The result will take us, with George, to the darker places of interpretation and a theatrical space where oedipus is but a poor player.
Act I may be defined as the movement from Fun and Games to authentic cruelty, that is, the drive to subject the other psyche to catastrophe through the exposure of the basic fault. Fun and Games has served its purpose by using the free play of aggression to seek out basic wounds. Walpurgisnacht will now dramatize the irreversible movement of the subtexts that are engaged once that process has drawn the right kind of blood. In doing so, it will redefine both the threatre event and its psychic space.
Act II: Walpurgisnacht as Kadavergehorsamkeit
Since nothing is slain in absentia or in effigie the through-line of act II is a progressive descent in which everything that protects the psyche from the exposure of its crypt is stripped away. That movement has a six-part structure which renews each of the dramas set up in act I in order to expose their repressed.
Male Bonding II
In renewing the parody of male bonding, George stokes Nick's desire to assert his difference. Nick complies, with the perfect non sequitur — I try not to get involved in other people's business — since, as George knows, he's just shown he's quite willing to get involved when the game is helping a woman humiliate her husband. To turn the tables, George must lull Nick into a secure objective stance while playing upon the fascination Nick can't resist. George notes that it must be pathetic to see two old types hacking away at each other, missing most blows. Nick quickly corrects him: he's "impressed" by the fact that George and Martha "don't miss." George knows that the bait has been taken. If he can now get the goods on Nick, he can set a trap that will not only destroy the surface difference Nick claims but will also get at the deeper difference George wants to deprive him of. Nick's discomfort doesn't prevent him from accepting a series of drinks, because he needs to hear more — both to find out precisely what he must disclaim and because the need to do so has begun surfacing and will shortly erupt in narrative.
To get at what Nick's concealing, George provides a long reflective interlude, spoken as much to himself or to no one as to Nick and as much to reopen his own wounds as to prime them for their labor. George's "bergin" story is the still point in the turning world, the zero-degree of the psyche containing the insight that George will enforce on all of them. It is also the first extended example of what will be the key strategy of act II — narrative as self — revelation and entrapment. And in many ways it is the deepest one, because, as we'll see, it questions beforehand the status of the other stories. George's oft-noted preoccupation with history derives from his insight that narrative alone is sufficient to explain — and to expose — the psyche. The story George here offers thus provides a possible paradigm for reinterpreting the others.
Based on an absurd contingency, the accidental murder of both parents, Geoge's story nevertheless sets forth a theory of the core psychological trauma. The denial of unconscious motivation is a perfect case of the lady protesting too much, and one suspects he knows it. The bergin cherub has done in reality what every child wants to do in fantasy and perhaps must do in inner reality: he has killed the parents.15 And he suffers the consequence — silence. The function of George's unexampled linguistic power is here revealed: to use words to say nothing, to deprive words of their ability to point to anything but the void. This is the place from which George proceeds, and the painful honesty of his story is in direct proportion to the violence of its sequel. The lack of difference George pursues is far more radical than the surface one Nick wants to assert. George's insight is that death hides behind all roles and masks. The basis of his relationship to others is the effort to force them to attain or refute a similar awareness. Nothing less will satisfy him. Nick thinks George is after the abolition of a superficial difference (I'm not like you — in marriage, career, etc.), whereas George's goal is to abolish the deeper differences on which the identity of the ego depends in order to defend itself from a regression into psychotic anxieties.
Nick's response presents us with the curious paradox of one who insists, "Don't try to put me in the same class with you" (102), offering a story that does precisely that. As Honey did earlier, to displace his anxiety Nick blurts out the facts about children, pregnancy, that puts it on the table. As George learns, without much probing, Nick's is a story of an arranged marriage, without passion, orchestrated through a hysterical pregnancy and entered into for money. If, as many critics claim, Virginia Woo/tis a study of sterility in marriage, Nick and Honey have covered all the bases. To underscore their essential similarity, George "invents" a story about Martha's money, which he later says probably isn't true. Its truth doesn't matter, because activating a subtext is its raison d'etre: George has been drawing Nick out to get the goods on him, and he now has everything needed to spring the mousetrap.
When Nick sees the mousetrap about to spring, he struggles to reassert his narcissistic moi. The fantasy of self-identity and the game plan of career success thus come together in the "plowing" of "pertinent wives" (113). The drama suspended at the end of act I is thereby renewed, with the "unwilling" participant in Martha's game now unable to resist becoming "a personal screwing machine" in order to gain possession of far more than her body. George has drawn Nick from his narcissistic mask to his underlying conflict, and he won't let him disown it — "No, baby, . . . you're serious, and it scares the hell out of you" (443) — because it shatters Nick's desire to claim he's not in George's psychological world.
The seeds planted in their first conversation have now ripened, and George can complete this second parody of male bonding by claiming he wants to warn the younger man. He knows there is no way his advice can be taken, since doing so would require, from Nick, a recognition of the similarity he needs to deny. We pause here to note once again that many interpreters have claimed that George and Martha's real desire is to help the youngsters.
Nick's movement from his opening discomfort to "Up yours" (116) is a psychological progression he can't escape. The vulgarity cues George's greatest speech, which does not mourn the loss of civilization but celebrates it. Language has gotten down to basics: "Up yours." "The principles of. . . principle" have given way to anal metaphors. George is exhilarated because he knows he has activated the unconscious conflicts that will draw Nick fully into the game.
The Fantasy Child and/is the Oedipal Child
The renewal of that game produces the clash between fantasy and oedipalization. When Martha inadvertently reintroduces the son, George seizes on the topic to spring the trap he baited in act I. Both have now dropped all pretense of the child as a shared haven and must use it to attack the other. Call this the first murder, since, by the end of this scene, one function the son performed is no longer possible. Nick is the term that galvanizes this instability, because he has been cast in the role of the oedipal rival — the apparent contrast to Sonny who will ironically bring out the actual relationship George and Martha would have to any child. As George and Martha attack each other, through the imaginary son, in order to wage battle over Nick, the oedipalized son, Albee collapses the two poles of the developmental process to give us a unified concept of the psychological function of parents in forming the identity of children.
Both now use the son to attack the other's sexuality. But they can do so only by sexualizing the son. His psyche, the inner world thereby created, is regulated by the intrusion of two competing presences, both fixated on his genitals. The imaginary stories George and Martha now tell reveal what would be the actual result of their parenting: the sexual "confusion" of the son. Furthering that process, they now repeat the "original" crime to further the attack on each other. The imaginary son matures, like real ones, to discover the impossible position the parents have put him in so that they can use his "sexual identity" to get at each other.
The suppressed truth of parenting emerges. The formation and development of psychosexual identity is a process. in which the psyches of most children are ravaged so that the parents can use their illness to attack and blame each other. As psychoanalysis has shown, this formation, erupting in adolescence, is the true "identity" one brings, as a system of core conflicts, into every subsequent relationship. The bitter knowledge contained in the psychoanalytic recognition that parents act out and reproduce their sexual conflicts in and through their relationship to the child is that we are all, in effect, fantasy children. The real child is as absent as the fantasy child, since to be a child is to be the clash and paralysis of parental projections.
George exploits this insight to spring the trap he set in act I. George can concede the mother's psychological closeness to the child because he can use it to transform the battle with Nick. The infant child becomes a scene of sexual strife won, as must be the case, by the mother. The adult child thus becomes the oedipal rival whom the father must use to punish the woman for the original crime. The adult male child, phallusized in infancy by the shift of the mother's desire from the father to the child, is the rival the father must defeat for the good of all concerned. George uses Martha's relationship to the child to establish the justice of his revenge. The mother sexualized the child. The father protested by withdrawing from both. Now, in a reenactment of that true primal scene, the mother parades the surrogate son before the father to reenact his castration. The father justifiably goes for the jugular to restore the proper order of things.
George is a student of Lacan avant fa fettre, and with an ironic twist.16 Everyone remains mired in oedipal rivalries, unless or until the father intervenes. The adult male child is the object onto which the mother has shifted her desire — by producing either the son's sexual confusion and paralysis, as with Sonny, or his phallic grandiosity, as with Nick. She did so, however, George argues, because of the prior relationship with her own father. The mother's tie to her original oedipal object is what produces the oedipal relationship to her son. Contra Lacan, fatherhood is not the way out but the original source of the problem. George, as father, can't intervene and put the mother in her place because her father already trapped all of them in a bind that has no exit. George reintroduces Daddy to show that his real effect was not George's destruction but the destruction of George and Martha's son. George's weakness is thereby expunged, his revenge long overdue.
Humiliate the Host
In retaliation, Martha takes the oedipal drama beyond the somewhat conventional point it reached in act I toward the deeper psychic register. Her new game: I will now seduce the other man while telling him your deepest secret. Castration now drives toward the marrow of humiliation, as Martha makes public the privacy she and George shared before that privacy was betrayed.
George puts on the right record, the slow second movement of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, which Wagner called "the apotheosis of the dance." Martha grinds to a somewhat different tune, however, and accompanies her movements with an aria of sorts, a "sad" story, in two verses of doggerel and forced rhyme, which completes the saga of Georgc: and Daddy begun in act I with the suppressed tale that tears away George's attempt both to save himself from humiliation and to preserve a necessary illusion. The first verse trivializes his effort to understand himself: "Well, Georgie-boy had lots of big ambitions / In spite of something funny in his past. . . . / Which Georgie-boy here turned into a novel. . . . / His first attempt and also his last" (133). George's attempt to heal himself and to win Martha from her father by writing a fiction which is psychologically true is subjected to travesty. The clincher is true in a double sense: his first attempt at actively reversing his life was indeed his last.
The second verse identifies the source of his capitulation in order to lay the blame solely on his shoulders: "But daddy took a look at Georgie's novel. . . . / And he was very shocked by what he read. / A novel all about a naughty boy-child. . . . / Who killed his mother and his father dead" (134). Martha excludes herself from George's defeat; the game of recognition is played out solely between the two men. George's weakness, not Martha's bitchery or betrayal, is the cause of his defeat. "And Daddy said. . ." Daddy assumes the voice of institutional authority, the commanding and impregnable superego: "Look here, I will not let you publish such a thing. . . kid. . . whippersnapper, you'll just withdraw that manuscript" (134-35). This, the sequel to Martha's poem, draws out the groveling lengths to which George will go to preserve a sliver of his integrity, only to capitulate totally. In a last-ditch effort, he proclaims the truth — "Sir, this isn't a novel at all. . . this is the truth. . . this really happened. . . TO ME!" (136-37) — only to be met with the father's disavowal of anything but officially sanctioned images. Academe exacts its pound of flesh. (Note: The issue of publication isn't whether the book is good enough but whether George will have the courage to defy the institution's injunction.) George is doubly deprived of identity: the look of the Other ravages the object in which he risked and revealed himself, a novel about "the silence" condemns him to silence. Memory can only be mockery, which is precisely the key Martha has been sounding. Humiliations past and present become one. This is the power of narrative: it is the privileged way to "get" someone.
Humiliate the Host is the first of the three grand narrative games played in Virginia Woolf: Their function in developing the drama is to sublate — with all the force of a genuine dialectical Aufhebung — all previous games. A narrative retold takes the existential being of the Other — the Da-sein as a whole — and makes it an object of ridicule. It can do so because narrative is the attempt to totalize the connections which explain one's life. In narrative, one tries to find the connections that will reveal the truth of one's condition in order to establish the possibility of active reversal. Once we can make sense of our life as a narrative, we have a complete picture of the burden we must assume in order to reverse death-work and recover our existential being. The pity of George's lost novel is that it was a pretty good beginning. But if someone else can take the narrative in which a psyche articulates its truth and turn the story into a humiliating game, the possibility of active reversal is cut off. George's novel is read, but it communicates nothing. He is, instead, seen as a whole, found wanting, and condemned again to silence. George's existence, with the basic fault exposed, is cast into the void, with mocking voices presiding over his subsequent self-mockery. His paralysis is complete: the present scene merely reinflicts a wound which is not castrating but humiliating.
Martha has had a field day, but in achieving such a victory she has upped the ante. The game is now the production of narratives that will reveal the root paralysis of subjects in order to humiliate them. George's preoccupation with history will serve him well as he plots the response in kind needed to invert the situation.
Get the Guests
Betrayal of trust was the possibility Martha excluded in her account of George's failure. George will restore this connection by making it the theme of his "second novel." We aren't ready to play Hump the Hostess yet because the proper terms aren't in place, nor is the audience properly positioned. Nick is still too frightened for that game, while Martha is too eager for it. She becomes an anxiously intrigued auditor, however, alive to deeper possibilities and excited by uncertainty about what George is planning, when he introduces an intermediate game, Get the Guests.
The return to the plural is crucial, because George knows that the real object of any humiliation must be the couple. Otherwise there's always an exit, some way to wiggle off the hook, as Martha has just shown. To make his second novel work, George must position each member of his audience so that each is exposed and betrayed by the other. He does so by playing the first half of it so that the agents present each reach the point where he or she wants him to stop. The story then sprung will enmesh them all. George's story thus falls into two parts, with the first half deliberately filled with gaps and questions that will cut the ground out from under everyone's feet when the second half — a flashback — brings out the missing link that forces a devastating rereading of the prior text.
On the surface, the first half seems to be primarily about opportunism. Intimate details are rehearsed in "public" space, but they seem to touch primarily on pragmatic issues. All this can be somewhat embarrassing, but none of it cuts to the quick. Even Honey likes this "familiar" story (143) up to a point, for she reaps its fruits. Since the story exemplifies "historical inevitability" (144) it is a context Nick can't disallow. It is indeed the source of his distinctly pragmatic pride, since historical inevitability is the pragmatic justification that covers many contingencies. It is only when the story starts to turn on the overwhelming question haunting it that everyone starts to squirm. For there's one big hole in the story — present in the form of the "mouse" (142), of whom Nick is "solicitous to a point that faileth human understanding" (144) — and that hole leads directly to the question of how far Nick will go. Where are his loyalties? Is Honey a partner or a prop he will dispose of once it's served its purpose?
Once that question is in place, George can spring the flashback with Nick impaled ("NO!" ) on the stake that now stands forth for all to see. The issue is one of trust and betrayal as a question that existentially unites present and past. When do you know someone loved you and wasn't just using you? The only way you can know, George shows, is by finding out what secrets are inviolable. The story he thus tells the anxious audience, Honey, is about the mirth and spite her partner derived in telling the one secret which she believed he would never reveal.
George goes Martha's violation of his secret one better. The basic wound he inflicts is this: Your husband told me, a stranger, the most humiliating secret about you, for no apparent reason other than contempt. Nick's revelation, unlike Martha's, was not part of a seduction but was told, from pure spite, to gain a maximum distance from any connection to the embarrassment called his spouse. Nick's pragmatism knows no bounds and is more careless in its cruelty than anything George and Martha do.
Nick's defense, repeated four times, "I didn't mean to," provides no protection, because intention is no longer the issue, nor the psychological space of the drama. It is also of little avail in calming Honey, who shows she has always been fully present at the place where reality transpires: "You told them!" (147). George's mousetrap sprung undercuts both sides of Nick's "identity." His narcissism is wounded and his pragmatism threatened. The deeper disorder underlying both motives is laid bare by the meaning Nick himself assigns to the event. It is damaging, "damaging!! to me!!" (149). Concern for his wife's feelings is a nonexistent context. Relationships have no meaning except as pragmatic career moves. His solicitude extends no further: he now openly admits what he previously concealed when he told the false pregnancy story to George. George dismisses him with the only appropriate metaphor: "By God, you gotta have a swine to show you where the truffles are." Then George goads his pragmatic "sensibilities" to the battle he's been preparing: "Well, you just rearrange your alliances, boy" (149). Aggression primed and unbound, Nick vows: "I'll play in your language. . . I'll be what you say I am." To this George replies, "You are already. . . you just don't know it" (150). Difference abolished, George now has Nick where he wants him. The real battle, which will have Hump the Hostess as its ineluctable focus, can now commence. Martha is, after all, the ultimate audience the scene has been staged for, and she is quick to celebrate it as such by demanding he move on to the real thing. "You did a good job. . . . It's the most. . .life you've shown in a long time," but it's just "pigmy hunting" (151).
Everyone's aggression has now been sufficiently primed, but the real work of aggression has scarcely begun. George and Martha will now draw up the terms of that contract. Hump the Hostess now has its phallic prop, Nick, the "quarterback," and George flashes it, as with Sonny, daring Martha to pick it up. But to bring things to the condition of total war, George must destabilize the entire previous context of eroticizations. He does so by suggesting that "I did it all for you" (152), Martha, thereby bestowing the kiss Martha has been after since the beginning of the play. To deflect the blow, Martha is driven to invoke the master justification for her aggression: "You married me for it" (152). There is a dissymmetry here, however, and George will use it to redefine the work of aggression. George's aggression has functioned as foreplay to sexualize the environment for Martha, whereas Martha uses aggression to castrate, to desexualize George. The battle has been unfair because it has been waged within a context of oedipalization, which Martha controls. To sustain that context, she adds a codicil whenever a deeper play of aggression threatens. That codicil is the claim "It's not what I've wanted" (153) and on it rests the self-conception she will do anything to defend, since it is her defense against the threat of psychotic anxiety. Martha can persist in her role because she has convinced herself that George's need is the cause of her aggression and that she's always been more than willing to drop it for a loving relationship. George knows, in contrast, that this romantic fantasy is precisely what saves her from recognizing that her action springs from a deeper disorder which uses George as an occasion rather than a cause. Insanity is the threat that arises should this illusion collapse. This is the possibility — and context — George must activate for the drama of aggression to drive toward the marrow, from her ballpark to his.
The battle between George and Martha has always been a battle over the proper use and target of aggression. But the dissymmetry controlling its practice will now be reversed. Martha uses aggression to protect her enabling illusion, whereas for George aggression is directed against all illusions. Martha's fear is that she is in fact a bitch, for deeply buried reasons she dare not face. Her defense is to play it fulsomely, while asserting the interpretation that will protect her from the attribution: She's a bitch because George forces her to be one, not because the role serves a psychic disorder she must impose on him. Martha takes great care to place her greatest fear — hysterization, of becoming like Honey — offstage. Aggression for her projects the feared self- image (weakness, psychic disorder) onto the other and then attacks its externalized presence, the notion being that if one can destroy it externally, one exorcises it internally. Projection and attack are thus grounded in and serve denial. Bitchiness is play-acting in the service of the ego-illusion that one is really a loving being. That illusion and the incessant practice of aggression are dialectically interdependent: their reversal — with aggression directed back inward — thereby becomes the only possible road to psychic self-knowledge. In redefining the context of aggression, this is the tranformation George prepares.
For George, aggression can do its work only if each partner is willing to turn it back against him- or herself in an attempt to uncover and destroy the illusion that protects each from the truth about the psyche. This has always been George's drive, but thus far he has primarily inflicted it on himself, because he too is protecting an illusion. His is a subtler illusion, but it derives from Martha's. Martha claims she gives George what he married her for. George can accordingly regard his defect as his repeated willingness to get sucked into this illusion. If she gives him what he wants, his fault is that he keeps taking it in order to protect her from herself. The fantasy child, twenty-three years of false battle, and the refusal to go after her marrow have blinded him to the fact that he too shares the illusion that, through it all, his love has also been struggling to somehow be born. George is still working on his first novel. But he works not for recognition or to regain Martha's love, but to exorcise the depressive's greatest fear — that hate will prove stronger than love. That suspicion has for a longtime been the working principle of his activity. He is about to learn the true nature of the claim it has upon him.
Because the psyche's core defense is at stake, charge and countercharge now aim at the underlying anxiety: Who's the sick one? Though George and Martha play this game the way most children do — charging the other with what the other has just charged you with — George's attack sounds the deeper chord because it identifies Martha's self-conception as the proof of her mental instability. With that in place, he reintroduces the quarterback, and the son, to focus the threat. Everything Martha says about herself proves that she has moved "bag and baggage" into her "fantasy world" and is now just playing "variations" on her "own distortions" in a solipsism that will implode once he has her committed. Institutionalization is merely a pseudothreat: the deeper threat, and Martha knows it, is George's total withdrawal. When she recounts the moment when, during the party, she looked at George and he vanished, anxiety, not counterattack, is uppermost in her mind. What "snaps" (157), then and now, is not the attempt to "get through to" George, but the belief that there's anything there to get through to. In destroying the self-conception that will prevent that recognition from doing its work, George leaves Martha alone with her greatest fear — that she must play on without illusion and bereft of an audience.
George doesn't have to mention the quarterback a third time. For in reintroducing the castration game, pitting George against younger men, Martha knows she's clutching at a straw. Her threat to "howl it out" is precisely what George wants, because he has now deprived her of the rationale that protected her from seeing her real motives. Martha's claim that she will do "it" for her own pleasure, and not to either win George back or break his back, is an attempt to forestall the recognition she will be driven to when she finds, in the next scene, that she can't carry out this project. She will then find herself in Honey's position, hysterical and ripe for the reductions of the third act, in which the "sad" adult of the evening's beginning regresses to the dependent child of its end.
When "It" snaps, the illusions and interpretations sustaining the "whole arrangement" (156) collapse. That collapse leads Martha into an ever more desperate attempt to reassert them. This will be her through-line for the rest of the play. For George, in contrast, it requires the annihilation of the defenses that sustain both of them. Martha will have to castrate George again to see if he cares. George will have to kill the child. He thus applauds the choice of the quarterback as object for retaliation and all but begs Martha to "do it" because he needs that act to position everyone for the final drama — the only humping of the hostess that counts, the violent penetration of her mind.
"Total war" (159) is the call for an unbound aggression that attacks the self-interpretation on which the other's sanity depends. The psychic space that each agent previously held in reserve — in order to control the practice of aggression and to preserve a saving illusion from attack — now becomes the explicit target of aggression. The most disruptive possibility is thereby brought into play. Unbound aggression either annihilates the other or turns back against the self. In unleashing that dynamic, the act of aggression takes a quantum leap, making what has happened thus far seem like child's play. To wage total war, a couple must come to the point where they are willing to go after the Other's unconscious and to put themselves totally at risk in that act. Existentially and psychoanalytically, nothing can any longer be held in reserve. The self-conceptions and illusions that have protected each from the threat of psychic dissolution must be engaged. Previously, aggression nibbled. Now it sees its true target as the self-interpretation that sustains the other's neurosis as a defense against psychosis. For Martha, aggression works only if it produces an endless repetition of the same; for George, it works only by applying a scorched-earth policy to the fixations that prevent a descent into the deepest psychic disorders. The latter possibility is about to assert its claims.
We pause here to note a possibility that positions the right audience for the drama that follows. In declaring total war, George and Martha perhaps first enter into the only marriage contract worthy of the name. The declaration of love is only as good as the truth-value it commits both persons to: the contract to root out everything sick and inauthentic in each other's psyche so that, as couple, we can turn aggression back against ourselves in an effort to strip away the defenses that hide each psyche from the self-knowledge which, until faced, inevitably gets laid on the other's shoulders. The crisis point in a loving relationship, usually passed long before the contract has been given a chance, is reached when one party refuses that contract and projects the whole burden of analytic scrutiny and change onto the other's psyche. This moment occurs whenever either in effect says, I will go this far about myself and no further, and I refuse to internalize anything you say that would destroy my self-delusions.
Given the conditions of object-choice, this is, of course, the point all couples must get to, marriage being perhaps a possibility that occurs only after the "fact."17 But once one agent refuses to go there, the other must perforce attack the illusion that protects them, because they have violated the implicit "rule" of the one game worth playing. They have, in effect, become passive-aggressive agents habituated to acts that prevent aggression from doing its analytic work. In a perverted way, George will restore its rights and dignity.
Hump the Hostess: Foreplay and Positions
In this scene, it is almost as if Martha acts out George's unconscious as he drives her to take the actions that will undercut each of her subtexts. George can exit the scene once Martha says that she and Nick "want to be alone" (161), because George knows he's now the absent presence in control. In deeply ironic compliance, Martha plays the ensuing scene to get from Nick everything George refused earlier. Nick lights her cigarette. He gives "mommy" the "great big kiss" George wouldn't. He then tries to become "a personal screwing machine" in the game George has already inverted. As Martha says, "It's all in the faculty. We're a close-knit family here" (163-64). Nick is then inserted in his proper position as Martha invokes Daddy as the presiding genius who primes, commands, and defeats transgressive desire. Martha adds one personal appeal to prime Nick: he can betray Honey and return, pragmatically refreshed, with a good experience for a change, sure that she'll never know the difference — nor will anyone else. Martha's only problem, once Nick bites into his assigned role, is to retard his "pulsion" until she can insert it into the proper register of the psychological game she's playing, with herself: "Take it easy, boy. Down, baby. Don't rush it, hunh?" (165). For many this would be a real turn-off, but Nick's adolescent sexuality is pure drive-discharge mechanism.
George reenters, singing what has become his favorite tune. He is cheerful, a fact duly noted, with suspicion, by Martha: "Wh~t are you so cheerful about?" (166). All the pawns are scurrying into place: Honey, asleep, rolled up like a fetus, sucking her thumb; Nick and Martha ready to goad George with another round of the oedipal game in which Martha assures George, that "it's never your turn." When Martha says, "You're in a straight line, buddy-boy, and it doesn't lead anywhere. . . except maybe the grave," he tells her to "hold that thought" (168), because he'll soon show her that death is the space their theatre has now entered. Her attempt to use sex as an "acting-out" behavior to escape death and his use of that deed to further the death-work is the difference he will now turn back against her, annihilating the last flickering claims of Eros. George has her in a no-win situation. The passive-aggressive method he used to prompt her responses in act I is now certain to achieve its desired affect. All he need do is sit, reading a book, as she tries, with rising anxiety, to catch his attention by telling him she doesn't want or need it. She claims, "I'm going to entertain myself, too" (170), but she can't stop giving him a running account. She thus acts out a desperate sexuality in the face of his cold assertion of its insignificance. Martha: "I'm necking with one of the guests." George: "Oh, that's nice. Which one?" (170). All sexual differences are abolished in his general indifference. The attempt to use the act to show him — "I'1l show you" (170) — is subjected to an even more devastating reduction, which transforms Martha's sexuality from a place of desire to one of loathing: "No. . . show him, Martha. . . he hasn't seen it" (172). Hump the Hostess thereby becomes the game in which Martha and Nick act out the disgust George wants everyone to internalize as the sole and shared truth. His unconscious, not theirs, presides over this scene, as well as the one shortly to occur offstage.
Nick's attempt to reassert his difference — "I have no respect for you" — is leveled with a stroke: "Because you're going to hump Martha, I'm disgusting?" (172). The most important blow is, however, reserved for Martha's last attempt to get George to either prevent the act or accept her interpretation of it. Martha: "You come off this kick you're on, or I swear to God [this time] I'll do it." To which George merely avers that for once she should do the right thing for the right reason, by putting her own motives up front. "Lord, Martha, if you want the boy that much. . . have him. . . but do it honestly, will you? Don't cover it over with all this. . . all this. . . footwork." Departing, she can only reply with a blind repetition of the ancient story, the tired, exposed motive and self-interpretation reiterated as in a catechism: "I'll make you sorry you made me want to marry you. I'll make you regret the day you ever decided to come to this college. I'll make you sorry you ever let yourself down" (173).
When, after her exit, George throws his volume of Spengler at the chimes, he shows that he does not exclude himself from the psychologically destructive process he will direct on all of them. Spengler's intellectualized pessimism (George has been reading from The Decline of the West), George's favorite mask, now hits upon its proper object. The striking of the chimes is the call to the destruction of all illusions.
Returned from her fetal nap, Honey spills the beans about her "little murders" (177). If George wanted assurance that Nick is no threat, he now has it: the young couple's marriage is even more sterile than George and Martha's. If he wanted another round of Get the Guests, Honey has just provided the ammunition he needs to spring that game and reverse the advantage Nick hopes to attain offstage with a final, definitive castration. But George never will reveal Honey's secret because he has already moved to a much deeper game, in which such possibilities are no more than amusing asides. The temptation to screw Honey, thereby doing unto the other what you can spring on them when they shortly proclaim their delight in having done it unto you, is an idea that surfaces only to be brushed aside. George is only concerned with one person, whom he addresses as if she were in the room: "I'm going to get you. . . Martha" (175). As always, George's unconscious rushes ahead of his awareness — plotting toward, while the others only plot from.
Martha has no idea how little ammunition is left in her arsenal, but George knows that he has repeatedly warned her that her actions entail a hidden connection: if you screw Nick, I'll go after Sonny. With the substitute rival virtually defeated, George's proper target surfaces. The plan he hits on is not really all that surprising. He has been destroying the son since the topic first came up. But if the child is already dead, he has not yet been slain. Nor has the psychic yield of that process been reaped. Unless the death is staged, there is no way it can do its work on Martha's psyche. But if the coming murder is an exorcism, we must ask, What is being exorcised — and what will remain? This is the question we carry into act III.
Act III: The Exorcist Cometh
What is an exorcism? Is it a process in which devils are cast out so that their innocent victim — usually an adolescent child — can regain a cleansed psyche? Or is it a process in which one slays the last protection in inner reality that keeps the devil from coming forth? This question relates to a dramatistic one: in what ways is Sonny a scapegoat — for all four characters and the audience — and in what ways is Albee exposing the scapegoat mechanism as pseudo-catharsis in order to drive the play to the darker conclusion that constitutes his mousetrap?
Though briefer, this act, like the second, has a six-part structure.
Clink: The Fractured Mirrors
The hysteria beneath Martha's oedipal games and the romantic fantasies she requires to sustain them have both become unbound. In this scene, in three magnificent and internally contradictory asides, she exposes the core George will shortly work upon.
The solitary space Martha inhabits is defined by fear, sadness, and the horror of isolation. To exorcise the double that haunts her — Honey on the bathroom floor, fetally isolated, sucking her thumb, regressed to the nadir of autoaffection — Martha must conjure up an audience or, if that fails, parody the condition of the actor bereft of the essential prop: "Deserted! Abandoned! Left out in the cold like an old pussy-cat." But deliverance through wit, the methodology of act I, is a game that no longer works. Martha's psyche is unraveling. To prevent further regression, she must restore autoaffection through imaginary conversation. The first calls on George and a return to earlier games which they can repeat now that they see they've misjudged each other. But "WHERE IS EVERYBODY!!! Hump the Hostess!" (185) is a plea that only forces a deeper regression, to a second imaginary conversation, this time with Daddy, the deliverer, who now makes no reply because he cries all the time too.
Martha finds herself caught in a hall of mirrors: everything gives her back only her own fractured image. She is reduced, accordingly, to a displaced fort/da, the child's game of hide and seek. Children play this game so that it can end happily, allaying its underlying anxiety, when the others reappear. "I'LL GIVE ALL YOU BASTARDS FIVE TO COME OUT FROM WHERE YOU'RE HIDING!!" (185). Martha's command is really an outcry for deliverance from self-dissolution into tears. She fights them back through wit, forced laughter, literary allusion (the first of two in this act to Streetcar), and, finally, vaudeville: "I've got windshield wipers on my eyes, because I married you. . . baby! . . . Martha, you'll be a song-writer yet," (186). But the face that emerges is the visage of Picasso's "Weeping Woman," fragmented and frozen, its tears chilled to the ice cubes George and Martha put in their drinks. Albee's fascination with The Iceman Cometh here achieves its Kafkan correlative: the psyche is frozen in ice; every aggression that drink liberates is really an attempt to anesthetize a deeper disorder. Only drunken self-obliteration can prevent aggression from turning inward and becoming the Kafkan "ice ax" that chops at the "frozen sea inside us."
After such knowledge, what activity? Unable to bear much reality, Martha can avoid psychic dissolution only by seizing on a new object of aggression — Nick. Having "seduced" him, her need is to complete his castration. But to avoid landing back in the subtexts which the previous oedipal drama has revealed, she must proceed under the aegis of the illusion that she really loves George. In the process, George will, for the first time, become the sexual male — and later the rescuing Father. But whether this attribution is a red flag meant to enrage the gored bull or a fantasy-illusion meant to calm Martha is by this point an undecidable in the best sense of that term because the exposed reality that stands forth as the motor of all such operations is Martha's psyche.18
Characteristically, Nick has learned nothing from his experience. He is left merely with the blind reiteration of the two illusions needed to restore his narcissism: They've all gone crazy, and he's not like them. The narcissist can't learn from experience because there is no place in the psyche where experience can be internalized.19 Martha punctures Nick's defense mechanisms with a double debunking: "Relax; sink into it; you're no better than anybody else." Nick: "I think I am." Martha: "You're certainly a flop in some departments" (188). Nick's treasure, the noble complement to the narcissistic moi, is reduced to the status of a dangling and misplaced modifier.
The tension between Martha's deep disorder and the role that she plays to relieve it is now such, however, that rather than enjoying the game, Martha can only express contempt for the role it traps her in. The dimension of her inwardness explodes in her second great speech. Martha as "Earth Mother," readied for Le Sacre du printemps, sees all men as flops. But her disgust has for once the right direction: "I disgust me" (189). This is the first time George's constant refrain is used by anyone else in the play. The great description which follows of the "comic" dance endlessly repeated at the cocktail parties is drawn out in slow naturalistic detail to underscore its infantile absurdity. The "seduction" game males incessantly play to prove their phallic power is a parody of courage. But in that game Martha reserves the worst position — and the greatest insight — for herself. Again alone, waiting, her dress up over her head, she sits, a paralyzed primitive, "suffocating." A great one-liner clinches the annihilating connection between her role and its situs: "But that's how it is in a civilized society." The discontent of the erstwhile Earth Mother is self-disgust, because pointless (would-be) infidelities really do no more than insert her as pawn in the male fixation on phallic combat, the object of which is never Martha's pleasure or her psychic needs, but the castrating victory over other men. As Lacan would put it, woman's position does not ex-ist.20
After such knowledge, what escape? Having seen the truth, Martha must undo the entire speech by finding an escape hatch. Only lying nostalgia can deliver her. "There is only one man in my life who has ever. . . made me happy. Do you know that? One!" (189). Martha hangs on by the most delicate of threads — soon to be broken — the belief that George was and is different. The "sadness" of it all is the blind effort to affirm a bond of love that can still somehow turn all this pointless mayhem into a game of renewal. But the monologue in which Martha evokes it is really an extended wish list in which the recently sexualized George also becomes the "good" Daddy who "can hold me, at night, so that it's warm."
There is much self-lacerating truth in the speech and many an enabling lie. But the through-line and the context in which she places everything contains the true self-revelation. That context is one in which Martha's favorite song is still "Rescue Me" and her greatest fear that of being left alone. Her self-criticisms thus carry a self-canceling subtext, her continued search for magical deliverance. Martha, in effect, tries to live up to George's "contract" — that total war go to the marrow — so that she can remain both the author and the director of that drama. George's role is that of the respondent "who keeps learning the games we playas quickly as I can change the rules." A shift of pronouns at the end of the monologue completes the drift to magical thinking: "Some stupid, liquor-ridden night. . . I will go too far. . . and I'll either break the man's back. . . or push him off for good. . . which is what I deserve" (191). By identifying with the aggressor and then shifting the roles, the fear of isolation is allayed. Even if she gets what she deserves, she will have controlled the process and brought it on herself. Loss of control is the fear that the psyche will do virtually anything to itself to allay.
While a bout of self-criticism may be great for the soul, Nick need but join in for Martha to resume the sexual attack on Nick and reduce him to the houseboy who must jump at her command. He gave her the "kiss" George refused, yet he still gets told to "go answer the door" (193). But all roles are shifting quickly now, and Martha repeats the language of insult George previously used to get at Nick: "You're ambitious, aren't you, boy? You didn't chase me around the kitchen and up the gaddamn stairs out of mad, driven passion, did you now? You were thinking a little bit about your career, weren't you? Well, you can just houseboy your way up the ladder for a while" (194). Her hope is that she and George in tandem can playa game of Get the Guests. But George reenters bearing "gifts" from another kingdom: "Flores; flores para los muertos. Flores" (195). The allusion to Blanche gives us the best designation of the psychic state Martha has acted out in the previous scene. But if she is Blanche DuBois, what Stanley, his hour come round at last, slouches home for a birthday party?
The Beloved Returns
George comes bearing death to the sadness Martha clings to in renewing an old game she hopes will pluck a responsive chord. Having reversed the roles, she will now castrate Nick before George in order to give George a chance to reclaim the phallus and thereby offer "proof" of his undying love. But while George and Martha delight in drawing out the vaudeville possibility of "houseboy or stud" to mock Nick, George only plays the game as a diversion leading into the game he introduced, on reentering, when he called Nick "Sonny." The flowers are for him, too, and come from "Daddy's greenhouse" (198). To position Nick and Martha for the game he has come to play, George proceeds to confuse both of them with the seemingly pointless insistence that the moon went down, then came back up. Nick is so confused by now that he admits, "I don't know when you people are lying, or what." But when George adds the story of his father and mother taking him to the Mediterranean as a college graduation present, Nick makes a last attempt to halt the dizzying play of stories by sarcastically asserting the rights of the literal — "Was this after you killed them?" — only to be met with George's defiant "Maybe" (200), as he springs the trap he's been preparing: "Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference, eh, toots? Eh?" (201). It is an offer Martha can't refuse, because her psyche depends on a final, however momentary, fixing of that game with the interpretation that will allow for another round.
George has finally driven things to the question on which everything turns and has played it to catch two audiences. The first, Nick, is a perfect stand-in for the theatre audience, many of whom find themselves in a position of confusion similar to his, no longer knowing what is true, what false, yet needing some principle of difference, however literal, to begin sorting things out toward a clarifying interpretation that will limit the psychological space that threatens to engulf everything in a whirlpool of free-floating anxiety. The question of "Truth and illusion?" must be answered, or some principle for answering it established. But a formalistic deconstruction that would leave it in the safe realm of the epistemologically undecidable simply won't do, because the anxiety, by now unleashed dialectically, sublates the weight of the entire drama. The audience is finally in place for the most dangerous game: the abolition of all epistemological games before the primacy of a psychological reality in which they are necessarily implicated, since they can never establish the distinctions needed to extricate themselves from it.
Martha, the immediate audience, is also perfectly positioned as the agent who must strive to find that difference which will reestablish the possibility of Eros. So positioned, she is ripe for the death-work that will obliterate all games and with them the intrapsychic structures that conceal its ruling presence.
Truth and/or Illusion?
Truth and illusion is the dialectic whereby the collapse of every logic of objective reality takes us to the marrow. For Martha, truth or illusion is the question of whether George cares. For Nick it's the question of whether he can eventually get the "facts" he needs to get free of George and Martha and reassert the claim necessary to his narcissism — that he is different. George will now use that need to force Nick into the role George was given in act I. Martha apparently gives Nick the defense he needs when she says, "No; you're not a houseboy" (202), but the testament provides no relief because Nick sees that he's no more than a token in a game where all her dialogue is really addressed to George. But what is the game? Oedipal rivalry, truth and illusion, or Snap the dragons? George lets Martha play it one way so that he can replay it to another end.
The drama of truth and illusion falls into two parts. The first, apparently controlled by Martha, brings forth an uncharacteristic question from George: "Who's lying?" George, who has always known how to throw that question back in the questioner's face, most recently when he dismissed Nick's question about his "dead" parents, now sets it forth with apparent urgency. Martha bites, playing it to the closure she needs in saying Nick isn't a house-boy so that she can spring on George a statement that is really a question: "Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference." The unspoken: If you did, you'd know that in some way, offstage, I told Nick you are the only man I've ever loved, and you'd see that the game has all been played for your benefit. George's reply inverts that possibility: "No; but we must carryon as though we did" (202). The language of games, of appearances, is all we have, and we must play it out without taking flight into the privileged interpretation we've always held in reserve as guarantee.
We must, instead, repeat the game to rupture its charmed circle. To turn Martha's question back against her, George replays the game with a new through-line. Snap, the game that initiated the contract of Total War and was then put on hold for future use, here returns with the anxiety proper to it unleashed. George replays "houseboy or stud" to force Martha to repeat her closing statement as an anxious question, capped with a significant change of preposition: "Truth or illusion, George. Doesn't it matter to you. . . at all?" The implicit either/or on which Martha sustains herself is subjected to George's brutal reduction of everything to appearances and the abolition of difference: "SNAP! You got your answer, baby?" (204). She does and must let that be an end, because the oedipal space to which she wants to confine drama has been brought to the point of implosion.
As George is quick to point out, that does not mean the end of games but the true beginning. In putting an end to the oedipal space, George has moved everything irreversibly into "psychotic" space. Difference is abolished, but that is not an end; it is a movement of descent into the "reality" that all plays of difference defend against, displace, and deny. All that George now requires is to get everyone back onstage, properly positioned, for the game that will reverse every psychic disorder (and its attendant role) that has been activated since the beginning of the play, with him alone now in the slot of power, driving everything to a single "conclusion."
George thus resets the scene of act 1 with the roles switched. Martha is now the tired one. She doesn't "like what's going to happen" (206), but her emotions are so exhausted that she can only plead, "No more games. . . please" (207). In that plea, Martha drops the illusion she clutched earlier in act III, when she claimed that George kept learning the games ,as quickly as she changed the rules. His job is to do unto her what she did to him in act I, by getting her back on her feet, angry for battle, so that he can tell her, "We're going to play this one to the death," for "this is a civilized game" (209-10). Honey provides the missing link that identifies its target. She has "decided I don't remember anything." Prompted by George, she reiterates that logic: "Don't remember; not can't" (211). Repression is the most civilized, advanced defense mechanism, and George knows it's the one he must get at because it unites all three of them. As the song goes, "What's too painful to remember we simply choose to forget," which is why the way we were is the way we will be. Martha is past master of this mechanism because every game she plays repeats itself in an endless cycle of the same. But repression operates on many levels, ranging from Honey's deliberate obliteration of consciousness and Nick's refusal to internalize experience to Martha's elaborate use of acting out behaviors for the purpose of undoing and denial. All three are about to be brought to a lesson in the tragic claims of insight (Einsicht) and working through (Durcharbeit).
Honey again inadvertently blurts out the principle of their undoing: "I peel labels." Martha cannot resist the momentary call of a new game: "Label. Peel the label," but George articulates its ruling principle: "We all peel labels, sweetie; and when you get through the skin, all three layers, through the muscle, slosh aside the organs [an oedipal aside to Nick] them which is still sloshable — and get down to bone. . . you know what you do then? . . . When you get down to bone, you haven't got all the way, yet. There's something inside the bone. . . the marrow. . . and that's what you gotta get at" (212-13).
Bringing Up Baby
To get at the marrow, the most advanced defense, repression, must be brought back to the archaic operations underlying it — the defense mechanism known as splitting — and the dialectical connection between the two exposed. Splitting is the original defense against knowledge that creates the subsequent logic of binaries required to provide the psyche with the rationalizations that will save it from self-knowledge. Splitting is thus the marrow that must be exposed so that the entire edifice can be brought down. The fantasy child must be brought back on the stage and seen as a product of the original act of splitting that underlies all the games people play in sustaining the grand illusion that is marriage.
To deracinate the split, that illusion must be fully activated and then destroyed. In Bringing Up Baby, George must rend from Martha's very heart all of her "love" for the fantasy child in order to make its murder strike the marrow. The intrapsychic illusion that protects Martha from the depressive's anxiety is the belief that love always somehow proves stronger than hate. The fantasy child is the final stand and resting place of that illusion. To get that patient on the table, George provides the choral cues that prompt Martha to express, with aching love, the core illusion she has projected onto the child. That illusion is as much about herself as it is about the child or, better, about the identity that binds them as symbiotic sides of a single psyche. For the child Martha evokes is a "restless child" (219), driven by fear, who is made perfect because he has more than "good-enough mothering." He is the lamb and she the maternal presence who delivers him, as infant, from fear and rescues him whenever, as toddler, he strays and falls and breaks a bone. Symbiosis is always waiting to deliver him from individuation, because the child is the double, the mirror in which Martha rescues herself from the fears ruling her psyche by bestowing on the child's "presence" a constant loving care.
As such a child matures in wisdom, age, and grace before God and man, he thus becomes the protector who walks between, a hand held out to both parents, to receive what is best from both of them, and to bind the family in "mutual protection. . . from George's. . . weakness" (221-22). Like George, we let the end of the exordium pass for now. The child returns Martha's blessing and delivers her and her marriage from fear. But "this perfection. . . couldn't last." To exorcise fear, fear must be externalized. Someone must become the big bad wolf in sheep's clothing, and that disorder must again threaten the child if Martha is to rescue it and complete the symbiotic circle. As George says: "I knew she'd shift" (223), because she has to. The fear projected into the child is Martha's fear about herself, and she can exorcise it only by attaching it to an intruding, and necessarily male, presence.
George has already prepared the reply that will reverse Martha's projection once he reveals the mother as the woman who uses the son to castrate the father. But to play that card, he knows he must throw himself fully into the game. To kill the child, he must be willing to also kill himself. Unlike Martha, he won't preserve a saving illusion. Instead, when she appears ready to stop, he supplements her criticism of him by dredging up the excuses he previously used both as explanations and as weapons to get at her, thereby forcing her to repeat her grounding justification — "I have tried. . . the one thing I've tried to carry pure and unscathed. . . above the mire of this vile, crushing marriage. . . our SON" (227) — so that it will neatly cascade with his reading from the introit of the Dies Irae.
Honey's moment of "recognition" midway through this process ("I want a child") and her protest that now erupts ("JUST STOP IT!!") cannot stop this drama. All they can do is initiate the minor movement that will live out a desperate existence for the rest of the play: the desire for deliverance through sentimental recognitions. We note that appeal here in its inception so that we can drive the proper coffin nails as we proceed. In the process, a sizable audience of critics will find their tom beau. George's reply to Honey is a question addressed to every audience member who is alive, engaged, and resisting, at the deepest psychic register, what is about to happen: "Why, baby? Don't you like it?" (228).
Exorcism: Inwardness as Sein-zum-Tod
Honey's protest (You . . . can't," "Please. . . don't") and Martha's protest ("YOU CAN'T DECIDE THAT FOR YOURSELF!" ) are parallel labors, which, like both women's efforts to give birth, will go "pouf." Like Hamlet, George has always loved to draw out murder, delaying the final end, because he knows that the one thing you can't do once you've murdered someone is — murder that person. Psychological cruelty, making the paralyzed victim live on, suffering, is the act proper to the psychic stage. But eventually the mousetrap must be sprung, and in doing so George is careful to put his head in it: the reported death of the imaginary son is a deliberate plagiarism from George's first murder: "He was. . . killed. . . on a country road, with his learner's permit in his pocket, he swerved, to avoid a porcupine, and drove straight into a. . ." (231).
Martha's protest, that George cannot decide such things, lays bare the a priori rules Martha insists must ground and limit play. Martha's claim that the son's life must remain a mutual decision is her last attempt to cling to the illusion that play is a shared reality. George, in contrast, demonstrates that nothing between them was ever really shared. All games can be played any way any given player wants to play them. Play is dangerous game, not safe space, for the rules are always changing and nothing limits what can happen. The only rule, like the contract of total war, is that one is always potentially at risk because one agent can always introduce a dynamic that will expose the illusions on which the other depends. George's game was always death; he just didn't play it until now. Or, to put it in terms closer to its immediate impact on Martha, in killing the child George shows her that they were each always alone, projecting their isolation into the conditions of a mutual frustration. One is reminded of Edna's statement in A Delicate Balance: "To realize that the only skin you will ever touch is your own." Any other possibility is now annihilated — "POUF! Just like that!"
George clinches the blow by leaving Martha isolated with the line she earlier directed at him — a line that reactivates all previous games, since it is the taunt that requires a response in kind ("a new game") but is now left to fester as she has no one to return it to: "Now, how do you like it?" Martha can only respond with the howl "NOOOOOOoooooo" (233) because George has just delivered her over to her deepest fear. Language collapses before an aggression that cannibalizes all relations. Martha's last-ditch effort to find a fact or loophole that will force George back into some language game is subjected to mockery — "I ate it [the telegram]" — followed shortly, with Honey's help, by a final regression to infantile "speech." Honey: "You ate it all down." George: "Like a good boy." Honey: "Like a . . . g-g-g-good . .. boy" (234-35). Everything in the psyche that was bound is now unloosed. The two linguistic contracts that sustained games are both collapsed: language as the game of wit and intellectual maneuvers whereby George and Martha try to outsmart each other, and language as the pleasure of baby talk whereby they relieve each other. These were the two ways the game was indefinitely extended. In consuming them both, George finally reveals himself as the big bad wolf.
As George has come to realize, his game always was death, and its rules will now enforce their naked results.. Repetition is replaced by an irreversible process in which the successive peeling away of labels or layers brings us not the heart of the onion but the logic of the Crypt. George and Martha are necessarily at cross-purposes in a final quarrel over "the rules of the game," because George has collapsed the nominal subject, the son, into the demonic principle. Martha: "HE IS OUR CHILD!" George: "AND I HAVE KILLED HIM!" Martha: "Why?" George: "You mentioned him" (235-36). Mentioning and killing have become equivalent deeds, part of a process in which anything anyone introduces into the psychological space now cleared becomes the corpse on the table, readied for dissection.
Vertigo: Between the Two Deaths — The Sentimental Fade-Out
George can now let everyone depart, by whatever exit they choose, because he has assured that they can never leave.
Nick characteristically makes the first attempt — the flight via interpretation. The "great" understanding Nick here achieves really amounts to yet another attempt to reassert the literal (even the chromosomological) in the face of the psychological. His statement, "I think I understand this" (236), is the equivalent of Honey's desire for a child. She wants deliverance through magical renewal, with George and Martha's fantasy literalized. Nick wants a reality principle in which the other's tragic condition restores his difference. The "children" George sends home, bursting with sympathy for all concerned, will probably conceive and bear a child, thereby confirming that they have understood nothing, since children have now been revealed as the primary way couples avoid and project their problems. Given the understanding they have achieved, Nick and Honey's real child will have less chance than the imaginary child to escape the destructive effects of the parental relationship. And yet this moment is cited repeatedly in interpretations as evidence that George and Martha have had the good of the young couple at heart throughout the evening and have successfully shown them the dangers they face unless they change their relationship. The desire for escape and renewal will clutch at any straw as the audience struggles, like the representative figures on the stage, to find "meanings" we can live with.
A second operation of sentiment is soon to follow. The dead child has not been used up. He can still provide pseudodeliverance, despite the fact that George has exposed this function as the source of all problems. When George, then Martha, confess, "We couldn't" (238) have a child, their open sharing of responsibility for the failure of the marriage strikes sparks waiting to stoke the embers of renewal. Having finally faced the truth — together — George and Martha have supposedly attained a renewed affection on which they can build. That belief in place, we are ready for a final movement of sentiment. It comes when, alone, George and Martha share the recognition that "it will be better" (240) without the child. All protection gone for good, they must — tomorrow at the very latest — face their relationship. As if they hadn't. What they could learn tomorrow that they haven't learned tonight, or how that knowledge could restore Das Prinzip Hoffnung, staggers the imagination.21
But the scapegoat mechanism is supposed to assure renewal. Rather than endorsing this idea, Albee exposes its underlying sentimentalism by presenting a parody of its founding evidence. It is dawn. Light streams forth from behind the stage. Before a well-justified sleep, George and Martha present a final tableau. Softly, slowly they come together, his hand finally gently on her shoulder, her head cradled. But rather than the dawn of a new beginning, the play ends with the final regression. We end where we began, with Daddy and his little girl, as Daddy sings, for the third time, the song that puts her out. And this time he gets the response he needs. The little girl admits her fear and cradles herself in the arms of her deliverer. But George has the last laugh, at his own expense, and at all males. As he knows, this end is not the fulfillment of desire or the victory achieved over the threat woman poses, but the collapse of everything into the "origin," frozen, reified for good. Daddy isn't the rival you must defeat in order to become the real Other in a woman's inner world. Daddy is the Big Other whose presence controls everything Martha does: she always was and always will remain a dependent child.
The position of the Father is equally confining. In a striking variant on the Lacanian theme, George finds that the real Father is once again the Dead Father. But the "female" variant on the Lacanian theme reveals the darker conclusions Lacan suppresses. The Dead Father is not the guilt empowering the superego but the imploding force that reduces everything to nursery rhymes. George has become Martha's Daddy, but she is about to sleep with the iceman, and George knows what Hickey only slowly came to realize. Fantasy dead, language collapses to the prior state. The death of self, like the silence enforced by George's first novel, is here revealed as the position Martha has also always occupied. The big bad wolf and the fear of Virginia Woolf are one in this psychic economy, because the former's presence, controlling Martha's inner world, empowers the anxiety that rules the manic activities — the roles and games — whereby she incessantly flees it. Fairy tales hide as subtext the dark unconscious. Nursery rhymes stage it. The murderer rocks you off to sleep, singing a song about himself, in and as the question you can never ask.
Unlike Daddy, however, George has an unspoken line which summarizes the psychological knowledge he has brought, as ice ax, to the sea in which they are all frozen. I take it from another equally compelling descent into the ground possibility for a genuine dialectic of Eros and Thanatos. When in Last Tango in Paris Jeanne tells Paul she's in love and has found the man who will protect her and take care of her and build a fortress where she will never be lonely again — thus fulfilling the romantic delusion that can only end, Paul notes, with the narcissistic worship of that man's "prick" — he tells her she'll never find such a man: "No, you're alone. You're all alone. And you won't be able to be free of that feeling of being alone until you look death right in the face. I mean, that sounds like bullshit and some romantic crap. Until you go right up into the ass of death — right up his ass — till you find a womb of fear. And then, maybe, maybe then you can — you'll be able to find him.22 Such a journey has now been completed.
The Audience Crypted
Love, as possibility, only arises after death-work — but not for George and Martha. If it exists as possibility for us, it only does so thanks to the effect works such as Albee's have on us. In opening the crypt and forcing us to seek our psyches at that depth, such works give us the task of phylogenetic regression as the only meaningful response to the process of devolution George has enacted. Our task is no less than to reverse ourselves from the "ground" up by taking the basic wounds and faults of the psyche upon ourselves in an effort to undo the psychological structures (defenses, emotions, and modes of human interaction) which the failure to face them has produced.
But that possibility requires a prior act, a final getting of the guests. The audience that at the end clutches the sentimental text by ignoring its disruptive subtext does so because they have never really been present in this theatre. The bad faith that was their price of admission remains the ticket whereby they reclaim their investment. They prove the fact by seizing, of necessity, on the "interpretation" needed to discharge whatever tensions the play has generated in them.
Sustaining the force of the subtext, in contrast, is the act whereby a far different audience claims its rights by rejecting the "intellectualizing" operations, or defense mechanisms, whereby critics traditionally achieve interpretive closure. The greatest of these mechanisms remains the flight to thematic abstractions, to a discourse of "meaning" that "sublimates" the conflicts the work has opened up by transforming those conflicts into abstract propositions — about life, love, marriage, sex, death, rites of passage, vertiginous possibilities of linguistic aberration, whatever. The search for such escape routes is alert throughout the play, storing "data." It now retrospectively rereads and consecrates whatever details can be used to deliver the audience from the play.
To cite one kind of example: the body of thematic interpretations that have explained the play as an opposition between the old culture and the new, the East and the West, the movement from night to day, and as a study of homosexual behaviors masquerading as a study of heterosexual experience. A seemingly more sophisticated but equally subsumptive procedure — the superimposition on the play of ahistorical universals about ritual and myth — views the play as yet another example of ritual slaying and the scapegoat mechanism, or of life in the wasteland awaiting the arrival of Godot and the inevitable movement from winter to spring.
"Deconstructive" procedures claim less self-mystification but finally produce similar results. Thus, the snapping of the truth-illusion binary and, retrospectively, its elaborate construction deliver us from conflict to the haven of an epistemologically sophisticated relativism. Albee has crafted a plot of undecidables, thus demonstrating the by now familiar but psychologically convenient dogma that makes the skeptical play of wit in interpretation the highest act of critical intelligence.23 So ensconced, one can easily slide over the fact that Albee does no such thing. Wit is one of the first games targeted in the play, and Albee's purpose in doing so is not to build for it a grander, safer fortress but to identify its defensive functions so that he can clear the space for a descent into a psychic crypt where it will be of little avail, since the difference between truth and illusion doesn't matter once psychological reality has announced its primacy.
For it is decidable. One of its powers, in fact, is the ability to reveal sophisticated epistemological games as a defense mechanism grounded in deliberate bad faith.. Entering that psychological space — and sustaining the anxiety attendant to it — is the work of dialectics or concrete "deconstruction," which is not yet another intellectual operation but a use of intellect to enter a space where greater powers in the psyche will control and determine mental operations. In learning to live humbly there, intellect achieves its authenticity as the cutting edge of a passion to do more with one's experience than merely knowing, since intellect is only as good as the anxious discipline of psychological deracination it serves.
In playing either of the dominant interpretive games, we protect ourselves from this possibility by banishing all the ways in which a work like Albee's is designed to get both his immediate and his interpretive guests. Our concern here is with the latter, though the connection is worth noting, since critics by and large make foolproof the operations audiences perform by moving the game into a safer hyperintellectual space.
As Albee's mousetrap closes, each search for an origin, each interpretive framework (for explaining character, motives, causes, etc.), and each attempt to arrest the descent into the Crypt are undercut, and their psychological foundations exposed. In the process, available frameworks of explanation that could be imposed upon the play are revealed as moments within the psychological critique that is its subject. We note, in passing, a conspicuous one. Our reading can be labeled psychoanalytic, and yet it is based on none of the theories that have been developed in the history of psychoanalysis.24 Its function, rather, is to challenge current psychoanalytic theories by articulating precisely what those frameworks cannot see — or, better, what they must cover up. Such a practice deliberately reverses the way the game of interpretation is usually played. The common practice is to get a fixed set of psychoanalytic concepts — whether from Freud, Lacan, Kohut, object-relations, Erikson, or whomever — and then impose them on literary works, the assumption being that Albee, say, either consciously used them to construct his work or, for unconscious reasons, wrote an illustration of their universal truth. The possibility Freud granted the artist is thus cut off: the possibility that art knows things psychoanalysis doesn't and provides an original source of insights with the power to refute some of its most cherished assumptions. The main one, of course, is the question of how far one must go in seeing the ways in which psychoanalysis protects itself from a radical knowledge of the psyche.
In moving beyond what the conventional analytic wisdom offers, Albee invites it to enter the most dangerous game. For his purpose throughout is not simply to debunk interpretive frameworks but also to expose the motives beneath them so that the psyche will be driven to descend into the depths to confront what interpretive frameworks are designed to protect it from. It is not the interpretations alone that are wrong, but the psyche that clings to them in order to escape a self-knowledge it cannot bear.
Albee springs a similar trap on the emotional confidence of a far different theoretical audience. As the play progresses, far more than interpretations collapse. The greater collapse is of the patterning of desires and expectations audiences use to control the emotional impact of such a work and the subsequent effort of affective critics to make the act of interpretation an articulation of the emotional response the work is designed to produce. The conspicuous example here, since they have done it rigorously by trying to specify emotional form through close structural reading, is the movement that used to be called the Chicago neo-Aristotelians and is now simply termed rhetorical criticism.25 Based on a theory of emotion left for the most part implicit, the grand assumption of the approach is the claim to understand the emotions — and specifically the emotions created by those works that are finally of greatest interest and concern to us: serious, tragic works that often stir up emotional turmoil and even threaten our emotional well-being. Not the least of such a critic's tasks is to protect and restore our emotional health and to identify and domesticate artistic excess. Comedy tomorrow, tragedy tonight, for if one can use interpretation to save the identity of an audience confronted by such works, our other emotions will take care of themselves.
Confronted with a work like Virginia Woolf, however, another possibility arises. The emotions that rhetorical criticism claims as basic to human character and that it uses to control our emotional response to literary works are precisely the emotions that Albee exposes as defenses developed to conceal deeper, more disruptive emotions. As Spinoza noted, an emotion can only be replaced by another emotion. Emotions exist and take on value because they protect us from other emotions while giving us the sense of ego-identity and of command over our emotional life and over those experiences that threaten it.
Because it goes to the marrow, Albee's play hacks at the greatest of these, pity and fear, in order to bring to the surface the deeper emotions which they exist to conceal — and repress.26 Our emotional life is a layered structure which has as its basic truth the proposition that we don't know how we "really" feel because our emotions are, for the most part, defenses operating to discharge the threat of experiences that produce anxiety. Only when one enters such experiences, with anxiety unbound and sustained, does one's buried emotional life come forth. Moreover;, once one does so, the emotions we use to control our responses reveal themselves as the petty and self-protective things they are. We can always say that Albee has gone too far, but we should not at the same time claim to produce an interpretation that honors the emotional structure present as the dynamis of his work. This either/or really signals a double defeat for this approach, since it reveals the need to assert, at the level of a philosophic theory of the universal principles of human response, the emotions necessary to sustain the ego-identity on which the theory is based. The irony here is similar to the one at the expense of psychoanalysis discussed above. Albee has gone where rhetorical criticism fears to tread. It can only defend itself against the threat by misinterpreting his work, either by violently yoking it to the emotional responses the normal audience requires or by asserting that Albee has produced a work that is aesthetically unsatisfying, since it lacks the closure we demand. The old warhorse catharsis thus strides forth again, revealed in an ironically modern equivalent of its original medical meaning.
If we are alive to Albee's gift to the audience, the process the work forces us to undergo is finally similar to that of the characters on stage. The only difference, and by now one hopes it has collapsed, is that most of us contrive to play out this process in a purely intellectual — and thus inauthentic — space, the space we call interpretation. The plot of Virginia Woolf — as the getting of the guests — is the necessary and irreversible march of a dialectical structure in which interpretive frameworks, psychological needs, and emotional safeguards collapse together, as subtexts arise to activate the conflicts and feelings these structures repress. We are thereby entangled in a process of regression in which our defenses are destroyed as we are brought before an Unconscious we can only face in dread, since death-work emerges as its presiding agency.
Albee's play dramatizes the basic operations whereby the psyche either resists or moves toward self-knowledge. Its attempt is to strip away all defenses and hiding places so that a genuine movement of descent can commence. One suspects that at some level every audience knows this. That "knowledge" generates the two broad movements of participation in the play. If we respond defensively, we must, like Nick, find some way to assert our difference. Diana Trilling did, as did those in other professions who simply inverted her point; so did those who rush in to tell us that the play has no relevance to heterosexual relationships because. . . and so on. If we refuse such easy exists, we become agents, rather than spectators, engaged in a process roughly analogous to that of the psyches laid bare on that stage. They, in turn, are no longer "pathological characters" but have become internalized presences who shock us with recognitions we initially welcome, only to squirm when we find ourselves, like them, caught in mousetraps that make urgent our desire to deny the psychological probing we previously welcomed. In becoming such agents, we enter the space that must be cleared before any actual psychoanalysis can begin.
The first audience knows that fun and games is the reason most people go to the theatre. But theatre remains fun and games only as long as we are reassured that things won't get out of hand or that a "useful" purpose will be served. The through-line of act I is the destruction of this guarantee; acts II and III offer a rigorous exploration of what emerges once it no longer rules the stage. The end of act III is a wake-up call for Eric Berne and friends, who have been nodding off for several hours now. Albee restores the illusions needed to get their applause, but he does so by parodying them: the need for illusions is thus revealed as the deus ex machina that will spasm forth at the slightest textual prompting. "Catharsis" is thereby offered and withdrawn at one and the same moment. The needs of the typical theatregoer and the space of the theatre are split. The latter remains a space of anxiety and psychological effort only for those who do not need to take their leave, because they know that no one really can.
When does the audience leave the theatre? We can now say that they do so whenever they reach the spot where the drama shows they were never really there — as Da-sein. When a play uncovers psychic conflicts that must remain closed and delivers the audience over to an anxiety they cannot attend to, they take their leave, even though most politely remain in their seats, as they must, since the guarantees they use to limit drama must find some way to reassert themselves. What we call interpretation is a storehouse of such operations.
The audience that remains present, experiencing the inadequacy of their interpretations as blessing rather than loss, enters the hermeneutic of engagement. Interpretation as defense gives way to an authentic regression that takes the entire psyche with it. Unconscious motives, now unmoored, have become the targets of a drama that occurs in the seats as well as on the stage — or, better, between the two, since the "casting of the audience" has now become the innermost necessity of the audience. To use and abuse a currently popular term, this is the act that is required in order to become a member of Albee's authorial audience.27 In radically opening the Crypt, Albee may, of course, give us no more than a beginning. But there is no way we can know that unless and until we descend into the crypt without reserve, to find through phylogenetic regression and the effort of active reversal whether love can reverse death and all that we earlier thought was safely outside its power but which is now seen as its domain.
Nothing less will do, because all the psychological theories that would save us from such an effort have been exposed as flights from it. In letting death-work triumph, Albee has given us the great gift of a scorched-earth policy toward all our illusions and avoidances. It is an offer we can't refuse because, even if we attend the play alone, as inter- and intrapsychic beings we are the couple who must return home, after the performance, not with the promise of dawn but with a long night before us. The play's greatness is its refusal to restore any illusions. In doing so, it leaves us with the barest and richest of possibilities. Like George and Martha, we can't go back to the old games. If we are to escape their "fate," we must begin with a descent that looks irreversible but that actually gives the possibility of active reversal the only marrow that can nourish it.
Like O'Neill and Williams, Albee has practiced the best game in town: get the guests. And as our study has shown, the guests are gotten best when they know it least or deny it most strenuously. Great plays aim to take up residence in the Unconscious, the place where nothing sits still. When the conscious mind resists that internalization, it merely reifies the nondialectical side of its agency, thereby generating by reflex an Unconscious that is more avid in its operations, as a result of the refusal to recognize all the ways in which we dance to its tune. The dead audience lives on. The greatest play and the most exacting analytic practice cannot alter that fact. Habit, as Beckett wrote, is a great deadener. But if the dead live on, banishing the theatres in which we perform their autopsy, we now know how they do so — and at what cost.
Epilogue: Entering the Crypt —
Beyond Reparation and the Symbolic Order
The attempt here has been to initiate a new direction for psychoanalytic theory; to liberate the truth of depression and get it out into the world; to expose and reverse the reparative bind; to reveal the hollowness of the Symbolic Order and the implosiveness of its reified logic; to liberate psychotic anxiety so that we can enter the Crypt, know the power death-work and soul-murder have in the constitution and regulation of the psyche, and begin to seek out the possibility of the dialectic that could attempt their reversal
— to show that what theatre offers is not yet another safe space in which we enact the rituals needed to restore our guarantees, but the place where the secrets we hide from one another are made public so that we may enter that space, deracinated, all exits barred, brought face to face with the existential imperative which drama inserts directly into the deepest places of our psyche.
. . . And when he returned, dismembered, the gods of the underworld told Orpheus that he had finally attained the conditions of song.
6. For an understanding within the terms of traditional metapsychology of how Thanatos might function as a principle of form in creating the psychodynamics of narrative structures, see Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot (New York: Knopf, 1984). Fortunately, the human living of the conflict produces concrete dramas that cannot be explained in terms of such abstract forces because human agency is precisely the reality in which they are existentially and psychologically aufgeheben. This chapter thus constitutes a critique of Brooks's theory.
8. Freud's understanding of Eros and thanatos as dialectically related — and thus as cultural forces that cannot be explained in the reductive terms of drive-discharge metapsychology — is developed in Civilization and Its Discontents, in Works 21: 57-146. On the nature of dialectical categories and the logic of their relationship, see my Inwardness and Existence, chap. 5.
10. The contrast here is with Wittgenstein's introduction and masterful development of this concept in Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan, 1953). The kinds of games George and Martha play with words get at precisely the kind of psychological realities Wittgenstein must marginalize in order to make his social theory of meaning and of "identity" work.
11. In trying to get at the experience of humiliation prior to envy, my use of the concept of envy departs considerably from the Kleinian framework to which it is indebted. It then tries to take the whole thing in a radically new direction, toward a probe into precisely those psychic disorders Kleinian metapsychology defends against. The closest approximation I find to the direction in which I am moving is in the work of Wilfrid Bion.
18. This concept of the undecidable and its psychological implications is quite different from Derrida's and De Man's, since it shows their articulation of the formalistic logic of the situation to be an intellectual defense against probing its revelatory psychodynamics.
19. This is the ironic circumstance Kohut keeps running up against, and this is why his attempt to develop a "psychology of the self" that can be neatly attached to a traditional metapsychology is a theoretical flight from deepening the examination of the disorder that is his subject.
22. Bernardo Bertolucci (director), Last Tango in Paris (1972). The dialogue in the film, quoted here, is much sharper than in the printed text, thanks no doubt to Marlon Brando's contribution to the script.
24. We here complete the through-line that establishes the claim made in the introduction — both that a new psychoanalytic theory is being constructed in this book and that it derives from freeing the "poets'" insights from the psychological frameworks we impose upon them.
25. The rigor with which R. S. Crane set up this problematic remains an unrealized model that measures the looseness of most of what goes on under the banners of reader-response and affective criticism. At the same time, Crane's framework is limited — severely to my mind — by its inability to open itself to the distinctly "modern" emotional exploration that characterizes the kind of tragic works we have discussed.
26. Two fine and rigorous discussions of the topic are Kenneth Telford, Aristotle's Poetics: Translation and Analysis (Chicago: University Press of America, 1965), and Gerald F. Else, Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957).
27. For this outgrowth of the Boothian framework, see Peter Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987). My point, of course, is that Albee's "authorial audience" — and mine — is one that the critical tradition Rabinowitz represents cannot join.
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Table of Contents:
|A Methodological Note||xvii|
|Prologue: In the Theatre||xix|
|Introduction: The Medusa and the Shield||3|
|1. Souls on Ice: The Iceman Cometh||13|
|2. The Perfect Couple: A Streetcar Named Desire||60|
|3. All in the Family: Death of a Salesman||103|
|4. Drug of Choice: Long Day's Journey into Night||147|
|5. The Academic Festival Overture: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?||209|
|Epilogue: Entering the Crypt – Beyond Reparation and the Symbolic Order||263|