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Have you heard of absurd literature? No? Yes? Or are you waiting for Godot to tell you about it?
But Beckett isn’t the only author writer of absurd literature. The best representative of course, but there is always room for more, room to explore right? You don’t wanna be homogeneous right?
And so in comes the play, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” written by the American author Edward Albee. The plot is nothing complicated: it is simply a story about two couples: Martha and George, the older couple,who invite Nick and Honey (the younger couple) for a late night drink after a party. The play is divided into 3 acts each with their telling titles.
But in the fairly uncomplicated plot, lies a whole new insight into the trying, absurd, fragile and strained relation of Martha and George. During the course of the party, emotional games are played, secrets are revealed through the complex layering of the plot. It is clear right in the first part that their marriage is a complete breakdown and in order to sustain it, they have to play psychological games and try to beat the other down through humiliation and fear tactics. In order to sustain the normative marriage they have to take on absurd tactics and at the heart of this is the constant mention of their son who never appears in the play but is talked about throughout.
The play then is trying to critique the pressures put on every individual to fit into roles the society prescribes without giving alternatives and how utterly disastrous these pressures can be if and when such normative modes of living don’t work out. What do you do if your marriage does not work, when your dreams of professional greatness do not go according to plan? Compounding this problem is also the gender roles enmeshed within these prescriptive notions: the binary of production and reproduction that binds a woman and man not allowing them to explore other possibilities and compelling to view their inability to fit into the gender roles as a failure for themselves. So for example, if a man is not able to get a good job and sustain his family, he is viewed as a failure because of the pressure on him to be the breadwinner of the family. He is not allowed to think that there can be a possibility for allowing the women in his life to share the responsibility of earning. Marriage and career and having a family are projected as the ideal modes of living in a human society and so there are no other possibilities provided for other modes or alternatives. Anything less than the ideal is unacceptable and worse, a failure. This can lead to utter breakdown of your identity and selves as every individual is conditioned for long about these ideas and how they are the measures of success and when don’t work, your very idea of what a life should be is dismantled and therefore living becomes absurd and meaningless.
The play is also a lot about the typical modernist ideas of how language is inadequate to express the breakdown of lives in the 2oth century.
In the hazy daze of alcohol that the couple immerse themselves into, the reader will be pressed to figure out reality from illusion but that is the charm and bitterness of the play. You have to keep constructing the truth, taking cues from their wild language, and wilder games of psychological torture, construct the world that they have constructed for themselves and shatter that illusion and then get to know the truth of their lives. But it isn’t like a mere detective novel where you solve the puzzle with the one sole truth you can divine from the plot. It constantly keeps you in a flux and you can probably get the truth but perhaps not be able to anything with it because though the play tries to sort out its loose ends end finish with a proper closing, the reader is left to ponder on what will happen to the marriages of both the couples as the breakdown of the the older couple seems complete although they are now trying to get back on a stable & non illusory path. However, Nick and Honey see in the older couple their own expectations of a marriage and a family and if these expectations are not fulfilled, then will they also fall apart at the seams like Martha and George?
No one can really tell but what we can do is perhaps not put the weight of all our expectations on one person and one institution? What do you think? Leave a comment.
‘Orlando’ may not be Woolf’s most famous novel but it certainly is her most fun and playful novel. While her other works can be tough to peruse, require a lot of concentration and have been viewed as tedious and heavy reads, ‘Orlando’ is an enjoyable read. It seems as if Woolf was taking a break from all her other ‘heavy’ novels to write something ‘light’ and so she penned Orlando. This however does not entail that the novel is a mere story with nothing in terms of depth and meaning. On the contrary Woolf uses her story to make comments on a number of aspects of her society. First and foremost, the novel was written to underline the issue of how the female sex was denied any rights of inheritance. Her friend and lover, Vita Sackville West, who came from a prestigious lineage was denied the inheritance of her ancestral Knole House on account of her being a woman. Woolf highlights this and several other aspects in her novel.
Orlando is the name of the protagonist of the novel and many critics have asserted that Orlando is modeled after Vita herself who at the end of the story is able to inherit his lands. The novel is truly modernist in its approach as it uses the idea of the fluidity of time which is the main crux of the novel. Modernists were fascinated with deconstructing the notions of time and its linearity. Consequently, ‘Orlando’ spans four centuries with the protagonist living through various time periods. The time periods are also distinctly described in terms of literary periods. The story starts in the Elizabethan Age with Orlando, a man, who owns vast lands and a huge house and has the privilege of gaining an audience with the Queen herself and ends in 1928. In the four centuries, Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess, becomes a successful Ambassador in Constantinople, writes a novel-Oak Tree, gets it published, meets his literary idols in cafes and undergoes one important change (which if revealed can be a spoiler) that Woolf uses to state the ideas of bisexuality and also gets married among other things. For literature fans, the novel is a fun ride through the various ages, like studying the background of English Literature but in a cool way rather than in a the drab manner of reading up a Daiches or Boris Ford volume. It gives a sweeping survey of the literary periods of English literature but also critiques them simultaneously. The quirky character, Nick Greene, is an author but also a pompous critic who Orlando meets in the Elizabethan Age and then in the Victorian Age but his manner of appreciating the older works rather than the contemporary ones does not change over the centuries. For example, in the Elizabethan Age, he mocked Shakespeare and Marlowe while extolling the Greek writers and their works. He termed the latter as ‘great’ and the former as just a shadow of the latter’s greatness. However, in the Victoria Age, he calls the Elizabethan Age as having produced great literature and the Victorian Age as being wishy washy in the literature it produces. Woolf uses Nick Greene cleverly to prick the hallowed literary canon and to show that what constitutes ‘great’ works is rather subjective and fickle.
Apart from contradicting ideas of male inheritance and taking a jibe at literary tradition, Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is also very English in its essence. The importance of home, one’s roots, one’s land is highlighted in subtle ways. The work that Orlando writes, ‘Oak Tree’ is itself a symbol of that. Moreover, his sense of Englishness comes through when he is ambassador in Constantinople where he adores the foreign and exotic but also longs for English landscapes. The novel does have hues of the English pride and a respect for British imperialism.
Overall, ‘Orlando’ is a cheerful and lively read and even if you have a love-hate relationship with Virginia Woolf or hate her outright, this novel should not be given a miss.