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Marriage

george tom karen beth

During the development of modern drama, attitudes toward marriage have greatly changed. From a commonly held belief that couples are bound together for life, with the wife as a lesser partner, societal attitudes have shifted to a recognition that men and women are equal and that divorce is socially acceptable. Modern dramatists have tended to stir controversy by being in the vanguard of public opinion. Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 A Doll’s House shocked audiences with its portrayal of a wife who leaves her husband, but by the more permissive 1960s it became common for plays to portray couples splitting apart with little public condemnation. Marriage remains a commitment many desire to make, but not one as binding as it once appeared. Modern dramatists have fully explored the changing nature of marriage by considering what it takes to make a marriage work in modern times as well as the effect of divorce on couples who stay together and those who part.


In Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park we meet a newly married couple who work through their initial fears and jealousies to discover that they are committed to each other, bound by a love that faces and survives the commonest perils of married life, from in-laws to extramarital affairs. The newlyweds Paul and Corie Bratter come to accept that they are different types and that they need to forge a compromise that will allow them to live together. Simon has an optimistic belief in the goodness of human nature that makes his early plays, especially, very appealing, though somewhat sentimentally old-fashioned. His work valorizes strong family values, committed marriage, and respect for parents by presenting us with characters who generally abide by such values. We fully expect Paul and Corie to easily resolve their differences and live happily ever after.


Where Barefoot in the Park is about newlyweds and the problems they face at the start of a marriage, Donald Margulies’s Dinner with Friends considers what happens to marriages after a dozen years have passed, when the couple appear settled, with a couple of children and all the resulting routines and responsibilities. Years ago, couples who reached this point would stay together, whatever their feelings for each other, for “the sake of the children,” but Margulies questions such sacrifice. Such a life is not for everyone, and in its portrayal of two couples, one who accepts the routine and another who rejects it, we explore both the potential and the threat of divorce.


Contrasting nicely with the idealism in Barefoot in the Park , Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf introduces us to another kind of married couple, George and Martha, an older couple who seem trapped in an abusive and uncomfortable relationship with no divorce in sight. We are left with the impression that this couple needs each other, and may even love each other, despite their antagonism and bitterness, which belie the common myth of marriage as some kind of comfortable balm. Meanwhile, the much younger couple who visit them, Nick and Honey, although initially appearing comfortable together, turn out to be even less well-suited to each other, and we must wonder how long their marriage will last or if they will become another George and Martha. In the spirit of the absurdist movement, Albee wishes to strip away surface presumptions to reveal the true inadequacies, fears, and longings behind these people’s relationships, yet he does it in an almost realistic style.


The play’s title highlights Albee’s concern with the way people use fictions in their lives and relationships with others to allay fears and hide from truths, as well as to suggest an element of danger. The “wolf” is finally revealed to be George, whose masculinity Martha has been calling into question by feminizing the phrase, yet he is not as toothless as we suppose. Despite his ineffectual appearance, he is the one who elicits people’s confessions and largely directs the increasingly unpleasant “games.” The play peels off layers until an agreed truth is revealed. Albee seems to suggest that by stripping away the fictions with which we live, in marriage as in life, and accepting who we really are, we may see more clearly what has gone wrong and be able to fix it, or at least be better able to live with it.


Barefoot in the Park opens with Corie and Paul Bratter beginning their married life in their new apartment. Corie sets up her widowed mother, Ethel Banks, with the bohemian Victor Velasco who lives in their building. While Corie and Velasco are impulsive types, Paul and Ethel are more conservative, and all must learn to make compromises to become more in tune with their chosen partners, as living closely with another always involves some concessions. After a seemingly disastrous double date, Ethel ends up in a relationship with Velasco, while Paul and Corie nearly part. In response to this threat they change personas, with Paul becoming the daredevil and Corie the worrier and stern voice of reason. But when Paul suddenly panics while trying to emulate   Velasco by walking along an outside ledge, Corie runs to his aid and the two come together with a better understanding of the nature of compromise.


The prospect of a new marriage is as challenging as the empty apartment they begin to inhabit. The apartment is an uncomfortable fit at first—six flights up, no working heating system, and a large hole in the skylight—but the couple eventually transforms this into a cozy home, filled with their collective bric-a-brac, and such will be the direction of their marriage. The marriage, like the apartment, begins with a clean slate on which they need to draw in the parameters of their joint relationship. Both need to make compromises to find a common meeting point where both can be content.


From the start, in her enthusiasm for the barren, decrepit apartment, we can see that Corie is different from her husband, who is exhausted from the six-flight climb and complains about the temperature and damage to the skylight. He is more practical and conservative than she is, approaching life with a caution Corie cannot understand. Corie gets annoyed at what she sees as Paul’s inability to enjoy life and holds his refusal to walk barefoot with her in Washington Square Park as a symbol of his restrictive approach to life. When he defends his way of life, she asks for a divorce, deciding they must be unsuited to each other. Although she loves him, she refuses to accept that Paul approaches life differently than she does, and nearly sacrifices her own happiness to such narrow-mindedness. Her blithe declaration that they should divorce is comical, given its insubstantial basis, though it is enough to shake Paul out of his complacency.


Although initially Paul had refused to compromise, his fear of losing Corie gives him the strength to live a little more boldly. However, he must learn to set limits, since one should not change completely for another person. Indeed, Corie soon realizes that she does not really want him to change; she asks for her old Paul back. In many ways their attitudes balance each other, and the need to change is only slight and therefore possible. Neither approach to life is shown as better than the other (and by reversing gender with the older couple, Simon avoids stereotyping the woman as the impulsive romantic), and by the end we realize that a balance between the two is better than one extreme or the other. Just as a male and female might complement each other by their differences, so these two outlooks on life—the impulsive and the conservative—each temper the other to ensure that both have a chance at fulfillment. Both change, a little, to show that it is possible for anyone to change, however difficult this may be, and to better understand each other. The two end the play once more united, singing the song Corie had earlier sung, only this time together. Paul has recognized his limitations and Corie has agreed to accept these, and meet him halfway, evidenced by her helping him off that ledge.


The capacity for change and compromise is reinforced by the play’s older couple, Ethel and Velasco. They also offer a mirror to the newlyweds in that Victor is the wilder partner and Ethel the more conservative “spoilsport.” Ethel, like Paul, is not enthusiastic about the apartment, initially finds the excesses  of Corie and Velasco disgusting, and clearly lives as limited a life of the senses as Paul. But we are shown her unhappiness with her empty life and her recognition that she needs to make changes to improve her existence. Corie advises her to plunge into life and find someone to love, which is presumably what she has done with Velasco. Ethel gets drunk and sleeps over at Velasco’s, and is delighted at how well she has slept without her backboard.


Velasco shows us that Corie’s attitude to life, for all its attractive vibrancy, contains its own limitations and dangers, which Corie needs to recognize. Velasco and Corie immediately hit it off as kindred spirits, but their excesses are inconsiderate toward others; they should try to meet their partners halfway rather than expecting total submission. Both Paul and Ethel get upset stomachs from the exotic cocktail food Velasco forces on them, and are numbed by their experience at the Albanian restaurant. Velasco is forced to acknowledge his own limitations, as he breaks his toe trying to carry Ethel up the stairs and realizes he must change his diet. He vows to curb his appetites out of self-concern, but his decision wins him Ethel, who agrees to share his plain food with him that evening. In many ways, it is by witnessing the ability of this older couple to change and adapt to each other that inspires Paul and Corie to do the same.


Dinner with Friends begins with Beth telling her friends, Gabe and Karen, over dinner, about her split from Tom, her husband of twelve years. Both couples, all in their forties, have two children, and have known each other for years. As we later learn, Tom and Beth were originally set up by Karen and Gabe shortly after their own wedding. Tom now has a new girlfriend with whom he feels far happier, Beth soon begins another, more satisfactory relationship, and the only ones who appear unhappy are Gabe and Karen, as both are forced to reevaluate their relationship to the divorced couple and to each other.


From the start, Karen and Gabe are presented as a very close couple; they have the same hobbies and interests, and even work together. It becomes evident that Beth and Tom have both held them in awe and resented their model relationship. Excited about a recent trip to Italy in the play’s first scene, Gabe and Karen chatter on as Beth distractedly waits for a chance to tell them she has separated from Tom. As they complete each other’s sentences and thoughts, compliment one another, and kiss, Karen and Gabe do seem to have the perfect marriage. Yet this, we learn, is only a surface impression, for as we dig deeper we uncover fears and concerns below that surface that threaten even such an apparently well-matched couple. These fears are brought to the surface as they witness their close friends’ breakup, for even in this first scene we see moments of disagreement between Karen and Gabe and recognize that there are cracks in their contentment. As the play progresses, these moments grow more strident and noticeable. While Beth describes to Gabe and Karen the clues she had missed regarding Tom’s growing unhappiness, it becomes evident that both the   listeners recognize aspects of their own relationship, which makes both nervous.


Beth feels bitter toward her husband, who has moved on to a new relationship, but her amazement at the rage and hatred he has displayed toward her only feed the realization that theirs was not a close marriage. She would rather believe that her husband was mentally unstable than correct in his criticisms of her behavior. The fact of their original unsuitability is heightened in act two, as we go back to when they first met and learn that both had fallen into marriage from a boredom with single status and a desire to be married like their friends Karen and Gabe. Neither seemed particularly attracted to the other, with Beth mostly ignoring Tom and Tom viewing Beth as a pretentious, self-obsessed oddball. Tom, we see by the longing way he caresses Karen’s hair, largely married Beth because he could not have Karen.


Although it is traditional to sympathize with the wife whose husband walks out, Margulies does not allow us to sympathize with Beth for long. First, we watch Beth become aroused by her ex-husband’s anger during a fight and they sleep together, which tells us that this breakup has been liberating for them both. She also turns on her friend Karen, who has only tried to support her through the breakup, when Karen is not immediately excited by news of her new relationship. Beth has swiftly survived her initial shock and found herself another husband, a man with whom she had had an earlier affair and whose own marriage she is now splitting up.


Margulies also insists that we see Tom’s side, for Tom was never really suited for marriage, seeing it as a claustrophobic trap that restricted his whole existence. As he tells Gabe, his marriage to Beth was wrong, and he had only gone through with it “because it was expected of me, not because I had any real passion for it” (73). On asking for a divorce, he tells Beth that he has been miserable “for so long he doesn’t even remember what it was like to be happy” (11). His twelve years of marriage have been years of growing resentment and dwindling sexual activity; this is not a mistake he is prepared to make again and he has no plans to marry his new girlfriend, Nancy.


Tom feels drawn to Nancy because she makes him feel good about himself and is sexually available, whereas Karen had become cold and constantly critical. Having gained his freedom by withdrawing from his wife and children, he refuses counseling or a trial separation, as he knows they are useless, and does not wish to waste any more time on a patently unhappy marriage. Despite disapproving of his actions, it is evident that Gabe feels some sympathy for Tom, even though he conservatively asks Tom to reconsider for the sake of the children. Tom rejects such a request as old-fashioned and unnecessary in the modern world.


But Tom and Beth have never been a match in the way that Karen and Gabe evidently are. While the latter have an occasional disagreement, they are essentially on the same wavelength, whereas Beth and Tom are worlds apart. Beth and Tom tried to ignore their differences for twelve years, but Tom’s  rebellion brought both to their senses, and each will be happier in the future because of this. Both are enthusiastic about their new loves in a way we have never heard them speak about each other. Ironically, their breakup puts pressure on the previously contented relationship between Karen and Gabe, who had thought Tom and Karen to be just like them, for they had also ignored their differences. Because their fellow couple has broken up, they fear for their own future as a married couple. Gabe forgets that he originally believed that Tom should never have married Beth. However, the relationship between Gabe and Karen is open and sharing in a way Tom and Beth’s never was, and this will help them survive, even though Margulies wants us to realize that even the most perfect couples have doubts.


At one point Karen relates how nervous she had been at their wedding. Both had felt the same pressure Tom and Beth had felt to get married, though more as a need for a formal commitment to each other, something greater than simply living together. Marrying had relieved the pressure, as Gabe explains: “It’s strangely comforting: there’s no way out now, you’ve gone and done it; may as well relax and enjoy yourself” (57). But that view turns out to be too simplistic, and both learn that they cannot afford to relax too much: marriages need constant attention to hold together. Tom may be right to suggest to Gabe that his own relationship is not immune to breaking up, and while he does speak out of anger, it is evident that he hits a nerve.


On hearing about the breakup, Gabe and Karen initially sided with their own personal friend—Gabe with Tom and Karen with Beth—and are annoyed at each other for doing this. However, both come to see that they no longer want to preserve their friendships because Beth and Tom have changed, and this defuses their antagonism. They are honest enough with each other to admit that both are scared and shaken by events, and feel insecure in their marriage. This leads them to play the game they had played when dating, in which Gabe pretends to scare Karen, a game that takes on a renewed significance, but that affirms their affection for one another and preparation to face life’s problems together.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf takes place one evening, when Martha invites Nick and Honey back to her home for drinks after an evening function at the college where both husbands teach, and where Martha’s father is president. She and husband George have been quarreling all evening and continue to squabble in front of their guests, drawing them into their warfare by treating it as a seductive game. Martha tells Honey about her son, which provokes George to a new level of viciousness since he had asked her not to mention him. Each tells a sad history, she of a controlling father who annulled her first marriage, he of a boy who accidentally killed both parents, which we are meant to suspect is him. Their candor makes their guests uneasy, but they reply in kind. Nick relates how he married Honey because of a phantom pregnancy and because of his ambitious plans to get ahead. Honey reveals that she aborted past pregnancies, but is once again pregnant. Increasingly drunk, all flirt with one another and keep switching allegiances. While Honey passes out and George reads, Martha takes Nick aside to have unsuccessful sex. In revenge, George declares that their fictitious son is dead, the guests leave, and George comforts Martha.


We change our ideas about the characters as the play proceeds, and no one ends up the way they first appeared, proving that appearances do continually deceive and we should be wary of them. George begins as an apparently emasculated wimp but grows in stature, taking on more control, becoming, for a time, quite menacing. Martha starts out a loud-mouth drunk, but becomes more sympathetic as we learn about her problematic past with a domineering father who continues to control everything she and her husband do. Nick begins as the “All-American” boy, but our admiration of him is diminished when he talks about his intention of “ploughing” a few “pertinent wives” (71) to sleep his way to the top, and as we witness his callous treatment of his wife. Even Honey, who initially appears so sweet and innocent, turns out to be aborting her pregnancies without a qualm.


Although we see some echoes of George and Martha in the way Nick and Honey are heading, the characters also complement each other in terms of personality and desire. Both Martha and Honey are emasculating to a point, but while Martha is an alcoholic who desperately wants a child, Honey rarely drinks and has been refusing to have a child. Honey is also mostly warm, open, and friendly toward others, as opposed to her husband, who is grimly polite and coldly ambitious. While Nick married Honey for her father’s money and because he thought she was pregnant, despite the fact Martha accuses George of marrying her for money and position, it becomes clear theirs was a match of passion. These differences suggest that character and desire have little impact on the way these people’s marriages turn out. This may be because they all have one thing in common—a desire to avoid the truth.


George and Martha’s relationship seems grounded in masochism. Each invites the other to attack, so each can have an excuse for revenge. By describing what they do as “games,” they create a socially acceptable ritual of abuse, an abuse in which they revel to release their bitterness and self-loathing. Both feel they have wasted their lives, and blame the other. Some of their games are deeply personal habits with rigid rules; others they invent on the spur of the moment. All of their games are spiteful, intended to hurt. Yet, George and Martha end the play very much together, as George tries to calm his wife’s fears and they present an image of an intimate couple who desperately need one another.


Their underlying passion is partly what fuels their games, which to some degree give them a thrill in their otherwise dull lives. On a number of occasions Martha asks George to kiss her, usually when delighted at some witticism he has made, and she insists to Nick, who cannot sexually satisfy her, that George is the only man who ever has. Although George pretends to be unconcerned when Martha leaves with Nick, his anger is displayed when he throws his book,   and then revenges himself by announcing the death of their fictitious child in order to hurt Martha back. At the center of George and Martha’s relationship seems to be the fact they have no children. Whether a child would really have helped their marriage remains debatable, but both claim a need for that child, and their dual commitment to the illusion of their invented child seems a means by which they have remained close.


Nick and Honey are the next generation, and George tries to warn Nick about where he could be heading, but Nick is contemptuous of his advice. Each generation, apparently, insists on making their own mistakes. With his kinship to the college president, George could help Nick in his career, which is the only reason Nick suffers his company. Nick is a careerist in the way everyone assumed George would be, but it turned out he was too principled to pursue. That Nick and Honey turn out to each be so self-obsessed and innately indifferent toward the other bodes ill for the future, and the horrors of the relationship between George and Martha become almost preferable; at least they are connected. Also, the way in which both generations are guilty of killing their children, be it literally or figuratively, offers little hope for the future.


The song of the title, which Martha sings to George, appears to be an attempt to belittle him, offering a slur on his masculinity and calling him weak and effeminate; it’s not even the “Big Bad Wolf” but only “Virginia Woolf.” But the play reverses this by having George sing it to Martha at the close. Now she admits that it is she who is afraid, but we can only guess at what; perhaps of the type of independent woman Virginia Woolf was but she could never hope to be? George has also failed in his inability to get his book published, which has been his sole attempt to break out and make something of his life. In the admission of their failures, all they have left is each other, and that is what they cling to, desperately, at the close of the play.

Marriage at Cana [next] [back] Marrant, John(1755–1791) - Writer, minister, Chronology, Literary Influence, Antislavery Contributions

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