Alcohol, from "Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?", a movie directed by Mike Nichols
At the start of this scene from Edward Albee’s play, a wife (Martha, Elizabeth Taylor) verbally attacks her husband (George, Richard Burton), who plays an Associate Professor of History at the college led by Martha’s father. With two shocked guests presents, she paces as she swirls a cocktail glass with ice and a half drink in it. She has been drinking steadily.
Martha: I actually fell for him. It! That! There!
George: Martha’s a romantic at heart.
Martha: That I am. I actually fell for him. And the match seemed practical too. Martha: For a while Daddy thought George had the stuff… …to take over when he was ready to retire.
George: - Stop it! - What do you want?! I wouldn’t go on if I were you.
Martha: - You wouldn’t? Well, you’re not! You’ve already sprung a leak about you-know-what.
Martha: About the little bugger. Our son.
George: If you start in on this, I warn you…
Martha: - I stand warned.
George: - Do we have to go through this?
Martha: Anyway, I married the S.O.B. I had it all planned out. First he’d take over the History Department, then the whole college. That’s how it was supposed to be!
Martha: Getting angry? That was how it was supposed to be. All very simple. Daddy thought it was a good idea too. For a while! Until he started watching for a couple of years. Getting angry?
Martha: Till he watched for a couple years… …and started thinking it wasn’t such a good idea. That maybe Georgie-boy didn’t have the stuff! That he didn’t have it in him!
George: - Stop it, Martha!
Martha: - Like hell, I will! George didn’t have much push. He wasn’t aggressive. In fact, he was sort of a flop!
Martha: A great big, fat flop!
George: I said stop it! [Smashes fist down and sound of glass breaking]
Martha: I hope that was an empty bottle. You can’t afford to waste good liquor. Not on your salary! Not on an associate professor’s salary!
Martha’s scorning tirade against her husband holds nothing back; the liquor in her has unloosed her raging anger and biting attacks. She will say anything, including the most hurtful charges against his capabilities (A great big, fat flop!) and indeed his manhood (Georgie-boy). Her diminished or non-existent inhibition characterizes many people who drink more alcohol than they can handle. They can say or do things that when sober they wouldn’t contemplate.
Loss of Control. Some heavy drinkers become quiet, such as the woman in “Absinthe”, some strident; men and women may react differently. But in the scene from the movie, Martha pours out the vitriol she has marinaded in on her husband seemingly totally unconcerned about the pain she is causing him and also oblivious to the shock and deep discomfort of their two guests (played by George Peppard and Sandy Dennis). She twice mocks her husband: “Getting angry?” And he, who has also been drinking throughout the evening, grows angry. Both are coming apart with the alcohol coursing through them.
Aggressiveness: Aside from stripping away self-control, as did the beach bum of Buffet, alcohol sometimes pumps up combativeness. Aggressiveness and belligerence mark a common reaction of people who are “three sheets to the wind” [Note 1]. In this scene from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” the wife is spoiling for a fight, bullying and poking at her husband verbally – daring him to rise up. Alcohol, exacerbating a long marriage encrusted by dislike and disrespect, fuels her clobbering him with sarcasm and viciousness.
Costly: At the end of this short scene, George boils over (I said stop it!) and smashes his hand down on something that was holding a bottle of alcohol. The bottle shatters on the floor and Martha reacts with another tirade against her husband’s failure to be promoted to full professor. She hope[s] that was an empty bottle. You can’t afford to waste good liquor. Not on your salary! Not on an associate professor’s salary! As Eben Flood was well aware, quality alcohol costs money.
Not to Be Reasoned With: Another aspect of alcohol consumption appears in the scene. It can be difficult or impossible to reason with someone who is deeply under the influence. Rationality doesn’t work with the drunk. Here the two spouses have clearly been at each other’s throats for a while, and neither can recover or restore some semblance of a truce, but the night of binging makes it impossible.
Difficult as it may be to endure this movie scene of marital enmity, the background messages regarding alcohol seep through. Often when people drink they unearth aspects of themselves that they keep hidden under normal circumstances. Anger, attacks and irrationality bubble to the surface and drinkers can’t control blurting them out. Sometimes, lack of self-control degenerates into physical or verbal abuse. Someone who is drunk can’t be reasoned with and may sink to the most primal modes of might makes right and anything goes. Finally, while it is easy to find cheap versions of any liquor, if someone savors brands and quality distilled spirits, they must be prepared to pay handsomely for the pleasure. The conviviality, good feeling and smooth taste of emptying the glass, as well as the negative mood and behavior changes, empties the pocket.
We invite you to read about other movies discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:
- Alcohol: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
- Beauty: Taxi Driver
- Chance: The Deerhunter
- Churches: On the Waterfront
- Death: Bonnie & Clyde
- Decisions: Sophie’s Choice
- Destruction: Saving Private Ryan
- Silence: North by Northwest
- Time: Groundhog Day
- Trains: Murder on the Orient Express
- Work: Citizen Kane
Note 1. Someone who is drunk to the point of being unable to stand up straight. The ‘sheets’ here refer to the sails of a windmill rather than bed linen. Windmill operators used to add or remove the number of sails according to the strength of the wind. One basic rule that they had to follow was to always keep an even number of sails – either two or four – opposite each other in order to keep the windmill balanced and steady. According to an English usage site, if they ever had only three sheets out, the windmill became unstable and extremely wobbly, swaying from side to side very much like someone who has enjoyed a little too much alcohol!