Several years ago, the Polish critic Jan Kott published a book called The Theatre of Essence, and ever since then that provocative title has affected how I think of a whole class of modern play. Waiting for Godot is a play of essence, I think the tramps Didi and Gogo represent not real hobos but a modern spiritual inscape composed of doubt and longing, terror and confusion. A play like Tennessee Williams Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also shows us the essential in this case, pure id, animal desire, demanding, craving, shouting to be heard above the din made by the other beasts.
And after having seen the fine production of Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at American Stage, Im convinced that this too belongs to the theater of essence that its real subject is the madness that every good marriage represses, the hatred and rage and resentment that lurk somewhere south of consciousness and only surface, in most relationships, for the briefest of moments before the apologies start and normal functioning resumes.
If Virginia Woolf is a great play and I think it is then its greatness comes from its pitiless illumination of the evil beneath our best intentions, an evil which doesnt cease to hunger for its moment. And instead of an embarrassing slip of the tongue which is already more than most people render George and Martha offer us three full, noisy acts of unrestrained malice. The resulting spectacle is gripping, enthralling and (nervously) very funny.