Sunday, July 6, 2014

THE CATHOLIC SYMBOLISM OF "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF"


I watched "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" on Turner Movie Classics on Saturday night. What a movie and what acting! I marveled at the amount of dialogue all the actors had to learn and how believably they delivered those lines. It was like watching a play. I'm not sure there are many famous actors today who could do this as well as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

There was so much drinking by the characters that I felt drunk vicariously! The intensity of the dialogue was exhausting. However the symbolism of the movie was intriguing also. Today's movie going audiences would be completely bored by this movie which has no special effects, long scenes, depends solely on character development and constant dialogue and the actor's intensity.

I doubt that today's movie going audiences could even get into the symbolism of the movie which is powerful.

The movie also had some Christian symbols in it. You can read the entire symbolism of the movie HERE. The following is just one segment (my concluding comments follow):

Christian Rituals

Throughout the play there are several Christian symbols as well. The chiming of doorbell is much like the chiming of bells at a Catholic mass. Also, the entire play takes place on a Sunday. George also shows off his Catholic chanting skills when he intones Kyrie Eleison and the Dies Irae, both part of the Requiem. Act 3 is called "The Exorcism," which is the Catholic practice that supposedly evicts demons or evil spirits from a person or home. The spirit in question in Act 3 is George and Martha's "son."

All this Christian imagery appears to be centered around the "death" of this imaginary son. One hint of this is when Martha refers to the boy as "Poor lamb" (3.343). This would seem to set the son up as a kind of Christ figure, as Jesus is sometimes called the Lamb of God. Christians believe that Jesus' crucifixion was a sacrifice deemed necessary by God. Jesus had to die to take away the sins of mankind.

In a way, George and Martha's son is sacrificed just like Jesus. It's as though the son's death is the only way that George and Martha can find salvation. It's probably no accident that George makes reference to an "Easter pageant" (3.220) as he's revving up for the sacrifice. Easter is the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. Of course, George is determined to never let his son be resurrected.

The fact that Albee uses Christian symbolism in an absurdist play is deeply ironic. After the son is sacrificed at the climax of the play, George and Martha certainly don't feel the love of a benevolent God flowing all around them. On the contrary, they've lost their last illusion and now must face the absurd meaninglessness of life. The play seems to view this loss of illusion as a tough but ultimately necessary thing. What do you think?


My final comments: In 1966 most Christians and certainly all Catholics would have been familiar with the traditional Latin Requiem Mass. Today only a handful of Catholics would know about it and no other Christians.  If this movie were made in the setting of today's Catholic Church, what lines from the "Mass of Christian Burial" would he read in English? Would he substitute the texts with the banal hymns that are heard at most Catholic funerals today like the "You Who" song, "You who dwell in the presence of the Lord..." (Eagle's Wings) or "Be Not Afraid" or some other such ditty. And certainly Richard Burton wouldn't be able to recite the "Dies Irae" even in English since it has been expunged from the Funeral Mass.

Think also about the pre-Vatican II Baptismal scene in the "Godfather." This had culture-wide appeal in this movie with the interspersing of the Latin parts of the Baptismal ritual and the scenes of violence ordered by the godfather who responded to those parts. I'm not sure there could be the same dramatic effect with the modern Baptismal ritual in English.

What does this tell us about the Latin Liturgy of the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II? It had broad appeal, captured the imagination and had depth to it that artists writing plays and movies could use and effectively so to show irony and symbolism. There are very few play-writes and authors who would turn to  today's modern Catholic rituals for the same dramatic effect.

27 comments:

Robert Kumpel said...

Wow. I thought I was one of the last breathing humans that appreciated this lost gem. This is one film where Taylor and Burton certainly outdo themselves in the acting department. And unlike the costume dramas of Cleopatra or Dr. Faustus, Woolf definitely depends on the ability of the actors. And there is one reason it felt like a play: It WAS a play, although there are some significant differences between the play and the film.

It is almost ironic to witness all the Catholic symbolism, especially considering the playwright, Edward Albee, is openly homosexual and the principal actors, Taylor and Burton were, at the time, the world's most notorious adulterous couple. However, your point is well-taken. The Traditional Latin Mass was once so universal and so dramatic in its own elements that even a theater full of Protestants would not miss the symbols and imagery from the Mass. Now you'd be lucky if in a theater full of Catholics even a handful would notice.

And yes, watching that film IS exhausting. The last time I watched it, I wanted to take a shower when it was over.

Pater Ignotus said...

If you think that "dramatic effect" is the purpose of our rituals, then you ought to consider sacrificing a virgin on your altar every Sunday.

Or you could stand in your pulpit every Sunday and call your next door neighbors at First Baptist the "vomit of hell."

Or you might consider burning Bill Cummings in effigy in front of the church with dozens of torch bearers, multiple thuribles belching out smoke, and a Gregorian choir chanting "Dies Irae."

Oh! think of the attention you would get for all that "dramatic effect."

JBS said...

Fr. McDonald,

While we clergy are obliged to come to terms with liturgical discipline as it is, I think we must continue asking these very questions that you pose. While we can agree that the general liturgical principals of Sacrosanctum Concilium are sound, their present application at the parish level is simply not working. Congregations are not consciously participating in Calvary, and would be puzzled to hear that they should be. The popular piety of which Pope Francis is so fond depends for its continued existence upon mystical liturgical experiences, which the faithful are now denied. And, tragically for the New Evangelization, our present liturgical practice fails to lay the necessary foundations on which we could build a new Christian civilization, and so it lacks the tangible reference points that could form culture in general, and the performing arts in particular.

Anonymous said...

Imagine The Bells of St. Mary's set in 2014.

1. Instead of a priest in a collar or cassock, he would be in shorts and flip flops (like my current pator).

2. Instead of being addressed as Father, the priest would insist on being called Chuck.

3. Let's pretend there is a convent of nuns. No habits, no veils no rosaries, just bad hairdos, tacky makeup and jewelry and miserable looking woman. Grumps for Jesus as we call them.

4. Instead of the nuns teaching children, they would be riding on a bus screaming at how evil the bishops are.

5. Instead of a mother worrying that her daughter would find out "she is no good", the tattoo covered mother would never dream of entrusting her daughter to a priest.

6. Instead of Sr. Mary Benedict kneeling in prayer in the chapel, we would see Dotty the head coordinator telling Fr. Chuck what a misogynist he is.

7. Instead of the children putting on a Christmas play they would be telling their parents about the evils of global warming.

And I could go on and on. It would be funny if it wasn't a 100% true picture of a typical "Catholic" parish in 2014.

Anonymous said...

My final comment: Perhaps you were moved by deep symbolism and character development. Perhaps you were moved by deep fantasies about Liz Taylor. I comment, you decide.

Gene said...

Ignotus, exactly where does Fr. say that "dramatic effect is the purpose of our rituals?" Please show me.

Anonymous said...

Newgene, exactly where do you say that you are not a pain in the gluteus maximus. Please show me.

Anonymous said...

Make that "exactly where does ANYBODY say", etc.....

Gene said...

Anonymous, I never said I was not a pain in the a**. In fact, if I am that to you, I think it is great!

Anonymous said...

There. Don't you feel better now that you have confessed? The load that you've been carrying for years has been lifted. And I'm not even giving you a penance.

Gene said...

Confessed to what?

Anonymous 2 said...

Thank you for posting this very interesting thread, Father McDonald. Unbelievably I have never seen this movie (or indeed play), an omission I must rectify soon. Taylor and Burton are two wonderful actors, of course, although Burton’s life is a cautionary tale in wasted potential. He could have surpassed Olivier if he had not succumbed to the demon drink, the scourge of so many artistic geniuses.

The theme of this thread prompted me to do some research into movies with Catholic themes. Below is a very interesting list. I have seen the majority of these but, again, am looking forward to seeing the remainder. They all seem excellent (although I have to wonder about “The Silence of the Lambs’” a movie I have deliberately avoided). I am glad to see that two of my all-time favorites, “The Mission” and “The Tree of Life” are on the list. The latter film opens with the riveting line: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace”:

http://linguinemysticslife.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/top-30-catholic-movies-that-hollywood-made/

What do you think about this list? What else should be added; what should be omitted?:

One take away from this is that there is still much “Catholic inspiration” (and/or more general Christian inspiration) out there in popular culture even in a post-Vatican II world.

rcg said...

The dialogue in this thread reminds me of 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof'. Gay playwrites portray savagery accurately.

Gene said...

Anon 2, I looked at the list…I think a lot of those are a stretch. The guy finds a Christ figure in every movie. I guess he would find one in "Duck Soup."
I thought "Thin Red Line" was garbage psycho-drama.
"The Mission" was a good movie but I thought it had a liberal bias.

I liked the "Exorcist," and how about the Sean Penn movie, "State of Grace." Then there was "Gone Baby, Gone," which was full of Catholic implications about murder and intention, especially in one conversation between Ed Harris and the little twerp PI out by the car.
And how about the Tennessee Williams plays, "Night of the Iguana" and "Summer and Smoke?"
"Iguana" was another Burton master performance (movie version), and I love the scene in "Summer and Smoke" where Laurence Harvey appears, haggard and red-eyed, at the top of the stairs after his father has cursed him and died and looks down at Geraldine Page (who had informed the father of the wild party at his house which led to his shooting and death), at the bottom of the stairs, all righteous in a virginal white dress, and says to her, "He's dead, he's dead of good works."
There are so many, but I disagree with many on that list.

Anonymous 2 said...

Gene:

Thank you for your thoughts. I am not wedded to this list (or indeed any list).

I think the main point is when you observe that “[t]here are so many.” I am just heartened by how much inspiration one can find in such contemporary art forms.

When I first started attending St. Josephs we had some movie nights as I recall, although they may have been held in conjunction with the annual symposia. I remember some of them – about St Peter and St. Paul, for example, and about St. Francis (Brother Sun, Sister Moon – one of your favorites, I know =)).

Perhaps we should start up a movie series (again) and then have discussion. What do you think? We also used to have a book discussion group but I don’t believe we still do.

George said...

This list does not include the recent film "Deliver us from Evil" Although if this list is the BEST films of this genre , maybe this one wouldn't make it.

The film is base on the book “Beware the Night,” by Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool. Mr. Sarchie is a retired New York City police officer and demonologist who knew the famous Catholic exorcist Father Malachi Martin. This one, from what I've read, is different from Scott Derrickson's previous movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (which I haven't seen), which follows the actual account much more closely and was based on a true story .

Marc said...

A2, for great Catholic cinema and discussion, I'd recommend:

"My Night at Maud's" or other early Eric Rohmer films

"Diary of a Country Priest," "Au Hasard Balthasar," or any Robert Bresson film

Carl Th. Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc"

Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Gospel According to Matthew"

Terrence Malick's "To The Wonder" or "Tree of Life"

Roberto Rosellini's "Francis, God's Jester"

Andrei Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev"

Gene said...

Anon 2, I have always enjoyed movie discussions and book groups. Haven't done them in a long time, though. Sometimes the discussions became tiresome, either because several members thought they were William Buckley or some wanted to argue. I'd be willing to try a once a month or so thing like that…maybe.
The Mercer undergrad school used to have a Classic Film night on Thursdays that was pretty good…one of the films they did was "The Seventh Seal." Another really interesting one was "The Gospel of Matthew" by a Communist, agnostic director. Black and white, stark, and remarkably moving. I always wished it had been the Gospel of Mark, instead, however.

Gene said...

Marc, Pasolini…that is the same one. Great minds...

Marc said...

Gene, I'm personally quite intrigued by Pasolini's films, but they are usually disturbing (visually and thematically). "The Gospel According to Matthew" is surprising in his oeuvre. The Vatican praised the film, but Pasolini himself was an unabashed homosexual (in addition to the other labels you mentioned), who was ultimately murdered under strange circumstances.

Another of his films, "Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom," is known for being unwatchable by most people. I've not been able to make it through the film.

As for Bergman's "Seventh Seal," I am a huge Bergman fan. I make it a point to watch "Fanny and Alexander" around Christmas each year (a chore since it's about 4.5 hours). Many of his folds are nice meditations on faith, but his films are usually intensely personal and based on his upbringing by a strict Lutheran pastor father. I've never seen a Bergman film I didn't like, and I've seen nearly all of his roughly 40 films.

Gene said...

Marc, "homosexual" and "strange circumstances" is some kind of tautology, isn't it?

Nathanael said...

With regard to PPP, one of the more watchable films with deep religious symbolism is Theorem. It is watchable, unlike so many of Pasolini's films. This movie goes to the heart of how PPP viewed religion and his deep nostalgia for the Catholicism he no longer believed in. It also shows some of the stereotypes of communist thought on religion (a maid becomes a saint because she is poor vis-a-vis God). 
The book he wrote based on the script is better than the movie.

I am one of the few who made it through Salo in my class. I got it. The violence and sex had a point. I hate to think what that says about me. But it is a vile movie. His Trilogy of Life films are fun (but fluff - especially The Decameron).

His version of Medea with Maria Callas is good.
I'm surprised no one mentioned TW's Suddenly Last Summer. 

Gene said...

"Suddenly Last Summer"…God, what a wicked little play!

George said...

Looking at the list on the link that Anon2 provided, it does not include the Exorcist or the Passion of the Christ. Of course this list is supposed to be about the best Catholic movies which weren’t made as Catholic movies. Was "Passion of the Christ" made as an explicitly Catholic movie? Or just explicitly Christian? Just wondering about it being left off the list. As Marc, Gene, and Nathanael point out, there are ones outside of Hollywood that definitely should be considered also. I've never seen the "Gospel According to Matthew" or "Theorem" but would like to.

Anonymous 2 said...

Thanks for all the feedback on movies.

As for organizing a film discussion group and/or a book discussion group at St. Josephs, I will make some inquiries about the possibilities.

Marc said...

George, The Passion of the Christ is meant to be a Catholic movie. It is based on Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich's book The Dolorous Passion. In fact, the DVD's chapters are arranged as if they were the stations of the cross.

George said...

Marc:
I did read where Mel Gibson had referenced and utilized Catherine Anne Emmerich's mystical writings. She of course is well-known Catholic mystic. What I was wondering about was the list from Anon2's link and whether or not the Passion was considered too explicitly Catholic to be on there or if it was omitted for some other reason. I know that a lot of non-Catholics here came out in droves to see it.