Monday, March 17th, 2014...10:00 am

“Who’s Afraid of Recording?”

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Alix Jeffry Photograph (MS Thr 416). © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard UniversityTheatregoers in Shakespeare’s day would say they went to hear a play; they wouldn’t say they had seen one. The recent release by Masterworks Broadway of the original-cast album of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” gives us good reason to sound like Elizabethans and forego seeing this classic piece of American drama for the pleasure of listening to it (at least once).

The original recording was taped not long into the show’s run by Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard, and Melinda Dillon, and until now has never been reformatted even as their performances have grown into legend. Houghton’s copy is part of the Charles Mikolaycak collection of theatrical sound recordings.

Alix Jeffry Photograph (MS Thr 416). © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard UniversityAlix Jeffry Photograph, MS Thr 416.1 (486). © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard UniversityAlix Jeffry Photograph, MS Thr 416.1 (487). © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

In 1963 Edward Albee’s play was and wasn’t an obvious pick for an audio recording. It’s short on action, which helps when all visual cues have been stripped away; but it’s long—running over three hours across four LPs—and filled with seemingly endless talk, with drunken blood sport and ferocious salvos between Martha and her husband George who brawl throughout like bottled scorpions.

Alix Jeffry Photograph, MS Thr 416.1 (486). © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard UniversityAlix Jeffry Photograph (MS Thr 416). © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

Then there was its language: vulgar for the time, even after Albee had tempered the script. And Martha’s braying was alien to a Broadway stage, lesser still at home in one’s living room.

But Goddard Lieberson, then president of Columbia Records, disagreed. He supplied a brief apologetic (titled Who’s Afraid of Recording “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) in the liner notes, which have been reprinted for the limited 2-CD version.

For those of us who plan on sinking into in an armchair for an evening of auditory relish (and distress), I offer as respite photographs by Alix Jeffry from the premiere as a well as a contact sheet of images from the first reading of “Virginia Woolf” in 1962 at Uta Hagen’s apartment.  Pictured are Edward Albee, director Alan Schneider, and two members of the final four-person cast. (Melinda Dillon would replace Lane Bradbury as Honey before the play opened.)

Alix Jeffry Photograph, MS Thr 416.1 (487). © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard UniversityAlix Jeffry Photograph, MS Thr 416.1 (486). © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard UniversityAlix Jeffry Photographs (MS Thr 416). © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

You can listen to excerpts and read more about the recording in Charles Isherwood’s article for the New York Times.

Thanks to Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant in the Harvard Theatre Collection, for contributing this post.

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