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Marie Menken and Willard Maas, 1948 (Copyright Frank Polach)
Marie Menken & Willard Maas, inspirations for Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (Photo copyright Frank Polach)

Panel discussion, short staged reading will explore origins of Albee’s early masterpiece — at Wagner College

On Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. in Wagner College’s Stage One studio theater, please join us for “ ‘Virginia Woolf’ Comes Home,” a panel discussion and short staged reading that will introduce Wagner College English professor Willard Maas and his wife Marie Menken, who inspired the lead characters in Edward Albee’s 1962 landmark drama, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Panelists will include theater writer Jeffrey Sweet and Wagner historian Lee Manchester, whose article on Maas, Menken and Albee appears in the new issue of Wagner Magazine, the college’s alumni publication. A staged reading of the opening scene from “Virginia Woolf” will be presented by Wagner College Theatre faculty members David McDonald and Michele Pawk. The program is free, and the public is warmly invited.

Read the story about Maas, Menken and 'Virginia Woolf' on the Wagner Magazine website.

Edward Albee at Wagner College, 1962
Edward Albee at Wagner College, 1962
Lee Manchester
Lee Manchester

Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, which premiered in October 1962, is one of the most enduring dramas of the 20th century theater. Set on the campus of a small liberal arts college, its lead characters are a professor and his wife, George and Martha.

“After ‘Virginia Woolf’ opened, countless people emerged from academia claiming to be the models for George and Martha,” wrote Albee’s biographer, New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow. “Often when Albee would speak on a college campus, … he would be approached by someone saying, you must have been writing about so-and-so and his wife. How did you know them so well? …

“Albee has always rejected such possibilities, except in one instance. If anybody inspired George and Martha, [Albee] said, it was Willard Maas, a teacher and poet, and his wife, Marie Menken.”

Willard Maas taught English at Wagner College from 1958 through 1963 and coordinated the New York City Writers Conference, held at Wagner each summer, where Edward Albee led the playwriting workshop in 1962 and 1963 — but the playwright had known Willard and Marie for some time before then.

“He used to come here every time to eat and just sit and sit and listen while Willard and I argued,” Marie Menken remembered of Albee’s visits to their Brooklyn Heights penthouse, which was a gathering place for New York’s avant-garde. “Then he wrote ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.’ That’s supposed to be me and Willard arguing about my miscarriage.”

“Willard and Marie were the last of the great bohemians,” Andy Warhol recalled. “They wrote and filmed and drank (their friends called them ‘scholarly drunks’) and were involved with all the modern poets. … Everybody loved to visit them.”

The story of Willard Maas, Marie Menken and the inspiration they provided for Edward Albee’s “Virginia Woolf” is covered in a thoroughly researched story that’s been published in the new issue of Wagner Magazine, the Staten Island college’s alumni publication. The story’s author is Wagner College historian LEE MANCHESTER, who also serves as the school’s media relations director.“Ever since I first came to Wagner in 2007, I’ve heard rumors about some professor and his wife who were supposed to be the models for ‘Virginia Woolf’,” Manchester said. “Now, I love debunking rumors — but I have to tell you, this one is absolutely true, and the more I researched the story, the more interesting I found it.”

Jeffrey Sweet
Jeffrey Sweet

Playwright JEFFREY SWEET, a past editor of Best Plays Annual and an adjunct theater professor at Wagner College, has a number of personal connections to the “Virginia Woolf” story.

“I've mostly known Albee as a colleague and a casual friend,” Sweet said. “I first met him when he selected one of my one-acts to be presented at Lincoln Center in 1981 as part of a bill of plays he curated. Nothing like being a young playwright and get an unexpected phone call from Edward Albee telling you he likes your play! I got to know him better when I was elected to the Council of the Dramatists Guild and found myself sitting next to him, trading notes on Guild issues, and I have interviewed him a few times, most recently for a book about the history of the O’Neill Center.”

Jeffrey Sweet’s new book, “The O’Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater,” is scheduled for release in May by Yale University Press.

“My connection with ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ began when I was a kid,” Sweet continued. “I borrowed the original cast recording from the library and understood only a bit of it, but the play gripped me nonetheless. I’ve seen many stage productions over the years, including one that Albee directed with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara that made a particular impression. And in my playwriting classes, I teach the opening scene as an example of great high-context exposition, a way of getting information out without it sounding forced.”

Sweet was immediately interested in “ ‘Virginia Woolf’ Comes Home” when he heard the story about the connection between the play and a faculty member at the institution where he currently teaches.

“It’s always intriguing to learn of the connection between fiction and fact, to see both what has been borrowed from life and what strategic changes a writer has made to, uh, improve on it,” Sweet said.

David McDonald
David McDonald
Michele Pawk
Michele Pawk

A staged reading of the opening scene from “Virginia Woolf” will be presented by Wagner College Theatre faculty members DAVID McDONALD and MICHELE PAWK.

McDonald, head of voice for the Wagner College Theatre, will play the part of George in the staged reading. McDonald recalled his first serious encounter with Albee’s early masterpiece.

“I directed a scene from ‘Virginia Woolf’ in an undergraduate class and loved the text from the start,” he said. “It was the first time I recognized good writing: no wasted words, dynamic structure and imminent playability for the actors.

“The historic connections are interesting,” McDonald added. “It helps us to understand how Albee got the faculty-politics side of the story so right!”

Tony Award-winning actor Michele Pawk, who joined the Wagner College Theatre faculty in 2010, will play the role of Martha in the Feb. 25 staged reading.

“I have loved this play for years, and am a tremendous fan of all of Albee’s work. His plays live in such a brutally honest place, while at the same time being hilariously funny,” Pawk said. “I have wanted to ‘live with Martha’ for some time now, so I'm thrilled for this opportunity. It's also a great chance to introduce this glorious work to our Wagner students.”

WLM cover illustration (WEB)During his tenure at Wagner College (1958-1963), Willard Maas was the faculty editor of  WAGNER LITERARY MAGAZINE, which drew contributions from some of the brightest literary lights of its day. The WLM included much work by the New York School poets as well as some extraordinary essays and interviews by Wagner College students and participants in the New York City Writers Conference. A single-volume facsimile collection of the WLM’s four issues has been compiled, with an interpretive introduction by Lee Manchester. It can be purchased from the Wagner College History online storefront. Included in the collection is the 1962 interview with Edward Albee about “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Wagner College alumnus Paul Zindel, conducted while Albee was working on the final act of his early masterpiece. To read the WLM introductory essay and the profile story on Willard Maas, just hit the “preview” button beneath the cover image on the book’s Web page. (The preview will take about half a minute to load.)

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