A boozy Liz Taylor mutters those words over and over again in the opening scene of the movie "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." She doesn't seem angry though, not even depressed or sad. As she gnaws on a piece of cold leftover chicken and then vacantly tosses it back from whence it came, it is evident that her monotonous five word soliloquy is more than just a statement about her home, it's a statement of her life, her marriage, and a resignation to her life.
For his part, her husband (played by Richard Burton) does his best to ignore her. He too has resigned to his fates. He even refuses to kiss her when she begs one from him. One senses it's not about lack of attraction but rather complacency. It's just easier for him to sit at the table and start a cross-word puzzle; fewer land-minds I suspect.
As I gazed upon the TV screen and took in that scene it hit me that the characters are flying that most treacherous route between mediocrity and disaster. Their flight path was neither likely to ascend nor on a trajectory to end in a spectacular final crash and burn scene. Rather, the sub-mediocrity of their marriage was a fait accompli meandering towards eternity in a rather un-spectacular slow smolder.
I, of course, knew of the play and the movie, but the concept had hit me several months ago that there was an interesting theme to explore here so I watched again on-demand one night as Shannon was on the road.
The title of the play owes itself to a humorous play on words by the writer Edward Albee who saw the words scrawled in soap on a mirror at a party. When writing the play about a professor and his wife amid the backdrop of the academic world, Albee appropriately noted that it is just the type of pedantic academic humor one might expect at a faculty club mixer at some stodgy Eastern Institute. But look deeper and the title begs the question "who's afraid of living without false illusions." This is a very intriguing theme when one considers the types of relationships I do on this blog and in this life I write about.
It is certainly not coincidence that the play uses the name Virginia Woolf in the title. Woolf's heavy narrative style, based in a "stream of consciousness," illuminates the shades of thoughts and feelings coursing through the psyche of her characters. In Woolf's writings boundaries are pushed and there are no good-guys and bad guys, only the examination of those "multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind." Virginia Woolf in real life dabbled in infidelity and those experiences likely influenced her. The play mirrors that narrative style and dives deep into the emotional analytics of George and Martha's marriage and digs up a candid look at how illusion does play with reality in life at times.
In the play George and Martha (Liz Taylor and Richard Burton's characters) use their young guests Nick and Honey as foils for their game of false illusions. In a way George and Marta are vampirish, using those young guests as blood food to feed their appetite to taste real life rather than illusion.
What are they looking for? Why are they looking for it? And more importantly are they looking for the same thing we are looking for when we log onto Ashley Madison.
I came to one conclusion. They and we are looking for Don Draper and thus I ask the questions,
Who's Afraid of Don Draper?
Prelude - Who is Don Draper and Why Do We Lust for Him
While Ask Men named Don Draper the most influential man in the world, the first thing you need to understand about him is that he is in fact NOT Don Draper. Draper's whole life and persona are illusion that has, by design, become reality. The real Don Draper died in the Korean War. The Don Draper of Sterling Cooper is actually Dick Whitman an unremarkable son of a prostitute and alcoholic. As a soldier in Korea, Whitman is present at the death of Draper and seizes on the opportunity to morph and then take on the life of his commanding officer. In an instant Whitman, the bastard child, becomes Draper, the college graduate and man of distinction. At that divine spark an illusion is created that will later become reality.
I polled some of my distinguished female blogging friends. Everyone said they were attracted to Don Draper. All said they would certainly consider, if not throw themselves into a fling with Don Draper. But why? The answer is Draper knows how to treat a women in that moment, how to make her the center of the universe. He knows how to dress, how to order at a fine restaurant, when to drink Bourbon and when to drink Brandy. He is confident, commanding, and charismatic; a long gone fossil in today's world of political correctness and an over connected world of social media. And don't forget, he's GORGEOUS! But also to a woman, my friends said they would stop at fling, they would not give their heart to him. "Too much stuff going on in there;" "too many deep-seated psychological issues," "he just seems closed (narcissistic)." In short, while he is certainly a tempting piece of cheesecake you must taste once, the reality behind the illusion is not a world many women want to live in and certainly not something you can afford to have on your daily diet. To borrow a great quote from the movie "Fight Club," women want Don to be their "single serving mate," but dare not consider going back for seconds.
If that is the case why do women marry their husband but want to fuck that tall, dark, handsome brooding bad boy? Of course the answer is that their husband is who they spend their life with, who they raise children with, who they plan to ski the Alps with upon retirement. He is their reality and they are quite satisfied with that. And yet they need that illusion.
So then I ask the question, how does Martha get George to put down the crossword puzzle and kiss her like Don Draper. How does George gain his confidence back, set aside his angst over career stagnation, and kiss Martha like the man who swept her off her feet. As Martha reflectively says in the play at mid-point "he's the only man in my whole life who's ever made me happy." It's still there George and Martha (Ryan and Shannon) you just need to find it.
Act I - This Place is a Dump (or Fun and Games)
When we meet it's all fun and games. We flirt, we boast to impress, we open doors, we giggle at jokes. In short we play at being Don Draper and we play at being swept off our feet by Don Draper. In the play, Martha alludes to a very gallant and witty George who swept her off her feet many years ago.
But reality is often a career, a home, a family. Soon we don't have time to be Don Draper, soon we don't want Don Draper around anymore. We just want help feeding the kids and folding the laundry. The men and women who do that with us and for us earn our admiration and our commitment to a life together. That works for awhile, we are happy we say to ourselves.
But in everyday life we learn of one another's frailties. In the play George fails as Department Head at his college. As Martha's father (the college President ) says in disgust, "George just doesn't have the stuff." For others it may not be career failure, it may be an extra 20 pounds, a bad snoring habit, or an enjoyment of golf over the pleasures of intimacy. Soon all that laundry folding is empty and stagnant. And can you really blame ourselves for feeling that way?
All of that leads to the dump Martha finds herself in at the start of the play. It is where we find ourselves when we start to consider what we might find when we click on that "search now" button on the Ashley Madison website.
Act II - In Search of Don Draper (or Walpurgisnacht)
Walpurgisnacht (or "night of the witches) is a "joyous spring festival" in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe. It is celebrated on the evening of April 30th each year and celebrates the coming of spring. As Halloween is the celebration of the dead, Walpurgisnacht is the celebration of rebirth after the long winter.
In the play, Act II (called Walpurgisnacht) is where things really start to fall apart for George, Martha, and their guests. Among other things Martha starts to act seductively towards Nick (the husband of the couple they are entertaining).
It is often at the end of several long winters over a marriage that we awake one day and wonder where we are and why we got here. We look at the person who we share a home with and wonder who they are and why we chose them. Is this really who I wanted to be with? Surely not! This person is not the young man who courted me as if I was his princess. She is not the coy young girl who thought I hung the moon. They mock me. Surely I deserve better, surely there is something better out there, surely there is a Don Draper in the world for me.
As Martha says in the play:
"George, my husband... George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me - whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy. Yes, I do wish to be happy. George and Martha: sad, sad, sad. Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: yes, this will do."
And so we hear about a site for married dating. First we think, what in the world is "married dating? How can that even exist."
Then we log on and we find so many interesting people who are interested in us!
"Romance and passion, why not have it all," says the 6'2" dark and handsome bad boy wine connoisseur who loves to hike the AT, take sunset drives in his Beemer along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and toured Guatemalan coffee farms last spring.
All of a sudden Don Draper is everywhere around us again. All of a sudden that load of his underwear is a 10 ton burden you didn't sign up for no matter how good his retirement plan is!
Walpurgisnacht is here and the witches of my soul are ready to take flight!
Act III - Who's Afraid of Don Draper (or the Exorcism)
In the play Act III is called the Exorcism. It is at this point that the characters are at a full sprint away from reality and towards false illusion and yet nearing the point where they come back to and find where illusion crashes into reality. By the end of the play we can assume that the "Fun and Games" George and Martha play are the stories about their son which is, in fact, their false illusion. It helps them cope with their infertility, what's missing in them.
For us our Exorcism, at the point that we enroll in Ashley Madison, is the act of jumping off of our life or perhaps jumping towards an illusion we hope will fulfill. But I rather think it the point at which reality begins to intersect with illusion. Most who really seek to have success on Ashley Madison do have success, at least to the extent that having success means meeting someone.
But what happens when we meet Don Draper?
He/she is fun initially of course. It's great she can meet me every other Tuesday at the Super 8 in Chantilly from 2:30 pm to 4:30; he can meet for a picnic at Great Falls on the last Wednesday of every month. They open their head and listen intently as if everything we say matters to them. They don't lecture, they are interested in us. He is that man I want to be with, he lets me be the lady I want to be. Yes the taste of cheesecake is seductive, delightful, and completely fulfilling for some time. It can be so because we are now living on that thin plane of false illusion.
And yet as my ladies stated above, you can't give your heart to Don Draper can you?
What is it that Don has that hubby doesn't. What does hubby have that Don doesn't?
Isn't it really stuck deep in the theme of that play. Isn't it balancing on that razor's edge between illusion and reality? What Mad Men has really done for us is remind us what we used to like in men. We swoon over the fedora, the perfect choice in neck-ware, the coolness of how they hold a drink, and open a door for a lady. Sure we laugh at the misogyny but this is illusion after all, we can set that aside for a moment and just enjoy those soft brown eyes peering through us and looking at us like the women we want to be with a man such as that. Yes, that's right; this is illusion after all, not reality.
But do we really want to go back in time to Sterling Cooper? Shame we can't shape illusion to become the reality we desire?
But why can't it?
Perhaps we are like Martha expecting the worst of our spouse, denying the best, encouraging mediocrity for fear that acceptance involves trust. And for that we retreat into rolls, falling into an unfortunate circuitous spiral towards lost purpose and dreams, conforming to something we'd like to escape but are too complacent to run from.
The fact is that if you are at this point, that man or women across the bed from you has likely failed miserably at something, just like George and Martha. And yet once they did have "the stuff" that made you swoon. If they rolled out of bed tomorrow in Don Draper's clothes would you accept them or would it scare you to flight?
Toward the end of the play George brings a bundle of snapdragons to Martha stating "flowers for the dead" as he walks by. Symbolically the flowers are for the dead son from their story which is of course false. The flowers could be inferred to be symbolic for the exorcism of the false illusions by which they have lived their life.
Could you accept the same collision of false illusion and reality? Would you accept flowers from hubby if he brought them to you in Don Draper's clothes?
No that man putting on pants in your closet is not really Don Draper. But as another dapper lad who dolled out false illusion once said "I may not be the wizard you were expecting but perhaps I can be the wizard you need."
What if Shannon let Ryan take her to a wine tasting out in the country and just sat back and let him be Don Draper for her. What if she let go and followed? What if Ryan didn't solve but simply listened and felt.
If you are willing to let MrSatisfaction be your Don Draper for two hours at that Super 8 in Chantilly could your hubby do the same? If you are willing to sweep NOVAMILF off her feet by taking her to Georgetown Cupcakes just because she said she always wanted to go couldn't you do so for your wife. Maybe they don't deserve it, maybe it would take a leap of faith, maybe it would take an act of trust when no act is deserved.
I ask you again, who is afraid of living with false illusion or rather allowing your false illusions to blend with reality? Who is afraid of giving their heart and soul? Who is afraid of a real bond with the person who charms you or allowing the person you chose to spend a life with to charm you once again?
I ask you Shannon, "who's afraid of Don Draper?"
Shannon speaking....... "I am Ryan, I am?"