"We live in an age of deformity. It's every man for himself around this place"
While his work has been lauded for its consistent challenges to ossified notions of identity, gender, sexuality, and class, Edward Albee is more than likely not the first modern American playwright to come to mind when one is seeking to reclaim a disability presence in drama. Certainly, his work defies genre classification, containing elements of the realist and absurd; over the course of his career he has challenged the notion of a dramaturgical normate, a process most visibly initiated in 1962 with his first full-length play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And just as ableism signals discomfort with the body's contingency, so too did the fragmentation of form in Who's Afraid instill a similar anxiety in critics:
Albee's play was troubling not only because of his characters' uninhibited behaviour, but because it blurred and destabilised the familiar categorical boundaries between Broadway's staple diet of domestic naturalism and the overt experimentalism of the new avant garde. (Bottoms, Who's Afraid 82)
That many debates about Who's Afraid center around the nature and extent of Albee's critiques of gender, sexuality, and the middle-class values of the bourgeoisie is well-established.1 Indeed, from his first play produced off-Broadway, The Zoo Story (1960) forward, Albee's plays consistently asserted this direct challenge to the normate as embodied in American individualism, the ideal of the American family, the notion of the American dream, and compulsory heteronormativity. Still, for all that his plays are, by his own definition, mirrors that he holds up to society to say "'This is who you are, this is how you behave. If you don't like it, why don't you change?'," no one has considered what his work might be asking us to consider about and through its disability presence (Savran 16).
That is not to say that critical discussions of Who's Afraid have not referenced disability, directly, indirectly, or metaphorically. The sheer saturation of the work with alcohol as a familiar device for George and Martha in their game-playing suggests alcoholism's presence as a distinct possibility.2 Critics have also discussed their infertility-as-impairment, as well as their possible "madness." This essay posits that of even more interest in Who's Afraid are Albee's references to eugenics; most directly expressed through George's attempts to deride and belittle Nick in Act One, they have been read as part and parcel of the fiercely antagonistic game-playing that occurs in the play, as well as a representation of the "two cultures" debate (i.e., the sciences and the humanities vying for ultimate superiority).3 While these readings have validity, it is also worth asking the question: what if we take George's dire warnings about eugenics as literal and serious, evoking in a palpable way the twentieth-century fate of disabled people, those George calls the "imperfect…the ugly, the stupid…the…unfit" (Albee 72)? With an audience watching this play not even two decades after the close of World War II, it is hard to imagine the specter of the Holocaust, and by extension, eugenics itself, not being raised in an audience's minds by George's words. Even so, eugenics had supposedly fallen out of favor in the postwar years, and so these references might well seem puzzling or even simply coincidental to contemporary readers; what might their presence signify if eugenics was ostensibly on the wane at the time of Who's Afraid's 1962 premiere, with our own age of genetic engineering and testing still on the horizon?
It is my contention that Albee engages and condemns both the history and continued presence of eugenics. Who's Afraid, in this light, contains something more than just debates about gender or communication. And so, to examine this, Albee's first great theatrical success, through the lens of disability studies is to come away with a deeper understanding both of the cultural significance of his work, particularly vis-à-vis disability, and of the presence of disability in American drama. Who's Afraid, through these "eugenic theatrics," firstaddresses the cultural constructions of normalcy that have brought eugenics into being in its multiple forms, and that perpetuate the oppression of disabled, gendered, and other marginalized bodies. Yet the play does not stop there; through invective directed by George toward Nick in a series of Act One speeches, the play makes an overt attack on eugenics — one replicated elsewhere in the work — that both exposes and decimates the pseudoscience itself.
As with so much of art, disability becomes more apparent once you begin to look for it. And so even though he comes at it slant, never focusing on it as the central subject, a reader can discern a disability presence in the early, explosive works that bookend Who's Afraid, plays such as The Zoo Story, The Death of Bessie Smith (1961), and The Ballad of the Sad Café (1963; adapted from the novel by Carson McCullers). In these, for example, one might find schizophrenia, alcoholism, dwarfism, and disability. Disability functions quite predictably, alternately expressing alienation and otherness, creating a sharp contrast to the normate, and operating as narrative prosthesis; there are perfect bodies that are satirized, freaks to be stared at, and wounded psyches that howl in their isolation. In The Zoo Story, for example, the main character, Jerry, expresses his antipathy for his obese, alcoholic landlady, as well as her diseased, disfigured dog. His alienation manifesting itself as seeming insanity, Jerry has a kinship with these reviled figures, one he alternately recognizes and denies. In Albee's adaptation of The Ballad of the Sad Café, the extraordinary bodies of mannish Amelia and her short-statured cousin are likewise portrayed as expressing alienation, but as Stephen Bottoms points out, Albee is able to call attention to an audience's own voyeuristic tendencies to stare at, and objectify, difference:
… Amelia finds a way — in Albee's version — to speak back to these cruel spectators. Overcharging a customer for a drink, she explains to them that it is "five cents for the coke, and a dollar for seein' me. A dollar for lookin' at the freak"…There is also an implicit question here for the theatre audience itself…have they come to peer voyeuristically at deviants, or to empathize with human beings? In humanizing the outcasts, Albee's Ballad also suggests that the group face of the majority may be the more truly freakish. (133)
In The Death of Bessie Smith, a wheelchair-using father is made to symbolize a desiccated, racist patriarchy; likewise, African-American singer Bessie Smith's body, mortally wounded in a car crash, is fragmented by play's end, and she becomes the literal embodiment of the body politic, being torn apart by seismic shifts in race relations. While most of these uses of disability are meant to create sympathy for the marginalized characters to whom they refer, it is important to note that the binaries of disabled/nondisabled, normate/nonnormate are still preserved, and that disability still can carry negative metaphoric weight. Or in other words, we may be chastened for our treatment of Jerry, Amelia, or Bessie Smith, but each play still depends on their ostracized presence to make its essential point, even if it does critique ways of looking and judging.
That such voyeurism permeates audience spectatorship is a point not lost on the scholar who approaches Who's Afraid with disability in mind. Indeed, ableist metaphors and diagnostic interpretive approaches haunt criticism of the play from early on, steeped in the language of pathology. Then as now, critics more often use disability imagery to suggest what must be excised in and about the play, rather than seeing disability as intimately linked with the play's project. Richard Schechner, for example, invokes a string of ableist images in a blistering 1964 attack on the play; Albee, he says, panders to a "morally blind" theatre, and an "impotent" audience. According to Schechner, Albee follows better playwrights "meagerly and blindly" as he creates work that is a "disease" and a "plague," representing a decadence that "is likely to have an infective…influence on our theatre" (9-10). At the time, The New York Daily News likewisecalled it "a sick play about sick people. They are neurotic, cruel and nasty. They really belong in a sanitarium for the mentally ill rather than on a stage" (qtd. in Bottoms, Who's Afraid 84). Critics psycholanalyzed the mental states of George and Martha, diagnosing their behavior as pathological, evidence of their being emotionally arrested "children" at best, mentally ill at worst. For example, Henry Knepler identifies George and Martha as "really children in a statement on arrested development which corresponds to Freudian theory," summarily proclaiming that "The imaginary child in Virginia Woolf is an indication of his parents' sickness....Albee, though he may not have intended this, cannot rid his plays of the idea that illusion is sick, or at least a matter of clinical concern" (Knepler 277-8). Some psychologists have gone a step further, ignoring the play as an artistic construction and interpreting it as a case study that could be scientifically dissected for further study; one wonders at the energy given over to containing the nervousness this play inspires by these persistent attempts at diagnostic containment.4 Even recent, more sympathetic interpretations of the play have fallen prey to the push to psychological diagnosis, such as one that attempts to explain some of the dysfunction in George and Martha's relationship by pointing to the mental and emotional toll of infertility (Winkel 116). Recycling the moral model, some interpretations transform Martha's refusal to adhere to strict conventions of demure femininity into a physical pathology. John Kenneth Galbraith, for instance, writes that the "expert creation" of Martha handily expresses a type of faculty wife who is "assertive, rowdy, and rough-talking and often quite rotund," effortlessly linking hysteria and fat (150). In fact, Galbraith is imposing weight-as-pathology in a way that appropriates Martha's embodiment away from the play, since the script calls for Martha to be distinct from the "petite blond" Honey through describing her as "a large, boisterous woman" who is attractive because of her overt sexuality, and because she is "Ample, but not fleshy" (Albee i). Allen Lewis is even more direct in shaping Martha to fit his own disdain of her; alternately linking her with other "monstrous" women who have destroyed their children such as Medea and Hedda Gabler, he deems Martha a "deformed Cybel, whose body seeks pleasure but will never bear a child. Unable to create, she destroys" (36; emphasis mine).
By the time Who's Afraid appeared, Albee had already created a stir on the theatrical scene with his one-act plays The American Dream and The Zoo Story; if his short plays were volleys across the bow of American complacency, Who's Afraid scored a direct hit. For 664 performances, Albee attacked the middle-class hypocrisy of those audience members who flocked in droves to see the production. The play focuses on George and Martha, a middle-aged couple at a small New England college. On the night of the play's action, they host a younger couple, Nick and Honey, for an evening of "fun and games." Over a nightcap that turns into a long night's journey into day, Martha tries to rouse George's jealousy while Nick flirts with Martha, the college president's daughter, in hopes of advancing his career. Nick and Honey become an audience to George and Martha as the latter alternately savage one another in their customary games of wordplay, insults, and intellectual one-upsmanship. But these games take a new, more insidious turn on this evening, as George begins to strip away the life-lies that have permeated his relationship with Martha, the principal one being the imaginary son they have created as a private game between them, countering and ostensibly filling the "lack" of their childlessness. Trying to torment George, Martha tells Nick and Honey about the son as though he existed, and for the first time, the game crosses over into the realm of the real. When this happens, George realizes the line between illusion and reality has become too dangerously blurred, and responds by figuratively killing off their son, thus ending the charade.
One way it is possible to see the play loosely aligned with disability theory is in its relentless savaging of bourgeois normalcy. Albee's play roundly attacks the WASP culture from which he came and which he ultimately fled as a young gay man, and several of the symbolic elements in the play speak to how stridently normalcy is enforced in the world of George and Martha, particularly with regards to gender. George and Martha, as many have noted, are named for the ur-American mother and father, George and Martha Washington. Similarly, we are posited at a small school in New England; the geographic locale and the liberal arts institution, once the sites of political and intellectual innovation, have now devolved into places for the policing of the boundaries of knowledge and identity. Or in short, the liberal arts are now anything but in New Carthage, itself named for an ancient city once splendid, now long destroyed. George, a history professor, literally is ancient history; anything he tries to create beyond those supposedly natural boundaries of discipline or genre (for example, the sensational novel he writes) is stifled by his father-in-law, the patriarch of the play who is the president of the college. More specifically, George is bound by strictures of masculinity to which he can't measure up; he was once humiliated in a boxing match with Martha and regularly is upbraided by her for being an ineffectual "flop," although we later learn she does, in fact, love him desperately. Nick is the full embodiment of the normate; he is young, intelligent, athletic, and handsome, and represents the latest generation of ambitious young male professors prepared to do whatever they can to reach the top, including sleeping with the college president's married daughter.
Martha, too, has been bound by gender roles. Her femininity is labeled excessive and braying, and her first marriage to a gardener, a Lady Chatterley-like expression of her own sexuality, was promptly annulled by her father. In a world where every one of her appetites is deemed excessive and cannot be channeled, where her husband is deemed effeminate, where she cannot please her father, where she cannot bear a child to fulfill the socially-prescribed role of mother, Martha's imagined son with George fills those perceived lacks. And Martha's game of what George calls "hump the hostess," her move to make him jealous by seducing Nick, is itself another way for Martha to find meaning. This pursuit of Nick-as-the-normate is accomplished with heavy irony, and not a slight sense of the ridiculous as it invokes two strangely contradictory, but equally banal narratives that result. She inserts herself into a hackneyed ritual of one-upsmanship as the thing-to-be-pursued by Nick, the latest in a long line of academic careerists who have crossed her bedroom threshold on the way up. She also manipulates Nick as the living manifestation of the son she and George were never able to have, just as picture-perfect as the boy she describes and whose fate they war over.
Critics have explored the extent to which this critique of gender norms circulates throughout the play through its various kinds of game-playing; as Bette Mandl confirms, "we are witnessing a deadly serious game, a gender game" (26). Bonnie Blumenthal Finkelstein argues that Albee
paints Martha as being tragically stifled by these [gender] norms, which allow no outlet for her enormous energy and vitality…Martha is denied the right to be the main character in her own life: she is only someone's daughter, someone's wife, no one's mother. (52)
Our assessment of Martha's "monstrosity" and her excessive anger shifts, Finkelstein argues, "when we focus on Albee's depiction of her lack of freedom, opportunity, and equality, not her threat toward 'proper' genitalia" (59). Clare Virginia Eby also points out that Albee explores gender as socially constructed:
while Martha parades her heterosexuality, Albee's characterization of her demonstrates that he conceives of gender as less about biology than about assuming certain qualities….Albee treats "real" or biological maleness and femaleness as incidental to the performance of gender, a performance that often takes place discursively. (604-5)
To confirm this, Eby further directs our attention to the performance of masculinity in Albee's play, positing that the triangulation between George, Martha, and Nick stages how the homosocial relations between men serve to reinforce heterosexuality; George's masculinity is affirmed, Eby asserts, by his victory in the battle for Martha.5
On one level, Albee's critique of gender, explored through George and Martha's game of creating a pretend son, allows Albee to take on the way in which eugenics had manifested itself at the time of the play's first production; that is, in an extreme pronatalism premised on traditional masculine and feminine roles. While many historians advance the popular idea that eugenics as a movement had waned in the postwar years, other scholarship has challenged that notion, arguing that eugenicist thinking had shifted not in degree, but rather, in kind. In her book Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom, Wendy Kline argues that what became pervasive in the decades immediately preceding Albee's play was "positive eugenics," in which those who were "genetically fit" were encouraged to procreate, ushering in an era of extreme pronatalism meant to be a "defense" of conservative gender and racial norms. Kline points out that a mother's adherence to this "natural" role became a measure of her fitness, not simply her genetic makeup (126). And indeed, a woman who somehow deviated from these roles might not only be an unfit mother; she might induce sterility itself:
…the notion that infertility was frequently a result of psychological rather than physiological disorders became a "newly fashionable idea" in the 1950s, when some doctors estimated it was the cause in up to 75 percent of all cases. This new theory of infertility appeared not only in medical journals, such as Fertility and Sterility, but in popular magazines, such as the Ladies' Home Journal. Infertile women were sometimes blamed for their sexual maladjustment, their "lack of femininity," an "unconscious rejection of motherhood," or refusing to give up their careers. (Kline 155)
One can imagine why an interpretation of Who's Afraid might veer dangerously close to this idea, identifying Martha's emasculation of George as the root (symbolic or otherwise) of their infertility.
Suzanne Macdonald Winkel asserts that instead, Albee rejects compulsory maternity of the times, using "setting, thematic structure, and characterizations… to subvert ideologies of 'motherhood and apple pie' that marked the decade between 1950 and the early 1960s" (105). But Albee's play not only mocks these ideas, it aggressively rejects pronatalism and positive eugenics through both couples. It is no accident that the first words that Nick and Honey hear when the door is flung open for them are not "come in!" but "FUCK YOU!" (Albee 20). This epithet sets the scene for the deconstruction of their coupledom that follows. Nick and Honey are the standard bearers of youth, gender complementarity, and fitness, and would seem ideally poised to produce the perfect nuclear family. George observes Nick running toward this biological imperative all too readily: "You people are going to make them in test tubes, aren't you? You biologists. Babies. What will become of the tax deduction? Has anyone figured that out yet? But you are going to have kids…anyway. In spite of history" (Albee 42-3). But as George (and we) quickly learn, the relationship is essentially a commercial transaction, since Nick has married Honey largely because of her father's wealth. Whether through hysteria or abortion (more than likely, we eventually realize, the latter), Honey has terminated her own pregnancies. Either scenario makes her a kind of satirical embodiment of pronatalist thinking; to think "the puff [of her hysterical pregnancy] went away…like magic…pouf!" because Honey wasn't ready for motherhood exposes itself as a ridiculous notion (as George's sardonic delivery suggests) (Albee 163). But the alternative — that Honey aborted her fetus(es) — gives the lie to the supposed inevitability of an innate maternal drive in women.
In one sense, one also sees from Albee's portrayal of them that George and Martha have been thrust into the game of creating a pretend son by the sexist, pronatalist environment of the time. Finkelstein observes that "Martha and George's infertility is a key area where the sex stereotypes of 1962 have a dreadful impact, especially on Martha" (55). Kundert-Gibbs concurs, noting that Martha is "effectively [an outcast] from 'normal' society, [her] ability to 'sire' children…calling into question the very validity of [her] existence" (232). Even something as subtle as the seemingly throwaway reference George makes to A Streetcar Named Desire through repeating one of its famous lines ("Flores; flores para los muertos.") subtly points out how much is sacrificed in the name of breeding (Albee 206). At the end of Tennessee Williams's play, Stella must refuse to believe that her husband Stanley has raped her sister Blanche in order to preserve the Kowalski family unit and a home for Stella's baby; and so, Blanche becomes one of "the dead," insane and institutionalized. As for George and Martha, they certainly bear on their backs a similar punishment for their own lack of procreation; Martha speaks plaintively of how often she has wanted to be able to speak of her "son": "Sometimes…sometimes when it's night, when it's late, and…and everybody is…talking…I forget and I…want to mention him…but I…HOLD ON…I hold on…but I've wanted to…so often…" (Albee 251). The response they have effected in the creation of their imaginary son is at once a private in-joke and palliative; it seems to norm them in their own eyes, even as it satirizes compulsory parenthood and underscores the "lack" by which they are therefore defined in such a world. And so Albee at once damns the pressures of pronatalism and extends the refutation of infertility-as-pathology even to the very end of the play; when Nick specifically asks him, "You couldn't have…any?", George pointedly replies, "We couldn't." Martha repeats this "we couldn't" statement with what Albee describes as a "hint of communion" (252). This is a striking contrast, for example, to Nick's constant repetition throughout the play that Honey is "slim-hipped" and "frail" and therefore implicitly to blame for the couple's childlessness in any case. George and Martha unify in the face of what Nick-as-normate represents, and simultaneously deny him the power to diagnose either one of them alone as defective. As we shall see in a moment, however, what Nick represents extends well beyond a critique of compulsory fertility.
One could stop a reading of Albee there, and argue in favor of his disdain for gender oppression and the way his critique of positive eugenics is a specific embodiment of that. But I contend that the play functions on another, more all-encompassing level with regards to disability, or more specifically, its references to eugenics; these attack not only bourgeois standards of gender normalcy, but biological bases of superiority that circumscribe all bodies. Recent critical work on Albee's critique of gender has implied this connection without actively pursuing it. Finkelstein, for example, observes that
When George projects a future world of test-tube babies, enforced conformity, and "the sterility of the imperfect…the…unfit"…, he may conversely be implying that the unintentionally sterile feel unfit, like failures, in the 1962 world of the play's setting. This definition of failure is particularly acute for Martha, since a woman's whole identity at the time revolved around her role as mother. (55)
Finkelstein reads these references to sterilization, a historical reality at the time, metaphorically, as a way to describe Martha's feelings. Mandl also reads a different part of George's extended comments in that moment as part of the game-playing of George and Martha that highlights the constructedness of gender and maternity:
The game of "bringing up baby"…is at the heart of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Though claiming to Nick pregnancy and then a false pregnancy, Honey was apparently aborting the children she conceived by him. All is chaos in the motherland. But the world that George abhors as an alternative, with "a race of men…test-tube bred…incubator born…superb and sublime"…would, as he guesses, lead to a "certain loss of liberty"…diversity, art. (26)
Mandl's reading suggests that this eugenicist vision becomes the result of the social construction of gender, with the destruction its enforcement causes on both Martha and Honey taken to its logical extreme. Winkel, by contrast, reads George's speeches as an example of the tension between himself and Nick, but even more so, as an example of Albee's prescience in detecting "future debates surrounding reproductive technology as he sets up an ethical dichotomy between George and Nick" (122). All three readings are compelling and interesting, but what all three ignore is that George's speech, and the critiques made elsewhere in the play it references, very directly address eugenics neither as imagined dystopic alternative nor futuristic dilemma, but as a set of ideas that have already been acted upon.6
It has been well established that the subject of eugenics is of direct relevance to disability studies scholars. It reached its apotheosis in Hitler's Germany, where approximately a quarter of a million disabled people were summarily killed in the T4 program and the Holocaust, and where eugenicist ideas likewise justified the mass genocide of millions of others (Blaser 792). However, its precepts imbued American life and culture in ways that reached far beyond its most visible and horrific manifestations:
To diminish instances of social "vice" and the prevalence of social "defects," eugenicists extolled a wide range of restrictive social policies including marriage laws prohibiting unions of those diagnosed as feebleminded, epileptic, and insane; an expansion of lifelong incarceration in institutions for the feebleminded; laws that legalized state-sponsored sterilization programs; immigration restrictions on people with disabilities; widespread intelligence testing in public schools aimed at identifying feeblemindedness at the earliest possible age; and segregation of "backward" students in special or ungraded classrooms. (Snyder and Mitchell, "Eugenics" 624)
Eugenics simultaneously and literally policed and erased disability in the United States, where its precepts gained great popularity as a way of countering the supposed menace emerging from physical or mental difference.
Like Kline, Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, in their work Cultural Locations of Disability, see eugenics as pervasive throughout the twentieth century and beyond. They further argue, however, that it is vital we not see it as a momentary aberration or lapse of scientific responsibility, but rather, as the larger framework upon which has rested the subjugation of the bodies of disabled people. Indeed, those bodies are necessary for identifying that-which-is-not-normate: "The evolution of a science of heredity provided a foundation for the development of an increasingly poisoned social atmosphere with respect to the treatment of citizens with disabilities as a general descriptor for social undesirables" (Snyder and Mitchell, Cultural Locations 74). In fact, disability has what they describe as a "foundational role in…oppressive biological schemes" (Snyder and Mitchell, Cultural Locations 16). Disability oppression does not then, in this case, simply parallel gender oppression; the material existence of disability is the catalyst and raison d'etre for systems of regulating the body that move forward the regulation of other types of bodily difference (although Snyder and Mitchell are very specific in defining the material repercussions this process had for disabled bodies). They point out that while identity-based theories have informed disability studies and been invigorated by the intersection, "Race, feminist, and queer studies have all participated to one degree or another in a philosophical lineage that seeks to distance those social categories from more 'real' biological incapacities" (17).7 Conversely, and presciently, what we see in Albee is not simply a localized critique of positive eugenics, but a purposeful and decided understanding of how interconnected the policing of the "unfit" is with the regulation of other kinds of identity.
George has a strong reaction early in the play when he learns Nick is a biologist; he sees himself, personally and professionally (as an historian) pitted against Nick, and duty bound to expose what has been rendered in the past — by biologists like Nick in particular — as natural and scientifically "progressive": "You're the one! You're the one's going to make all that trouble…making everyone the same, rearranging the chromozones, or whatever it is. Isn't that right?" (Albee 39) It is George's business to know history, and as the violent (perhaps even autobiographical?) novel he writes suggests, his historiographical approach is about laying bare humanity's darker instincts. Not surprisingly, then, as an historian not even two decades removed from the Holocaust, George has good reason to point out (and thereby remind the audience of) the "trouble" caused by the scientific quantification of identity taken to an extreme. At first, his revelation of Nick's "nefarious" purposes have a joking tone, in which George seems to turn his mockery of Nick into a self-deprecating joke:
Biology, hunh?….I read somewhere that science fiction is really not fiction at all…that you people are rearranging my genes so that everyone will be like everyone else. Now I won't have that! It would be a…shame. I mean…look at me! Is it really such a good idea…if everyone was forty something and looked fifty-five? (Albee 40)
George is doubly aware when it comes to embodiment, however. As an individual, he knows how his own life has been circumscribed by his failure to carry out the role of worthy, masculine heir to Martha's father seemingly crafted for him; as an historian, he understands the larger social context in which that failure looms large. In this sense, then, the danger of Martha's continued playing of the two games she has going simultaneously, Hump the Hostess, as well as the extended narrative of her son's existence, is doubly dangerous. It is not just that Martha seems personally to have trouble distinguishing between truth and illusion; she supports, in sustaining both games, disturbing narratives of pronatalism and biological determinism. It is therefore striking to see George make the multiple strong and strident diatribes against eugenicist thinking in speeches made about Nick to Martha toward the end of Act One; indeed, this set of speeches provides a template for understanding the larger pattern of the play's attack on eugenic ideas.
The very notion that one can breed superior beings is taken to task at the outset of George's diatribe as he describes Nick's work to Martha:
It's very simple, Martha, this young man is working on a system whereby chromosomes can be altered…well, not all by himself — he probably has one or two coconspirators — the genetic makeup of a sperm cell changed, reordered…to order, actually…for hair and eye color, stature, potency…I imagine…hairiness, features, health…and mind. Most important…Mind. All imbalances will be corrected, sifted out…propensity for various diseases will be gone, longevity assured. We will have a race of men…test-tube bred…incubator born…superb and sublime. (Albee 71)
George seems to be listing the quintessential list of features that signify eugenic "fitness," particularly given the emphasis in eugenics on weeding out "feeble-mindedness." But as his sarcasm suggests, the bodies in this play fail miserably at their own attempts to engineer fitness. Martha describes her marriage to George, for example, as originating in an attempt to find a suitable heir for her father: "When you've made something, you want to pass it on, to somebody. So I was sort of on the lookout for…prospects with the new men. An heir apparent" (Albee 88). George was "young…intelligent…and…bushy tailed…and sort of cute," but their union never materializes into what Martha or her father define as success, since they both discover that "Georgie boy didn't have the stuff…that he didn't have it in him!" (Albee 89, 92). George has a piercing, keen mind, but will not mind Martha's father in either ambition or imaginative prowess, choosing to write a disturbing novel, reject hypermasculinity, and refuse to climb the academic ladder. By the estimation of those who rule the heights of "Parnassus," George is a "flop." But he is hardly alone; the figures who should seem to be our eugenic stock themselves devolve by play's end, with Nick literally impotent and Honey on a bathroom floor; regressed to a prenatal phase, she is "rolled up like a fetus, sucking away [on her thumb]" (Albee 184).
George goes on to decry the standardization that would emerge from eugenic efforts:
"But! everyone will tend to be rather the same…Alike. Everyone…and I'm sure I'm not wrong here…will tend to look like this young man here" (Albee 71). Nick's biology is his destiny, as is fitting for this world of one-upsmanship; his perfection seemingly ordains as given his success and desirability. A blonde, blue-eyed light heavyweight champion, he is ready to put his youth, his looks, and his sexual prowess at the service of his career, through sleeping with Martha. Nick may be the normate, but he's also "old Nick," the temptation to represent and reproduce the normate-as-ideal again and again throughout history. It is no wonder that George calls his "son" with Martha "a…comfort, a beanbag," a mutually-produced panacea, a seductive reproduction (Albee 109).
But even as this standardization is decried, Albee chillingly reasserts the real history of sterilization that has been compelled in the name of such a goal:
GEORGE. It will, on the surface of it, be all rather pretty…quite jolly. But of course there will be a dank side to it, too. A certain amount of regulation will be necessary…uh…for the experiment to succeed. A certain number of sperm tubes will have to be cut.
Millions upon millions of them…millions of tiny little slicing operations that will leave just the smallest scar, on the underside of the scrotum but which will assure the sterility of the imperfect…the ugly, the stupid…the… unfit. (Albee 71-2)
George has allied himself with — and thereby elicited our sympathy for — the "imperfect" and "the unfit," and these "scientific," supposedly neutral classifications betray themselves as loaded with valuation, ringing harshly as they are spoken aloud. The absent presence of disabled bodies, both those who were sterilized and those who were erased, is evoked here. And it underscores that this play, too, is awash with the ghosts of dead children, literal and figurative, sacrificed to false visions of "improvement." Martha initiates this imagery, quoting the 1949 Bette Davis melodrama Beyond the Forest when she famously cries "What a dump!" at the play's beginning. In doing so, she not only voices discontent, she also references a movie heroine who induces an abortion (and dies from the resulting peritonitis, as Martha notes) in order to try and claim the mirage of a better life with a wealthy lover. Martha is rejected by a father who thinks little of her or her husband, while in the face of his father-in-law's ultimatum, George burns his manuscript (his "child," if we use the parlance of another famous manuscript burned in modern drama, that of Eilert Lovborg in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler). The fiction of Honey's hysterical pregnancies dissolves in the face of the realization that Honey has had abortions in a kind of faux-eugenicist move to preserve her own perfect, petite body. As I shall discuss in a moment, the culminating death — that of George and Martha's son — is a reversal of this process, an attempt to destroy the illusory ideal in favor of a more realistic and variegated vision of what constitutes life worth living.
When Martha first hears that Nick is in biology; she is pleased: it is, as she says, "right at the meat of things," less "abstruse" (Albee 69). And indeed, Nick, who George at one point insults by calling him a "smug, self-righteous little…scientist," well believes in his innate superiority to George (Albee 102). "You've got history on your side…I've got biology on mine," Nick tells him (Albee 125). George mocks this pretense, however, to the innate intellectual, racial, or physiological superiority of some bodies over others, as he continues to vilify the work of Nick and scientists like him:
…with this, we will have, in time, a race of glorious men….I suspect we will not have much music, much painting, but we will have a civilization of men, smooth, blond, and right at the light heavyweight limit.
…a race of scientists and mathematicians, each dedicated to and working for the glory of the supercivilization. (Albee 72-3)
Nick's self-replication would be an innovation if his self — and story — had not already been so overproduced, so widely circulated, and therefore become so banal within the world of New Carthage and beyond. It is the story of those truly mediocre in their vision (or lack thereof), those who aspire to a kind of standardized greatness but are really the "ants." Instead, George allies himself with variability and imagination: against the utopia-turned-dystopia, against compulsory able-bodiedness, and with the "imperfect…the ugly, the stupid…the…unfit" (Albee 72). He mourns the loss of both "variety and unpredictability," asserting that that is the true legacy of history, art and biology:
There will be a certain…loss of liberty, I imagine, as a result of this experiment…but diversity will no longer be the goal. Cultures and races will eventually vanish…the ants will take over the world.
And I, naturally, am rather opposed to all this. History, which is my field…history, of which I am one of the most famous bogs…
…will lose its glorious variety and unpredictability. I, and with me the …the
surprise, the multiplexity, the sea-changing rhythm of…history, will be eliminated. There will be order and constancy…and I am unalterably opposed to it. I will not give up Berlin! (Albee 73)
Everything — life, liberty, happiness — depends on, as George comes to understand as he angrily denounces the erasure of "cultures and races," resisting the continued, and insidious, homogenizing narratives of progress so strongly manifest in the eugenicist impulse.8
When George says, then, a few pages later, that "the one thing in the world I am sure of is my partnership, my chromosomological partnership in the creation of our…blond-eyed, blue-haired son," it is with a newer consciousness on his part and ours (Albee 79). Critics have identified this understanding as an ability to look past illusion; as Larissa MacFarquhar points out, "[the] problem with marriages in Albee plays is usually not that the husband and wife are at odds but that they are too little at odds — with the result that, over years, they build themselves a reassuring cage of habits and understandings and forget how to be alive" (74). I would argue that here, it is a realization that is even more pronounced: George understands his complicity, in these games with Martha, in perpetuating a kind of eugenicist thinking, at least to the extent that he has sanctioned their continued focus on an illusory ideal: for them, as a couple, but also beyond the boundaries of their relationship. On a personal level, George and Martha must give up their own wish (as represented by the golden youth of Nick, Honey, and their illusory son) to be able to begin again, to embrace the opportunities that exist for those who are rewarded by being young and fit, and therefore fit in. George's resistance to Nick in these speeches, his refusal to "give up Berlin," also importantly foreshadows the exorcism that is effected when George reclaims freedom and kills his "son" by revealing to Nick and Honey that he never existed. The son and what he represents, however, is not simply George and Martha's projected wish to be the normate or begin again; it is also a cultural delusion. So widespread and insidious is it, that George must resort at the end of the play to exorcism, destroying the pretend existence of their son even as Martha dreamily continues to imagine his presence:
And his eyes were green…green with…if you peered so deep into them…so deep…bronze…bronze parentheses around the irises…such green eyes!
…and he loved the sun! …He was tan before and after everyone…and in the sun his hair…became…fleece.
…beautiful, beautiful boy. (Albee 233-4)
There's a bizarre twist on eugenics and a kind of reverse sterilization effected here: now illusory, hyperidealized fitness is decimated. It's a compelling inversion of the usual "cure or kill" model in disability (in which these are the only two acceptable states relative to disability), and the "cure" results in a drive to embrace indeterminacy and imperfection. George and Martha, as we the viewers, are left uncertain as to what their ultimate fate is to be. The "cure" that is effected is no containment at all; it is, rather, the reintroduction of variability, uncertainty, and indeterminacy as what is truly natural.
Critic Tamsen Wolff's recent study, Mendel's Theatre, traces the presence of eugenics in early twentieth-century American drama. Her work shows both how the eugenics movement deployed popular performance to advocate its tenets, as well as how playwrights including Susan Glaspell, Eugene O'Neill, and Angelina Weld Grimké provide in their theatrical work "a circulation of related intellectual preoccupations" (Wolff 8). Wolff is careful to specify that the playwrights in question adapted some eugenic ideas while rejecting others; tracing this duality underscores her belief that we must "rethink the tendencies in performance studies to romanticize theatre as primarily a site of subversion" (7). What Albee's work in Who's Afraid shows us, however, is that there were, in fact, plays and playwrights taking an unequivocal stand against eugenic thinking in its multiple forms, and the resultant oppression, even after eugenics itself seems to have been discredited. This is not to say that the work lacks complexity or some ambiguity. Who's Afraid does have a salutary ending that is specifically linked to affirming unknowability; not in an absurdist sense that insists on existence as meaningless, but in one that affirms optimism for a greater range of humanity. Albee creates in American drama of the time a new kind of "crip consciousness," even at a time when disability rights and self-consciously created disability theater were yet to come. Forced sterilization was not a metaphor, but a reality for bodies of that time; the gay identity of men like Albee was still classified as an illness. Albee's play shows a consciousness of and kinship to bodies quite literally ostracized and imperiled by the illusion of perfection, and an understanding that that peril is generated by the perpetuation of mythologies of social identity. Representational and social histories are intertwined, and in Albee's universe, have distinct implications for one another. It's fitting that disability is an absent presence in this play: we cannot fixate on one individuated, pathologized body, and so are haunted by (as well we should be) the systemic formation of disability within the American body politic. Although Albee's later works would further question binarism and the politics of identity, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? makes a powerful first movement. Albee's play compels us to look at history, specifically a disability history that has been and is yet to come.9
A Postscript: Eugenic Theatrics in Production
As a postscript to this essay, I want to briefly discuss how this innovative attention to disability presence in Albee's work has been engaged by artists from within disability culture, namely Los Angeles-based Blue Zone Theatre. Founded in 2008, the company is the only one in the country created by professional actors with disabilities. During a staged reading of the Albee play by members of the company, those same anti-eugenicist ideas that George so witheringly expresses became apparent to the director and actors, and in 2009, Who's Afraid became its second production.
I had the opportunity to see two performances of the production, and many of the choices made by director and actors worked to enhance the "eugenic theatrics" I discuss above. To begin with, George (Jack Patterson), Martha (Ann Colby Stocking), and Honey (Teal Sherer) were all played by disabled actors, while Nick (Paul Haitkin) was played by a nondisabled actor (although one evening, George was played by a nondisabled understudy (Jeff Elam), a choice I shall discuss further in a moment). Such casting underscored the notion that Nick represented the normate, of course. Yet the mingling of disabled and nondisabled identities in production was also important. After all, not every power play in Who's Afraid is effected by "Nick the normate;" that disabled characters squared off against one another, as well as against Nick, suggested the larger, more systemic presence of the normate that was able to be invoked, reproduced by, and circulated through all of them — not just literally embodied by Nick.
The casting of disabled actors was also a way for the production to echo Albee's stand against compulsory able-bodiedness, particularly where the women were concerned. Martha, as powerfully portrayed by Ann Colby Stocking, was vital, sexual, passionate, and laughing, as she showed a power and eroticism in disabled womanhood; her embodiment powerfully rewrote conventional narratives of disability. For example, when Martha asks Nick, "Have you kept your body?" Stocking did so with an appreciative lingering look that not only reversed the gaze, but layered on another kind of revolutionary potential: the disabled woman fixing and containing the normate male in her own stare. The blonde, slim youthfulness of Teal Sherer, also a wheelchair user, was perfect for Honey. On one hand, she had the doll-like look of the woman Nick would marry, and her being disabled suggested that Nick has married a woman he can dominate (or so he thinks). The power disparity between Nick and Honey, already so powerfully extant in the play, is made even more strikingly apparent by Nick's height over Honey, enabling him to grab her wrists from above when she moves to strike him in anger. But Sherer's disability was not used simply to reinscribe ableism any more than her Honey was a mere victim; she also danced in the wheelchair, a gorgeous moment that directly challenged what we as an audience might think we know about the aesthetic possibility of movement for the disabled body.
The use of disabled actors did, however, enable some of Albee's language to suggest the pernicious effects of internalized ableism. For example, when Martha tells George not to be a "flop," her words even more forcefully suggested the power of the normate when one disabled character is pictured saying it to another. Ann Colby Stocking, in an interview, also reflected on the ways that ableism resonated in the George/Martha relationship differently, depending on whether the actor she is playing against was disabled or nondisabled:
There's a different feeling [that one gets about Martha as played opposite a disabled actor playing George]; that I settled for George and he settled for me and we belong together. They [George and Martha] both feel responsible; they've both been abandoned and feel responsible. If it's a nondisabled George, he's going to intrinsically have more power; in some ways, it [Martha's love for him] feels more desperate. [With a disabled actor playing George] I feel more like we both failed. When I do the speeches [as Martha], different things hit with one guy than the other guy.
A nondisabled George also underscored the implicit cultural connection between the normate as masculine and disability as "feminized," since it meant that in the production, the male characters were nondisabled and the female characters were disabled. And when nondisabled George slaps Martha to make her "battle ready" (as compared to the choice Patterson made, as a disabled George, of poking her with his cane), it created a more frightening image of George's power over Martha in that moment, even suggesting abuse, implicitly referencing those disabled people who have been abused by nondisabled custodians and "caregivers."
The most compelling effect of a disabled actor playing George, however, came when George delivered the speech challenging Nick for embracing eugenic imperatives "in spite of history." The two sat closely, face to face, and during their confrontation the actor playing George delivered his lines with quiet menace, punctuating them with jabs of a cane thrust in Nick's direction. The action was powerful, angry, and sharp: an entire disability history answering back to oppression. In that moment, George's demeanor was deadly calm, as this nondisabled figure named exactly what had been and would be done to enforce normalcy; in that moment, Nick looked taken aback, and appropriately on the defensive.
Once these histories of power, individual and systemic, were revealed and eviscerated, the direction of the play emphasized a hopeful ending. Although Martha looked shattered, George caressed her and held her close, kissing her on the top of her head. And in the background, as the lights went down, Etta James's "At Last" cued up. It affirmed that at last, real relief would now descend over George and Martha's home. And at last, the crip aesthetic of Blue Zone could work with Albee's play to fully embody a transgressive potential of the play that had heretofore gone unnoticed.
- Albee, Edward. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: New American Library, 2005. Print.
- Bhasin, Kamal. "'Women, Identity, and Sexuality': An Interview with Edward Albee." Journal of American Drama and Theatre 7 (1995): 18-40. Print.
- Blaser, Arthur. "Genocide." Encyclopedia of Disability. Ed. Gary L. Albrecht. Vol. 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2006. 789-94. Print.
- Bottoms, Stephen. "Albee's Monster Children: Adaptations and Confrontations." The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Ed. Stephen Bottoms. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 127-47. Print.
- ---. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
- Davis, Walter A. Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama, and the Audience. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. Print.
- Eby, Clare Virginia. "Fun and Games with George and Nick: Competitive Masculinity in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Modern Drama 50 (2007): 604-618. Print.
- Finkelstein, Bonnie Blumenthal. "Albee's Martha: Someone's Daughter, Someone's Wife, No One's Mother." American Drama 5 (1995): 51-70. Print.
- Flasch, Joy. "Games People Play in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Modern Drama 10 (1967): 280-8. Print.
- Galbraith, John Kenneth. "The Mystique of Failure: A Latter-Day Reflection on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Eds. Philip C. Kolin and J. Madison Davis. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. 149-51. Print.
- Kilker, M.J. "Children and Childishness in the Plays of Edward Albee." Players 46.5 (1971): 252-6. Print.
- Kline, Wendy. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Print.
- Knepler, Henry. "Edward Albee: Conflict of Tradition." Modern Drama 10 (1967): 274-79. Print.
- Kolin, Philip C. and J. Madison Davis, eds. Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. 149-51. Print.
- Kundert-Gibbs, John. "Barren Ground: Female Strength and Male Impotence in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Staging the Rage: The Web of Misogyny in Modern Drama. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998. 230-47. Print.
- MacFarquhar, Larissa. "Passion Plays: The Making of Edward Albee." The New Yorker 4 Apr. 2005: 68-77. Print.
- Lewis, Allan. "The Fun and Games of Edward Albee." Educational Theatre Journal 16 (1964): 29-39. Print.
- Mandl, Bette. "Sisters (or Brothers) under the Skin: Williams's Blanche and Albee's
- Martha." The Tennessee Williams Literary Journal 6 (2008): 23-8. Print.
- Mann, Bruce J. "An Interview with Edward Albee." Edward Albee: A Casebook. Ed. Bruce J. Mann. New York: Routledge, 2003. 129-44. Print.
- Post, Robert M. "Cognitive Dissonance in the Plays of Edward Albee." Quarterly Journal of Speech 55 (1969): 54-60. Print.
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- Stocking, Ann Colby. Telephone interview. 27 February 2009. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee. Dir. Sara Botsford. Perf. Ann Colby
- Stocking, Teal Sherer, Paul Haitkin, and Jeff Elam. NoHo Arts Center, North Hollywood. 27 February 2009 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee. Dir. Sara Botsford. Perf. Ann Colby
- Stocking, Teal Sherer, Paul Haitkin, and Jack Patterson. NoHo Arts Center, North Hollywood. 28 February 2009.
- Watzlawick, Paul, Janet Helmick Beavin, and Don D. Jackson. Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1967. Print.
- Winkel, Suzanne Macdonald. Childless Women in the Plays of William Inge, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. Diss. University of North Dakota, 2008. Print.
- Wolff, Tamsen. Mendel's Theatre: Heredity, Eugenics, and Early Twentieth-Century American Drama. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Claire Virginia Eby defines the threads of critical and pedagogical interpretation in this way: "Most define the focal point as George and Martha (the Strindbergian marriage and battle of the sexes), while some focus on Martha (as illustrating Albee's misogyny or his sympathy for strong women, depending on the observer's viewpoint), and several on George (often as a heroic figure, whether for stripping away illusions or for affirming humanistic values)" (601).
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Even in the possible presence of alcoholism, Albee resists simple stereotype and the moral model of disability. The use of alcohol in the play does not even seem to approach the level of narrative prosthesis: its consumption is neither the catalyst for the plot nor the direct cause of despair in the play but rather, is the social lubricant that allows the truth-telling to occur in rapid-fire fashion. Characters may seem decimated and destructive drunks, but the presence of alcohol allows characters to "peel the label." Alcohol is a means of puncturing illusion, getting at the truth, and a way to deconstruct the ways in which gender and the body are circumscribed within New Carthage. Or, as George puts it, you peel labels, and "when you get through the skin, all three layers, through the muscle, slosh aside the organs, and get down to bone…you know what you do then?...When you get down to bone, you haven't got all the way, yet. There's something inside the bone…the marrow…and that's what you gotta get at" (Albee 225). In this way, the image of heavy drinking as a means of stripping away illusion creates a strong connection to the Eugene O'Neill plays with which Who's Afraid is most frequently compared, Long Day's Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh.
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For example, Eby posits that by placing the humanities and sciences in conflict, Albee is able to represent both the two cultures debate and the destructive nature of hypermasculinity: "[while] the juxtaposition of humanities professor and scientist enriches the cultural commentary of Who's Afraid, the deeper reason for George's assault is to engage Nick in masculine combat, and at this level, while the historian may seem victorious, the victory is hardly admirable" (607-8).
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See also Joy Flasch, "Games People Play in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1967); Paul Watzlawick, Janet Helmick Beavin, and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967); Robert Post, "Cognitive Dissonance in the Plays of Edward Albee" (1969); M.J. Kilker, "Children and Childishness in the Plays of Edward Albee" (1971); and Walter A. Davis, Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama, and the Audience (1994). Using the play as a kind of clinical case study, Flasch applies the psychiatric theories about game-playing and identity developed by Eric Berne to Who's Afraid. Watzlawick et al. use the play to analyze communication systems, while Post treats the characters as literal examples of what happens when cognitive dissonance runs amok, averring that the play shows resolution as only possible when George and Martha move "from their immature fantasy world to the brink of awareness and maturity" (59). Similarly, Kilker discusses the childishness of all the characters in Who's Afraid as symptomatic of a more deep-seated psychological infantalism. Finally, Davis explores the psychology of the play as manifested both in its central characters and its audience.
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What is interesting, and perhaps explains some of the tension in the is-he-or-isn't-he debates about Albee's feminism is the contradiction in his own comments on the play's treatment of gender. He observes, for example, that there can be "terrible things…in heterosexual relationships that have gone bad, to hold them together — economic relationships, children, the pressures of society and things like this" (Bhasin 26). And yet, he seems to agree with his interviewer that Martha's pathology is not just the result of a societally-based pressure to have children, but of a thwarted maternal instinct: "I think all female creatures have that instinct, that motherhood feeling" (Bhasin 35). Given these comments, it is perhaps not surprising that a critic such as John Kundert-Gibbs identifies the problem with Martha is that she is "driven by [her] biology to produce children," that she is trapped between a typically male ambition and her own mother-instinct. But while Kundert-Gibbs's intention is to decry the play's misogyny in this regard (since Martha is given no way to escape this impossible dilemma), he ends up reasserting essentialist gender norms of his own.
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Eby's description of the relationship between George and Nick as a competition "to see which is the better man and fitter mate for Martha" contains an implicit Darwinian reference. Although Eby does not pursue this idea of survival of the fittest except as a one-time way to describe the competitive performance of masculinity in the play, I think the language choice is interesting; it hints at what I believe are very real connections made in the play's references to eugenics, both overt and less so, between its critique of gender and other strident forms of enforcing normalcy (such as social Darwinism).
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Indeed, Tobin Siebers argues that this problem persists today, even among so-called "enlightened" critics. He argues in his 2008 Disability Theory that in their infatuation with cyborgian forms, poststructuralist critics working in body theory have allowed themselves to actually, ironically, deny the materiality of the body through celebrating a romanticized vision of its pleasured possibility.
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The reference to Berlin, of course, underscores George's commitment to freedom by paraphrasing John F. Kennedy's refusal to cede Berlin to Communism, an affirmation made in the President's famous speech of June 26, 1963. But it also puts the period on this series of speeches by directly referencing Germany, implicitly pointing to it as the place in which genocide had so recently been perpetrated for eugenicist ends, where "cultures and races" did "vanish."
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Acknowledgements: I want to especially thank the students in two of my Davidson College classes for their assistance with this article. The students in English 388 (Contemporary Drama), spring 2008, participated enthusiastically in discussions about the play during which I first considered my thoughts on the anti-eugenicist impulses in Albee's play The students of English 494 (Disability and Literature), spring 2009, each read and responded to a draft of this essay, and I acknowledge and thank them individually for their wit, generosity, and extremely helpful and intelligent suggestions: Emily Cannon, Kendra Chapman, Esther Cline, Chip Douglas, Patrick McArdle, Cailyn Rood, Courtney Siegel, Jared Smith, and Maureen Wright. I also want to thank the two anonymous peer reviewers for Disability Studies Quarterly who provided such rigorous and helpful feedback. This essay is dedicated to Kelly Chaston Ameri.
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