Connubial discord has been in my thoughts this week, even more than usual; believe me, this is saying something, as, both in terms of its occurrences in life as it’s lived and its depictions in literature and in ‘the lively arts’, it is one of my very few interests. In part, marital strife is at the forefront of my mind because I have just picked up – on the cheap, what’s more – a gorgeous special edition DVD of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Hovering at the bargain bin, I tucked this treasure under my arm as carefully as I would a unicorn, musing fondly on the degree to which its characters let it all hang out.
Having said that, all I have watched from it, as yet, is a priceless documentary called Elizabeth Taylor – an Intimate Portrait. Everything about it has the whiff of embalming fluid; even though it was made in 1975, when Taylor was only in her early forties, it’s as though it were put together on the occasion of her death. This is partly because there are no interviews actually with Taylor, meaning that she is an overbearing ethereal presence, in the manner of the first Mrs de Winter. Rather than hearing from the woman herself, we have the testimony of Rock Hudson, in the days that he was still pretending he was attracted to females; and of director Richard Brooks, the director of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, who smokes a great pipe and reminisces about how they’d have cake parties on set to encourage Taylor to eat more, a tactic that everyone involved must have come to regret. All the questioning of these individuals is done by a slurring Peter Lawford, who resembles a piece of beef jerky were it dressed by Emilio Pucci.
I could afford to kick back with Intimate Portrait without first watching the movie because the signature aspects of Virginia Woolf have never left me: notably, Richard Burton always at the decanter, and Elizabeth Taylor bedecked in jewels and fagging on to a degree that leaves me lost in admiration. Of course, aside from the superb performances of the ‘Battling Burtons’ in this particular film, the two of them are so thrilling to watch because of the extent to which the viewer believes that they were really just bringing all their problems to work and putting them to excellent use.
The pair tried to recreate the old black magic in 1983, when, having been divorced twice and with Burton on the express train to the morgue, they appeared in a Broadway production of Noel Coward’s lovely ‘comedy of manners’ Private Lives about, of course, a massively glamorous couple who, in the terminology of the hateful U2, can’t live with or without each other. The New York Times Review noted that when Burton made his first entrance as Elyot Chase, he resembled ‘a retired millionaire steeling himself for an obligatory annual visit to the accountant’ and that there was ‘no bounce as he walks about on his stacked boots’. In short, the reviewer goes to town in damning the production as a shoddy money-making enterprise, which it clearly was. I still wish that I could have been there, if only to hear how Burton would have uttered what is, for some reason, my favourite line from the play, ‘I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe’.
Nonetheless, I myself have been burned at the theatre far too many times. A few years ago, I decided to subscribe to a season at the Sydney Theatre Company, and I did not find the game to be worth the candle. Aside from anything, most of the productions took place at the inconveniently located Wharf Theatre, which meant a frightening walk home late at night through areas in which I expected to see old-time razor gangs materialise at any moment, bottles of ‘sly grog’ under their ghostly arms. One night I attended a play that was even more boring than all the others I had seen, and that featured the actors having a barbecue live on stage; while this was, at least, a hundred times more interesting than anything else that was unfolding before me, it did mean that I ended up half-crazed not only with the tedium of it all but with hunger, and so at interval had to belt up the road to buy a tube of Pringles, which then needed to be crunched down in ten minutes.
The point is that while I am, in theory, in favour of going to the theatre, I have also found that it can be a gargantuan amount of trouble and expense, so I am always deeply grateful for any real-life drama that comes my way. There’s nothing like the excitement I feel when the person I live with summons me at the witching hour to join him in the living room because the couple next door are having a monstrous fight. Normally, it’s almost impossible to get me to rise from my bed after midnight but when some eavesdropping is on offer I practically fall down the stairs in my haste to get to the scene (making me even keener than usual to get one of those flying fox sort of contraptions that Olivia Soprano had).
I wouldn’t have any scruples about revealing here the substance of my neighbours’ disputes if only I knew what they were. Unfortunately, our walls are just thick enough that unless an argument reaches the kind of pitch at which they’re really yelling at each other, their exact words remain tantalisingly out of reach. I’ve sat huddled on a cushion in the living room, in the bathroom and next to the washing machine, but nowhere can I get the aural access to their fights that I crave. I must stress that whenever I see this couple out and about, they look extremely prosperous and healthy and, furthermore, content in each other’s company, so I assume that they are just having the customary blow-ups that those in relationships have, about how they spend too much time together or about how they don’t spend any time together, or about who’s ‘wearing the pants’. Obviously, if I heard anything that made me think one of them might be about to murder the other I would intervene, although I do have hopes that if it does turn out some tale of the unexpected is unfolding next door, I might, at last, realise one of my few ambitions and become an interviewee on Australian Story.
It interests me how usually when a person is engaging in some kind of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style verbal fireworks, they seem, first of all, simply not to care if others can hear them and, second of all, convinced that they can’t be heard anyway. I know that when I’ve had fights with boyfriends or family members, even while I’ve been screaming at the top of my lungs and simultaneously selecting which long-held grudges to air next, I’ve been considering, and then dismissing, the idea that anyone could possibly be overhearing me. It must also be that on some level, I, with uncharacteristic humility, assume that nobody would heed the common-or-garden existence of one such as myself. I, of all people, though, should understand that, regardless of what a person is like usually, it’s almost impossible for them not to be interesting when they’re angrily stoking the furnace of a blazing row.