Vol. 31 No. 1

Edward Albee’s Sadomasochistic Ludonarratology in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by Tison Pugh
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 1 (Fall 2018)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

A relatively new term in the critical lexicon, ludonarratology theorizes the intersection of games and narrative structures in a particularly apt formulation for the theatrical world. Of the intersection of gaming and literary art, Astrid Ensslin explains that “narrative, dramatic, and/or poetic techniques are employed in order to explore the affordance and limitations of rules and other ludic structures and processes.”[1] That is to say, ludic, literary, dramatic, and poetic themes and structures often overlap, with kaleidoscopic refractions of form, structure, and story. From this new perspective, ludonarratology allows a clearer eye on the ways in which the theatre encourages its actors, producers, and audiences to engage in the rituals of play. Certainly, as a site simultaneously recreational and professional in its ambitions, the theatre multiplies the ludonarrative potential of characters qua players, in that actors must adopt the personae of their roles, with these characters then assuming complementary or contrasting stances toward one another as the plot unfolds. Such a dynamic is strikingly evident in Edward Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), the first act of which alerts viewers to its ludic themes through the subtitle “Fun and Games.” The actors undertaking the parts of Martha and George and of their late-night guests, Honey and Nick, must bring to life the antagonism expressed in the protagonists’ mutually tormenting games, with these sadomasochistic structures challenging viewers to consider the inherent ambiguity of Martha’s and George’s relative positions to each other.

Much formalist, structuralist, and even poststructuralist narratology assumes that a given text’s protagonist is clearly identified, and much ludology similarly envisions a sharp distinction between the competitors of a game, yet sadomasochistic ludonarratology, as an interpretive and eroticized dynamic, complicates these simplistic views. Indeed, sadomasochism dismantles the certainty of many narratives because it implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—blurs the categories of sadist and masochist, leaving interpreters of the ludic story unsure of its overarching direction and thus capable of identifying with the players only through an ephemeral sense of relation that might waver in the scene’s next beat. When a game’s players continually shift in their respective positions toward one another, how can one win, how can the other lose, and how can viewers pierce through the dissolution of ostensibly antagonistic roles to determine the game’s meaning? Sadomasochistic ludonarratology envelops characters, players, and interpreters in complex wrangling over the very meaning of desire, with striking repercussions to the play of the game for all involved, particularly when plotlines reveal the characters and structures hidden from view that nonetheless guide the game’s unfolding. Under such circumstances, absence and inaction function as meaningfully as presence and play, alerting interpreters to the structural secrets hidden yet subversively in effect in sadomasochistic narratives.

Theatre, Character, and Sadomasochistic Ludonarratology

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