Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? An appealing title for a savage, grim, searing, three hour dialogue between a historian and his wife. The personal situation, dominated by a screeching Earth Mother, the historian’s wife, provides the focus of the play’s power, but its magnetism, the disquet it breeds, derives from its deeper implications.
The historian of the play is sterile and impotent. He talks endlessly of an imagined child, the Future, and babble bewilderingly about his past. Did he or did he not kill his parents? There is a conflict of evidence, and great uncertainty.No one, including himself, can ever know. His wife, who possesses all the force, the violence, the passion, of an instinctively living woman, hates his failure, his verbosity, his confusion, his inadequacy. But her desire is also strong, and she cannot disentangle herself from his needs.
History and Life, therefore, are doomed to live out in hate, in distrust, in mutual failure. They are lost in timeless falsehood, bound by dreams of the past that may not have existed, and enslaved by their own lies about the future. And this seems to have the force of truth. History is without meaning, without power, without hope. The present exists: the past is our own cloud-cuckoo-land. Albee presents dramatically what most historians and philosophers of history believe. That is the cruel truth. He merely puts symbolically and more harshly what an R,G. Colingwood and Benedetto Croce preached elsewhere.
Toward thr end of the nineteenth century, historians both in Europe and in America began to reject the idea that history possessed any meaning , any purpose, any dialectical pattern. Just as the novelists withdrew their interests from man in society to investigate the stream of consciousness, and painters rejected the traditions of European art for a more personal exploration of reality, so the historians came to accept that history, all history, was but a personal vision, that the past could not exist separate from themselves; what existed was a personal reconstruction of the past; all history, to quote Croce, the great Italian historian and philosopher, was present history, a contemporary construction, and so a world entire unto itself, true only for one time and one place.
As might be expected, there has been a minority of historians, largely those who concern themselves with economic history, who have resisted this attitude and maintained that the study of history could mean more than a personal world. But they have tended to argue that function and not dialectic was the true goal of history; i.e., that historians should be more concerned with the interrelations of society at a given epoch and not with those aspects which might, or might not, lead it to develop into something different.
Such an attitude is inimical to the concept of progress, or of history having much social value; so, too, is the other fashionable view which has shown great resilience in our time: the belief that history can only be explained as the working of Providence. But, as people cannot understand the mind of god or know His purpose, we must accept history as it is and regard historical analysis as little better than a guttering candle in a fathomless cave.
Only at the Day of Judgement will light blaze forth. Therefore, to try to impose a pattern on history, to attempt to extract useful , broad generalizations for the guidance of man, is understandably human but intellectual folly. These, with a plethora of variations, are by and large the basic attitudes of the profession. And most of them are not very far from Albee’s.