So let’s talk about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In an interview, Mike Nichols once said of Edward Albee’s masterpiece that it’s the only play he knew of “in which every single thing that happens is in the present. Even the beautiful reminiscences of the past are traps being set in the present, sprung in the present, having violent effect in the present.” As he was about almost everything, Mike Nichols was right. What separates Virginia Woolf from pre-20th century plays (and even some 20th century plays that came before it) is that every time the characters reflect on their past, it’s not only to provide the audience information that will help them understand their actions, but to build bombs that detonate by the end, when George and Martha reveal in front of their unsuspecting guests that their marriage is a house of cards.
Television, which owes more to theater than film or literature (a topic which I covered in my essay in the book The Deadwood Bible) also roots us in the present: one set, a couple of people going in and out, and a situation that has to constantly unfold and keep us engaged lest we change the channel. The old Playhouse 90s and sitcoms of the 1950s knew this all too well, as they had to get it right in front of live audiences while it was broadcast around the country. This carried over onto shows like Hill Street Blues and Cheers, which rarely left their main locations, and to many of the longform shows of HBO and its ilk.
Succession is a brilliant melding of both 19th and 20th century drama techniques within the television format. The show is an express train where every scene propels us forward, and what we learn about the characters’ pasts serves to trap them later. But Jesse Armstrong and his writers leave them unsprung as long as possible to achieve maximum impact. We saw it in “Connor’s Wedding” when Logan died. And we saw it last night in “Tailgate Party,” in which Tom and Shiv finally confront each other over the fact that, like George and Martha, their marriage is built on lies.
From the beginning, Tom has been the Roys’ punching bag. A Midwesterner who wasn’t born into money, he’s an ill fit with the East Coast, blue blood Roys. The only thing he has in common with them is that he’s willing to “sell out” — i.e., preside over…