Here We Go Gathering Nichols and May

RAY IRWIN is a former Midwesterner and graduate of the University of Minnesota who is now teaching at Syracuse University.

I seem to have the peculiar talent of noticing things in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that escape everyone else. When I read the play more than three years ago, I saw that the characters used the word “hunh” a lot (fifty-five times in fact), and this was noteworthy because I had never seen the word in print before, and I couldn’t find it in any dictionary, and I couldn’t imagine how one was supposed to pronounce it.

I wrote a little study of the word — which characters used it how many times, what its symbolism might be, and so on—and it was published in the April, 1964, Atlantic.

Not too long ago I saw the movie. I hadn’t been around anyplace where the play was being performed in the ensuing years, so I was more than a little curious to hear what the actors did about “hunh.” It turned out that they didn’t do anything about it — which is to say, they didn’t use it at all. Every single “hunh” had been deleted. And this is especially noteworthy when one considers that nearly everything else in the published play had been left in. But another thing caught my car that caused all speculations about the missing “hunhs” to vanish. It was this: Both Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor sang “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the tune of “Now We Go Gathering Nuts in May”! I have read a good many reviews of both the play and the movie, and no one, to my knowledge, has marked this oddity before.

Now, obviously, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is some sort of esoteric parody on “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”, the song sung in the Walt Disney cartoon film The Three Little Pigs. Why, I asked myself, was an entirely different tune put into the mouths of the actors?

Not until I had engaged in several fruitless evenings of symbol hunting did I come up with the answer. What had held the answer back was my naïve assumption that “everybody” knew “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” What I should have realized from the start was that everybody my age knew the song, but not necessarily anybody who worked on the movie. A little digging supported this tardy insight. The year that The Three Little Pigs came out, 1933, Richard Burton was only eight, Mike Nichols, the director, was two, Elizabeth Taylor was one, and Sandy Dennis and George Segal hadn’t even been born yet. So this song, as much a part of my musical repertory as “Three Blind Mice,” might very well be one that none of them ever heard. You would think that Richard Burton’s mother might have sung it to him, but its great popularity was probably brief, and what with all the fine songs the Welsh have to sing to their children, she probably simply never got around to it.

And there the matter stands, for now. I say “for now” because I very much doubt that we have seen the last version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? One of these years, someone is going to want to make a musical out of it, and when that time comes, the disparity between the tune and the lyrics will have to be straightened out. The obvious thing to do would be to use the Disney tune, which I submit should have been done in the first place. But copyright difficulties arise here. Maybe the Disney people will not want to release it, or maybe they will agree to do so only in exchange for an exorbitant hunk of the gross. An ingenious way out would be to keep the movie tune and change the parody to something like “Here We Go Gathering Nichols and May.” It makes as much sense to me as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But then, of course, the whole last scene would have to be changed, because it would sound peculiar for George to sing “Here We Go Gathering Nichols and May” and for Martha to reply “I am.”

Actually, there is no point in my worrying about what will be somebody else’s headache - which is one of the great advantages of being a literary critic. You can bring up all sorts of worrisome problems, but you never feel any obligation to solve them.