Albee, Edward. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
"Act One. Fun and Games."
The play opens in a living-room of a house on the campus of a small New England college. As the audience later learns, it is some time after the end of the Second World War.
It is two o'clock in the morning. Martha and George, a married middle-aged couple, arrive from a faculty party. Their conversation reveals a tense but loving relationship. Martha teasingly tortures her husband by her constant demanding of the name of one film she cannot recall. George threats his wife patiently, not rising his voice once, for which he is shouted at by Martha and called a fool. Martha announces that they are to have guests.
Honey and Nick, a young couple, arrive. They are served drinks. George tries to cover his wife's improper behaviour and bad language. Honey asks Martha to show her to the bathroom and the women absent themselves. Alone with Nick, George asks Nick strange questions about his employment at the college, much to the uneasiness of the latter. Nick remains polite, though George shows disrespect towards both Nick and Honey, not even listening to Nick's answers.
The women are back. Martha has changed into an attractive dress which emphasizes her voluptuous curves. Nick is impressed. The company keeps on drinking. Martha picks up a flirtation with Nick, starting a conversation on his athletic body. Honey happens to mention Martha's son about whom Martha talked when they were in the bathroom. George had warned Martha before the arrival of the guests not to talk about their son.
With reference to Nick's occupation, the company discusses genetic engineering in human beings. Martha starts telling the story of her and George's marriage. She expresses her disgust at George's lack of personality and leadership qualities which prevent him from succeeding as the president of the college. George gets angry and breaks a bottle. He starts singing "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf" and the others drunkenly join him.
"Act Two. Walpurgisnacht."
Nick is embarrassed by their host and hostess's argument, and George is disgusted at it. Honey gets sick and retires to the bathroom, while Martha is in the kitchen making some coffee. The two men get into an intimate talk. Nick says he married his wife because she had a hysteric pregnancy. On George's urging, he admits that his wife has some money, too. George admits the same for his own wife. Nick vindicates his marriage and adds that he and his wife were childhood sweethearts.
The women rejoin the company and more drinks are served. A record turned on and Martha dances with Nick. Martha reveals that George wrote an autobiographical novel about a boy who murdered his mother and killed his father and pretended it was all an accident. George is furious and fights with Martha. Then in turn, George reveals the history of Nick's marriage, which makes Honey break down.
Honey retires to the bathroom. George leaves to get some ice. Alone with Nick, Martha seduces him and he does not protest. George happens to enter the room unnoticed and witness the scene, but he retreats back and does not interrupt the two. When he returns to the living-room, he sits down to read a book. Martha fails to provoke any response from him, even when she kisses Nick before George's eyes. Quite the contrary, George encourages them and finally Martha leads Nick away to the bedroom.
Honey, still half-sleeping, enters the living-room and murmurs that she does not want to have any children out of fear of being hurt. The door bell chimes. George fancies that the chime means that their son is dead.
"Act Three. The Exorcism."
Martha expresses her disappointed with Nick. She appoints him a houseboy and sends him to answer the chiming bell. It is George who chimes. He enters with a bunch of snapdragons. Despite Martha's protests, George insists on finishing their game and sends Nick to fetch Honey from the bathroom.
Martha starts telling the story of their son. George keeps on interrupting her with Latin phrases sounding like a funeral sermon. Both Martha and George agree that their son was unhappy with their home but they keep on blaming each other for it. George announces to Martha that their son was accidentally killed. He admits that he killed him because Martha had broken the rule of not mentioning their son to anyone. The guests are dismissed. George starts singing softly "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf" and the play closes.
Form and Style
The play consists of three acts with separate titles. There is no exposition in the traditional sense, the audience learns about the characters and their relations only through various hints scattered throughout the dialogue.
Much of the play's effect lies in its use of language: in Act I e.g. Martha's fury to engage her husband by provoking him to reaction, George's failing attempts to deliver private jokes which are not comprehended by Nick, or Nick and George's unsuccessful try at a polite conversation during the absence of their wives.
The whole play is in the vein of the existential theatre and the theatre of the absurd. The title of the play comes from the recurrent motif of the little song which is sung several times as a joke.
All of the characters are academics engaged with a provincial university. Martha, aged fifty-two, is a daughter of the university's president. She is boisterous, naughty and fond of using vulgar language. George, aged forty-six, is Martha's husband and teaches in the History Department. He is quiet, calm and with a strong sense of dry humour.
Honey and Nick are newcomers to the college. Honey, aged twenty-six, is timid, frail and rather childish. Nick, aged thirty, is Honey's husband and teaches in the Biology Department. He is extremely polite, civil and the most uneasy of the characters.
The play offers an insight into what the author sees as a collective failure of national will. This is suggested also by the names of the couple, named for the first president and his wife. The history of George and Martha’s relationship reenacts a national history of betrayed values, failed dreams and dissipated ambition. The betrayal is born of a nation’s preference for dream over reality, of elevating a dream to the status of a national icon, of preferring myth to substance.
George and Martha are childless, but unable to accept such a bleak reality, they invent a fantasy son. This fiction is designed to give meaning and direction to their lives but it divides them instead. They are out of touch with reality and out of touch with one another. The occasion of the play is the eve of the twenty-first birthday of the invented son, who is so to attain his majority. Since he has grown in real time, the fantasy child is about to self-destruct, the play is about to end.
George and Martha substitute performance for being, they are actors who invent their own play. They reduce themselves to characters in a drama and perform in front of an audience, Nick and Honey, who are themselves conscious of their role. The play ends with the death of the fantasy son and with George and Martha deprived of their function, bereft of an audience. Stripped of pretence, they have the chance to reach out to each other and confront the painful world.
AuthorEdward Albee. (b. 1928).
Full TitleWho's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
First PerformedNY: Billy Rose Theater, 1962.
Albee, Edward. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). NY: Penguin, 1965.
Bercovitch, Sacvan, gen. ed. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Vol. VII. Cambridge: UP, 1999.