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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee


In 1962 the United States was enjoying what many now consider a period of innocence. John F. Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected President, was in office, revitalizing a country some observers considered passive and complacent when he was inaugurated in 1961. Relative peace reigned in most of the world, and in the United States traditional values appeared unshakable. Hardly anyone would have predicted the great turmoil the country was about to undergo- the Vietnam War; the assassinations of President Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the scandal of Watergate that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

Yet, if the surface was tranquil in 1962, there was nonetheless considerable agitation underneath. American relations with the Soviet Union were often extremely tense in the early 1960s, resulting in confrontations over Berlin and Cuba. In the United States, attempts by blacks to end racial discrimination not infrequently were countered by violence by whites. And a number of influential writers were questioning the American values that seemed so secure.

On October 13, 1962, a play opened on Broadway in New York City that was one of the first popular successes to articulate these undercurrents of dissatisfaction, of unease about America. That play, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, critically analyzed institutions and values that Americans held dear- family, marriage, and success, for instance- and suggested they might have been created in part to escape from reality.

Albee's play set loose a cyclone of controversy. It was the rare case of a play created for the commercial theater presenting a full-scale investigation of sacred American traditions, and it did so in shocking language that many found disturbing.

Yet for every person who found Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "perverse" and "dirty-minded," there were those who labeled the play a masterpiece and declared Albee to be "one of the most important dramatists of the contemporary world theater." Debate raged over the play, and opinions were even offered by people who had never seen or read it!

Who is the man who nearly turned the theater world upside down in 1962? It's not an easy question to answer, since Edward Albee always has been an intensely private man. Anyone who looks to Albee's life for hints about his work probably will be disappointed, for few modern writers have been so guarded about their past and protective of their privacy. In a 1981 interview Albee was asked how important his biography was as a key to understanding his work. He responded: "I think totally unimportant. I'd rather people judge the work for itself rather than by biographical attachments."

You may not agree with Albee about how much your knowledge of an author's life helps you understand his work, but Albee's philosophy of allowing the work to speak for itself deserves respect.

The facts known about Albee's early life come from the information he has made public, plus the reminiscences of longtime friends. Albee was born in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1928, to parents whose identities are unknown. He was placed in an orphanage at birth, and at the age of two weeks he was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee, who took him to live in New York City. He was named Edward Franklin Albee after a grandfather, who was part owner of the Keith-Albee Circuit, an extremely successful string of vaudeville theaters.

The Albee family was wealthy, and young Edward's life was one of luxury. His childhood included private tutors, servants, luxury automobiles, winters in warm climates, excursions to the theater, and riding lessons. But such privilege as a child did not result in a pampered complacency when he grew up. In fact, as you shall see, Albee used his pen to criticize the moral and spiritual damage inflicted upon people by an excess of material wealth and a misguided pursuit of the "American dream."

The family moved around a lot, and this may have created problems for Albee's education. He attended a variety of schools and was expelled from both a preparatory school and a military academy. He graduated from Choate, a fashionable private school in Connecticut, however. He then enrolled at Trinity College, also in Connecticut, but left after his sophomore year to begin a life on his own in New York City's Greenwich Village.

Greenwich Village in 1950 was a haven for young writers and bohemians looking for artistic freedom and inspiration. Albee's search for independence was helped greatly by a trust fund set up for him by his grandmother. Despite the steady income (which earned him the title "the richest boy in Greenwich Village" from his friends), Albee took a variety of odd jobs: office boy, record and book salesman, writer of radio and music programs, and Western Union messenger. Some say he delivered death notices for the telegraph company, an interesting item to remember as you read Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Although it has been suggested that Albee lived a rebellious and restless existence during the 1950s, some say his life was stable and comfortable. Two facts are verifiable: he loved the theater and he loved to write. (His first play, Aliqueen, was written when he was twelve.)

Just before his thirtieth birthday in 1958, after a period of unsuccessful writing, Albee wrote The Zoo Story. It was a one-act play that would eventually win him worldwide attention. Through friends, Albee had the play produced first in West Berlin, and then in twelve West German cities, where the theatrical climate was more experimental than in the United States. Thus, Albee saw The Zoo Story produced first in a language he didn't understand!

The Zoo Story premiered in New York in 1960 at an off-Broadway theater. Word quickly spread that a writer of great promise had appeared on the scene. Albee's reputation among knowledgeable theatergoers grew with other one-acters: The Death of Bessie Smith, The Sandbox, and The American Dream.

Albee's explosion on the theatrical scene came at a time when the American commercial theater had been dominated by playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge. These writers worked for the most part in a realistic idiom, in which the world onstage essentially mirrored the world of the audience. The world was observed objectively, and in ways that generally echoed traditional values and supported the beliefs of the audience. These plays told the members of the audience that men and women were basically responsible for determining their own fate.

Some playwrights of the time, particularly Europeans like Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco, were responding differently to the world. World War II and the potential horrors of the nuclear age compelled these writers to see the universe as a place where humans had lost control. They were eager to shake audiences out of a sense of complacency about their lives. They wanted the spectator to feel their deep-seated anguish at the absurdity of the human condition. Nothing happens, nothing changes, these writers say. The world is out of control and nothing we can do will change this disturbing condition. This attitude of hopelessness prompted the critics to loosely categorize these writers as Absurdists.

Plays of the Theater of the Absurd, such as Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953) and Endgame (1957) and Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (1950), share certain characteristics. Speech is often deliberately confusing and not logical. The patter is filled with jargon, cliches, even nonsense, as if to tell us that language itself is empty and our attempts to communicate deep feelings are futile. Dramatic and realistic characters are frequently eliminated. The plays are often merely a series or incidents or images that represent the turmoil of the human condition as the author sees it. Also, absurdist plays are often very funny- sometimes insanely so- suggesting that laughter is the only response to the pain of life in a world devoid of hope or purpose.

Albee's work includes both realistic and absurdist techniques. He is often seen as a link between these two movements. On one level, The Zoo Story tells of an "ordinary" meeting between two men in a park. Peter is a comfortable middle-class businessman, the upholder of traditional American values, complete with wife, children, and pets. Jerry is an outcast and a rebel, a man who has chosen to remove himself from the mainstream by living a solitary, introspective existence. The play concerns Jerry's desire to communicate with Peter on something more than a superficial level, and when his initial attempts fail, he compels Peter to murder him, suggesting that only violence or death can bring communication at a deeper level. The themes of communication through violence and the hollowness of American values that Albee explores in The Zoo Story link him with the absurdists, as does Jerry's death, which has been likened to the death of the student in Ionesco's play The Lesson. (These two themes and a death surface again in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

The Sandbox (1959) and The American Dream (1960) are short plays by Albee that deal with the same three characters: Mommy, dominating and cruel; Daddy, passive and emasculated; and Grandma, shrewd and sharp-tongued. In The Sandbox, Death comes to Grandma on the beach in the form of a handsome young man, while Mommy and Daddy bicker endlessly. The American Dream shows the family at home as they are visited by the identical twin of a child they had once adopted and then destroyed. With exaggeration and bitter parody, Albee reveals "the American Dream"- the seemingly perfect nuclear family whose polished exterior conceals cruelty, dishonesty, and hatred.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? explores themes- death, sterility, the corruption of the American dream- similar to Albee's earlier one-act plays. In some ways this full-length play is more realistic than its predecessors. It has a recognizable setting and more commonplace characters. But the absurdist influence is there too- in the imaginary child that George and Martha have created in the characters' inability to communicate except through abrasiveness and violence, and in the frequent use of cliched speech. It is the successful blending of realism and absurdism that has prompted audiences to applaud Albee's innovations. Yet some readers feel that the play would be better served by a nonrealistic production, perhaps a blank stage rather than the detailed setting it's usually given.

The controversy generated by the play's Broadway opening reached a climax with the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of the most prestigious of all drama awards. The committee chosen to select the winning play voted to give the prize to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but the trustees of Columbia University, the overseers of the award, decided to deny the play a Pulitzer. They perhaps felt that its explicit language and its exploration of "taboo" subjects made it too controversial a choice.

Despite its detractors, the play has continued to be performed, debated, and admired. (A successful film version starred the popular actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; Taylor won an Academy Award in 1966 for her portrayal of Martha.) In the seventies, there was a major Broadway revival of the play with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara. If it has been revived less than other major plays, it may be that audiences have grown accustomed to its troubled message in an age of cynicism and nihilism. Also, the heavy demands made by the play on its cast (particularly on the actors playing George and Martha) discourage many theater companies from including it in their repertory.

Yet for those who can't see a production of the play, the text can provide an opportunity to study Albee's characters and language more fully. The elements of the play that were once so shocking- perhaps even offensive- seem almost tame in an era of sexual permissiveness on stage, screen and television. That the play continues to generate enormous power suggests to many playgoers and readers that Albee has indeed created an enduring masterpiece.

After Virginia Woolf, Albee continued to experiment. His next play, Tiny Alice (1964), is a dark and mysterious allegory about man's relationship to God. In 1966 he won the Pulitzer Prize for A Delicate Balance, which tells of a "conventional" family whose lives are overturned when good friends invade their household, driven from their own home by a nameless fear. All Over (1971) details the reactions of a group of people- relatives and loved ones- to the death of a famous writer. Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968) are two interrelated one-acters. In Box there are no characters; a box sits on stage and a voice from within it speaks to the audience. In Seascape (1975), which also won a Pulitzer Prize, two of the four characters are large lizardlike creatures that emerge from the sea.

Among Albee's other works are adaptations of novels, which audiences and readers have never felt to be among his best work: Carson McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1963), James Purdy's Malcolm (1965), and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1981). Albee has even written a musical, an adaptation of Truman Capote's short novel, Breakfast at Tiffany's, which closed before it got to Broadway.

By the mid-1980s none of Albee's other plays had received the critical acclaim or popular acceptance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Some people felt that his plays had become more and more inaccessible, that Albee was speaking to himself in his own coded language, with little regard for how well he communicated with the audience. Others defended him by saying that his lack of interest in the commercial theater should not be held against him, and that perhaps the test of time would prove his later works to be among his best.

What was important was that Albee, who had long disregarded the opinion of critics ("I have been both overpraised and underpraised," he had said), kept writing. He was not content to rest on past laurels. He also gave generously of his time and energy to other artists, both as a founder of the William Flanagan Center for Creative Persons, at Montauk, New York, and as a member of national and state organizations furthering the arts. Although reluctant to talk about his life or his past, Albee was dedicated to artistic excellence and often shared his expertise with college students in lectures and seminars.

It was also clear that he had a major influence on his younger contemporaries. Evidence of his remarkable ear for dialogue, his poetic flair for the American idiom, and his cynical viewpoint on American values could be seen in the work of such playwrights as Sam Shephard (Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love), David Rabe (Streamers, Hurly-burly); John Guare (House of Blue Leaves); and David Mamet (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross).


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