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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee


THE PLAY

THE PLOT

Late one Saturday night, a husband and wife return to their home in a New England college town. George, 46, is an associate professor of history; Martha, 52, is the daughter of the college president. They have been drinking heavily at a faculty party given by Martha's father, and as the two stumble around the living room and bicker, they seem like many other such couples after a long and alcoholic party. But this is a night in which tensions within their marriage will erupt and the patterns of their lives may be altered forever.

To George's surprise, Martha announces that she has invited another couple to join them for a drink- at 2 A.M.! Naturally combative, George and Martha use the invitation as another excuse to battle.

The guests arrive- Nick, 30, a new faculty member in the biology department, and his wife, Honey 26. He's good-looking and athletic; she's a sweet and seemingly superficial person. They quickly find themselves to be the audience for George and Martha's scalding war of words.

As the evening progresses and the liquor flows, tensions that have been partially hidden emerge in the form of psychological games. Martha is disgusted with George's lack of ambition and failure to advance in the history department, particularly with his advantages as the son-in-law of the university president. She treats George with open contempt, and George tries to strike back by using his superior verbal skills. He has taken an immediate dislike to Nick, not only because Martha is obviously physically attracted to the younger man, but also because Nick is a biologist. As a historian, George sees biology as a science determined to eliminate man's individuality.

Nick tries to stay detached from the turmoil between his hosts, but he soon gets caught up in it and reveals himself as ambitious and shallow. Honey seems too drunk and too mindless to comprehend much of what is going on.

A turning point occurs when George discovers that Martha has mentioned a forbidden topic to Honey while the two women were out of the room. The taboo topic: George and Martha's son. The bitterness between the couple accelerates, and they persist in their battle of verbal abuse. As Act I ends, Martha has figuratively twisted a knife in George's back by harping on his supposed failure as a man and as a teacher. The fight dissolves into a shouting match and Honey is made physically ill by a combination of the quarreling and too much alcohol.

As Act II of the play opens, George and Nick talk alone. George tells the story of a young boy who killed his mother and caused his father to die, a story that may or may not be autobiographical. Nick reveals that he married Honey when she thought she was pregnant, but that the pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm. George's attempts to warn Nick about being "dragged down by the quicksand" of the college fall on deaf ears. Nick has his eye set on the top, and one of his techniques for advancement will be to sleep with a few important faculty wives.

Martha and Honey return, and the sexual attraction between Martha and Nick increases. They dance erotically with each other as Martha goads her husband by telling their guests of George's attempts to write a novel, whose plot concerns a boy responsible for his parents' deaths. Infuriated, George physically attacks Martha, stopping only when Nick intervenes. George seeks his revenge, not on Martha, but on the guests. He tells a "fable" that mirrors Nick and Honey's early lives and her hysterical pregnancy. Humiliated, Honey flees the room. Enraged and out for blood, George and Martha declare "total war" on each other.

The first victory is Martha's, as she openly makes sexual advances to Nick but fails to make George lose his temper. Yet after she has led the younger man to the kitchen, where George can hear the sounds of their carousing, George makes a decision that will be his final act of revenge, one that will change his and Martha's lives forever: he decides to tell her that their son is dead.

Act III finds Martha alone. Nick has proven himself impotent in their sexual encounter, and when he arrives again on the scene, she expresses contempt for him. She also reveals to him that George is the only man who has ever satisfied her.

George appears at the front door, bearing flowers and announcing that there is one more game to play- "Bringing Up Baby." First, he induces Martha to talk about their son in the most loving and idealized terms; then, he announces the death of their son.

Martha's furious reaction that George "cannot decide these things" leads Nick to understand at last George and Martha's secret. Their son is a creation of their imagination, a fantasy child that they have carefully harbored as a means of helping them survive the pain of their failed lives. Nick and Honey leave, and George and Martha are alone, with just each other as shields against the world. Only the future will tell whether they have been strengthened or made even more vulnerable by the traumatic experiences of the evening.

[Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

  • GEORGE

    George is an associate professor of history at a college in the New England town of New Carthage. At 46, he should probably be further along in his career, but through a lack of ambition, coupled with a bad relationship with the college president (his father-in-law), he has become "bogged down" in the history department. He's been married to Martha, six years older than he, for 23 years, and their marriage has degenerated into an ongoing battle of words and psychological games to get the upper hand.

    George is intelligent and witty, and has a keen ability to use words. In fact, he might be an excellent dinner companion if his basic energy had not been dissipated by Martha's constant belittling of him. He fights back by using his wits, but she knows where to wound him at his most vulnerable points- his failures, his physical weakness, his passivity.

    Virtually nothing is told us of George's (or the other characters') early life. George relates a story that he claims to be autobiographical, about a trip to a gin mill (saloon) during the Prohibition era, when he was a teenager. But there are clues to suggest that a boy in the story whom George refers to as a "friend" may actually be George himself. This boy had murdered his mother and caused the death of his father. Whether the story is literal or metaphoric is never made clear in the play, nor is it known if George is talking about himself or someone else. Whatever interpretation is accepted, however, it's evident that George suffers from a great deal of conflict about his parents, and seems to harbor guilt and/or resentment about them.

    Through most of the play Martha gets the better of George, beating him down psychologically. She is skillful at dishing out punishment, and George accepts it. He turns the tables by abusing their guests in ways similar to Martha's treatment of him, by chiding them for their weaknesses and revealing their hidden secrets.

    In the end, however, George proves himself stronger than Martha. His decision to kill their imaginary child- a fantasy he and Martha have shared privately- can be viewed as an act of heroism or as an act of revenge. Whichever approach you favor, it is clear that George is in control by the end of the play.

    To some readers, George's name suggests George Washington (an ironic comment on the corruption of American ideals); to others, it suggests St. George, the dragon slayer who conquered evil (much as George conquers the "devil" that possesses him and his wife in the form of the child fantasy).

  • MARTHA

    Martha is the daughter of the college president, and one of the great conflicts of her life is that while she reveres her father, he seems to have no great love for her.

    Intelligent, well-read, and perceptive, Martha hides her intellectual gifts beneath a brassy, aggressive, and vulgar exterior. She tries to dominate and control her husband for two reasons: she resents his inability to fill her father's role, both professionally and psychologically; and George seems to enjoy the role of victim to her torturer.

    Martha battles almost continuously with George as an act of attempted communication. Faced with lives filled with self-loathing, they punish each other at the same time they wish to connect. Both drink heavily, and Martha seduces a number of younger men. A self-styled "earth mother," Martha admits that these encounters are unsatisfying; the only man who has given her true satisfaction is George. But it's one of the tragic ironies of the play that their mutual need can never be expressed to each other.

    Only when George successfully ends their fantasy of having a child does Martha admit a vulnerability and a fear of the future that she has not revealed before, but what lies ahead for her and George remains ambiguous.

    Like George, Martha's name is perhaps meant to evoke Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington. Together they can be seen as offering a wry commentary on the "perfect American couple."

  • NICK

    One of George and Martha's guests, Nick is young (30), attractive, and physically fit. A biology professor, new to the faculty, Nick seems the ideal man, but he eventually reveals himself to have a hollow center. He is amoral, shallow, coldly ambitious. His plans to get ahead at the college include sleeping with "pertinent" faculty wives.

    His willingness to be seduced by Martha, despite the presence of his wife and George, is evidence of his cynicism and lack of morals. But underneath the macho exterior is a weak and crass human being. He is impotent in his sexual encounter with Martha, and he admits to having married Honey because he thought she was pregnant and because her father was wealthy.

    Nick's profession as a biologist is contrasted to George's as a historian. Biology in the play is viewed as the science whose practitioners are determined to toy with human genetics in order to create a race of perfect human beings. Nick therefore suggests the results of these experiments, the "wave of the future"- attractive on the outside, empty within.

    Nick is the one character who comes to understand that George and Martha's son is an imaginary creation, and his half hearted attempt to help ("I'd like to...") suggests to some that the evening spent with George and Martha has changed him. But Albee gives no further clues as to what the future holds for Nick and Honey.

    Nick's name may suggest an old-fashioned term for the devil ("Old Nick"). Whether he's meant to represent a literal evil that invades George and Martha's household, or perhaps the evil of the future, is open to debate. Some readers believe his name refers to Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union at the time the play was written. Thus, Nick's confrontations with George may suggest East vs. West, the energetic threat of Communism in contrast to decaying American ideals.

  • HONEY

    Nick's wife, Honey, 26, is, on the surface, sweet, gentle, eager to make a good impression, and prudish. She is also unable to handle her liquor, so her contributions to the conversation are minor at best. Her mindlessness turns out to reveal an inability to cope with reality.

    Honey shows herself on one level to be the eternal child. She defers to her husband, is easily offended, gives in to frequent bouts of vomiting. Yet, in the course of the play she also reveals complex emotions. The daughter of a moderately famous preacher who left her a sizable amount of money, Honey was apparently pregnant when she married Nick, but the pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm. Since then she has skillfully concealed from Nick her efforts to prevent a pregnancy. Her use of secret birth control devices reveals a deep-seated fear of having a child- and a fear of growing up. Martha's beautiful descriptions of her own "son" bring out Honey's maternal instincts, but whether these desires are fleeting or permanent cannot be determined within the context of the play.

    Honey's name suggests the cloying sweetness that is her exterior- and also the sense that a little of her goes a long way. Some readers feel that "Honey" is not her real name, but merely the affectionate and condescending tag Nick has given her.

[Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is set in the fictitious New England college town of New Carthage. The name of the town suggests the ancient civilization of Carthage, which for nearly 1,500 years (from the 8th century B.C. to the 7th century A.D.) was the most important settlement west of Egypt on the northern coast of Africa. Carthage was settled by the Phoenicians, a people known for their seafaring and commerce, in the 9th century B.C. Over the next several centuries, Carthage was able to hold its own in battles with Greece, but a series of conflicts with Rome in the third and second centuries B.C., known as the Punic Wars, proved to be the downfall of the Carthaginians. The Romans permanently conquered Carthage in 146 B.C. and, as was their custom, sowed the vanquished's land with salt, to prevent fertile growth for years to come.

Albee's decision to name the play's college town after a vanished civilization (which was known for its artistic achievement as well as its military power) clearly invites parallels to our own contemporary civilization. America may not be destroyed by another country, as Carthage was (although that possibility exists), but it may meet its downfall through internal corruption and spiritual emptiness. That Carthage was made literally sterile by Roman salt also links that ancient city symbolically with New Carthage, a city made figuratively sterile by shoddy morals and hollow values. (New Carthage also is the home of George and Martha, sterile because they can have no children.)

Placing New Carthage in New England ironically links the setting of the play to one of its themes, "American values." New England was a birthplace of America's freedom and has long been considered a stronghold of solid American values. By setting a play that analyzes the corruption of some of these values in an area long identified with them, Albee emphasizes the difference between what these values were and what they have become.

Further irony is to be found in Albee's choice of an academic setting for the play. One would think that a college town would be a place of learning, achievement, and sophisticated culture. Instead, Albee shows us a hotbed of lust, deception, and sadness, with people who are motivated in large part by greed and self-interest.

Confirming the play's setting to one room (the living room of George and Martha) establishes an enclosed, claustrophobic feeling, as if the characters are trapped with each other. Even when they leave to go to another room, they return to this arena where the battles of the play rage.

When Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was originally produced on Broadway, the set was described by the play's director, Alan Schneider, as follows: "It seems real... but it's not real. It has all kinds of angles and planes that you wouldn't ordinarily have, and strong distortions." Schneider said, and others have agreed, that the play could be done on an abstract (nonrealistic) set, such as an all-white space. Such a set would heighten the sense that the play is not strictly realistic, but has overtones of the Theater of the Absurd.

THEMES

Here are some of the major and minor themes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The themes often overlap and support one another in ways that make the play complex and richly textured.

MAJOR THEMES

  1. TRUTH AND ILLUSION

    Both George and Martha state this theme explicitly in Act III, as the line between the real and the imaginary begins to blur, particularly for Martha. Their marriage, possibly their lives, has been held together by an illusion- the imaginary child that they have created together and that must now be "destroyed" if they are to face reality. Admitting this illusion to themselves and to Nick and Honey calls into question other things George and Martha say in the play. For example, did George really cause the death of his parents, or is this, too, a myth that has become real for them?

    Other elements underscore the theme: Honey's imaginary pregnancy; the shotgun that turns out to be a toy; the chimes accidentally struck, that George uses to herald the pretended arrival of the telegram. Throughout the play the characters use many devices to keep from facing the real world: alcohol, sex, and constant verbal assaults on one another.

    Also, the surface "truth" of the characters masks their real selves; the characters are not what they seem. The brash and vulgar Martha is truly vulnerable, the one who may need the most protection from the real world. George, seemingly passive and dominated, is the one who finally takes control of his and Martha's lives. Nick, an apparent "stud," turns out to be impotent in bed with Martha. And Honey, the seemingly simple and ingenuous personality, has been deviously using birth control to prevent a pregnancy.

    This is the play's most important theme: that people today have been forced to create illusions for themselves because reality has become too difficult and too painful to face. What examples do you see of the need for illusion in your own life or in the lives of those around you?

  2. THE INABILITY TO COMMUNICATE

    The characters are constantly, but unsuccessfully, attempting to communicate on a deeper level with each other. Martha and George trade competitive insults and verbal cruelties until the last scene, when they finally achieve some sense of mutual understanding.

    Yet their attempts to communicate seem more genuine than those of Nick and Honey, who seem to know each other only superficially and who deliberately deceive each other- Nick with his adulterous act with Martha, and Honey with her secret use of birth control.

    The usual social communication is parodied throughout the play through the use of trite remarks and common phrases that suggest the emptiness of language. Early in the play, George seems determined to confuse Nick with wordplay, rapid shifts of subject, and deliberate obtuseness.

    Violence as a form of communication is demonstrated through the tale of George and Martha's boxing match, his fake rifle, and the physical scuffles between George and Martha. Psychological violence as a form of communication is evidenced by George and Martha's repeated attempts to humiliate each other, and by George's decision to "get the guests."

    In this media age, the word communication is heard often. Is Martha and George's problem in truly reaching each other a universal problem? In what ways do you see the problem affecting those around you?

  3. SEX (STERILITY AND IMPOTENCE)

    Sex is a strong motif in the play. Martha is a sexually aggressive "earth mother," who presumably seduced the gardener at her boarding school and also "attacked" a Greek artist. George even accuses her of having tried to molest their imaginary son. And Martha's seduction of Nick during the play is probably one of many such escapades. There is a great deal of sexual innuendo among the four characters.

    Honey, Nick, and Martha all seem to be sexual "users." Honey may have used a false pregnancy to get Nick to marry her. Nick hints of plans to sleep with important faculty wives to get ahead at the college. Martha uses sex with others to get even with George, whom she blames for her unhappiness.

    However, sex in the play represents barrenness and impotence. George and Martha's child is imaginary, Honey's pregnancy was false and she fears childbirth, and Nick can't satisfy Martha, the most important faculty wife. Even the name of the town, New Carthage, suggests the ancient civilization destroyed by Rome and sown with salt to prevent fertile growth. In the world of this play, sex is neither a comfort nor a source of growth.

  4. GAMES AND GAMESMANSHIP

    Games, both literal and figurative, abound in the play. Several are mentioned explicitly: humiliate the host, hump the hostess, get the guest, bringing up baby.

    There are also abundant references to games, rules, toys, winners and losers. George and Martha are constantly playing games, matching wits, seeking the upper hand. And the scenes between George and Nick have been compared to a chess match, with each player seeking the advantage over the other.

    The ultimate game in the play is George and Martha's child, an invention of their imagination that must be destroyed now that Martha has broken the rules by mentioning him. The child is a game that is deadly serious. When the game is over, the future of George and Martha is in question.

  5. MARRIAGE AND FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS

    The couples in the play can be seen as representative of modern relationships based on deception and sterility, and the picture of the play presents of marriage is bleak. George and Martha face off in a "battle of the sexes" that is an age-old theme in plays, from Aristophanes' Lysistrata, to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew, and to Noel Coward's Private Lives. But unlike many such plays, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shows characters who are out for blood. George and Martha hide their need for each other with ferocious assaults on one another. Their names suggest the "first couple," George and Martha Washington, a grim joke that underscores the corruption of the American ideal. But their fierce battling may be seen as preferable to the shallowness that marks the relationship between Nick and Honey.

    The family relationships referred to in the play are hollow and sad: Martha and her father, George and the parents he might have killed, Honey and her father, and George and Martha's "child."

    Sterility is evidenced by the play's use of imaginary and would-be children: George and Martha's fictitious boy and the pregnancies that Honey has deviously avoided. As an ironic twist, Albee has peppered the play with allusions to "baby": George and Martha use the term as a dubious endearment; they also use coy baby talk; Honey becomes a baby, curled on the bathroom floor in the fetal position as a sign of her inability to grow up.

    Some readers, however, see the play's depiction of George and Martha in a more optimistic light. They interpret the play as the story of one couple's desperate attempt to salvage, rather than destroy, a relationship. After the evening's emotional turmoil, notably the "death" of the child, George and Martha have cleared up some of the matters impeding the relationship, and they may be able to function better as a couple in the future.

MINOR THEMES

  1. DEATH AND MURDER

    The theme of death pervades the play. George and Martha's son is killed symbolically by exorcism (as George reads from the mass for the dead). George himself may have murdered his mother and caused his father's death. Threats to kill and accusations of murder occur several times in the play.

  2. RELIGION

    References to God and Jesus (often used as swear words) are frequent, forming an almost subconscious thematic element. Other religious references are more apparent. Martha declares herself an atheist. The second act title "Walpurgisnacht," refers to a pagan ritual. The third act title, "The Exorcism," is taken from the Catholic rite of driving out demons. George recites the Dies Irae, the mass for the dead, as Martha is forced to accept the death of their son.

    Some readers feel that Albee used the name "Nick," part of an old term for the devil ("Old Nick") to suggest that it is Nick's presence that brings chaos to George and Martha's lives. Others see significance in the fact that the play takes place very early on a Sunday morning, a day of holiness for Christians.

    Does this abundance of religious symbols and allusions suggest a possibility of redemption for George and Martha? Some say yes. Others suggest that there is no hope for them, and that Albee is pointing a finger at the failure of modern religion to supply answers to the problems of people today.

  3. HISTORY VS. SCIENCE

    George is a history professor; Nick teaches biology. George's work concerns the endless variety of human motivation and endeavor, while Nick's work- according to George- will result in the "perfect man," a creation with no need for art, philosophy, diversity, or real pleasure. Since Albee gives the eloquent speeches to George, it has been suggested that Albee is using George's character to condemn science for many of the ills of mankind.

  4. AMERICAN VALUES

    Albee painstakingly dissects the "American dream" in many of his plays; he even gave one of his early one-act plays that title. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he attacks many of the values that traditionally comprise that dream: marriage, children, success, wealth, education, religion, and so on. He claims each of these values to be empty, resulting in loveless and sterile marriages, failed careers, ill-gotten wealth, squandered education, powerless or corrupt religion. With these values so decayed, Albee seems to be saying, the country is a barren wasteland, where people must imagine another reality in order to compensate for what is missing. In Virginia Woolf, Albee has painted a bleak and unflattering portrait of a country whose ideals have degenerated so fully that they can be portrayed by a desperate, sad, and seemingly hopeless couple.

STYLE

Soon after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway, Harold Clurman, a noted theater critic, wrote the following about Albee's dialogue: "It is superbly virile and pliant; it also sounds. It is not 'realistic' dialogue, but a highly literate and full-bodied distillation of common American speech."

Clurman is not alone in his admiration for Albee's dialogue. Even those who found the play's themes too unsettling or the subject matter unsavory had high praise for his skill as a playwright.

His sharp and incisive dialogue is only one of the elements that make Albee's style both recognizable and memorable. Here are some others:

  • HUMOR
    For all of the play's savagery and bleak outlook, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is often very funny, George and Martha are so verbally skillful that their exchanges often make you laugh at the same time you feel the pain they inflict. Examples of Albee's humor come in several categories:

  • WIT
    As an example (there are many)- George responds to Martha when she has changed into a revealing outfit: "Why, Martha... your Sunday chapel dress!"

  • FARCE
    George appears with the shotgun that "explodes" into a colored parasol. Also, George opens the door to their guests as Martha screams "Screw you!"

  • INSULT HUMOR
    George and Martha are expert at pointed bitchery. Their insults are accurate, deadly, yet often hilarious. (Martha to George: "If you existed I'd divorce you.")

  • BLACK HUMOR
    Albee's ability to evoke laughs out of the darkest of situations is one of his hallmarks. Black humor (an influence of the Theater of the Absurd) is used throughout the play, from the "games" that turn out to be psychological torture to the description of Martha's father as a white mouse who nibbled the warts of his second wife. There are those who feel that the whole notion of the imaginary child is an elaborate "sick joke."

  • CRUDE HUMOR
    A great many laughs result from Albee's use of "foul" language: "up yours," "screw you," "angel tits," etc. Not only does this language stand in contrast to the educated diction George and Martha occasionally use, but it demonstrates the low level their battles have reached.

  • CLICHES AND JARGON
    Absurdist writers often reveal the uselessness of language to communicate by creating dialogue that is filled with cliches and empty phrases. Albee's characters use a great many slang terms and cliches, but usually with an awareness of their emptiness. Phrases like "never mix, never worry," "down the hatch," "the little bugger," "quite a guy," "the little woman," and so on, are used ironically, often with a cutting edge.

  • REPETITION AND PARALLELISM
    The dialogue of the play has a great rhythmic feel. Listen for the way Albee repeats words or phrases within speeches or dialogue exchanges to create a variety of rhythms. This technique is used frequently throughout the play, but, for example, read the exchange in Act I when Martha first tells George that she has invited guests. Or review the section of Martha's opening monologue in Act III where she talks of crying all the time. Or examine the repetition of "Yes" in the last moments of the play. For parallelism, look at Martha's beautiful speech in Act III that begins, "George who is out somewhere there in the dark..."

    These techniques are often used so subtly that you might not notice them, but they give the play an extraordinary unity and sense of movement. There are those who feel that Albee has carefully planned every word, even the "Ohs" and "Unhhunhs."

    Finally, be aware of the wide range of language Albee uses. Each character has his or her own style. George usually speaks clearly, often elegantly. Nick is characterized by his off-hand macho cockiness. Honey's speeches tend to trail off or are filled with prudish inanities. Martha is perhaps the most interesting of them all. Her dialogue moves from the swearing, foul-mouthed cries of a fishwife to the melodic sound of a tender, silver-tongued poet when she speaks of her son. The range of language encompassed by this one character alone marks Albee as an abundantly gifted writer.

  • ALLUSIONS
    George and Martha's education allows Albee to use a great many allusions in their speeches- literary, historic, and religious. References to Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, the Punic Wars, the Lamb of God, the Catholic mass, and others make the play a rich tapestry of ideas. Notice that Albee rarely, if ever, uses an allusion without making it work for the characters or the theme. Such allusions add complexity to the work and invite several readings in order to fully appreciate the play.

  • SYMBOLISM
    Although Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not as heavily symbolic as some of Albee's other plays, it does use extensive symbolism as part of its literary structure. Some readers see the play as an allegory (a work in which the characters symbolize concepts or ideas). For them, George represents the past (specifically, American ideals of the past); Nick, the threatening future (perhaps Communism); Martha, the primitive and pagan instinct; and Honey (the emotionally unstable daughter of a preacher), the failure of religion. Yet there are others who feel that such a reading asks the play to carry more weight than it can bear.

    It is widely thought, however, that George and Martha symbolize the American couple on one level and the failure of the American dream on a higher level. The imaginary child may symbolize not only the spiritual sterility of the modern age, but the illusion that man creates in order to survive the horrors of life. Nick and Honey represent the future in this scheme, a future full of self-interest, deception, and more sterility.

    Other more minor symbols are used: the fake gun that suggests George's impotence; the bottle whose label Honey peels off that suggests the "peeling away" of the characters' defenses; the story of the boxing match that suggests the power structure of George and Martha's marriage; and so on.

    Albee's later plays (such as Tiny Alice and The Lady from Dubuque) are often criticized for being top-heavy with symbolism, more symbol than play. But in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he never seems to lose sight of the human dilemma that lies at the play's core.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

The three-act structure of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is unusual in an era when most plays are written in two acts. It's not certain what drew Albee to this form; and it may be that the length and intensity of the play demanded that audiences be allowed two respites from the action instead of one. Whatever the reason, the three acts divide the play neatly into three segments, each of which has its own climactic point. (See the accompanying diagram.)

It is also uncommon for a playwright to name his acts, but Albee's choices provide important clues as to what goes on in each of them. Notice that all the acts are named after rituals.

Act I is called "Fun and Games," a name that is an ironic twist on a common phrase for party activity. The games that go on in this act (and the others) are scarcely fun. They are games of psychological torment and hostility, with dangerous repercussions for all concerned. The outcome of the games is not revealed until the last two acts.

Act II, "Walpurgisnacht," is named after the evening in German legend when witches gather to commune in wicked deeds and sexual orgies. It's in this act that the battle between George and Martha festers to the point of total war, that Nick is revealed as a ruthless cad, and that the sexual attraction between Nick and Martha grows close to the point of physical union.

Act III is called "The Exorcism," a title that evokes the ritual of ridding the body of an evil spirit. This "evil spirit" is the fantasy of the imaginary child that possesses George and Martha. George's performance of the exorcism ritual marks a crucial event of the play, because it probably will alter the couple's life in vital ways.

THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE

  1. ACT I

      EXPOSITION
      The characters are introduced, and tensions among them are revealed.

    1. RISING ACTION
      The tensions increase as Martha continues to humiliate George, George acts condescendingly toward Nick, and the flirtation between Martha and Nick continues.

    2. The tension snaps as Martha's verbal assaults make George lose his temper, and the accompanying turmoil sends Honey from the room to vomit.

  2. ACT II

    1. After a short lull in the action as George and Nick talk about their wives and jobs, the energy level increases again as George and Martha continue to square off. Martha punishes George even further by talking about his unpublished novel. He retaliates by attacking her, then proceeds to "get the guests" by exposing their secrets.

    2. CLIMAX
      Goaded by Martha's sexual excursion with Nick, George hatches a plan to "kill" their imaginary son.

  3. ACT III

    1. After Martha expresses her disappointment with Nick's sexual performance, and Nick's role has turned from male sex symbol to houseboy, George reenters and urges Martha to talk about their son.

    2. FALLING ACTION Delivering a shattering blow to Martha, George announces the death of their imaginary son.

    3. DENOUEMENT OR CONCLUSION Martha and George are left alone to face the future, uncertain of their existence together without their fantasy son.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


ECC [Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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