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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee


THE STORY

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has three acts, which are not divided into scenes. For the sake of clarity, this guide divides the acts into scenes, based (with some exceptions) on the theatrical device of beginning a new scene whenever a character enters or exits.

ACT I - FUN AND GAMES

ACT I, SCENE I

The setting is the living room of a house on the campus of a small New England college. It is well after midnight. The room is empty, but noises and laughter can be heard outside. Suddenly the door opens, and two people enter the room. Martha, 52, is large and boisterous. Her husband George, 46, is thin with graying hair.

From the very first moments of the play, the differences between Martha and George are marked. She's cranky and belligerent; he tries to pacify her. She's aggressive and loud; he's passive and quiet.

Martha does an imitation of the actress Bette Davis and insists that George identify the movie the quoted line comes from. George tries to put her off: he's tired, it's late, and he's in no mood for guessing games. But it seems that Martha rules the roost. She keeps after him until he reluctantly tries to guess the film.

NOTE: The film with Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten is called Beyond the Forest (1949). It probably has no deeper significance to the play than the general parallels between Martha and the bored, restless, ailing character portrayed by Davis. Martha is also bored. Although she's not physically sick, Martha might be considered spiritually sick. And she's certainly discontent, as you'll discover as you read.

The title of Act I is "Fun and Games." Martha's name that movie" is the first of the games that will be played throughout the night. Be alert for others. Some will be labeled, others will be subtle, but most have serious implications.

George and Martha continue to bicker, and within their bitter exchanges they reveal facts about themselves. George is a teacher at the college, and they have just been to one of the Saturday night parties given regularly by Martha's father, who we learn later is president of the college. Martha chides George for refusing to mix at these parties, and he retorts with a jibe at her loud and vulgar behavior.

These opening exchanges may seem like nothing more than what happens between a "typical" married couple who are tired and have had too much to drink. But you're seeing patterns that are important to the play. Martha tends to bully George, and he accepts her behavior with weary resignation.

Also, the play opens with Martha's "Jesus H. Christ!" This may seem like a casual profanity, but it's the first of many allusions that point to the play's theme of religion.

Now Martha has a surprise for George. She has invited another couple to join them for a drink. Her memory of this couple is blurred, but she does remember that he's "good-looking" and his wife is "mousey."

As you read this exchange about the guests, notice George's reaction. He's not surprised that the male guest is attractive. One of the play's major themes is sex, and sexual jealousy is one aspect of it. Watch George's behavior in this act to note signs that he's jealous of Nick- and that he's not surprised Martha has invited the young couple.

Martha insists she has invited Nick and Honey at the urging of her father, whom she refers to as "Daddy." Why does Martha use this childlike name? Is she trying to be cute, or is there a more serious undertone? Is this a woman who needs to be treated as a child, or who still thinks of herself as a child where her father is concerned? The theme of parent and child figures strongly in the play.

George is put out by Martha's news, accusing her of "springing things" on him. Martha tries to coax George out of his mood by using a childish voice to chant a nursery rhyme: "Georgie- Porgie, put-upon pie!"

NOTE: The second line of the nursery rhyme is "Kissed the girls and made them cry." While this seems an inconsequential taunt, it is an example of Albee's complex patterning. Not only does the nursery rhyme suggest the games indulged in by the characters, but it reminds you that George and Martha often resort to childishness in their relationship. Also, remember this line as you read Act III and hear what Martha has to say about George.

George is unmoved, so Martha tries again to amuse him, singing a jingle that was a hit at the party. It's a parody of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", a song in the Walt Disney animated- cartoon version of "The Three Little Pigs." The parody substitutes the similar sounding "Virginia Woolf" in place of the animal's name.

NOTE: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a British novelist noted for her experiments in language and fictional technique, such as stream-of-consciousness. (In stream of consciousness a character's thoughts are presented in the often disjointed way they pass through the mind.) Among Woolf's most famous novels are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves. Woolf was at the vanguard of an artistic group in London during the 1920s and 30s that included painters, writers, and philosophers. Since Woolf is considered one of the great literary innovators and influences of the twentieth century, it would not be unusual for her life and work to be discussed at a faculty party such as the one given by Martha's father. Woolf's later years were marked by bouts of insanity, and she drowned herself at the age of 59.

Readers have debated the meaning of the play's title. Some have suggested that Woolf's madness and inclinations to death are meant to be evoked by Martha's character. Others have suggested that it has no deeper meaning than its clever parody- it makes an intriguing title. Albee's only pronouncement about it is his insistence that he used the title because it amused him when he first saw it scrawled as a bit of bathroom graffiti! (The play's working title was "The Exorcism," which became the title of Act III.) Whatever its relevance, you'll hear the jingle used again. Watch for the way its tone changes.

Now the couple argues about whether George found the song amusing. In some ways, this play recalls the classic "battle of the sexes" written about by playwrights for centuries- man and woman striving for the upper hand in a relationship. As you read the play, try to determine in what ways George and Martha are truly battling, seeking to best each other on various issues, and in what ways they are simply arguing out of habit. Perhaps you have a friend with whom you argue constantly, just for the fun of the mental competition. Many people do, and it doesn't always come from mutual dislike. They simply enjoy the give-and-take of matching wits. Others argue because that's the only way they can communicate, and they feel that having a fight is better than not communicating at all. Which of these is true of George and Martha? Or do they all apply in some way? You'll get plenty of evidence to help you make up your mind as the play progresses.

The argument over whether or not George laughed at the song seems insignificant, but it's the first hint of one of the play's major themes: truth and illusion. This will not be the first disagreement about what did or did not happen, about what is real and what is not.

As the argument boils, you can observe the fighting techniques favored by the couple. Martha uses crude insults- "simp," "pig," "you make me puke"- and hits at George's lack of identity- "if you existed I'd divorce you." George takes the role of the submissive intellectual: "That wasn't a very nice thing to say." But don't be fooled by appearances; remember the theme of "truth and illusion."

Notice, too, how quickly the two shift from anger to affection. He calls her "honey" and she asks for a kiss, but soon they're back in the heat of the battle. What do these abrupt changes of tone tell you about George and Martha? Are their antagonisms only on the surface? Or do they simply know each other's vulnerabilities so well that they can pick up the battle in a split second?

Notice George's reaction when Martha asks for a kiss. He evades the issue by giving her a flip excuse, but his avoidance of physical contact may be saying something pertinent about their sex life.

They hammer away at each other, George hitting on Martha's supposed whorish behavior, Martha calling him "a blank, a cipher," as if he were merely an unpleasant figment of her imagination (the theme of truth and illusion again). Does he have no effect on her at all, or does she want him to think he doesn't? Think about this as you read.

The doorbell chimes, and Martha is all set to "party." Still in midbattle, the fight becomes a test of wills as to which one will open the door. Martha wins, but George has a warning for her: she's not to start in on "the bit."

"The bit" that George mentions concerns a child, "the kid." Here is the first reference to a factor central to the play: George and Martha's son. Why doesn't George want him mentioned? What will happen if Martha disobeys George (which she's likely to do)? Suddenly, suspense enters the play. How will the guests change the dynamics of George and Martha's relationship? Will Martha do as she likes and talk about the child?

As George goes to the door, he deliberately goads Martha with insults, angering her to the point where she screams "SCREW YOU!" just as he opens the door. Here Albee has created a wonderful theatrical moment. Imagine how the guests feels as they are welcomed by Martha's "greeting"! Imagine how Martha feels! As for George, there's every indication that he planned the moment. The stage directions tell us that his expression of pleasure comes from Martha's being overheard, not Nick and Honey's arrival.

NOTE: In many plays, the stage directions give only the most basic information. In printed texts of plays, the stage directions are often supplied by a stage manager to indicate how the original production was staged. But in this play, the stage directions are Albee's, and they often give specific clues as to his own intentions about the play. George's expression of glee at the timing of Martha's remark and the arrival of Nick and Honey is a good example of Albee telling us what was on his mind when he wrote the scene.

Don't forget that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is in many ways a comedy. While the implications of the play are very serious, the humor, especially in the first act, almost never lags. The laughter helps the audience to release some of the tensions built up by the emotional demands of the play. Nick and Honey's arrival gives you one of those releases.

ACT I, SCENE II

The early part of the scene is devoted to the general social discomfort the four feel in this awkward situation. Martha overcompensates for her profanity, George is matter-of-fact, Nick tries to be polite, and Honey can do little more than giggle. You might sympathize with Nick and Honey if you've ever been made uncomfortable by someone you tried to impress.

As the four interact, watch for their behavior patterns, which will intensify as the "party" continues. Nick attempts to comment politely on a painting on the wall, but George tries to put words in his mouth and makes him feel all the more uncomfortable. Why does George immediately put Nick on the defensive? Is he bullying Nick the way Martha bullies him? Or does he suspect that Nick was invited for reasons other than to please Martha's father?

As drinks are poured, George makes it clear that the insults leveled by Martha and him are not likely to abate just because they have guests. He takes a swipe at her drinking habits, and Martha cheerfully replies, "Screw, sweetie." Like all good guests, Nick and Honey try not to notice the verbal brick-bats being tossed back and forth.

NOTE: Martha tells George that he has a "Dylan Thomas-y" quality. Thomas was a celebrated 20th-century Welsh poet, equally known for his evocative verse and for his alcoholism. (He died in 1953 of an alcohol-related disease.) Martha's cynical crack suggests George's own intellectual power and his fondness for liquor- a combination that's often deadly.

When Martha suddenly bursts out with the "Virginia Woolf" song, the subject turns to that night's party. Nick and Honey are properly complimentary about Martha's father, who is, after all, Nick's boss. But it's evident that Martha's father is a point of bitterness between George and Martha. "There are easier things," says George, than being son-in-law to the college president. But Martha insists that George simply doesn't appreciate his advantage, that some men "would give their right arm" for the chance.

George's reply, that the sacrifice involves a "more private portion of the anatomy," points to one of the play's themes- impotence. George's reference to the loss of his testicles suggests he has been figuratively castrated by Martha, leading some readers to feel that Albee is writing about the emotional castration (or domination) of the American male by the female.

How do you feel about this issue? Is it still pertinent- or is it even more pertinent- in this era's quest by women for equal rights? The relationship between male and female has been a hot issue since Adam and Eve, and a favorite subject for playwrights. Some readers have complained that Albee reveals intense misogyny (hatred of women) in his plays. In your estimation, is that a fair criticism of this play? How does this explosive battling between the sexes reflect what you've observed about the world? Does a certain amount of conflict exist within every male-female relationship?

When Honey excuses herself, she can't bring herself to use the word bathroom, Here is one of the earliest suggestions of Honey's childlike ways and her avoidance of reality.

NOTE: George wryly refers to the bathroom as "the euphemism." A euphemism is a word or phrase that is mild or indirect, used as a substitute for one that is harsh or blunt- such as passed away for died or sanitary engineer for garbage collector. George makes fun of Honey's aversion to using the word bathroom, but as you will see, her avoidance of reality, suggested by her use of euphemisms, is a major part of her character.

After a few parting words of anger to George, Martha leaves to show Honey the house. As for George, he throws her another warning about mentioning the "you-know-what," the forbidden subject. Martha, of course, refuses to promise anything.

ACT I, SCENE III

Nick and George are alone, and for a time they endure a strained conversation. The conversation bounces among various subjects as the two men talk:

  1. THE SCHOOL

    You've already seen George's dislike of Martha's father. In this scene you discover his bitterness over his lack of advancement. (He's an associate professor. Most people his age would have achieved the rank of full professor.) The only time he headed the department was during World War II, when most of the male faculty had joined the service.

    George's cynicism about the school is revealed in a variety of allusions- the story of the teacher buried in the shrubbery, Martha's father's longevity ("the staying power of one of those Micronesian tortoises"), and a variety of sarcastic names for the college and the town.

    NOTE: Although there are tortoises on Micronesia (a group of small islands near the Philippines), those who live for centuries are found in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of South America. It isn't known whether this slight error is Albee's, or whether he deliberately plants it to suggest that George made a mistake when he attempted to impress Nick. In either case, the image of Martha's father as an ageless tortoise is grim but humorous.

    The real name of the town is New Carthage. Albee's choice suggests the ancient empire of Carthage, once a flourishing civilization until it was conquered by the Romans in the Punic Wars (third and second centuries B.C.). Albee seems to be comparing modern civilization with that of the Carthaginians. What are the forces, according to Albee, that have conquered our civilization? Think about this question as you read the play.

    NOTE: The nicknames George has for New Carthage are drawn from various places. Illyria, an area of the Balkan Peninsula, is also the idealized setting of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Penguin Island is a novel by Anatole France (1844-1924) set on a mythical island destroyed by capitalism. Gomorrah is the city in the Bible that was destroyed, along with Sodom, for its wickedness. Parnassus, George's name for his father-in-law's house, refers to a mountain sacred to ancient Greek gods.

    George also speaks of a disease invented from the initials of the degrees he holds- Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, and Doctor of Philosophy, ABMAPHID- which he calls both a "disease of the frontal lobes" and a "wonder drug."

    You'll see that George constantly calls attention to his disillusionment and disgust with his failure in the department. Why is he so open about his flaws? Is he simply honest, or is he punishing himself? George's tendency to dwell on his worst points suggests a streak of masochism (a tendency to self-inflict pain or suffering, often for sexual gratification). This is an important characteristic to remember.

  2. THEIR PROFESSIONS

    George is a historian, Nick a biologist. This is the first reference to another of the play's themes- history vs. science. George and Nick are contrasted by seemingly irreconcilable philosophies. George is hostile to the notion of a future where everyone is alike. Perhaps you can understand his fear. Where would historians be without the variety of human experience to study? George feels threatened by Nick's profession, although he doubts that anyone learns much from history. Do George's feelings reflect something you've felt about progress and the future of mankind?

    NOTE: It's been suggested that Nick's name is meant to evoke that of Nikita Khrushchev, a leader of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. If George's name suggests George Washington and the disintegration of the American revolutionary spirit (as some believe), then this confrontation may represent an East-West standoff, very much in the minds of audiences during the Cold War of the early 1960s. For these readers the play is political allegory as well as psychological warfare.

  3. THEIR WIVES

    George speaks sarcastically about Martha ("Martha is a hundred and eight... years old") and inquires frankly about Honey. A sly allusion to the frequency of "musical beds" brings to mind the theme of games and gamesmanship while foreshadowing a situation that will occur later in the play.

  4. CHILDREN

    The subject of children comes up, underscoring another theme: parents and children. Nick and Honey are childless, but when Nick asks George if they have any children, George's reply is mysterious: "That's for me to know and you to find out." You've already seen George act strangely about their child ("the bit"), but now he's turned it into another game.

Overriding the whole scene are George's attempts to intimidate Nick by acting remote, twisting his words, pulling rank on him. This scene has been compared to a chess game between the two men. How does George keep the upper hand? Remember that Nick has to be polite: George is the son-in-law of the college president. But it's still unclear why George toys with his guest, a relative stranger, in such a way.

George calls for Martha, who answers him abrasively, but it's Honey who appears.

ACT I, SCENE IV

Honey returns with two bits of information that infuriate George: Martha is changing her clothes to be more "comfortable," and she has mentioned the forbidden topic- their son- to Honey. George says to himself, "OK, Martha... OK," as if he has made a decision based on her behavior. He has warned her about this- now what will he do?

Martha enters, having changed into a dress that makes her look "more voluptuous." George's suspicions that Martha is sexually attracted to Nick have been confirmed- she's on the prowl.

The next several minutes of the play find George increasingly embarrassed. His failure in the history department is contrasted to Nick's early academic success. His "paunchy" body is compared to Nick's athletic achievements. Martha is relentless in her criticism of George, taunting him with the term swampy.

Notice how Martha moves from the phrase bogged down to the term swampy. It's one of many examples of Albee's own verbal agility and the ways he wields it throughout the play.

George does his best to keep his temper from erupting, You may wonder why he allows Martha to treat him this way. Is it the presence of their guests? Is he innately a masochist, who enjoys the suffering? Or is he simply biding his time to deal with Martha in another way? Watch him to see which of these reasons apply. At the same time, George tries to counter Martha's insults with an elaborate refusal to light her cigarette. It shows again George's tendency to try to use his intellect to demonstrate superiority, but Martha responds with nothing more than a contemptuous "Jesus."

The reference in George's speech to a descent down the evolutionary ladder not only recalls his feeling that he has been dehumanized by Martha, but also connects Martha's behavior with that of a primitive being. Allusions such as this support those theories that suggest Martha represents a pre-Christian, pagan, elemental force in the play. There will be other similar references.

The "body talk" between Martha and Nick reinforces the implied sexual tension between them. Martha is more and more obvious in her comments. At one point in this scene, the stage directions tell you that "there is a rapport of some unformed sort" between them.

You may wonder why Honey seems to notice none of this. The obvious answer is that she's too drunk. Indeed, a great deal of liquor is being consumed by all four! But for all of Honey's inane behavior, there is more to her than meets the eye.

Talk of sports leads Martha to mention a boxing match that occurred during her and George's early marriage. When she ignores his warnings not to tell the story, he angrily leaves the room. But she persists with her tale. At a time when Martha's father was trying to improve the faculty's athletic prowess, he tried to engage George in a boxing match. When George declined, Martha jokingly put on the gloves and surprised George by punching him square in the jaw and knocking him to the ground.

Martha calls the incident of the boxing match both "funny" and "awful," saying, "I think it's colored our whole life." What does she mean? Can such a small event have such an effect? Does she mean that it was symbolic of their relationship, with Martha as aggressor and George as victim? Or does she mean that he's never forgiven her for the humiliation? Perhaps it was the first of the games they've been playing ever since, with serious results. Whatever Martha means, it's this incident, she says, that George uses for not having "gone anywhere" in the history department. Could her father have respect for a man who could be punched out by a woman?

George returns with a "surprise" of his own- a short-barreled shotgun that he aims at the back of Martha's head. As Honey screams and Nick moves to stop him, Martha turns around and George pulls the trigger! But the gun is a toy that shoots a harmless Chinese parasol!

The gun is an important symbol in the play. On one level it is a device to defuse the tension. It allows you to relax a bit as you discover the joke along with the characters.

More importantly, the gun has other meanings. It's yet another game that gives the act its title. Also, it's a metaphorical act of murder that is one of the play's themes. The joke is harmless, but it is prompted out of George's genuine rage, suggesting that he wishes it were real. He kills Martha symbolically for her cruelty- but with a toy gun, suggesting both George's recurring failures and the theme of truth and illusion. The gun is a sexual symbol, too. Guns are often considered phallic symbols (representing the penis) in literature. George's castration and impotence have already been touched upon in the play; here the theme is given tangible form. Martha emphasizes its sexual overtones when she says to Nick, "You don't need any props, do you, baby?" Martha has again won this round. George has attempted to bring the attention away from Martha's boxing story, but she turns the tables by pointing up George's impotence and Nick's sexual power.

Why then does Martha demand a kiss from George, and then urge him on by putting his hand on her breast? Is she turned on by violence- or by its potential? Or is she transferring her lust for Nick to George? Either way, she is hurt when George turns her down.

NOTE: George wonders if Martha has "blue games" in mind. "Blue" is a term for something off-color or sexual in content. Here the theme of games and gamesmanship appears again, as well as the theme of sex. His accusation will have its echoes later in the play as the action accelerates. Does she have "blue games" on her mind? George's response, "everything in its own good time," foreshadows what's to come regarding these games.

ACT I, SCENE V

Nick leaves the room, and George again brings up the subject of Nick's profession, his work with chromosomes. For the first time Martha learns that Nick is in the biology department, not the math department as she insisted before. When Nick returns, Martha turns this knowledge into a compliment for him- biology puts him "right at the... meat of things." Martha's sexual allusion continues her open seduction of Nick.

NOTE: When George says that in his mind Martha is buried in cement "right up to [her] neck," it may be a reference to Samuel Beckett's absurdist play, Happy Days, in which the main character is buried in a mound of sand, first to her waist, then up to her neck. Such an allusion would reflect Albee's respect for and interest in the absurdists.

George begins elaborating on his earlier conversation with Nick about genetic alteration that will produce "a race of men... test-tube bred... incubator-born... superb and sublime."

NOTE: George's cry "I will not give up Berlin!" is a reminder of the Cold War struggle for Berlin that resulted in the wall that divides the city between East and West. This allusion points to the aspect of the play that underlines the conflict between George (representing American ideals of the past) and Nick (representing the communistic "wave of the future").

The reference "one hand on my scrotum" links George's stand ironically with the earlier allusion to castration.

Albee gives George the floor in this elegant and eloquent speech, interrupted only by Nick's mild protests and Martha's mocking comments. Is George speaking for Albee's own fear for the future of the human race? It's uncertain, but, obviously, Albee gives George the more persuasive defense of the two. Nick never tries to deny what George is saying. Nick even sarcastically agrees, "And I am the wave of the future."

NOTE: At the time the play was written, the "test-tube baby" had not been successfully created. The process, called in vitro fertilization, was carried out frequently in the 1980s, however. Although genetic tampering was not practiced, there are those who doubt the morality of fertilizing a human egg outside the woman's body. Is there a danger in your mind that George's predictions will come true?

These theories either are lost on Martha or she chooses to ignore them. Situated very much in the here and now, she's delighted that Nick will be a personal screwing machine." As for Honey, she stays within her passive naivete, shocked when Nick uses vulgar language. What must she think of Martha?

Honey changes the subject by asking when George and Martha's son is coming home. Notice the change in George's reaction. Cold fury turns into formal politeness as he repeats the question to Martha. Now Martha is "sorry [she] brought it up."

Remember that George was insistent the child not be mentioned. Now he's changed his tune. Why? Remember his earlier line, "OK, Martha... OK." It seemed then that he had resolved to do something to get even. This is the first phase of that plan of action.

NOTE: George refers to his son as "the little bugger." Look for other cliched terms to describe the boy, terms that suggest the old-fashioned ideal of the All-American child, but that will turn out to have a totally different effect. Later in this scene George will deliberately twist "blond-haired, blue-eyed" into "blond-eyed, blue-haired," hinting that the son might be a different version of this "perfect" child from what one might expect.

Martha is angered by George's prodding. She seeks revenge by telling their guests that George isn't sure the child is his. Even George is shocked by this brazen response, and he insists that his parentage of the child is one of the few things in life he is sure of. This assertion will have ironic implications later in the play.

At one point, Honey corrects Martha's grammar, only to be told that Martha went to college. She also went to a convent when she was young- this despite the fact that she didn't then and doesn't now believe in the existence of God. George insists she's a pagan, one who "paints blue circles around her things."

NOTE: A pagan is a person with primitive religious beliefs that predate formalized religions such as Judaism and Christianity. Women in pagan cultures would often paint their breasts as part of religious or ceremonial rites. George's comment is an insult to Martha and her "primitive" behavior as well as a suggestion that she represents an elemental life force. It serves also as another religious allusion.

In an earlier scene, George spoke of the "evolutionary ladder" and suggested that Martha might be a rung or two below everyone else. Now she is being likened to a pagan and an atheist. Is Martha meant to represent precivilization, a life force that is more instinct than reason? Or does this aspect suggest that she demonstrates a race that God has abandoned because He has been forgotten by them? Readers don't fully agree on the role of religion in this play, but allusions to religious rituals and concepts are so frequent they can't be ignored. Many interpretations are possible, and Albee himself has said he often uses more religious symbolism in his plays than he's aware of. Perhaps the sometimes bewildering array of religious images is meant to suggest spiritual confusion in the modern age. Be aware these allusions exist in the play, and realize that there aren't always easy answers to every ambiguity that Albee presents.

Another interesting exchange occurs when Martha and George disagree over the color of the child's eyes. George tells Martha, "Make up your mind." Watch for clues like this that show Martha's indecision about the child. They're important for what will be revealed in the last act.

The subject of eyes leads to another reference to Martha's father. George insists the old man has "tiny red eyes," like a mouse. But Martha reiterates that George dislikes her father only because of George's own "inadequacies." Sick of hearing the same old song, George leaves to get more liquor.

ACT I, SCENE VI

While he's gone, Martha elaborates on the mutual dislike between her husband and her father. As she tells the story of her early life, Nick and Honey interject polite comments and occasionally bicker, but Martha's in no mood to indulge them. She wants center stage and insists on shutting up her guests if they interrupt.

It's been suggested by some readers that, in a play that depends so heavily on games and rituals, this entire "party" may be a ritual, one that Martha and George perform often for guests. They act out their hostilities and describe themselves and each other to whomever they can talk into visiting them. The script may change slightly, depending on the audience, but it's basically the same set of arguments and confessional speeches. This one about her father may be one of Martha's mainstays; it helps to explain herself to others. Watch for evidence that might support this theory. Also, look for this party to take a dramatic turn that will differentiate it from all others in the past.

Martha's story contains two thematic threads. Her close relationship with her father ("I absolutely worshipped him") suggests that he is as much of a God to Martha as is anything else in her life. It also reminds you that parent/child relationships are important in the play. You're also told of Martha's early sexuality in the story of her affair with the gardener.

NOTE: Martha's reference to Lady Chatterly comes from D. H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterly's Lover (1928), banned for obscenity for many years after its publication. It tells the story of a sexual relationship between an upper-class married woman and her gamekeeper.

Martha takes time from her story to continue her blatant seduction of Nick, but he declines to carry it any further- especially with Honey nearby.

Martha indicates that George came along as a possible successor to her father. What does this tell you about her fierce disappointment in George? Did she want him as a father substitute? Has he failed by not being as strong or as successful as her father? The notion of a woman looking for a second father in the man she marries is not new. You'll learn something about Martha's father in the third act that will help you decide if this theory is true.

NOTE: Martha's reference to an "albatross" alludes to the long poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). In the poem an albatross is a symbol of bad luck, and ultimately of death. Martha's allusion may be a subconscious comment on her own self-image as a burden to her father.

George returns in the middle of Martha's story to hear her express surprise that she "actually fell for him." The suggestion here is that Martha and George once loved each other. Are there hints that they still do?

As usual, though, Martha goes too far. Ignoring George's warnings to stop, she continues to talk of her father's expectations for George and the way they were dashed when George turned out not to have the "stuff." Again George warns her, but Martha moves ahead, now "viciously triumphant," and declares him "A great... big... fat... FLOP!"

It's clear that George is humiliated because Martha has made his failures so public. But the pressures on him to succeed have built up over the years and are a constant source of pain for him. Albee seems to be saying that the quest for success often demands a heavy price, particularly if the goals are not reached.

Is it so terrible that George is an associate professor rather than a full professor? Perhaps you have felt burdened, in a lesser way, pressed to achieve a goal that may not seem so important once you've reached it. Whether the pressure comes from someone else or from yourself, you might have felt yourself the victim of an unspoken rule that says you must succeed no matter what the cost. George's constant humiliation under Martha's cruelty is a reminder of the price many pay for striving to reach an elusive reward. Do you think this is a particularly American malady?

Furious, George smashes a liquor bottle to stop Martha, a gesture that may be another symbol of George's impotence. The gesture doesn't work, because Martha merely chides him for wasting good liquor- something he can't afford.

George, near tears, begs her to stop and begins a reprise of the "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" song. The song is sung now in angry desperation as George hopes to drown out Martha's cruel tirade about his wasted career. It succeeds in stopping Martha only when Honey mindlessly joins in.

The song finally has its effect and Martha screams for the two to "STOP IT!" Is Martha intimidated in some way by the song? Or is she merely frustrated by its innocuous chant? (Remember that this was the woman who laughed heartily at it earlier.) Martha's annoyance with the song foreshadows the song's use later in the play.

Honey rushes from the room, threatening to vomit, and Nick rushes after her. Martha follows them, but not before looking at George contemptuously as she leaves.

George is left alone. The act has built to a peak of dramatic tension, as two of the characters' emotions have undergone enormous strain. There is no indication in the stage directions of how George looks at this moment. If you were directing the play, how would you want George to appear? Defeated and humiliated? Or even more determined to get the better of Martha? Either of these choices is possible, depending on how strongly you feel already that George will end up as the hero of the play. Right now it seems as if Martha has won the first battle. But there is every chance that George may yet win the war- if, indeed, there is to be a victor at all.

THE STORY, continued

THE PLAY


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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