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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee




Without attempting to enthrone Albee alongside anyone (though I personally admire him above all other Americans now writing for the stage), or to hail Virginia Woolf as a classic of the modern theatre (which I have no doubt it will become), I would only state that, in my experience, a more honest or moral (in the true sense) playwright does not exist- unless it be Samuel Beckett... And if what Albee is doing is giving us a "sentimentalized" view of ourselves rather than one as harshly and starkly unsentimental as any I know, why didn't those theatre party ladies buy it up ahead of time as they do all those other technicolor postcards which pass for plays? Or is Albee not rather dedicated to smashing that rosy view, shocking us with the truth of our present-day behavior and thought, striving to purge us into an actual confrontation with reality?

Alan Schneider, "Why So Afraid?" in Tulane Drama Review, 1963

The upsetting thing- the deeply upsetting thing- is that American theatre-goers and their critics have welcomed this phony play and its writer as the harbinger of a new wave in the American theatre. The American theatre, our theatre, is so hungry, so voracious, so corrupt, so morally blind, so perverse that Virginia Woolf is a success. I am outraged at a theatre and an audience that accepts as a masterpiece an insufferably long play with great pretensions that lacks intellectual size, emotional insight, and dramatic electricity. I'm tired of play-long "metaphors"- such as the illusory child of Virginia Woolf- which are neither philosophically, psychologically, nor poetically valid. I'm tired of plays that are badly plotted and turgidly written being excused by such palaver as "organic unity" or "inner form." I'm tired of morbidity and sexual perversity which are there only to titillate an impotent and homosexual theatre and audience. I'm tired of Albee.

Richard Schechner, "Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?" in Tulane Drama Review, 1963


The characterization of Martha is certainly proof of the author's understanding of the problems of unfulfilled people. The social conditioning which encouraged Martha's thwarted expectations, as well as George's idealism and her childlessness are all realities which contributed to her disappointment and sorrow. However, in spite of the material advantages with which she grew up, Martha, given her loveless childhood- not unlike Jerry in The Zoo Story- entered adult life as an emotional cripple who doubted her worth as a human being. She did nothing constructive to help herself to make life bearable for George or for herself... The residue of her wasted talents and unused energies are released in the form of abusive behavior toward her husband. Her pain makes her ruthlessly egotistical. Fairly considered against her given background, there should be little room for complacency or self-righteousness in an evaluation of this character. If her selfishness and cruelty make her repugnant, her deep unhappiness and almost dumb suffering should arouse compassion.

Anita M. Stenz, Edward Albee: The Poet of Loss, 1978


Whatever the truth about his past really is, George worked it out creatively in the form of a novel. The tragic story of a boy who accidently [sic] shot his mother and then a year later while trying to avoid hitting a porcupine on the road swerved the car and drove his father into a tree. Commentators have interpreted what they perceive as George's withdrawal and passivity as behavior resulting from his responsibility as an adolescent for the death of both parents. More in keeping with the play, whose key phrase spoken throughout by both George and Martha is "Truth and illusion, don't you know the difference?", is the theory that George's killing of his parents is symbolic but that there is real guilt attached to his need to be cruel. This also explains why George waited until it was almost too late before he was able to bring himself to hurt Martha and himself profoundly enough to free them both from the mutually destructive pattern of their married life.

Anita M. Stenz, Edward Albee: The Poet of Loss, 1978


Albee has succeeded in persuading us that Martha, as well as George, is a genuinely pitiable character. Thus one can say that the plot contains a kind of reversal, for while Martha had the upper hand over him in her role of his antagonist during the first two acts, he now has won at the fun-and-games business- but at so considerable a cost as to amount to only a pyrrhic victory. At least, however, they communicate, understand each other, and are together at the curtain. They are nevertheless so weakened by the strain of the exorcism and by the bleak prospect that lies before them that we can only pity both of them. It seems to me that we see in them something of the whole general problem of humanity suffering from forces beyond its control, forces which lie inside us as well as outside us and which make us fearful when we recognize them. Martha's fear, then, is exactly the right note for the terminal effect of this highly indeterminate ending.

Richard E. Amacher, Edward Albee, 1982


When George and Martha destroy that child they destroy whatever illusions they have created in reaction to a reality that has been responsible for the loneliness they feel. And the reality they try to keep away, by conjuring up a fantasy child, is actually the reality of man's predicament. That is, man- in this very complex and bureaucratic world whose sheer organization is dehumanizing- feels an overwhelming sense of aloneness and separation. His inability to deal effectively with this predicament has left him filled with despair and boredom, for he no longer has the joy of individual creativity, only dependency on an outside power. And when he can no longer create, he begins to destroy, because either activity lifts him out of his insignificance. George and Martha feel this dislocation, almost abandonment, brought on by our modern world- only more so because their marriage is sterile. Consequently, in order to overcome their predicament, they have resorted to the illusion that they are not alone; they have a child who loves them.

Michael Rutenberg, Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest, 1969


Nick and Honey are just starting out and have something of the hopes and energies that George and Martha had when they first came together; but where George failed, Nick might well succeed. He is willful in a petty way, knows exactly what he wants, and is callous enough to reach out and grab it. His plans are clear and realizable. He is much more practical and less idealistic than George, but lacks George's potential to adjust to what the world calls failure. George's failure is incomprehensible to Nick: would anyone, in his right mind, turn down a high administrative post simply to indulge a passion to write the great American novel? The irony is that Nick wants what George had in his grasp and turned down. In this context Nick's designs seem downright petty, while George's worldly failure takes on heroic colors... [Nick] is absolutely callous to [Honey's] emotional needs, bent on humoring her in order to get what he wants. His relationship with Honey is an excellent barometer of his relationship with the rest of the world. He will very likely get everything he wants; but the world will hold his success against him, for his ambition is utterly transparent. George and Martha have understood this and are contemptuous of him, Honey suspects it but cannot bring herself to face the truth.

Anne Paolucci, From Tension to Tonic, 1972

[Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Contents]


We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

[Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Contents]



Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Good overview of Albee's work through The Lady from Dubuque.

Bigsby, C. W. E. Albee. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969. Discussion of Albee's work up to A Delicate Balance.

Clurman, Harold. The Naked Image: Observations on the Modern Theater. New York: Macmillan, 1966. Includes a perceptive essay on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Diehl, Digby. "Edward Albee Interviewed," Transatlantic Review 13 (Summer 1963): 57- 72.

Esslin, Martin. The Theater of the Absurd. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. The best book to read to learn about Albee's place in this movement.

Hayman, Ronald. Edward Albee. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. A British writer offers a view of Albee's work.

Meyer, Ruth. "Language: Truth and Illusion in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Education Theatre Journal 20 (1968): 60-69.

Paolucci, Anne. From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1972. Cogent look at Albee's work.

Rutenberg, Michael. Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1969. The writer brings a critical eye to and a director's perspective on the plays.

Schechner, Richard. "Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?" Tulane Drama Review 7, no. 3 (1963): 7-10. Read this critical blast along with the next two entries in this list.

_____. "Reality Is Not Enough: An Interview with Alan Schneider." Tulane Drama Review 9, no. 3 (1965): 143-50. One of the play's foes speaks with its Broadway director.

Schneider, Alan. "Why So Afraid?" Tulane Drama Review 7, no. 3 (1963): 10-13. The director responds to Schechner's attack. This article, along with the preceding two entries on this list will give you a good idea of the controversy surrounding the play when it was first performed.

Stenz, Anita Maria. Edward Albee: The Poet of Loss. New York: Mouton, 1978.

Trilling, Diana. "The Riddle of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" In Claremont Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963. The author speaks to the play's enormous popularity.

Wasserman, Julian N. Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays. Houston, Tex.: The University of St. Thomas, 1983. One of Albee's most recent interviews.


The dates in this list refer to composition not first performance.

    1958 The Zoo Story (one act)
    1959 The Death of Bessie Smith (one act)
    1959 The Sandbox (one act)
    1960 The American Dream (one act)
    1963 The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
    1964 Tiny Alice
    1965 Malcolm
    1966 A Delicate Balance
    1967 Everything in the Garden
    1968 Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung
    1971 All Over
    1975 Seascape
    1976 Listening (one act)
    1980 The Lady From Dubuque
    1981 Lolita
    1983 The Man with Three Arms


ECC [Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Contents] []
[Stories About Virginia Woolf]

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