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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee


THE STORY, continued

ACT II - WALPURGISNACHT

ACT II, SCENE I

A short time has passed since the end of Act I. George is still alone in the room as Nick comes back to tell him that Honey is feeling better. For a few moments, the two engage in a brief ping-pong match of words, each confusing the other's reference to she. This comic interchange allows the audience to relax a bit after the tensions of the last act.

A relatively quiet scene follows as the two men talk. The natural hostility between them has not entirely disappeared. Nick admits that he finds George and Martha's behavior embarrassing, and wonders why they air their disagreements so publicly. George furiously calls Nick "smug" and "self-righteous," but he does agree that he and Martha don't make a pretty "spectacle." (The word spectacle supports the theory that George and Martha "air their dirty linen" in front of others, since "spectacle" suggests a public display.)

As Nick confesses to being impressed by George and Martha's "skill" at these battles, George says that Nick practices a "pragmatic idealism." (Pragmatic means "practical." Idealism is the pursuit of high or noble principles.) In what way does this term apply to Nick?

NOTE: Nick says, "Flagellation isn't my idea of good times." Flagellation is the practice of whipping, used both by certain religious sects for self-discipline and by people engaging in sadomasochistic sex. In what ways do George and Martha engage in metaphoric flagellation? Does the practice extend to Nick and Honey?

A discussion of Honey's sicknesses (she gets sick "regularly") leads to Nick's admission that he married Honey because she was pregnant- or at least he thought she was. Honey had had a hysterical (false) pregnancy. Once they were married, the symptoms disappeared. Remember this fact about Honey because it's related to a number of the play's themes.

A reference to Nick's choice of drink, bourbon, prompts George to tell Nick a story about something that happened when George was 16 and went to a bar during Prohibition with a group of friends. One of these friends was a boy who had "accidentally" shot his mother. This boy innocently ordered "bergin" (meaning bourbon whiskey) at the bar and soon had the entire roomful of people laughing at his mistake. Sometime later, George tells Nick, the boy was driving along a country road, his father beside him. Swerving to avoid a porcupine, the boy hit a tree, and the father was killed. Since then, the boy has been in an asylum and has not uttered one sound.

This speech is one of the most controversial in the entire play. In the stage directions, Albee requests that there be a five-second pause after the speech- a long time on stage- suggesting that Albee feels the speech is very important.

Some readers believe that George is talking about himself, that the story actually happened to him. Others feel that the story is an invention, created to amuse the guests. It's also possible that the story is an allegory that represents the young boy's (George's?) feelings of hatred for his parents. These readers see the asylum as an allegorical representation of George's adult years as a teacher and husband of Martha, trapped and not uttering one sound- that is, having done nothing of significance since then. The "bergin" story will come up later in the play in a way that may help you decide which interpretation makes the most sense.

George makes another puzzling reference to the insane, commenting on how slowly they age, maintaining "a firm-skinned serenity." If George feels he has been in a symbolic asylum for several years, the allusion might be to himself (he has referred earlier to his leanness and firm flesh). Nick's attempts to draw George out on the subject result in George's wistful "Some things are sad, though." His baffling comment is never fully explained.

The talk returns to children and pregnancies. George mentions that "Martha doesn't have pregnancies at all," which Nick assumes to mean that Martha no longer has pregnancies. Considering Albee's precision with language, is Nick correct? Consider this a clue to something that George and Martha have yet to reveal. Another subtle hint is in George's reference to the child as "a bean bag," a child's toy.

NOTE: George's reference to the child as "the apple of our three eyes" is another example of Albee's use of maxims and cliches ("Blond-eyed, blue-haired") in ways that deliberately reverse them. This is a common technique of some absurdists.

He also calls Martha a Cyclops, a gigantic beast in Greek mythology with only one eye in the middle of its forehead.

Martha interrupts briefly, just enough time for her and George to exchange a rapid series of insults in French.

NOTE: The English translations of the words that George and Martha hurl at each other are "monster," "pig," "beast," "scoundrel," and "whore." Their brief "act" shows you not only that they are multilingual fighters, but that they are so practiced in their battles they can engage in showing off for the guests without missing a beat.

Before Martha interrupted, George was about to "set [Nick] straight" about something Martha had said. After Martha leaves, that issue is dropped. What do you think George wanted to talk about? It's impossible to know, but it might have been about the child. Remember this moment after you've read the play, and decide whether the play might have ended differently had George and Nick not been interrupted.

Nick seems to be on a confessional streak as well. He corroborates George's guess that he married Honey for her money as well as because of her supposed pregnancy. They had known each other since childhood, and the marriage was simply "taken for granted."

NOTE: George speaks of "Chinese women," a reference to a crude joke. Nick's joke about cretins (someone with a congenital mental deficiency) is a pun on the inhabitants of the island of Crete (Cretans).

Both men have something in common. Both have fathers-in-law with money. Honey's father was a semi-famous preacher who "spent God's money" and "saved his own." Martha's father inherited money from his second wife, Martha's stepmother.

When Nick says that Martha never mentioned a stepmother, George allows that "maybe it isn't true." Is this another invention of George's, or just an attempt to play with Nick's mind? Either way, the theme of truth and illusion is in evidence again.

That Honey is the daughter of a corrupt preacher has led some readers to feel that Albee is indicting the failure of religion in our lives, that he considers it a collection of corrupt and useless institutions. Certainly Honey, seemingly inane and idiotic, constantly sick or giggling, doesn't suggest that religion has produced healthy offspring. As you've seen, it isn't always easy to understand what Albee has up his sleeve with his religious allusions, but this one is fairly clear-cut. There seems no other reason for Honey to be a preacher's daughter than as an acerbic comment on the state of religion.

The rest of the scene details Nick's "plans" to get ahead at the college. Half-joking and half-serious, he talks of looking for the weak spots, taking over some courses from older teachers, and seducing a few "pertinent" faculty wives.

George pretends to go along with the joke, even to the point of agreeing that Nick had better head right for Martha and "mount her like a goddam dog." After all, she's the daughter of the president. Then the joke stops. George is certain that Nick is serious in these plans.

At this point, which of the two men seem less admirable? George, with his self-pity and passivity? Or Nick with his cold-hearted ambition? Perhaps both men seem weak and unworthy of your respect. But is one more humane than the other? Does one seem to care more than the other?

Most readers would give the nod to George. In the next few moments, he tries to advise Nick, warning that he'll be "sucked down" into the "quicksand" of the college if he isn't careful. And George has been there. Despite his dislike of Nick, he offers the younger man a "survival kit." Nick, "the wave of the future," has only contempt for George and his advice.

Here is the first time that George reaches out to another character, without irony or sarcasm. He tries to "make contact," to "communicate," and all Nick can say is "UP YOURS!"

George's response is another eloquent attempt to define civilization: "communicable sense... morality... government... art." And just when society is brought to the point where there's something to lose, what's the sound that is heard? "Up yours." In short, man has created a civilized society only to see it jeered at by the generation of the future.

This scene has shown you another standoff between history and science, between past and future. Which do you think has the stronger case? Where do you think Albee stands?

NOTE: Dies Irae is Latin for "Day of Wrath." The words are from a hymn in Latin concerned with the Day of Judgment. The hymn is sung during requiem masses in the Roman Catholic church. The use of the term foreshadows another, more complex function of the hymn later in the play.

ACT II, SCENE II

Martha returns with Honey, a bit unsteady but back on her feet. Honey alludes to a bout of appendicitis that turned out to be a false alarm. George and Nick exchange glances. They know she's referring to her false pregnancy, but does she know it? Is this a deliberate lie, or just a myth she has come to believe? The line between truth and illusion may be blurred for Honey, too.

Martha launches into another story about their son, and it soon leads to an ugly squabble about which of them was the worse parent. Martha says that George made the child throw up all the time, while George insists that Martha had sexual designs on the child- "fiddling at him all the time." When George admits that he never wants to talk about their son except when he and Martha are alone, he's making an important point.

Martha scores two blows at George by mentioning that he used to drink "bergin" and by referring to a book he once wanted to publish. You'll soon see why these are sore points with him. He declares he has to find a new way to fight Martha, and the imagery of war is blatant: "guerrilla tactics," "internal subversion."

The suggestion that they dance creates a scene that is a perfect metaphor for the characters. Notice how each of them responds to the idea. George first tries to sabotage the suggestion by playing classical music, but then sits at the side and makes cynical comments. For a while, Honey dances by herself, self- absorbed and oblivious to what's around her. Martha and Nick dance closely, with a great deal of sexual innuendo and eroticism. George's sexual comment to Honey ("monkey nipples") appears to mean nothing; he hardly seems interested in her at all.

NOTE: George comments that Martha will "put on some rhythm she understands... Sacre du Printemps, maybe." He's referring to ballet music (in English, Rite of Spring) by Igor Stravinsky evoking an old Russian pagan legend, in which a dance is performed for the fertility of the soil. In the legend, a maiden dances herself to death as a sacrifice. This allusion reminds you of the theme of fertility, of Martha as a pagan creature, and of the sense of ritual inherent in the play. As Martha and Nick dance, George refers to their dance as "a very old ritual... old as they come."

For the first time, a note of annoyance is struck between Nick and Honey. "You're always at me when I'm having a good time," she says. Little by little it's beginning to be revealed that all is not well with this "perfect" couple.

As if George is not humiliated enough by Martha's openly sexual conduct with Nick, she deepens the wound by telling one of his deepest secrets in a childlike chant. The secret concerns a novel George wrote that mirrors the story he has just told Nick- about the boy who caused the death of his parents. Now Martha declares that the boy in question was George!

Is she telling the truth? Some readers feel she is. Others point out that she blends fact and fantasy so well that it's hard to tell. True or not, though, the story is potent enough to anger George, particularly since one of Martha's points is that George was bullied and degraded by her father, who refused to let George publish the book.

As usual, George's vocal threats to Martha go unnoticed. In fact, they spur her on. He pulls the record from the turntable, but Martha continues to jeer at him.

Suddenly, there is chaos. Honey wildly screams, "VIOLENCE! VIOLENCE!" as George threatens to kill Martha, grabbing her by the throat and strangling her until Nick can pull him off and throw him to the floor.

You've seen that death and murder is one of the play's themes. Here it is made palpable as George truly seems to want to kill his wife. Pushed to the brink, there is nothing for him to do to reach her but to try physical violence. Albee seems to be saying that people resort to violence when all else fails, but that it's no substitute for true communication. Do you agree with Albee's implications? What evidence do you see in the world that suggests he's correct?

Once again Martha is linked with godlessness as George calls her a "satanic bitch."

ACT II, SCENE III

The aftermath of the battle finds George licking his wounds, suffering "a profound humiliation." But if you think he's ready to retreat, you're wrong. He's ready for more games now that they have successfully played "Humiliate the Host."

As George talks of games they have played or could play, the theme of gamesmanship is clearly articulated. "Hump the Hostess," of course, refers to Nick's planned sexual conquest of Martha. Now George suggests a new game, "Get the Guests."

Why does George intend to take out his anger on Nick and Honey? Is he jealous of their apparent success? Is he resentful of Nick's overt sexual approach to Martha? Or does he try to get at them because he can't get at Martha? Whatever he does to her, she bounces back with a devastating rejoinder.

Some have observed that George and Martha are cruel without motivation, Nick and Honey in this context are the chosen victims for the evening, not only as audience members for George and Martha's "show," but as targets for the hosts' excess savagery. Whatever the reason (perhaps a combination of all of these), George is now out to get the guests.

George's technique is to tell of a second novel, which mirrors the courtship and early marriage of Nick and Honey. Notice that George reverts to a slangy, casual style to drive home the story- "Blondie," "upchuck," "champeen"- also mingling academic jargon ("historical inevitability") and biblical rhythms ("Godly money ripped from the golden teeth of the unfaithful").

At first Honey grasps only bits of the story, remarking on its familiarity. But once the impact of what George is saying cuts through her alcoholic haze, she's devastated. Nick has told their secret! She responds typically, by rushing from the room to throw up.

Nick is understandably furious at George, but George suggests that Nick "make the best of things," and "pick up the pieces." Nick responds with a threat to make George regret what he's done, vowing to become the cunning, ambitious cad George has accused him of being. But George insists that Nick already is; he simply doesn't know it.

NOTE: George remarks to Nick: "You gotta have a swine to show you where the truffles are." Truffles are a rare and expensive form of fungus used in gourmet dishes. Swine (pigs) are used to find the truffles, which grow underground. The expression suggests that you often have to put up with a lowly animal (or person) in order to arrive at the truth. Nick is more concerned with the damage George's story has inflicted on him rather than with its effect on Honey. It reveals that he's as crass and self-interested as George has thought.

With another threat, Nick leaves the room to see to Honey.

ACT II, SCENE IV

Martha and George are alone, and their anger ripples under the surface. They're like two prizefighters pacing, ready for battle.

In the argument that ensues, George and Martha have it out for the first time in the play. The scene is important, too, because of the consequences it has for the rest of the play.

Martha is disgusted with George. Why? Does she really care about Nick and Honey, or does she merely have to be combative, no matter what the situation? Perhaps this time George has gone too far, even for Martha.

George can't understand her fury. Isn't she turned on by "blood, carnage, and all?" Besides, after her attacks on him, how can she berate anyone for cruel behavior? He accuses her of making her own rules, which underscores the sense that this "game" of hostility is one they play all the time.

The sadomasochistic aspects of their relationship surface as George insists he cannot stand being torn apart any longer and Martha counters that she's tired of "whipping" George. Martha's response to his cry cuts close to the bone: "YOU CAN STAND IT! YOU MARRIED ME FOR IT!" George calls Martha's accusation a "desperately sick lie," but you've seen evidence to the contrary. Why else would he put up with Martha's abuse, even calling attention to his own failures? Maybe he's not aware of how much he needs her treatment of him to remind him that he's alive.

The argument grows as each searches for a way to deliver the knockout punch. Martha vows to make him sorry he didn't die in "that automobile" accident. (Again it's not clear if the accident was real.)

According to George, Martha is having trouble distinguishing truth from illusion: she has started playing "variations on [her] own distortions." He suggests he may have to commit her to an asylum.

George's threat pushes her to the breaking point. In a long speech, she describes how their marriage has gone "SNAP!" It's a cry for communication, detailing her attempts to "get through" to him. But those attempts have failed. George agrees that there is no time any more when the two of them could "come together."

This is a powerful scene: The two are raw and bleeding, but still eager to fight. When Martha attacks George's failures and his lack of identity, George counters by calling her "sick" and "a monster" (accusations she fiercely denies). Their knowledge of each other's vulnerabilities is never shown clearer than in this scene. This play is one of the most painful portraits of marriage that has ever been written for the stage, and this scene may be its most devastating. A man and a woman who may once have loved each other, are savagely tearing each other to pieces because hatred is all that's left.

The two declare "total war." The stage directions call for them to "seem relieved... elated." Why? Are George and Martha invigorated by these battles? Or do you think they feel something climactic is about to happen now that the battle lines have been drawn for "total war"? It may be that the relief comes from knowing that total war means that one of them will finally be victorious and the years of exhausting fights will come to an end.

ACT II, SCENE V

Nick returns with the news that Honey is lying on the cool tiles of the bathroom floor. Notice that throughout the play Albee has cleverly made it plausible for Nick and Honey to remain at George and Martha's, despite the fact most people would have fled long ago. At crucial moments, Honey gets sick, making it impossible for her to leave. Also, remember that Nick hangs around because Martha is the daughter of the president. In addition, he may have plans to seduce her this very night. Even so, some readers have questioned whether anyone would stay where there is so much hostility and violence in the air.

As George goes for ice, Nick and Martha are left alone. Martha continues her lustful pursuit, now boldly running her hand along Nick's thigh and asking him to kiss her. He resists, alluding to George nearby in the kitchen, but she urges him on. As the two become more involved, George comes in, watches them silently, then smiles and leaves. What does he have up his sleeve?

Nick begins to get carried away, moving a bit too fast even for Martha. George announces his return by singing the "Virginia Woolf" jingle, giving the couple enough time to break up their clinch. He reports that Honey is lying asleep on the bathroom floor, sucking her thumb and curled up in the fetal position. (Here Albee portrays the childlike Honey as a baby, returning to the womb, perhaps to avoid reality.)

NOTE: The allusion to "the worm turns" is taken from Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part Two: "The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on." The line suggests that even the lowliest creature will survive persecution and seek revenge on its tormentor. How does this apply to George? Martha's claim that his path leads nowhere but to the grave is a reminder of the theme of death.

George and Martha continue their destructive competition. He announces he's going to sit quietly and read. The implication seems to be that he's out to infuriate her by pretending not to notice her open flirtation with Nick. And he succeeds. Since Martha would rather be fought with than ignored, she goads George by announcing that she's "necking with one of the guests." His reply (revealing Albee's humor) succeeds in escalating her wrath: "Oh, that's nice. Which one?"

Twice in this scene Martha brushes up against the door chimes. Some readers feel that the chimes represent those rung during certain important moments of a Catholic mass.

Finally, George turns on Martha "with great loathing" and almost dares her to take Nick to bed. Nick goes to the kitchen at Martha's request, and she confronts George: Get off this "kick," this haughty indifferent attitude, or she will go to bed with Nick. George pretends that he couldn't care less, and Martha follows Nick, threatening to make George sorry he made her want to marry him.

Alone, George reads aloud. The passage is from The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler (1880- 1936), a German philosopher. The influential book, published in the 1920s, contended that most civilizations pass through just one life cycle and that Western civilization had entered its period of decline. The chosen passage could echo his own marital situation: "crippling alliances," and "a morality too rigid to accommodate [him]self." In your opinion, is the morality implied by the play "too rigid"- or not rigid enough?

Suddenly George gives vent to the tension that has been building up throughout the scene as he has watched his wife blatantly pursue another man. Uttering a sound that's "part growl, part howl," he flings the book at the chimes, and they ring for the third time.

Now George shows his true anguish. He's clearly hurt by Martha's behavior but can't let her know it. For her part, Martha probably doesn't want to go to bed with Nick- why else would she announce her plans over and over to George? But this is a game to them. Neither will give the other satisfaction by admitting defeat. If only once one of them would move to stop what neither of them wants, the game might be over and they might reach some understanding. But neither does. You've probably observed this kind of behavior in certain adults; children frequently act in this way. As you have seen, George and Martha often behave like overgrown children, but the consequences of their games are deadly serious.

ACT II, SCENE VI

Honey wanders in. The chimes have awakened her. Still half asleep, she rambles on about a dream of being naked, cold, and frightened, with "someone there." Then she blurts out, "I... don't... want... any... children... I'm afraid!" George immediately comprehends that Honey has been secretly using contraceptive devices because she can't admit to Nick that she fears childbirth.

Some readers feel George guesses Honey's secret too quickly and too conveniently. Others say his intuitive guess is plausible since Nick earlier spoke of Honey's frequent bouts of illness, to which George responded, "You can tell time by her, hunh?" George's question probably alluded to Honey's cycle of fertility. Does he leap to the correct conclusion because he's a keen judge of character (better even at guessing this than Nick, who is interested only in himself?) or because it's necessary to the play? There may be an element of truth in each opinion.

Honey doesn't realize that George knows her secret. As she continues, she reveals herself in two poignant lines. "I want... something" suggests that nameless void that many people endure- wanting something but not knowing what it is or how to achieve it. "I don't want to know anything!" reveals her need to close herself from the truth, from reality, something you have seen her do throughout the play. What ways do the other characters have of shutting out reality?

George tries to make Honey aware of what's going on in the kitchen, which he calls "a dry run for the wave of the future." What is he suggesting? That the future holds nothing but a mindless sexual union? That the biologist and the pagan are joining to create a new race?

George indicates that those unhappy with the present can either contemplate the past (as he has done) or alter the future. "And when you want to change something... YOU BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!" On one level these "bangs" suggest a slang term for sexual intercourse. But they may also represent the destruction of the world, a nuclear holocaust. For George, Nick and Martha's selfishness and lust may be indicative of the breakdown of morality that will eventually destroy the world. Do you agree that Albee's expression of fear for the human race seems more relevant today? Is it better to "contemplate the past" or to "alter the future?"

George takes out his fury on Honey ("you simpering bitch"). But as she keeps asking who rang the doorbell, he concocts an ingenious plan to have the final revenge on Martha. He informs Honey that a message has arrived telling him their son is dead. Oblivious to Honey's pained reaction ("I'm going to be sick"), he quietly rehearses how he will tell Martha the news. As the act ends, he stands, laughing and crying at the same time.

What is George up to? Is he playing a cruel joke on Martha? If so, why is his laughter mixed with tears? Since the son has been such a mysterious element in the play, you may be even more puzzled now. Perhaps you already suspect the truth. Either way, Albee has created an intriguing ending to the act. Knowing the importance of the child to Martha, you must wonder what kind of impact George's news will have on her.

Act II is called "Walpurgisnacht" (or Walpurgis Night), from a German legend about witches who meet on the last day of April. The rendezvous includes rituals of evil and wild sexual orgies. Having read this act, why do you think Albee chose to name it after this event? Are these characters symbols of evil, gathered to do harm? Or is only one of the characters evil? If so, which one? Is it Martha (whom George has referred to as a "devil" and a "satanic bitch")? Is it Nick, whom some feel was named for "Old Nick," an archaic term for the devil? Is his and Martha's sexual union meant to suggest the orgy practiced by the witches?

Any or all of these interpretations might be true, but remember not to look for simplistic patterns. George might recall St. George, the English saint who conquered evil as represented in the form of a dragon, but the play is too complicated and includes too many ambiguities, to be considered a simple matter of good vs. evil. As you will see, George's actions in the third act don't provide an easy answer to the characters' problems. The days when good and evil seemed clear-cut concepts are over. Albee seems to be describing a situation and pointing to human problems in the modern age, rather than prescribing remedies.

Another possibility is that the title "Walpurgisnacht" might have been used by Albee to evoke the sense of evil, mystery, and lust that pervades the play, rather than having a specific application to the plot.

ACT III - THE EXORCISM

ACT III, SCENE I

You have seen an exhausting series of encounters between George and Martha. Scarred and bleeding, they were still on the attack as the second act ended. She seemed to be on the verge of going to bed with Nick, and George had decided to tell her that their beloved son is dead. His decision marked the play's climax, the point where the play reaches the highest point of tension. What will happen now? How will this difficulty be resolved? Which of the two will win this monumental battle, and what effect will it have on them? And what will happen to Nick and Honey as a result of their exposure to the ferocity of George and Martha?

Martha is alone as the act begins. Drunk and exhausted, she talks to herself in a rambling speech that gives you the first real glimpse of Martha. It is a frightening look at a woman full of desperation and self- pity.

Calling for George, Martha expresses her loneliness. She's been "abandon-ed," "left out in the cold." She creates a fictitious dialogue between herself and George, in which they are both penitent and polite. Is this the way they once behaved? Or is this a George and Martha she once hoped they could be? Either way, you see a Martha who, underneath the coarse exterior, is starved for affection.

What has happened between Martha and Nick? The only clue you're given is when Martha says, "Hump the Hostess! Fat chance."

The fact that she's alone, without an audience, probably allows you to believe her more fully than at any earlier point of the play. Here she admits what she has vehemently denied before that her father does have red eyes- red, she says, because he cries all the time.

You've now heard several of Martha's views of her father. In the beginning of the play she defends him vehemently against George's criticisms, then says she "worships" him. Now she admits he "cries all the time," perhaps reflecting his disappointment in Martha and George. Some readers suggest that Martha suffers from an unfulfilled Electra complex, a psychological affliction named for the character in Greek tragedy who helped her brother kill their mother out of love for her father. Perhaps one of Martha's major problems is her wish to find a father substitute, and her intense disappointment that George (nor any other man) can replace the object of her unrequited love.

She admits that she and George cry all the time, too, and describes how their tears are turned into ice cubes to replenish their drinks. Martha's metaphor painfully evokes the cycle of their lives- the anguish that's numbed by alcohol, with frozen tears to cool their drinks.

Searching for a phrase to describe the futility of it all, she tries to remember "up the spout" and "down the drain" but ends up confusing them.

NOTE: A sudden reference to "THE POKER NIGHT" comes from a scene in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, in which the animal force of one character is first seen to threaten the spiritual fragility of another. Some of that play's themes- sexuality, violence, the extinguishing of the human spirit- are similar to those of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? You'll see another allusion to A Streetcar Named Desire in this act.

By the end of her speech, Martha is reduced to imitating the sound of her ice cubes- CLINK!- which, don't forget, are made from her tears.

ACT III, SCENE II

Nick comes in, bewildered by everyone's behavior: Honey is back on the bathroom floor, Martha is making strange noises, and George has vanished. Martha assures him that they're all simply retreating from reality, and that he's no better than they are.

Then Martha takes a swipe at Nick that confirms what has been hinted at: Nick was a "flop" in bed. Nick is defensive but doesn't deny Martha's accusation.

Already in this act you've seen two of the characters revealing that they're not what they seem. Martha's revelation of vulnerability is in strong contrast to her earlier aggressive behavior. Now Nick, "the personal screwing machine," has failed in that function at a crucial moment. The examples of "truth and illusion" continue to mount.

Notice the difference in Martha and Nick's relationship! He is angry at her for her appraisal of his sexual performance, and she responds with a searing indictment of herself and of all the "gorgeous lunk-heads" like him she has known. Her reference to herself as "Earth Mother" is a reminder of her symbolic role as a primitive life force, but now it has ironic overtones. The Earth Mother engages in a series of "pointless infidelities" that result in nothing. Once again the theme of impotence looms large in the play.

Martha calls these men "poor babies." Does she go after them as child substitutes? If so, what does it say that they are all disappointments? Albee points here to a symbolic sterility that will take on added meaning by the end of the play.

She also has some surprising news for Nick. Of all the men in her life, George is the only one who has been able to satisfy her. Martha responds to Nick's disbelief by asking, "You always deal in appearances?" Here the theme is stated in a question that implies that appearance and reality are often two different things.

In a moving speech, Martha explains the contradiction between how George treats her and how she responds to him. It supports what you may have suspected all along in the play- that so much hate can only come from a great deal of love. Psychological violence is one of the ways these characters have found to let the other know how much they need each other. That people behave this way at all, Albee seems to be saying, is one of life's sad truisms. Do you agree with Albee? Is hate often a mask for undeclared love? Why?

Some of Albee's most effective writing appears in this scene. Notice the rhythms he creates by the repetition of the construction "who" (followed by a verb) and "whom I." It stands in vivid contrast to Martha's usual language.

The speech also reveals Martha's awareness of the games she and George play, when she says that George "keeps learning the games... as quickly as I can change the rules." And she poignantly sums up the pain of her life in two other lines: "I do not wish to be happy, and yes I do wish to be happy," and, referring to George, "who has made... the mistake of loving me and must be punished for it."

Look again at this last line. Why must Martha punish those who love her? Perhaps the reason is that she doesn't know how to accept love. Or perhaps she thinks so little of herself that she despises anyone who loves someone as unworthy as she. Whatever the reason, she sums up her plight with heartbreaking economy: "George and Martha: sad, sad, sad."

Nick, however is unmoved. In reference to her comment about breaking George's back, he says it had been broken long ago.

NOTE: Martha calls Nick a "gelding" (a castrated horse). This is quite different from her early lustful reaction to him! It also suggests the theme of castration first evoked by George in Act I. Has Martha "castrated" Nick, too? Her reference to herself as a "Gatling gun," an early machine gun, certainly suggests a powerful destructive force.

In the midst of this ugly exchange (which may remind you of Martha's verbal battles with George), the doorbell rings. Martha commands Nick to answer, just as she ordered George to answer the door in Act I. She treats Nick with the same kind of scorn she usually reserves for George, jeering at Nick's impotence ("Can't you get the latch up, either?").

The doorbell continues to ring, as Martha casts Nick in the role of houseboy. It's the one he has to play if he wants to climb the ladder of success. Now that he's stuck his nose in it, she tells him, he's in it for a while.

Protesting about the pointlessness of Martha's game, Nick goes to the door, while a delighted Martha sings a line from an old song, "Just a Gigolo."

NOTE: Gigolo is a term for a younger man who woos an older woman for financial gain. The song Martha sings was popular in the 1930s. One of its lines is, "Just a gigolo, everywhere I go, people know the part I'm playing." Can Nick be considered a gigolo?

Why doesn't Nick refuse to play the role of houseboy? Does he realize that it's better to go along with Martha's games than to fight her, so long as Honey is still spaced out in the bathroom? Or does this prove how ambitious he really is, willing to degrade himself to please the president's daughter? Your reaction depends on how desperate you think Nick is to get ahead.

ACT III, SCENE III

Nick opens the door for George, whose arms are filled with snapdragons. Speaking in the voice of an old woman, George says, "Flores para los muertos." NOTE: George's line in Spanish is another allusion to Tennessee Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire. It is spoken by an old woman selling "flowers for the dead" outside the window of Blanche du Bois, the play's central character. The chant heralds death for Blanche- not physical death, but the death of the spirit.

Remember that George is planning to announce the death of their son. George's arrival with the snapdragons, spouting lines from a play and then pretending he has mistaken Nick for the son, is strange behavior indeed. But perhaps you've already suspected that George's plans and actions are likely to be unorthodox.

Notice, too, the immediate rapport that develops between Martha and George- this time, against Nick. Nick is introduced as the houseboy, and George and Martha respond to Nick's protests by harmonizing: "I'm nobody's houseboy now."

NOTE: Their song is a quickly improvised version of an old song, "I'm Nobody's Baby." Earlier, Martha had greeted George's gift of flowers with the line, "Pansies! Rosemary! Violence! My wedding bouquet!" Not only does her comment include a pun- "violence" for "violets"- but the line may remind you of a scene in Hamlet, when the mad Ophelia enters in her never-to-be-used wedding gown, strewing these flowers before her.

When he complains that George and Martha are "vicious," Nick is greeted by derision. If Nick is about to complain of "vicious" children playing "oh-so-sad games," George says, he can just "screw, baby."

But the collusion between George and Martha doesn't last. His claim that he picked the flowers in the moonlight leads to an argument over whether there is a moon that night. George even insists that the moon disappeared and then returned. A shift of power has occurred. George is now in subtle control, to the point of altering reality.

Other references to "truth and illusion" abound. Nick says, "I don't know when you people are lying," and George responds, "You're not supposed to." And an allusion to George's parents causes Nick to ask, "Was this after you killed them?" "Maybe," says George. "Yeah; maybe not, too," says Martha. George makes the matter explicit: "Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference, eh, toots?"

As Martha and George continue to wrangle about whether he ever went to Majorca, you get a glimpse of the kind of game that brought them to the point of confusion they're at now. George tells a story, Martha disbelieves it, George elaborates on it, and Martha tries to trip him up.

The game does not always please both of them. Martha quietly admits that Nick is not a houseboy, which she seems to say for Nick's benefit, since he thanks her "tenderly." She then says to George, half-pleading, half-hoping, "Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference." He replies, "No; but we must carry on as though we did." Her "Amen" suggests both agreement and a religious ritual. Watch them during the rest of the play to see if they truly know the difference between truth and illusion.

George begins to grow hostile, tossing snapdragons in a weird parody of Martha's earlier claim that their marriage has gone SNAP! Martha begins to be a bit afraid. Does she sense his behavior threatens something she won't like?

George announces another game, "Bringing Up Baby," and obnoxiously insists that Honey be there too, calling for her like a sow. As Nick goes to get his wife, George soothes a fearful Martha, assuring her that this game will be "real fun"- and the last one they will play before going to bed.

Martha's attempts to touch George tenderly are met with a snarling "Don't you touch me!" Then he grabs her by the hair, commanding her to be alert for what's to come. The "slave" of the early part of the evening has become the "master": George is now in full control. He gives as good as he's received from Martha.

NOTE: George threatens to make Martha's earlier game seem "like an Easter pageant," another religious allusion. Easter Sunday is the Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Christ after He was crucified. The play takes place early on a Sunday morning but George is planning a death, not a resurrection.

George finally succeeds in making Martha angry. This game will be played to the death, he says; she insists the death will be his. His reply, "You'd be surprised," should be a warning to her about what's to happen.

ACT III, SCENE IV

Nick and Honey come in. She's still very drunk, pretending she's a rabbit and pointedly assuring George that their secret (the death of George and Martha's son) is safe with her.

George takes the floor to summarize the games they've played. Honey has a new one to add: peel the label. George insists that everyone peels labels, and they're about to do it all the way to the marrow. In what way have these four been peeling labels all night?

George moves skillfully to the subject of their son. Ignoring Martha's protests not to talk about him, George describes the boy, reiterating his claim that Martha would climb all over the boy and corrupt him with her wayward habits. His accusations provoke Martha into telling her version of the story, her "recitation."

A recitation suggests something memorized. It is George's word (as well as part of the stage directions), and he prompts Martha in the early part of her story. What does this imply about the child? If you add up the clues that have been planted throughout the play, you may be close to guessing, if you haven't already.

Martha's description of the child is exquisite, perhaps the most beautifully written passages in the play. The details she chooses, from the transparent floating goldfish to the banana boat, evoke a golden, idealized childhood. Could this be the Martha that greeted her guests with a profanity?

As Martha reminisces, George begins to recite Latin prayers from the Catholic requiem mass, the mass for the dead.

NOTE: In addition to the strong religious symbolism of George's prayer, Christ is also evoked when Martha calls the child "poor lamb." This is a common phrase to describe an unhappy or unfortunate child, but it might also be meant to suggest "the Lamb of God," which in Catholic liturgy is another name for Jesus.

This scene also contains the only real change we see in Honey in the play. Martha's heartrending descriptions affect Honey to the point where she cries out, "I want a child." Whether this is a permanent change for Honey is never disclosed.

Martha's story undergoes a change of tone. The child's perfection, she says, was undermined by George's weaknesses: George dragged the son down with him.

Now the two go at each other with their familiar savagery, each accusing the other of failing the son- Martha with her drunkenness and lust, George with his weak will and passivity. Each jealously guards his or her hold on the boy: they both insist they have letters from him that the other hasn't seen.

In an impassioned speech, Martha calls her attempts to protect their son as the one light in the "sewer" of their marriage. Simultaneously, George recites another passage from the requiem mass that begins, "Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death, on the dread day of judgment."

This act is entitled "The Exorcism," which is the ritual involved in casting out demons or evil spirits that have possessed a person's soul. George's quotes from the mass suggest such a ritual.

Honey implores George and Martha to stop what they're doing. Remember that she believes a telegram has arrived announcing the son's death.

George prepares Martha for the news, slowly and deliberately. When he finally tells her their son is dead, the circumstances he describes are precisely those of the boy in the "bergin" story. Some readers feel that this is evidence that the story George has told Nick is pure invention.

Little by little, Nick begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. When Martha screams, "YOU CAN'T DECIDE THESE THINGS!" he at first attributes her reaction to shock over the news. But when George replies, "YOU KNOW THE RULES, MARTHA!" and "I can kill him, Martha, if I want to," Nick finally comprehends what you may have already suspected- that George and Martha's son is imaginary, yet another of their games, complete with its own set of rules.

NOTE: Some readers who see this play as a religious allegory point to the requiem mass, the three door chimes, the Sunday morning time frame, the "Lamb of God," even the reference to eating the telegram (as a form of communion) as evidence. They feel that the "perfect" child represents Jesus Christ, killed by George in order to save mankind- as represented by George and Martha.

Martha pathetically defends herself. She has clearly stepped over the invisible boundary the two had set: the child is not to be mentioned to anyone else. But Martha's need for the child to be real had overwhelmed her realization that it must be a private matter.

In Latin, George intones "Rest in peace," and then "Grant them eternal rest, Lord," to which Honey (in an uncharacteristic moment of lucidity) gives the proper response, "And let perpetual light shine upon them."

George confirms Nick's suspicion when, in answer to Nick's question, "You couldn't have... any?" he responds, "We couldn't." For once George shares with Martha the responsibility of their failure to have children.

This revelation is the most crucial of the play. What do you think caused Martha and George to "create" the child? Did the fantasy begin years ago, when the possibility of children was still real? Or did they begin to hope for a child- part of the American dream- as a means of cementing their crumbling relationship? Perhaps the fantasy began as one of their many games: What if we had a child? What would he be like? What would we do with him? Gradually, however, the fantasy began to seem real to them, so real that the idealism of the boy competed with their own bitterness toward each other. They transferred their own hatred and disappointment to the child, accusing each other of destroying their perfect creation. Because it helped them avoid the pain of their lives, George and Martha clung to the fantasy as vital to their survival.

What then does the child represent in the scheme of the play? Some have objected to the imagined son, calling it a theatrical device that Albee pulls out of the hat at the last minute, one that can't be believed. Others defend the choice as an effective symbol of the way many people shut out reality in order to make life bearable. Modern life demands that we create these illusions if we are to avoid madness, Albee seems to be saying. His choice isn't meant to be wholly realistic; it's a technique borrowed from the Absurdists to make his point. Besides, these readers say, the notion of an imaginary son isn't that incredible. Everyone fantasizes about something. George and Martha, in their loneliness and pain, have simply let one fantasy overwhelm them.

Does the imaginary child seem a credible device to you? Is it too far removed from your own experience, or can you understand someone who so fervently wishes for something that it first becomes almost real and then becomes a necessary part of life? Dreams can begin to take on lives of their own. George and Martha's dream apparently has become more real than most.

Why then does George choose to "kill" the child? Simply because Martha broke the rules? There are hints she has done so before ("Just don't start on the bit," he says in Act I, Scene 1). Later in Act III he says, "It was... time," as if he saw that they were becoming too dependent on the fantasy, that they were on the verge of spoiling it forever by their jealous bickering.

Another theory suggests that George commits the ultimate act of revenge, striking his blow to win the war at last. Knowing how much Martha needed this fantasy, he destroyed the one thing truly precious to her.

Your own interpretation depends on whether you see George as a hero or a villain. Remember that he is killing his own fantasy, too, one that he invented and nurtured in tandem with Martha. Is he both a sadist and a masochist? You've seen evidence to suggest he is. Or is he truly bringing Martha salvation by freeing her (exorcising her demon) from this destructive illusion?

George quietly suggests that Nick and Honey go home. Nick's unfinished sentence, "I'd like to..." suggests he has something to say or something to offer, but the thought remains incomplete. What do you think is on Nick's mind? Have he and Honey been changed in any way by this evening? Their future is one of the play's many ambiguities.

ACT III, SCENE V

The last moments of the play are in vivid contrast to the first scene. The sharp, obscene language has been replaced by short phrases and monosyllables. The drunken energy has turned to exhausted quiet. The sharp-tongued George of earlier scenes is now gentle, tender. The abrasive Martha seems frail and complains of being cold.

The dialogue is filled with uncertainty. George assures Martha that things will be better, but Martha isn't sure, and George adds, "Maybe."

At one point Martha says, "I don't suppose, maybe, we could...." What is she suggesting? Going back to the illusion? Beginning a new one? George merely says no.

The "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" song now becomes a lullaby that George sings to soothe Martha, who answers, "I... am... George.... I... am."

Albee has said that the song really means, "Who is afraid to live life without illusions?" Martha's admission that she is afraid reveals her as frail and vulnerable, fearing life without the fantasy that has helped her live. The song she once characterized as "a scream" has become a haunting hymn to her realization that her future is uncertain and full of nameless threats.

What changes has this evening brought to George and Martha's life? Opinions generally fall into three categories:

  1. Those who see the play as hopeful feel that the exorcism will lead to more honest communication and clarity in their lives. Now that they have rid themselves of a destructive fantasy, they can progress to rid themselves of their other defenses- liquor, adulterous sex, cruelty- and move closer together.

  2. Others see the play as bleak, viewing George and Martha as now totally defenseless against the horrors of the world, like two turtles without their shells. These readers feel that some shields against life's dangers are necessary, and that George's and Martha's child fantasy hurt no one.

  3. Still others view the play as simply descriptive, suggesting that this is not a crucial evening for George and Martha, but part of a cycle they are doomed to repeat forever. Many absurdists (such as Beckett) use the technique of the cyclical chain of events to suggest that man can change nothing and learns nothing from his behavior. Readers who champion this theory feel that George and Martha are engaging in yet another ritual that will repeat itself endlessly, without hope.

These possibilities all exist within the play. Albee has said that he avoids writing plays with easy answers, preferring to challenge and stimulate his audiences. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has no easy answers.

You may not like or admire George and Martha, nor even sympathize with them, but it's likely you recognize the universe they inhabit, because it's one we all share. They attempt to survive in their own way, just as you attempt to survive in yours.

A STEP BEYOND

THE STORY


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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