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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
SHORT PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The play opens with George and Martha returning from a faculty party hosted by Martha's father - the President of New England College. The time is two in the morning and both of them are very drunk. Martha tries to recollect the name of a Bette Davis movie and pesters George to help her. He makes them a drink and finds out that Martha has invited people over. He expresses frustration at this arrangement but eventually reconciles himself. Meanwhile their guests, Nick and Honey arrive.
As the play progresses the true identity of each characters is revealed. George is a history professor working in New England College. He is married to Martha, who is six years his senior. They are the older couple in the play yet they are not very mature. Nick is a professor in biology from the same college. Honey, his wife, is plain looking and slim-hipped. They are younger and somewhat taken aback by their hosts' behavior yet eventually partake in the game playing and manipulation that goes on. The guests and the hosts after initial exchange of pleasantries begin to drink.
Under the influence of alcohol and much baiting from Martha and George, they all divulge their personal secrets. George has his own difficulties in being married to the college president's loud- mouthed daughter. Martha is peeved to find her husband incompetent in comparison to her father and then later Nick. Her sharp tongue does not miss a single opportunity in revealing his inadequacies. Nick is troubled because he was tricked into marrying Honey, who had suffered a hysterical pregnancy. This has culminated in a passionless marriage. In between all this George narrates an incident about his friend who had killed his parents accidentally and how these incidents landed him in a mental asylum.
Both couples shield themselves from reality. Martha and George have created an imaginary son that creates a bond between them. After excessive drinking, Martha is unable to guard this secret and discloses it to Honey. When George learns of this, he is shocked, as she has made a transgression that will inexorably affect the illusion they have created. The relationship between Honey and Nick is revealed as being shallow and empty. Nick had an ulterior motive in marrying Honey. He knew that her father was wealthy and his wife was sure to inherit the wealth. Honey does not want children and decides not to have a baby. She takes birth control pills. Therefore, she usually complains of sickness and retires for rest.
Martha continues with her unprovoked outbursts and George becomes cold and indifferent to them. Disgusted with his behavior, she tries to provoke him by seducing Nick. By now George realizes the futility of their illusions and that his and Martha' life together will be changed after this night. He declares the death of his child and chants the burial service in Latin. A startled and disturbed Martha is forced to accept this fact. With this he also points out the deficiencies in Nick and Honey's relationship. For the first time in the play, Honey expresses her desire to have a baby.
Towards the end of the play Martha and George are transformed and renounce the illusory world they have created and face life without deceptions. The play begins at two in the morning and stretches to dawn of the next day. George sings the title of the play softly as if it is a lullaby and Martha's answer that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf reveals how much reality frightens her.
The play attacks American optimism and the privileging of progress and scientific thinking over more humanistic ideas. It questions the American way of life where sentiments and relationships have lost meaning and where life has become one long game of competition where agonistic relationships are built on false accusations and spiteful indictments, but have no real weight to them. Relationships are lacking in respect and compassion because the world does not value these once-important qualities. The play attempts to draw attention to the modern way of life, which is full of tensions, incompatibilities and divided loyalties. Human emotions and interactions in the contemporary world are superficial. Humans have isolated themselves from each other by escaping into playing games and creating fantasies that only reinforce their loneliness and despair.
The play brings to the forefront the futility of indulging in a make- believe world. It defines the "anxieties" and "fears" of two couples "who are born in conflict between private needs and public values." All the three acts of the play represent a society that prefers to pacify itself, and cling to fantasy, under the pretext that it is essential for survival.
A sense of sardonic bitterness with a grotesque sense of humor pervades the play. It is what is called "black" humor. Dark and caustic, the play is funny and tragic. The dialogue is sharp and witty, often at the expense of someone else's feelings. It is a deeply cynical play about the lack of human communication in the most sacred of relationships: marriage. Disappointment and melancholy overpower the characters as they continue to place their faith in their imaginary worlds. Dissatisfaction and depression grips the minds them.