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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Study Guide-MonkeyNotes Book Summary
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LITERARY BACKGROUND

The play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was written in 1961 and produced a year later by Billy Rose Theater, New York. It was well received and acclaimed throughout its 644 performances. Albee received the Drama Critics' Award, the Tony Award and numerous other appreciative acknowledgments. The play was denied Pulitzer Prize and termed as "filthy." It caused a lot of controversy and was even censored and banned in some places.

In 1964 it was staged in London and was later made into a successful film by the Warner Brothers in 1966, starring Elizabeth Taylor as Martha and Richard Burton as George. Twelve years later the play was revived on Broadway and had a successful staging with Albee directing it himself.

THE MEANING OF THE TITLE

The original title of the play was "The Exorcism", but Albee changed it to the present title after being inspired by a slogan scrawled on a mirror in Greenwich Village bar that said, "Who's afraid of life without false illusions?" In fact, the title of the play recalls a common nursery rhyme about the three little pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. (Wolf echoes the 'Woolf' in the title.) The wolf of the nursery rhyme can be taken to represent a fear of the unknown and since the first two pigs do not prepare themselves for the eminent danger, they are both killed. Conversely, the third pig keeps himself prepared to face this wolf and is able to overcome it. Similarly, the play indicates that when the characters cannot manage to equip themselves to deal with reality, they stand to lose. It is only when they divest themselves of illusions that they are ready to take up life head on.


The famous writer Virginia Woolf is also recalled in this title. It is a known fact that she had suffered many psychological problems in her lifetime and her works speak predominantly of the fearful and tenuous nature of life. In this play, George and Martha cannot endure reality and so they indulge in unsafe games (pretending that they have a son). This can take on serious proportions and even lead to insanity. Therefore the reference to Virginia Woolf in the title of the play is appropriate.

LITERATURE OF THE ABSURD

This kind of literature focuses on the irrationality and absurdity of life. It had its roots in such movements as Expressionism and Surrealism. The Absurdist movement first emerged in France after the Second World War. It was more or less a rebellion against conventional beliefs and values and opposed traditional literature. It questioned the basic assumption of human beings as rational creatures and as a part of an orderly society. The existential philosophy which came into prominence around this time also had contempt and scorn for hypocrisy in the world. It insisted on the priority of the individual over the institution. Some of the writers of the Absurdist tradition are Samuel Becket, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adminov and to a certain extent Edward Albee and Harold Pinter.

Those who practiced the Theatre of the Absurd did not propound any definite philosophy of this genre. In fact, all the writers appear to have formed their art independent of each other. However, there are certain aspects that can be gleaned as characteristic of this drama. They were against coherence in plot, settings that related to the play, and dialogue as a necessary form of communication. They often focused on nonlogic to get their ideas across, revealing the inconsistency and irrationality of a universe that has no set standards or values.


The plays relating to this nature and form of literature reflected the irrational nature, helplessness and absurdity of human life. The playwrights rejected the conventional standards of sets and coherence in and adherence to a plot. More often than not, these plays were grotesquely comic with lucid and witty dialogues projecting metaphysical alienation and anguish. Some dramatists combined absurdism with diabolism. In this manner, they exploited black humor with horrifying and illogical events. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is probably the best example of this genre with its apocalyptic setting, its disjointed dialogue, and seemingly aimless plot. This genre of plays left the audience thoroughly confused as it primarily echoed the absurdity of contemporary life. Indeed it would have been ironic to present this absurdity in logical progression of ideas, dialogues, plot and other traditional dramatic devices. They also have a sense of horror as they laugh at the chaos and anguish of modern existence.

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