Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
ACT SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT I: FUN AND GAMES
The play begins with George and Martha entering the living room of their house late at night. They are returning from a late night party hosted by Martha's father and are both drunk. Martha is her usual boisterous self, constantly calling George a "cluck" as well as cursing him in every conceivable way. George tries to calm her down with a drink since it is two in the morning. Martha is irritated at not being able to recollect a Betty Davis movie in which she works at a grocery store and is married to Joseph Cotten. She is thinking of a particular scene of the film in which Betty Davis returns home with the groceries and cries "What a dump!" On the other hand, George is tired of her father's liking for Saturday night orgies. Martha rebukes her husband for not doing anything and failing to mix with people. An already drunk Martha settles down for another round of drinks.
George is appalled to learn that she has invited guests at such an hour. She defends herself replying that her father wanted her to do so. In any case, her husband does not approve of this. In fact, he is piqued and sulks at her behavior of keeping him unaware of all her decisions and "springing" surprises at him. She ignores him by singing the title of the play. Someone in her father's party had sung it in this manner, replacing the name of the famous novelist (Virginia Woolf) for The Big Bad Wolf in the nursery rhyme. He does not think she is funny and she berates him then demands more ice in her drink. George calls her a cocker spaniel for chewing all the ice cubes. Their conversation takes an ugly turn and arguments follow. It is then revealed to the audience that George is six years younger to Martha.
Martha now demands a kiss from her husband and he refuses to comply. She abuses him and calls him a pig and a cipher. Meanwhile the door bell rings announcing the arrival of their guests. Before allowing them in, George warns his wife not to talk "about the kid." An angered and stubborn Martha declares that she will do what she likes. Just as he opens the door, she hurls a word of insult at him, "Screw you!" The words are directed at George, yet Nick and Honey, the guests, also hear it.
As they enter and see the condition of Martha and George, they realize they should not have come. They are encouraged by their hosts to shake off their bashfulness and enjoy the party. Nick is a professor in biology and a colleague of George at New England College. His wife Honey is a bland, somewhat naïve women of twenty-six. She prefers brandy to any other drink. Her motto is "Never mix-never worry." George recollects his courtship days with Martha as well as her excessive drinking habit. When Nick comments on a particular painting in the room, George remarks that he is some Greek that Martha had attacked one night.
The conversation now shifts to the jingle "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" that has been recited at the president's party. They all pretend to have a high opinion about him. Martha's father is greatly adored by his daughter. Irritated at his wife's glorification of her father, George sullenly says that teaching in a university is much easier than being married to the daughter of the president of that university. She immediately retorts that marrying the daughter of the president would be a lifetime achievement for some.
The two women in the party leave the room to refresh themselves. At this point, George warns Martha against mentioning the "you- know-what." But Martha refuses to get intimidated and rejoins that she will speak of whatever she likes to. The men continue with their drinks. Nick becomes annoyed with George's repeated teasing. He suspects the "games" that his hosts are playing. George pacifies him and explains that he and his wife have only been "exercising" and "walking what's left of our wits." They talk about their age and weight. George tells Nick about his habit of exercising regularly to keep himself physically fit. His recurring confusion over Nick being in the Math Department irritates his guests and he adamently tells George that he is in Biology.
This leads to a discussion or mostly a lecture by George on the differences between their two professions and sets up one of the main dichotomies of the play: that of two conflicting approaches to life or ideologies. Nick represents scientific thought and the notion of progress while George is a humanist represented by history. George questions the necessity of manipulating genes and producing clones to perfect the human race rather than to accept living with imperfection. George explains that his own department is disappointing as well and that he was given the chance to run the History Department during the war but since nobody was injured in the war, they all returned without any loss or discomfiture. Their random and inconsistent talk continues, revolving around running the departments to fighting in wars and from chromosomes to children. George rebukes the president for demanding undivided loyalty and devotion from the staff of the college. He does not approve of his way of administration. Suddenly he becomes conscious of Martha's absence and calls for her.
Honey comes down and says that Martha is changing her dress to feel more comfortable. George marvels over the fact that Martha has never "changed" for him in years. Further, George is shocked to learn from her that his wife has spoken of their son. Honey announces with delight that the next day is the birthday of George and Martha's son, who will turn twenty-one years. George is upset over the fact that his wife has let out their secret. This is evident in the manner he paces up and down the room.
Martha comes back, looking quite voluptuous. Honey disapproves of this, but Nick is impressed by her looks. George says that he had missed Martha's "soft purr." She teases him for his excessive preoccupation with history and the History Department. They then talk about football and boxing. Honey proudly proclaims that her husband was an inter-collegiate state middleweight champion. Martha is highly impressed by this. She begins to scorn George's physique and at the same time praises Nick's fine limbs. George tries to check her indecent remarks but can only be the recipient of her castigation.
Now, Martha recalls a boxing match between George and her. This incident had occurred twenty years ago during the war. Her father used to insist on physical fitness and self-defense. On a particular Sunday, he had called a few of them to practice boxing. A reluctant George had been forced to participate and it was Martha's accidental blow that threw him into the huckleberry bush.
They all have a hearty laugh over his ineptitude in boxing. George disappears and returns with a short-barreled shotgun and aims it at his wife. He pulls the trigger and a red and yellow Chinese parasol comes out of the gun. Everybody is relieved.
Gene manipulation in creating clones and working for "super- civilizations" becomes a topic for discussion now. As Nick is from a related field, he considers himself to be a part of the "wave of the future." George narrates the genetic manipulation system that takes care of all the imbalances and diseases, assuring longevity. On the other hand, Nick is in favor of mass producing perfect human being but George condemns them (the scientists) for producing ideal people in the world and refuses to co-operate with them. George continues to evade the issue of his son, but Nick and Honey take up the matter and question him about his son's arrival. Martha charges her husband with not believing that he is his own son. What follows is a discussion on the imaginary son, the color of his hair and his eyes. Martha exclaims that he has green eyes like her father. Martha reveals her deep connection to her father. She was attached to him after her mother's death, which had happened early in her life. Her childhood memories go back to her early school days and her affiliation with an institute called Miss Muff's Academy for Young Ladies.
After George retires from the scene, Martha recalls how her marriage with the garden boy was put to an end by her father and Miss Fuller. Her father was eager to see his daughter get married. Around this time George had joined the Department of History. Assuming him to be young, intelligent and cute Martha had fallen in love with him. She pursued him earnestly. Her father was eager to have someone to take over from him and George appeared to be perfect for it.
Meanwhile, George comes back with more liquor and objects to his wife's narration. An adamant Martha refuses to heed his warnings and continues with the story. She recollects that "He was the groom.....he was going to be groomed." By now George is incensed, but remaining heedless of this she discloses how disappointed her father was on finding him incapable of taking up the responsibilities. She calls him a "flop" and does not hesitate to degrade him. Unable to control his anger, George smashes the liquor bottle. Martha immediately points out that an associate professor cannot afford to waste his salary on liquor. She laments that she is stuck with a failure and admonishes him further for not attempting anything in life. A disgusted George sings the title of the play as Martha castigates him. Honey joins him but is overcome with nausea, and leaves the room to be sick.