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SCENE SUMMARIES AND ANALYSIS
ACT THREE: THE EXORCISM
The title of this act refers to the experience of exorcism, a purging of evil through incantation and ceremony. George will now purge the fantasy that rules Martha's life. He uses Latin as well as blatant honesty to reveal to Martha that their fantasy world has come to an end. By this time, he has realized the futility of holding on to illusions for survival. Therefore, only Martha is left to be exorcised as it were, to rid her of the evil of living a life based on the unreal. It is helpful to keep in mind that exorcism is traditionally used to bring a sense of well being to the victim. As will be seen, the final game, or denouement, "Killing of the Kid" does bring about the eventual recovery of Martha into the real world so that she is ready to face reality.
The anguish that Martha represses pours forth in her opening soliloquy. She is bitter about many things and therefore her anguish makes her a sympathetic character. At one time, she could communicate with her father, but even he has distanced himself from her. Her grief is intense. Her disappointment is reflected when she talks about how their tears are put into the refridgerator and turned into ice cubes, which they then put in their drinks. Her continuous jiggling of the ice cubes in her glass is a kind of reassurance for her that it is her own grief that she is drinking. Although she is indulgent in her grief, she is also aware of her pathetic relationship she has with her father and husband.
For Martha, all men including Nick are flops. Almost all men disappoint Martha. She realizes that Nick's apparent passion for her was only a way to get up the professional ladder and tells him so. She calls herself "Earth Mother" and the young men she desires as "Gorgeous lunk-heads." She knows these flirtations are meaningless and unsatisfying but she continues to act as a vixen. In comparison to the others, she finds George different. She realizes that only he can make her laugh, can stand her insults, tolerate her idiosyncrasies and play games with her. He is the only one, despite all his faults, who can satisfy her physical and emotional needs. Nick laughs at this and is immediately derided. He is relegated to being a houseboy because he has not been able to perform sexually.
When the doorbell rings, Nick answers the door and George enters the scene with the word: "Christ!" Not only does this scene parallel the first act's door opening with Martha's invective, "Screw You," but shows that George is the one who is in charge. Not only will he assume a Christ-like authority of deciding the fate of their son (declaring him dead) but he will also martyr his and Martha's fantasy for the harsher cold world of reality.
George immediately sets out to discover whether Nick has made it with Martha. His own sense of play backfires on him when even he cannot figure out what is real and what is not as both Martha and Nick refuse to admit that they attempted to have sex by not saying whether Nick is a houseboy or a stud. George's anger, shown when he begins to throw snapdragons at them, could be either vindictiveness out of being made a cuckold or else it is that Martha and Nick are no longer playing by the rules. This is reflected in his remark: "Someone's lying around here..." It is not as important to George that he know the truth but everyone must follow the rules of the game so that no one is confused. George ends up announcing a final game.
George is clearly the man in charge in this act even when he is fumbling and confused. His anger and his desire to reveal the truth of Martha and his illusion is a driving force that commands attention from the others. With the introduction of the final game ("Bringing Up Baby"), a tired Martha pleads to George to stop the games, but he is determined to break the illusion. Martha is finally scared of the consequences of their games. She has become aware that these games have reached a level where the results will have drastic ramifications in their lives. She is afraid what she will learn and attempts to stop playing, but George refuses to stop. When Honey brings in her idea of a game: "peeling the label," George adopts this metaphor and applies it to the peeling layers of skin that eventually if peeled long enough reach the "marrow." It is in the marrow where no more illusions exist and where realities are confronted.
"Bringing up Baby" begins with the reconstitution of their son's life and the many details and memories they have built up over the years. Rather than hide the details as he attempted to do earlier, now the child is brought in as the central topic of discussion and George freely reveals the minutest details of the son's physical attributes and how their aspirations connected with his. The two of them build on the narrative; it is a co-operation rarely seen in the play so far and reveals the possibilities that there is a true affection and love for each other despite the animosity between them. Their account sounds so authentic that the audience is shown how strongly this illusion is a part of their reality. Martha's account takes on a spiritual dimension as she reveals herself as the Earth Mother who has gently guided their son to achieve all that they could not. Honey is so awed by her account that she declares she wants a child.
Yet Martha begins to move away from the idealistic family they have created when she begins to use the child as a pawn between them, manipulating the narrative so it appears that George was not even able to be a decent father to their son. They begin to argue who was the better parent, each hurling accusations. Suddenly Martha is recounting childhood stories while George begins to recite Latin from the Requiem and Kyrie Eleison.
It is at this point that George mercilessly kills his son in the way similar to the boy in the novel he wrote. He chants the burial service in Latin and chuckles as he tells the story. This is not a man mourning for his child but one victorious in quelling Martha's fantasy. Martha's reaction is immediate and intense. She declaims that he cannot do such a thing on his own. He is not able to make such a decision. Both Honey and Nick are confused. Nick thinks that Martha is grieving and holds her back from George as George glibly declares their son is dead. Martha keeps insisting that George cannot demolish their illusion in one fell swoop. It was a joint effort and therefore he has violated their fantasy world by betraying her. Her reaction is as if it were real, that their son was dead. This is how palpable the fantasy is. She wails for their loss as well as the pain that fills her at confronting the truth. By forcing her to distinguish between the real and the unreal, George has torn apart her illusions very cruelly.
George's motives can be looked upon as twofold. One is that it is an attempt to get even with all the humiliation that Martha has caused him. He definitely wants to gain control of things as she says and this is probably his only chance. However, a greater concern of his is to destroy the illusions that have become almost a reality for them, so much so that Martha cannot even distinguish fact from fiction. This is seen when she responds to George's apparent cruelty. She implies that she had always wanted to "hold on" to that story and that sometimes she forgot whether or not it was real or a lie. In fact, by destroying her most prized illusion, George has ushered her into the world of the living. He does not want her imprisoned by her own fantasies.
Nick and Honey leave after Nick realizes the extent of their game playing and the severe implications what has happened that night has on this couple. Quietly they leave and George and Martha remain to pick up the pieces of their lives. Although Martha attempts to ask George whether or not they could find another fantasy to latch on, he cuts her off. Although they are pathetic and weakened from the overwhelming turn of events, they can now at least begin to build a relationship that is divested of illusion and builds on honesty and communication. In the last line of the play Martha, the apparently stronger character, is the one who answers the play's title question, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with a very weak, "I am." Now, with no illusion to look forward to there is hope for a renewal of the relationship.
The play ends with the revival of human contact. George and Martha confess their misguided ways and have freed themselves from their delusions. The story that began past midnight comes to an end at the break of the next day. This is significant in heralding the illusion-free life the two are left with. With dawn comes a look at reality in all its nakedness. There is no darkness but only light.