Originally performed in 1962, Edward Albee’s dark comedy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, centers on the collapsing marriage of George, a middle-aged history professor who works at a university in New England, and Martha, the daughter of the university’s president who is six years older than George. The play opens with George and Martha arriving home at 2:00 a.m. from a faculty party–where they wait for the arrival of Nick, a newly hired biology professor, and his wife, Honey. The first act of the play focuses significantly on the violent and volatile relationship between George and Martha. Their conversations are almost always antagonistic in nature, and most of their discourse is characterized by being spiteful, bitter, and fraudulent. Even more so, their banter is explicitly approached as a “game” designed to toy around with the emotions of other people. Nick and Honey’s seemingly normal and flawless marriage, at first, seems to provide a contrast to the unstable relationship between George and Martha. However, the games that George and Martha play ultimately bring out the ugly truths and moral blemishes that both couples desperately try to conceal.
The word game is a very appropriate term to invoke when approaching the interactions between these characters. First and foremost, dialogue manifests in the play as a competition between the characters. Not only do George and Martha compete to see who can do more damage with stories and words, but all the characters bicker (constantly, I might add) about what words are the most appropriate to use in conversation. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, it seems that the goal of this competition is to see who is or isn’t able to uphold an image of perfection. Since upholding such an image is nearly impossible, the stage becomes an arena where all characters strive to tarnish the image and perception of the other characters. For instance, Martha constantly brings up George’s failures in life and in academia as points of conversation–she alludes to George’s inability to follow her father’s footsteps, his failure to obtain an administrative role in the university, and she even points out how George was unable to publish his novel (due to its violent nature) because it would tarnish the university’s reputation. On the other hand, George constantly brings up Martha’s infidelity, and he exposes other disastrous truths, such as the fact that Nick married Honey only because he thought she was pregnant, and the fact that Honey is an alcoholic who has no interest in bearing any children.
As a character, George serves as the agent who constantly up the ante in terms of the precarious nature of the games that he plays. At one point of the play, after being embarrassed and ridiculed by Martha when she discusses how she knocked George down during a boxing match, he grabs a short-barreled shotgun and points it at Martha’s head. In a moment of black humor, it turns out that the shotgun is a gag pistol that only shoots out a flag. Although we feel relief that the gun isn’t real, this revelation does not dissipate the tension invoked during this scene. We suspect that George really possesses the potential to hurt or kill Martha–a suspicion that turns out to be true in the scene in which George strangles Martha after she discusses his inability to publish the novel he has written (p. 138). It is in this moment that the violent nature of their discourse reifies as actual violence–leading readers/spectators to question the “playful” nature of the game that is taking place.
Mendacity reigns supreme as the play’s plot unfolds. George and Martha, for instance, constantly refer to their imaginary child–although we are led to believe that their son actually exists, it is revealed towards the end of the play that they “couldn’t have” (239) any children. This fabrication increases the voltage of the tension that exists in their marriage. George and Martha view this imaginary child as a force that keeps their marriage intact; referring to the child becomes a game in and of itself. The rule of this game, however, is that they can never refer to the child to anyone other than themselves–a rule that Martha breaks at the beginning of the play: “You broke our rule, baby. You mentioned him . . . you mentioned him to someone else” (237). The reason that this rule is imposed is because it is a lie that would be difficult to defend and uphold since it is not hinged on reality in any way. As soon as Martha mentions the existence of a child to Nick and Honey, the couple argues about their child’s basic facts and traits, especially in terms of his physical appearance:
MARTHA (To George)
Our son does not have blue hair . . . or blue eyes, for that matter. He has green eyes . . . like me.
He has blue eyes, Martha.
GREEN! (To HONEY and NICK) He has the loveliest green eyes . . . they aren’t flaked with brown and gray, you know . . . hazel . . . they’re real green . . . deep, pure green eyes . . . like mine.
Your eyes are . . . brown, aren’t they? (p. 75)
In this instance, the child’s existence as a game becomes even more obvious. The child induces discussions of a schizophrenic nature: Martha and George approach the child as a reflection of their ideal selves, and even more so, they approach the child as a scapegoat figure meant to absorb the tensions that exist between them. Rather than dealing with their problems in an explicit and honest fashion, they express their problems through the medium of the imaginary child. The child is simultaneously a son who reaches out to the father instead of the mother because he is looking for “advice, for information, for love that wasn’t mixed with sickness” while also being a son “so ashamed of his father he asked [Martha] once if it–possibly–wasn’t true, as he had heard, from some cruel boys, maybe, that he was not [their] child” (226). In due course, it becomes clear that they weren’t supposed to talk about the child with other people for it would force themselves and others to confront how truth is twisted and fabricated by the couple. This avoidance is impossible because it is based on trying to create a sense of organization within an environment that thrives on chaos, as George makes quite clear in the play:
You take the trouble to construct a civilization . . . to . . . to build a society, based on the principles of . . . of principle . . . you endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man’s mind . . . you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same . . . you bring things to the saddest of all points . . . to the point where there is something to lose . . .then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. (117)
Towards the conclusion of the play, all of the characters are not only forced to confront the information that they have deliberately concealed, but they also come face-to-face with the inability of constructions to fully support the weight of their realities. Despite the image that they try to convey to the world, they cannot escape the grip of veracity. Even more so, both couples realize that they cannot comply with the stipulations and expectations of grand narratives such as marriage and family: both marriages in the play are unable to uphold an image or harmony and perfection, both unions are sterile in that they won’t produce offspring (thus challenging associations of family and futurity), and furthermore, love is not the element that brought these people together. The play shows the lengths that people go through to comply with grand narratives while simultaneously overthrowing the validity of these narratives in the first place. Their games, their lives, are based on constructed ideas and ideals that do not necessarily reflect the reality or the truth of their situations.
The play strikingly concludes with Martha confessing that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf. Her fear is completely grounded and rational because Virginia Woolf knows. After all, Woolf’s works are known for their use of uncensored stream of consciousness, in which readers gain an all-access look into the thoughts that are running through a character’s head. Unlike the world of George and Martha, Virginia Woolf’s world holds little room for secrets, and even less room for contortions of truth or reality. The figure, or better said, the idea of Virginia Woolf would be able to look beyond the game that these characters desperately try to play.
You can purchase a copy of Albee’s play by clicking here.
Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Scribner Classics, 2003. Print (hardcover edition).