34 Edward Albee: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Ms. Sreemoyee Banarjee

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Life and times of Edward Albee:


Born in Washington D.C. on March 12, 1928, Edward Albee was adopted by an affluent family from Larchmont, New York. This affluent suburb of New York City was home to a rich, competitive social circle. Albee’s mother was an active socialite. The Albee family was wealthy, and young Edward led a luxurious life. His childhood was accessorized with private tutors, servants, luxury automobiles, winters in warm climates, excursions to the theatre, and riding lessons. But such privilege as a child did not deter him from realising the adverse effects of such a complacent life. In fact, Albee went ahead to criticize through the medium of literature, the moral and spiritual injury inflicted upon people by an excess of material wealth and imprudent pursuit of the “American dream. A young Albee abhorred this culture, finding it hollow and disappointing. At the age of twenty, after years of expensive schooling at prestigious institutions, Albee moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village (the place being a retreat for young writers and bohemians looking for artistic freedom and inspiration) to join the league of avant-garde artists. Albee’s search for independence was helped greatly by a trust fund set up for him by his  grandmother.


His first play, The Zoo Story premiered in New York in 1960 at an off-Broadway theatre and helped him gain instant fame. Albee’s reputation among erudite theatre audience was reached new heights by the virtue of his one-act plays: The Death of Bessie Smith, the Sandbox, and The American Dream.


In the 1960’s,commercial American theatre was influenced and largely dominated by playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge who indulged in projecting the world of the American audience onstage, in a realistic fashion, therefore portraying their drawing rooms in public theatres. The writers reiterated the traditional values of the American society and supported the beliefs of the audience therefore providing an objective view of the world they lived in. These plays sort of established the idea that men and women were themselves responsible for determining their own fate.


Yet some playwrights of the time, particularly Europeans like Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugene Ionesco, were presenting a different view of the world. The tense political scenario followed by the horrors of the Second World War along with the potential horrors of the nuclear age induced in these writers the urge to believe that the universe is a place where humans have lost control. These playwrights wanted the audience to understand their deep- seated anguish at the absurdity of the human condition. These writers tried to induce the idea that nothing happens, nothing changes, and the effort to find meaning in this world is meaningless itself. The world has become a place devoid of hope and meaning. Critics categorized these Avant-garde writers as Absurdists. Plays of the Theatre of the Absurd, such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953)) and Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano (1950), are landmarks of this genre. Dialogues are often deliberately confusing and illogical. Speech encompasses jargon, clichés, and even nonsense, in order to indicate that language itself is empty and our attempts to communicate deep feelings are futile. Dramatic and realistic characters are frequently eliminated. The plays are often merely a series of incidents or images that represent the turmoil of the human condition as the author sees it. Also, absurdist plays are often very funny- sometimes insanely so- suggesting that laughter is the only response to the pain of life in a world devoid of hope or purpose.


Albee employs both realistic and absurdist techniques to write his plays. He is considered as a bridge between these two opposing movements. For example, The Zoo Story tells of an ordinary meeting between two men in a park. Peter is a middleclass businessman, the upholder of traditional American values, complete with wife, children, and pets. Jerry is an outcast and a rebel, who has forgone society for an introspective existence in isolation. The play revolves around Jerry’s longing to communicate with Peter on something more than a superficial level on the failure of which he indulges Peter in murdering him, indicating that only violence or death can establish communication at deeper level. The themes of communication through violence and the hollowness of American values that Albee explores in The Zoo Story connects him with the absurdist’s, as does Jerry’s death, which has been associated with the death of the student in Ionesco’s play The Lesson. These two themes and a death surface again in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


The Sandbox (1959) and The American Dream (1960) are short plays by Albee that deal with the same three characters: Mommy, (dominating and malicious);Daddy, (complacent and emasculated); and Grandma, (cunning and sharp-tongued). In The Sandbox, Death comes to Grandma on the beach in the form of a handsome young man, while Mommy and Daddy are engaged in an endless squabble. In The American Dream the family is confronted by the identical twin of a child they had once adopted and then destroyed. The title is a parody of  the concept of the ideal Nuclear family, a by-product of the American Dream, as the play reveals the hidden cruelty, dishonesty, and hatred that the family embodies despite a display of sophistication and perfect happiness.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Expatiates the themes-death, sterility, the corruption of the American dream- in a manner similar to Albee’s earlier one-act plays. In some way this full- length play is more realistic than its predecessors. It has a recognizable setting and more commonplace characters. But the absurdist influence is also there too- in the imaginary child that George and Martha have created in the characters’ inability to communicate except through abrasiveness and violence, and in the frequent use of clichéd speech. It is the successful blending of realism and absurdism that has prompted audiences to applaud Albee’s innovations.


Albee earned much praise for most of his work, the most famous of which are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance, and Three Tall Women.


Context of the play: In 1962 the United States was enjoying what many Americans would now consider a “period of innocence”2. President John F. Kennedy was in power. Traditional values appeared unshakable, and life in America was easy and self-satisfied. The importance of a happy family was emphasized by both politicians and popular culture. Many Americans considered success to be measured by having one’s own house, car, kids, and dog. It was hard to apprehend that the country would be soon experiencing a massive political and social outrage due to the Vietnam War; the assassinations of President Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the scandal of Watergate that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974.Yet, if the surface was tranquil in 1962, there was nonetheless considerable agitation underneath. American relations with the Soviet Union were volatile in the 1960s, leading to confrontation over Berlin and Cuba. The African American community was still struggling against indiscrimination, their attempts often been countered violently by the Whites. As a result of these tempestuous occurrences, a number of influential writers were questioning the American values that so far seemed secure and immaculate.


Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered at Broadway, New York City, on the 13th of October, 1962. Through this play Albee indulges in critically assessing the aspects that form the very foundation of the American society, its value system and institutions, held in high esteem by all Americans. The play focuses on subjects such as family, marriage, and success with the aim to suggest how dysfunctional human beings have become in respect to these. Modern American family, that might appear perfect on the surface has flaws hidden and as their deep dark secrets unveil, our perspective of these institutions shift and we understand how keen people are to escape from them.


Edward Albee’s play brings to the forefront an array of controversial questions that had been bothering American life as a whole. Along with its commercial success, the play presented a complete and all-encompassing investigation of sacred American traditions and it did so in a language that many found disturbing. Yet for every person who judged Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? according to their moral standards and concluded that it was indeed perverse and pathetic, there were those who considered the play a masterpiece and hailed Albee as one of the most important dramatists of the contemporary world theatre.

Plot Summary: ACT I


The play follows a three act structure; the first act is titled “Fun and Games, the second “Walpurgisnacht”, and the third being called “Exorcism”.


The play opens with George and Martha returning from a faculty cocktail party. George,46, is an associate professor of the Department of History, at the University where Martha’s father is the president. George and Martha, from the very beginning explode the concept of the “happy family” induced by the “American Dream”. Not only are they malicious towards each other but cannot even maintain a civil code of conduct in front of their guests. George and Martha share the name of America’s founding and most famous couple, George and Martha Washington. Albee implicitly extends his portrayal of this one faulty marriage to all of America. The illusions and tensions under which they hide and snipe at each other are paradigmatic of a larger phenomenon in the nation itself. The audience soon find out that the couple are expecting Guests, Nick, a new faculty member, a biologist at the university, and his wife Honey at 2 A.M. at night. Their revolting behaviour indicates how love can transform into hatred. George and Martha connect to each other best when trading insults and by engaging in games. This reveals that the couple want to escape from the real world and their verbal insults indicate their inability to communicate otherwise. Also, Martha attempts to indulge in a Game, enacting a scene from an American movie and asks George to recognize it. George is reluctant to do so and in the later part of the scene his averseness towards kissing Martha, reveals how dysfunctional their marriage has become. The title of Act I is “Fun and Games.” Martha’s “name that movie” is the firstof the games that will be played throughout the night. Some will be labelled, others will be subtle, but most have serious implications.


Martha is seen singing a song “who is afraid of Virginia Woolf?” a parody of the Disney song from Three Little Pigs “who is afraid of the big bad wolf”? usually to taunt George and turn his attention to herself.


The play proceeds with the arrival of the guests and as the evening progresses, and as they continue drinking, their suppressed tensions surface in the form of psychological games. Martha is dismayedby George’s lack of ambition and failure to advance in the history department, despite being related to the University president.Martha treats George with contempt and George retorts using his superior verbal skills. George instantly dislikes Nick not only because Martha finds him physically attractive but also because Nick is a Biologist. As a historian, George sees biology as a science that would destroy man’s individuality.


Nick tries not to get involved personally in the tiff between his hosts, but incidentally gets involved and reveals himself to be shallow. Honey is too intoxicated and too mindless to understand much of the situation. As Martha leaves with Honey to show her around the house, George indulges in a conversation with Nick regarding the school, their profession, their wives, and children-a forbidden topic-as George has already warned Martha not to bring up that issue in front of his guests. A turning point occurs in Act I Scene IV when George discovers that Martha has mentioned a forbidden topic to Honey while the two women were out of the room, the taboo topic: George and Martha’s son. The bitterness between the couple accelerates, and they persist in their battle of verbal abuse. Tension grows as Martha tries to seduce Nick with her physical charms. As Act I ends, Martha has made George emotionally vulnerable by indicating his supposed failure as aman and as a teacher. The fight dissolves into a shouting match and Honey is made physically ill by a combination of the quarrelling and too much alcohol.


The meaning of the title, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, surfaces as the play proceeds, but so far the audience is aware that it comes from a joke at the cocktail party. The original Disney song goes, “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” Virginia Woolf was an English writer during the first half of the twentieth century. She wrote in the style of stream-of- consciousness that tried to foreground the thought patterns of her characters. One might be afraid of Virginia Woolf because she tries to understand the intricacies of the human mind. She is so honest that she might frighten characters like George and Martha, who hide behind their insults, too afraid to reveal of what is left of love in their hearts for each other, in case it makes them vulnerable. At the same time, her writing is also very complex and intellectual. Therefore, one might be afraid of not understanding her. In the competitive world of a University, no one would want to admit to being afraid to read something by her. The title, then, could also refer to the competition that George feels at his job, and the need that all people within that academic environment have to puff up their own intelligence.


Act II is titled “Walpurgisnacht.” This German word refers to the night before May Day(the first day of May) when witches conglomerate to create havoc. Any particular incident or situation addressed “Walpurgisnacht” is indicative of possessing nightmarish quality. This terms well applicable to the second act of Albee’s play as the games among the guests escalate to a dangerous level. In addition, since “Walpurgisnacht” is a pagan myth, Albee uses this term as a title to his second act in order to project how human begins are phasing into a regressive state as far as relationships are concerned. It indicates an abandonment of civilized culture and in the process returning to primordial modes of existence that entails a complete seizure of socially viable communication. Ideas, like church and family, are all collapsing in this act.As Act II of the play opens, George and Nick converse alone. George tells the story of a young boy who killed his mother and caused his father to die, a story that may or may not be autobiographical. Nick reveals that he married Honey as she was apprehensive of a pregnancy, which turned out to be a false alarm. However, he does not pay any heed to George’s warning about being “dragged down by the quicksand” of the college. Nick aspires to rise in his career and would resort to any means to achieve his goal, anode of his techniques for advancement entails establishing sexual relationships with the wives of his colleagues. Martha and Honey return, and the sexual attraction between Martha and Nick accelerates. They dance erotically with each other. Martha teases her husband by telling their guests of George’s attempts to write a novel, whose plot concerns aboy responsible for his parents’ deaths. Infuriated, George physically attacks Martha, when Nick intervenes to prevent George from doing so. George seeks his revenge, not on Martha, but on the guests. He tells a “fable” that mirrors Nick and Honey’s early lives and her hysterical pregnancy. Honey leaves the room in embarrassment. Enraged, George and Martha unleash mayhem. The first victory befalls on Martha, as she openly makes sexual advances to Ni k but fails to agitate George. Yet after she has led the younger man to the kitchen, where George can hear the sounds of their carousing, George makes a decision that will be his final act of revenge, one that will change his and Martha’s lives forever: he decides to tell her that their son is dead.


Act III: The climax of the play divulges the extent to which the couple has indulged in self made reality. Their son is fictional, as is, perhaps, the story from George’s childhood about his friend who accidentally killed his parents. The idea behind the “Exorcism” (the title of  the final act) is that the characters are getting rid of the illusions. To “exorcise” means to rid one’s body of evil spirits. Therefore, in terms of the play, no more will George and Martha exist in a land of fantasy and make-believe. Still, Martha scared to embrace reality. She is afraid of Virginia Woolf, who tried to expose reality and the sincerity of emotion.


Act III opens with Martha sitting alone. Nick has failed to satiate Martha, and when he arrives again on the scene, she expresses contempt for him. She also reveals that George is the only man who has ever satisfied her. George appears at the front door, bearing flowers and announcing that there is one more game to play- “Bringing Up Baby.” He encourages Martha to talk about their son in the most affectionate and idealized terms; and then, like a bolt from the blue, declares that their son has died. Martha’s furious reaction that George “cannot decide these things” leads Nick to understand at last George and Martha’s secret. Their son is a figment of their imagination, a fantasy child that they have carefully constructed. It is a measure that they have adopted to deal with their turbulent relationship and also to live up to the myth of the happy American family, on that is incomplete without a child. Nick and Honey leave, and George and Martha are left alone in each other’s company. Only the future can confirm if they have been strengthened or made even more vulnerable by the traumatic experiences of the evening.




George is an associate professor of history at a college in the New England town of New Carthage. Clearly he is an under achiever. His lack of ambition coupled with his rough relation with his father-in-law, who is the university president is the reason for the sloth in his career. He has been married to Martha, a woman 6 years older than him for 23 years. He shares a very toxic relationship with her, engaging in verbal banter and psychological games, with an attempt to get the better of each other. They are condescending towards the other. They function like enemies despite being a married couple. George is intelligent and witty, and thus enjoys the upper hand in the battle of words. He might have been a good host had not Martha displayed such a condescending attitude towards him coupled with her insinuating remarks. He retaliates in vain as Martha strikes his vulnerabilities. Nothing is revealed about George’s (or the other characters’) early life. George discusses a story that he claims to be autobiographical, about a trip to a gin mill (saloon) during the Prohibition era, when he was a teenager. But there are clues to suggest that a boy in the story whom George refers to as a “friend” may actually be George himself. This boy had murdered his mother and instrumented the death of his father. Whether the story is literal or metaphoric is never made clearing the play, nor is it known if George is talking about himself or someone else. Through most of the play Martha gets the better of George, defeating him psychologically. She is skilful at finding ways to reprimand George. He turns the tables by abusing their guests, by offering them the kind of treatment meted out to him by his wife. He chides them for their weaknesses and discloses their hidden secrets. He offers Martha the final blow by announcing the death of their imaginary child. George might primarily appear as the victim of a bad marriage, in the hands of his wife but in the end emerges stronger than the other characters.


MARTHAMartha, 52, married to George, is the daughter of the college president. Though Martha harbours awe inspired veneration for her father, he seems to have no great love former.


Intelligent, learned, and observant, Martha conceals her intellectual gifts beneath harsh, belligerent, and vulgar exterior. She tries to dictate and control her husband because she resents his incapacity to step into her father’s shoes both professionally and psychologically; and also because George seems to submit to the atrocities inflicted upon him by his wife.


Martha tries to establish communication with her husband through constant verbal battles and ingenious remarks. She taunts and teases George to prove her point. George and Martha’s marital relationship has degenerated over the years as a result of which they attempt to punish each other and at the same time wish to connect through these fights they have. Both resort to intoxication, and Martha, be it to seek revenge on George for their bad marriage, seduces number of younger men. However, after her sexual encounter with Nick, Martha admits that these encounters are unsatisfying as the only man who has ever satiated her is George. The play tragically offers this couple the incapacity to convey their mutual needs to each other. Only when George successfully puts an end to their imaginary child does Martha admit vulnerability and a fear of the future that she has not revealed before, but what lies ahead for her and George remains ambiguous. George and Martha, in contrast to their namesakes, George and Martha Washington respectively, reveal the truth beneath the glorious American Dream of a happily married American couple.


Nickone of George and Martha’s guests, Nick is a young and attractive fellow. A biology professor, new to the faculty, Nick seems to be the ideal man, but eventually reveals himself as amoral, shallow, and coldly ambitious. His plans to get ahead at the college include indulging in sexual relationships with “pertinent “faculty wives. His willingness to be seduced by Martha, despite the presence of his wife and George, is evidence of his blind ambition and lack of scruples. Underneath Nick’s suave and macho exterior lies a vulnerable and hollow individual. He fails to satisfy Martha in his sexual encounter with her. He confesses to George that he has married Honey because he seemingly impregnated her and also because her father is a wealthy man. Nick’s profession as a biologist is contrasted to George’s as a historian. Biology in the play is viewed as the science whose practitioners are determined to experiment with human genetics in order to improve on it. Nick therefore suggests the results of these experiments, the “wave of the future”- attractive on the outside, but empty within.


Nick understands that George and Martha’s son exists only in their imagination, and his half- hearted attempt to help (“I’d like to…”) might suggests that the evening spent with George and Martha has changed him. But the play offers no further clues as to what the future beholds for Nick and Honey.


HONEYNick’s wife, Honey, 26, appears as a nice, calm, and eager to make a good impression. She gets intoxicated pretty early in the play, and does not contribute much to the conversation. Honey’s intoxication and withdrawal from conversation can be suggestive of her incapacity to live in the reality. Honey, on one hand appears to be the eternal child. She concedes to her husband, is easily offended, and gives in to frequent bouts of vomiting which is symbolic of her inability to contain reality. Yet, in the course of the play she also reveals to possess complex emotions. The daughter of a moderately famous preacher who left her a sizable amount of money, Honey got married to Nick when they found she was pregnant, but unfortunately the pregnancy turned out a false alarm! Since then she has skilfully concealed from Nick her efforts to prevent pregnancy. Her use of secret birth control devices reveals a deep-seated fear of having a child- and a fear of growing up. Martha’s beautiful descriptions of heron “son” ignite maternal instincts inhere but whether these desires are fleeting or permanent cannot be determined within the context of the play. Honey’s name is indicative of her sweet exterior. Honey appears to be passive and feeble when contrasted with her dominating host Martha. But despite her sweetness, Honey has her own share of secrets to reveal.

Summary of the Module


The module provides information regarding the life and times of Edward Albee, his works, the background of the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and this is followed by act wise summary of the play which provides a detailed perspective of the development of the plot and characters of the play. The module also provides detailed analysis of the characters of the play.

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