Who's Afraid of Virgina Wolf: Essay Q&A
1. Is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? an optimistic or a pessimistic play? Is it a comedy or a tragedy?
People often find the ending of the play ambiguous. It seems that George and Martha have decided that they are going to live without illusions, but will this make them any happier? Do they have a chance of learning a new, more harmonious way of being together? Certainly Martha is scared that they will not. Even though George has decisively killed off their imaginary son, and insists that “it will be better,” Martha is not entirely convinced. If it was left up to her, she would continue to cling to her illusions, or invent some new ones (“I don’t suppose, maybe we could . . .” she says). In his book, Edward Albee, revised edition (Twayne, 1982), Richard E. Amacher argues that the play is a tragedy, and that George and Martha were in fact happier while given over to their illusions: “Divesting themselves of the illusion has brought about their fall by introducing them to an even deeper sorrow than anything yet experienced in their lives. As a result, we pity them, as we do tragic characters.” (p. 93). Some might argue that this does not take account of the new tenderness that is apparent between George and Martha at the end of the play that is quite unlike anything they have shown us before. They have resolved to make a new start, based on truth not illusion. Over the years, Albee himself has consistently referred to the end of the play as positive and affirmative. The following comment is typical of the view he has expressed about his own play: “George and Martha end the play having exorcised some self-created demons and cut a way through all the nonsense to try to make a relationship based on absolute reality. Strikes me as being a fairly affirmative conclusion to apply” (Conversations with Edward Albee, edited by Philip C. Kolin, University Press of Mississippi, 1988, pp. 152-53). Albee also commented elsewhere that those who viewed the play as a love story were closer to the truth than those who regarded it as a tragedy. He pointed to the fact that at least George and Martha were able to communicate in their marriage.
2. What is the ritual element in the play?
The conflict between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? builds up to a kind of religious ritual in which Martha’s dependence on an imaginary life divorced from reality is finally destroyed. The title of Act 3, Exorcism, gives a clue to the process that is about to be conducted. The imaginary son has taken on such an independent life in Martha’s mind that it has become like an evil spirit, a demon that must be cast out if she is ever to live her life based on reality not illusion. George seems to think that Martha is so far divorced from reality that her sanity is at stake. He says at one point in Act 2, “You’ve moved bag and baggage into your own fantasy world now, and you’ve started playing variations on your own distortions” (p. 155). He warns her that he will have her committed to a mental institution. In part he is just taunting her in response to her attacks on him, but there is truth in his words also, as can be seen in Martha’s anguished reaction to George’s unilateral act of destroying the illusion. See for example, her desperate cry, NOOOOOOoooooo,” (p. 233) when George announces that their son is dead. Described as a “howl which weakens into a moan,” this strongly suggests the reaction of horror and agony as a demon is cast out in a ritual of exorcism. The casting out of the demon is accompanied by George’s recitation, in Latin, of the Catholic mass for the dead, which includes the words, “Libera me, Domine de morte aeterna” (“Deliver me, O Lord, from death everlasting”) and “Kyrie, eleison, Christe eleison” (“Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us”) (pp. 227-28). Martha is being freed from a state of illusion that is a kind of death, and there is an appeal to Christ to have mercy on her as she must now live authentically, with what is real, rather than with the ultimately demonic illusion that has possessed her for twenty-one years. 3. Is there a political and social element in the play?
On the surface it would seem that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a purely domestic drama with no relevance to the wider political and social world. But closer examination suggests that Albee intended the play as a critique of the complacency of American society in the 1950s. Certainly the play presented a very different type of family life than television shows like Leave It to Beaver, which ran from 1957 to 1963 and presented simplistic moral lessons in the context of an over-idealized view of the family. The same was true of another popular TV show that aired throughout the 1950s, Father Knows Best, in which the dialogue and situations presented a conservative view of what an American family should be like that did not correspond to the reality experienced by millions.
Albee suggests the wider cultural context in his choice of the names of the two main characters. George and Martha happen also to be the first names of George and Martha Washington, America’s first “first family,” who, like the characters in the play, were unhappily married and also childless. By using these names, Albee suggests that his characters are representative of underlying currents in American society as a whole that were ignored during the outwardly tranquil and prosperous 1950s. Albee’s play certainly hit a raw nerve since the Pulitzer Committee denied him the Pulitzer Prize because the play did not present a “wholesome” portrait of American family life. Which was precisely Albee’s point. The play suggests that it is time for America to confront its carefully fostered illusions and face up to the way things actually are, not the way people might want them to be or naively assume them to be. Interestingly, the play was first performed in 1962, at the threshold of the revolutionary social changes that would occur in the later years of the decade, which saw the birth of modern feminism and the widespread rejection of traditional forms of authority and institutions. In this sense, the play might be seen as prophetic of imminent social change. 4. What role do Honey and Nick play?
The young couple Nick and Honey are there in part as an on-stage audience for George and Martha to act out their verbal duels. As Julian N. Wasserman puts it in his essay, “The Pitfalls of Drama: The Idea of Language in the Plays of Edward Albee” (in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, University of St. Thomas, 1983) Honey and Nick are “passive observers. When they enter the action at all, they serve solely as the objects of manipulation, despite any illusions which they may have to the contrary.” (p. 37). In other words, George and Martha simply use the younger, less experienced couple to maneuver for advantage in their own bitter struggle.
But it would seem also that Honey and Nick have a deeper significance in terms of the play’s theme of truth and illusion. They are in a way like younger versions of George and Martha. At first the handsome biologist and his blond wife seem an ideal couple, but as George and Martha ruthlessly involve them in their verbal battles, it becomes plain that the marriage of Nick and Honey is, to put it mildly, less than perfect. Nick married Honey for her money; there is no passion between them, and at several times in the play they speak sharply to each other. Honey seems to have become skilled at suppressing her real feelings—Nick appears to have no idea that she is fearful of childbirth—and this may be what gives rise to her frequent sickness. It is only under the influence of the brandy and the pressure of the situation that her real feelings start to come out. She also shows an alarming propensity to go along with the stories George makes up, even agreeing with him that she watched him eat the telegram that told of the son’s death. Honey also takes an inordinately long time to recognize herself in the story George tells in his game, “get the guests.” She does not seem to have much self-awareness. In short, Nick and Honey would do well to take note of how George and Martha finally cleanse themselves of their disabling illusions. Unless Nick and Honey learn to do some serious talk about their own marriage, in twenty years’ time they may come to resemble George and Martha.
5. What symbolic significance does Nick have?
Albee commented that he chose the name Nick in order to make an allusion to the Soviet premier at the time, Nikhita Khruschev. The play was written during the Cold War, when communism was considered a grave threat to the Western, democratic way of life. Indeed, the most serious confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union came during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, the same year the play was first performed.
The struggle between communism and Western liberal democracy underlies some of the dialogue between George and Nick in the play. George’s attack on what he claims is the scientific goal of manipulating human genetics and creating a super-race in which “variety and unpredictability” (p. 67), as well as liberty, will have vanished, is a veiled reference to the effects of communist political systems, in which individual freedoms were curtailed in favor of state power.
When George sarcastically refers to Nick and his ilk as the “wave of the future,” he is using a phrase that was common at the time among supporters of communism, who believed the system they favored would eventually triumph worldwide. The allusions to the Cold War also give another meaning to George’s comment that Nick represents “a direct and pertinent threat to [his] lifehood” (p. 111).
The reference to the Cold War becomes explicit in George's comment, “I will not give up Berlin!” (p. 67) He is referring to the divided status of the city of Berlin, Germany. The Berlin Wall divided the city into Eastern (under communist control) and Western (democratic) sections, and had been built during Nikita Khruschev’s period in power. When George then promises a “fight to the death” (p. 68) he means a fight between Western liberal ideals and the communist “wave of the future.”