Who's Afraid of Virgina Wolf: Act 2 Part 1
Act 2: Walpurgisnacht
Part 1 (pp. 89-117)
Nick reenters and joins George. Nick tells George that Honey gets sick easily, while George complains about being ridiculed by Martha. Nick dislikes the fact that George and his wife are quarreling in the presence of guests, but he admits that they are good at verbally hitting each other.
Nick then confesses that he married Honey because she was pregnant. The pregnancy, however, turned out to be “hysterical” in nature, that is, she was not pregnant, even though all the signs seemed to be there.
George then tells a story about something that happened when he was sixteen. He and a group of friends went one evening to a gin-mill owned by a gangster, who happened to the father of one of the boys. This was during the time of Prohibition, when the sale of alcohol was illegal. One of the boys who went to the gin-mill had some years earlier accidentally shot his mother dead. At the gin-mill, the boy mispronounced the word bourbon as “bergin,” and everyone laughed. They all got drunk that night and had hangovers the next day. The following year, the same boy drove his car into a tree on a country road, killing his father who was in the passenger seat. When the boy was in the hospital and out of danger, he was told his father was dead. His reaction was to laugh endlessly, until he was drugged and became unconscious. He was then sent to live in an asylum, where he still lives. According to George, the boy, now a man, has not spoken a word in all the thirty years he has been in the asylum.
The talk turns again to Honey’s false pregnancy, and George comments that Martha does not get pregnant. When Nick asks if they have any other children, George replies that they have just the one child, their son. He says his son is a “bean bag,” but Nick has no idea what he is talking about. George says he wants to set Nick straight about something Martha has said, but at that point Martha sticks her head into the room, saying that she and Honey are having coffee and will be in shortly.
As George and Nick talk further, another detail about the younger couple emerges: Nick married Honey in part for her money. They had known each other from when they were young children, and both families had assumed they would eventually marry. They did what was expected of them, even though there was no great passion between them. Honey inherited her money from her father, who was a wealthy preacher. George comments that Martha has money because her father’s second wife, now dead, was rich, and left Martha some money in her will. In the interchange with Nick that follows, however, George acknowledges that his story may not be true.
Nick, egged on by George, starts to play the game and talks about how he will increase his power at the university until eventually he can take it over. He says he will seduce some of the faculty wives in the process, and George confirms that this is the way to get ahead. He likens the women at the college to South American “ladies of the night,” and tells Nick that seducing all the wives is the route to power in New Carthage. Nick responds by including Martha in his seduction plans.
Nick is not sure how serious George is about all this, but George turns the tables on him by replying that Nick is almost serious about it himself, and that he, Nick, is scared by what he is saying. The talk then turns serious, and George says he is just giving Nick some advice about how to survive at the college. Nick is contemptuous of him, however, and the exchange ends in a kind of mutual incomprehension. George gives a long speech, ending it with an insult aimed at Nick.
The title of the act, Walpurgisnacht, is a German word which literally means “witches’ night.” Walpurgisnacht is a holiday celebrated on the night of April 30 and May 1 in parts of central and northern Europe. It is derived from pagan celebrations of the coming of spring. The legend has it that the witches used to meet on the mountains and indulge in wild, orgiastic revelry. What is the relevance of Walpurgisnacht for the play? The term witch is actually used in this section, by Nick, after George tells him the story about how rich her father’s second wife was. Nick then refers to her as a witch. But this is only a passing reference. Perhaps the witch is Martha herself, ruthlessly trampling over her husband, apparently triumphant. But the real point is a more general one. In this act, and throughout the play, the characters are constantly drinking. Nick says he has been drinking since nine in the evening, and the others have, too. George and Nick even have a discussion about drunkenness, in which Nick says, after accepting another drink, “After a while you don’t get any drunker, do you?” and George says, “We drink a great deal in this country.” The more people drink, the more they lay aside their usual inhibitions and the normal conventions of polite society. As a result, the play gradually becomes like an orgy of emotional disclosure, in which the characters let out what has been kept in and denied for so long. There is also the prospect of outrageous physical behavior, too, as Nick plots, with George’s permission, to seduce George’s wife. Nick refers to this in the crudest possible terms: “Well now, I’d just better get her off in a corner and mount her like a goddam dog, eh?” The evening thus seems set to become a true Walpurgisnacht since it is exactly the opposite sort of behavior than that which might be expected of two conventional professional couples in New England in the early 1960s. It represents the other side of the face that such people would normally present to one another and to the world.
George’s story about the boy who killed his mother should be noted as there will be several references to it later. Like much of what George and Martha discuss, it occupies an indeterminate region somewhere between truth and illusion.