Who's Afraid of Virgina Wolf: Act 3 Part 1
Act 3: The Exorcism
Part 1 (pp. 185-209)
Martha enters, talking to herself. She calls for George and complains that she has been deserted. She goes through an imaginary dialogue with George in which they are polite to each other, and then another imaginary interchange with her father, in which she confesses that she cries all the time. Nick enters, complaining that his wife is lying on the bathroom floor with a bottle of brandy. He thinks both his wife and Martha have gone crazy. Martha counters by alluding to the fact that Nick was, apparently, unable to make love to her during the time they spent alone together. Using a word she had earlier used to describe her husband, she calls him a flop. She says that there is only one man in her life who has ever made her happy, and that is George, since he is good to her, understands her and can make her laugh, even when she persistently pushes him away. George, she says, “keeps learning the games we play as quickly as I can change the rules.” She acknowledges how sad the situation is between them. George has made the mistake of loving her, and he must be punished for it. Someday, she continues, she will go too far and either break his back or push him away for good, which she thinks is what she deserves. Nick replies that George has already had his back broken, but Martha ridicules him, implying that he doesn’t know anything and insulting his masculinity.
The doorbell rings, and Martha tells Nick to answer it, saying that he can be the houseboy for a while. Protesting, Nick opens the door, to find George holding a large bunch of snapdragons. Using a falsetto voice, George quotes a line from Tennessee Williams’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire, about flowers. Martha laughs. Then George sees Nick and pretends that Nick is his son, come home for his birthday. Nick backs away, and Martha says he is the houseboy. Looking at the bouquet, Martha is reminded of the flowers that were in her wedding bouquet. Nick gets angry at being treated like the houseboy and when George gives the snapdragons to him, telling him to put them in some gin, Nick drops them on the floor at his feet.
George explains that he picked the flowers by moonlight for Martha and for their son, for his birthday the next day. Martha insists there is no moonlight; George insists that there is. She says the moon went down; he says it went down but came back up again. He starts to tell a story about when he was sailing past Majorca, but Martha says he is lying, since he has never been in the Mediterranean. George disputes this and says that someone must be lying. Martha says in a pleading voice that he does not know the difference between truth and illusion.
George has now got the idea that Nick and Martha did become lovers (since Martha, at Nick’s urging, says he is not a houseboy, and George concludes that he must therefore have “made it in the sack”). Petulantly, George throws a snapdragon, and then another one, at Martha. Then he throws one at Nick, unsure of whether Nick is a houseboy or not (that is, did Nick make love to Martha or not?) When Martha asks him whether it matters, he says it does not, but his actions suggests that it does. He throws another snapdragon at her.
George then announces that they have one more game to play, and it is called “bringing up baby.” He tells Nick to fetch Honey. Martha is very apprehensive about what this last game might be. She pleads for no more games, but George insists over her protests that they have one more. He grabs her hair and pulls her head back, insisting that what is going to happen is “going to make your performance tonight look like an Easter pageant.” He says he is going to knock her around (metaphorically speaking), and he wants her to hit back. Martha agrees, promising him an equal battle. George says they will play this game to the death.
Martha’s long soliloquy at the beginning of the act reveals much of her nature and her desires. She imagines herself and George having a civilized exchange in which they just speak normally to each other, without the barbs and the game-playing. She also reveals her own unhappiness, that she cries all the time, but only “deep inside, so no one can see me.” This is clearly a woman who disguises her real feelings and won’t let them show. Obviously, such feelings are too painful for her to bring them fully to consciousness. She also says that George cries all the time, too, which shows she is aware of the pain they both endure and inflict on each other. The image she uses in this soliloquy is a telling one. She and George, she says, put their tears in an ice-box and freeze them. In other words, their real feelings are not allowed to flow out. They are frozen and hidden away. This means they cannot be authentic with each other; they hide behind their word games.
Since Martha’s soliloquy occurs right at the beginning of the act, it suggests to the audience that the time of self-revelation rather than game-playing may have arrived. This is confirmed when Martha’s exercise in self-disclosure continues in her surprising revelation to Nick that George is the only man who has ever made her happy. The audience starts to realize, if they have not already done so, that there is a deep bond between this quarreling couple.
The title of the act, Exorcism, suggests that something is going to be cast out, perhaps whatever it is that has been causing the problems between Martha and George. The explicit reference to truth and illusion (“Who knows the difference, eh, toots?” George says to Nick) suggests to the audience that an issue that has been present throughout the play is coming up for resolution. After all, why are Martha and George always disagreeing about things that would seem to be simple matters of fact, like whether he has ever been to Majorca, or the color of their son’s eyes? We will have to wait and see.