Act 1, part 3 (pp. 47-86)
Martha returns, and the four characters are together on stage again. Martha has changed her clothes and looks voluptuous. Nick is impressed. After a few more sarcastic, taunting exchanges between Martha and George, Martha extracts the information from Nick that he attained his master’s degree when he was only nineteen. George is genuinely impressed by this and tells Nick he would not be surprised if he ended up taking over the History Department. He means Biology, of course, as Nick quickly points out.
The next exchange between Martha and George strongly suggests that George is frustrated because he is not the chairman of the History Department. His career has stalled. Martha’s comment, “George is bogged down in the History Department” cruelly reminds him of this; he is angered by her comment but he controls himself with difficulty.
Martha asks Nick whether he played football, and Nick replies that he did, but he was much better at boxing. Martha is impressed, and Honey adds that he was the intercollegiate state middleweight champion. Martha begins to flirt with Nick, who says he still works out. Honey adds that Nick still has a firm body, which pleases Martha. She directs some appreciative words to him, and they smile at each other; a rapport is established between them. Martha then taunts George who “isn’t too happy when we get to muscle,” and refers to him as “paunchy.” She is playing a game with him, since in fact, George is thin. Martha then tells them that twenty years ago, she and George had what she calls a boxing match. It was during World War II, and her father was encouraging the faculty to get physically fit. He thought they should learn to box, as a form of self-defense. One Sunday, in the back yard, her father had put on boxing gloves and asked George to box with him. George refused, and Martha put on boxing gloves herself. She called out to him and as he turned around she caught him with a punch to the jaw, which made him stagger back and fall into a huckleberry bush.
At this point George pulls a short-barreled shotgun out from behind him and aims it at the back of Martha’s head. Honey screams in fright. As Martha turns to face George he pulls the trigger. From the barrel of the gun emerges a large, red and yellow Chinese parasol. There is general laughter and confusion. Honey says that she has never been so frightened in her life, but Martha clearly has enjoyed the joke and demands that George kiss her, which he does. But he quickly breaks away and makes a disparaging remark about her.
George fills the glasses with more drinks, and Nick exits for the bathroom. George teases Martha about her drinking habits and corrects her erroneous belief that Nick is a mathematician rather than a biologist.
Nick returns, and Martha takes another verbal swipe at George for not being successful in his career. George returns to an earlier topic he raised. He dislikes attempts to alter the genetic makeup of humans, even if it means that propensity for certain diseases will be removed and longevity assured. He thinks this will make everyone look alike and be the same. He adds that this will also involve the weeding out by sterilization of “the ugly, the stupid . . . the . . . unfit.” The arts will perish but science and mathematics will flourish. There will be a loss of liberty and cultural diversity will no longer be considered a desirable goal. As a historian, he vows to fight such developments.
After Martha makes some flirtatious remarks to Nick, Honey asks when their son is coming home. George challenges Martha to answer, but she will not. Eventually she claims that George has “problems” regarding their son, namely, that he fears the son may not be his. George exclaims that Martha is a wicked woman, and that she is lying. He is certain he is the father of their son. As the drinks continue to be consumed, and Honey starts to get drunk, George and Martha argue about whether their son’s eyes are blue or green. The argument extends to the color of Martha’s father’s eyes, and George takes the opportunity to insult her father, saying he has tiny red eyes like a white mouse. Martha responds by saying that George hates her father not for anything he has done but because of George’s own inadequacies.
George exits to get more drinks, and Martha talks about her family background. Her mother died when she was young, and Martha grew up with her father, whom she worshipped. She admires him because he was so successful in building up the college. After her first, brief marriage, she decided she wanted to marry into the college. This fit in well with her father’s desire to groom someone to take over the presidency of the college when he retired. Then George joined the History Department and she fell in love with him.
George has now returned and is listening to her story. He is displeased and wants her to stop, but Martha continues. She married George, but soon it became apparent that George did not have what it took to succeed. He was not, in her view, aggressive enough, and she thinks he is a “flop.” When he hears this, George breaks a bottle against the portable bar and stands with his back to them all, holding the remains of the bottle by the neck. He asks Martha to stop, but she does not, going on to explain that George would have been no good at trustees’ dinners or fundraising. George interrupts her but she raises her voice, insisting he has no guts. He tries to drown her out by singing, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Honey, now drunk, goes to the hall to vomit, and Nick goes after her. Martha goes after them both, looking back contemptuously at George. George is left alone on stage.
The “fun and games” motif continues in various ways, such as Martha’s play for Nick, the fake gun, and the tale of the bizarre boxing match between George and Martha many years ago. But things are also deadly serious, especially as the act reaches its climax. It certainly is not much fun for George as Martha ruthlessly exposes, in front of their guests, his failure in his career. She does not pull any punches, and George is left looking helpless, without an effective reply. This final incident in the act repeats the incident from twenty years earlier, when Martha caught George with a lucky punch and knocked him down. In the “war of the sexes” that is going on, it seems that Martha firmly has the upper hand. She has wounded George by her attacks on his abilities, his personality, his courage. She has also disclosed, against his will, that they have a son, and she taunts him by flirting with a younger man and comparing her husband unfavorably to him physically. George was more comfortable earlier, sparring intellectually with Nick, but against his wife he seems to have been completely outmaneuvered.
George’s disappointment about his relative failure in his career comes out in his protests to Nick against what he sees as the consequences of tampering with human genetics. He thinks this will lead to a dull conformity in which everyone thinks and acts alike, in an efficient but soulless way. It is as well to remember that George is a man who has not been able to fit in to the mold expected of him at the college, so he has been unable to ascend the career ladder. Perhaps he manages to preserve a small amount of self-esteem by claiming to value individuality and diversity rather than the conformity that might lead to more professional and material success. His sneer at the coming “race of men . . . test-tube-bred . . . incubator born . . . superb and sublime” is also a dig at the young, handsome, physically fit Nick. George makes this very clear a little later, in his comment about a future “civilization of men, smooth blond, and right at the middleweight limit,” which is an exact description of Nick.
In this section also, the mystery about the couple’s son deepens. How can it be, the audience wonders, that Martha and George cannot even agree on a simple matter about the color of their son’s eyes?
Who's Afraid of Virgina Wolf: Act 1 Part 3
Act 1, part 3 (pp. 47-86)