Whos Afraid Of Virginia Woolf Essay

When Love Hurts



Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a disturbing and powerful work. Ironically, it is disturbing and powerful for many of the same reasons. As the audience watches George and Martha tear savagely at each other with the knives of hurled words, sharpened on pain and aimed to draw blood, the way in which these two relentlessly go at each other is awful to see, yet strangely familiar. Like wounded animals, they strike out at those closest to them, and reminds one of scenes witnessed as a child between screaming parents from a cracked door when one is supposed to be in bed. In this age of psychoanalytic jargon, George and Martha are the quintessentially dysfunctional couple. Yet, with all their problems, Albee reveals that there is a positive core of feeling that unites these two troubled people and that helps them look beyond their self-created hell. The truth of their relationship is exposed layer by layer as the play progresses, like the peeling of an onion, and though the pattern of this truth appears vague at first, with each cycle of revelation, the pattern becomes more distinct, and the picture is fully revealed in the final, cathartic scene. One of the most consistent themes of the play is the question of George and Martha's "child," and all that this child, and children in general, symbolizes for them. The "child" seems not only a desire for fecundity within their relationship, but also a projection through which they express many of their personal desires, needs, and problems, and, in this context, the child's subsequent "death" signifies a milestone in their understanding of their marriage and of themselves. By the end of play, after much suffering and flagellation, George and Martha appear ready to deal with their lives in a new way.

George and Martha have a history. They are also emotionally trapped by this history, especially that of their respective childhoods. As a consequence, both are plagued by low self-image and self-doubt. The audience learns of this history slowly, in bits and pieces. Martha tells Nick and Honey in Act 1 how she lost her mother early and grew up very close to her father. She was married briefly, but her father had the marriage annulled. She returned to live with her father after college, and met and fell in love with George. Yet she reveals that part of the reason she wanted to marry George was to please her father. What emerges is a picture of a lonely, "Daddy's girl" who has spent much of her life unsuccessfully trying to win her father's approval, unsuccessful because she reveals to Nick in Act 3 how low her self-image is, to the point of self-hatred. This same scene also expresses her ambiguous feelings towards George. Previously throughout the play, Martha reviles George for not being the kind of go-getter that would impress her father, and by extension win approval for Martha, yet here, Martha admits how much she loves and respects George. In this speech, more than any other, Martha reveals how so much of her behavior towards George is driven by childhood feelings to satisfy "Daddy," even though she is a middle-aged, married woman who should have matured beyond these childhood motivations.

But Martha has not grown up because she has not left behind Daddy and the prospect of his unconditional love. To accept George as he is, though this is what she deeply wants to do, would be to give up the possibility of her father's love forever. Likewise, George is plagued by a troubled childhood. The story he tells Nick in Act 2 about a teenage boy who accidentally kills his mother, and later his father, the audience learns later is also the plot for George's failed novel. Martha claims George maintained the boy was himself. The audience doesn't know whether this is true, but one does feel that, true or not, the story reflects George's deep-seated feelings of guilt about his parents. The novel was a possible way for George to expiate these feelings but he is frustrated in his attempt by Martha's father. So George, like Martha, is trapped by feelings about his childhood that he cannot work through in a meaningful way. His resulting emotional impotence is actualized in sexual impotence, a fact that Martha alludes to several times.

As the play progresses, a picture emerges of two people who married each other for many other reasons than attraction and love and, more importantly, each has brought a great deal of unresolved emotional baggage and anger into the forum of their relationship. Neither is in a position to really aid the other in unloading this baggage. The result is that they savage each other in two ways: they each hate themselves and therefore cannot accept wholeheartedly the love the other has to give, and each person's flaws are magnified to be used to indict the other for not functioning as a savior. Therefore, George's "flaws" are the reason Martha is not happy, and vice versa. Thus, the "child" they invent is a symbol of many things for George and Martha. For both, the idea of their own child symbolizes maturity and adulthood. It represents their desire to grow up and leave behind the painful memories of their own childhoods' by becoming parents themselves. I believe it is also a projection of themselves, of the inner child of each, that is still alive, hurting and trapped.

In these ways, the child becomes the projection through which they work through their conflicting desires and feelings about themselves and each other. In a strange cathartic way, they use the child to point out each other's bad points, the things they've encountered in each other that disappoints and frustrates them, and, in the realm of fantasy, it represents their subconscious drives to try and make childhood dreams come true. Though one senses the show they give Nick and Honey is one they have replayed countless times, there is also the sense of a process at work, a process of catharsis, and it is Martha's and George's underlying love for each other that gives them the strength to take the garbage that they dump on each other, painful though it is.

The symbol of the child also connects George and Martha to Honey and Nick. The younger couple is likewise childless and we learn Honey is afraid of childbearing because she, too, does not want to grow up. Yet the link between the two couples can also be understood in the sense that Honey and Nick have also apparently come into their marriage with unresolved emotional baggage and the two don't fully know and understand each other. One can only assume that if they stay together their relationship might also become a battleground similar to Martha's and George's, if only as a messy way to work through their emotional problems as Martha and George have. Ironically, these two couples, who have such difficulties with the idea or actual manifestation of children, are precisely the kind of couples that should not have children, at least until they have worked many of their own problems out.

As revenge against Martha, George decides to kill their "son." He does not come to this decision lightly, but seems pushed to it after an evening of impotent rage and humiliation and he does it because he knows it will wound Martha deeply. It is significant that the boy is killed in a car accident on a country road while trying to avoid a porcupine, indicating how much of himself George has invested in their fantasy child. Yet George's identification with their child pales in comparison to Martha's level of involvement, as her devastated response to his death attests. Despite all the functions their son served as mentioned above, the child was also a comfort, some way for them to believe they could produce something of worth, something good that was untainted by their own painful experiences. But Martha carries the illusion too far, and she brings it out into the world where other people like Honey and Nick can comment on their pretend child and judge it and them, and I think George feels this formerly pure idea is now sullied. George kills the child to hurt Martha, but he also seems to recognize that their illusory existence has built up to a point beyond which it cannot go. To kill the child is to kill their fantasy life, but it may be the only way something new can be born between them, something real that they create themselves.

After Nick and Honey leave, and George and Martha are talking quietly together, Martha contemplates the idea of a life without the child. One senses that perhaps now it might be alright to let him die because they can at last go on without him, perhaps their fantasy child has served his purpose in helping them expel many of the poisons they were afflicted with. Perhaps, after so many years in which they have wrestled with their own and each other's demons, held together by something good that they nevertheless knew was there, now that the demons are slain they can explore what has kept them together instead what has stood between them.

It is easy to behave like like Martha and George, to prefer familiar pain to the unknown. Theirs is the tragedy of wasted life, not being able to grow up and transcend negative events from their childhood, trapped into being eternal victims. But the power of the love they share lies in its transforming quality. The romantic notion of love, that once two people find each other life becomes a kind of amorphous rainbow existence, is shattered by the reality that love is the beginning of a creative process which, God willing, may never end. A relationship is indeed something two people create together, an invisible child if you will, but it must be based on growth, not stagnation, honesty, and not deceit, if it is to survive. Martha and George killed their fantasy child so that a new one could be born that is reflective of their hopes and strengths, rather than their fears and weaknesses. After all they've survived, this birth should be an easy one.

© 1993 Shirley Galloway


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Howard Taubman (review date 15 October 1962)

SOURCE: A review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in The New York Times, 15 October 1962, p. 33.

[In the following review of the debut of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Taubman considers the play impressive but judges the device of the imaginary son improbable. "This part of the story, " he states, "does not ring true, and its falsity impairs the credibility of his central characters."]

Thanks to Edward Albee's furious skill as a writer, Alan Schneider's charged staging and a brilliant performance by a cast of four, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a wry and electric evening in the theater.

You may not be able to swallow Mr. Albee's characters whole, as I cannot. You may feel, as I do, that a pillar of the plot is too flimsy to support the climax. Nevertheless, you are urged to hasten to the Billy Rose Theater, where Mr. Albee's first full-length play opened Saturday night.

For Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is possessed by raging demons. It is punctuuated by comedy, and its laughter is shot through with savage irony. At its core is a bitter, keening lament over man's incapacity to arrange his environment or private life so as to inhibit his self-destructive compulsions.

Moving onto from off Broadway, Mr. Albee carries along the burning intensity and icy wrath that informed The Zoo Story and The American Dream. He has written a full-length play that runs almost three and a half hours and that brims over with howling furies that do not drown out a fierce compassion. After the fumes stirred by his witches' caldron are spent, he lets in, not sunlight and fresh air, but only an agonized prayer.

Although Mr. Albee's vision is grim and sardonic, he is never solemn. With the instincts of a born dramatist and the shrewdness of one whose gifts have been tempered in the theater, he knows how to fill the stage with vitality and excitement.

Sympathize with them or not, you will find the characters in this new play vibrant with dramatic urgency. In their anger and terror they are pitiful as well as corrosive, but they are also wildly and humanly hilarious. Mr. Albee's dialogue is dipped in acid, yet ripples with a relish of the ludicrous. His controlled, allusive style grows in mastery.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he is concerned with Martha and George, a couple living in mordant, uproarious antagonism. The daughter of the president of the college where he teaches, she cannot forgive his failure to be a success like her father. He cannot abide her brutal bluntness and drive. Married for more than 20 years, they claw each other like jungle beasts.

In the dark hours after a Saturday midnight they entertain a young married pair new to the campus, introducing them to a funny and cruel brand of fun and games. Before the liquorsodden night is over, there are lacerating self-revelations for all.

On the surface the action seems to be mostly biting talk. Underneath is a witches' revel, and Mr. Albee is justified in calling his second act "Walpurgisnacht." But the means employed to lead to the denouement of the third act, called "The Exorcism," seem spurious.

Mr. Albee would have us believe that for 21 years his older couple have nurtured a fiction that they have a son, that his imaginary existence is a secret that violently binds and sunders them and that George's pronouncing him dead may be a turning point. This part of the story does not ring true, and its falsity impairs the credibility of his central characters.

If the drama falters, the acting of Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill does not. As the vulgar, scornful, desperate Martha, Miss Hagen makes a tormented harridan horrifyingly believable. As the quieter, tortured and diabolical George, Mr. Hill gives a superbly modulated performance built on restraint as a foil to Miss Hagen's explosiveness.

George Grizzard as a young biologist on the make shades from geniality to intensity with shattering rightness. And Melinda Dillon as his mousy, troubled bride is amusing and touching in her vulnerable wistfulness.

Directing like a man accustomed to fusing sardonic humor and seething tension, Mr. Schneider has found a meaningful pace for long—some too long—passages of seemingly idle talk, and has staged vividly the crises of action.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the phrase is sung at odd moments as a bitter joke to the tune of the children's play song, "Mulberry Bush") is a modern variant on the theme of the war between the sexes. Like Strindberg, Mr. Albee treats his women remorselessly, but he is not much gentler with his men. If he grieves for the human predicament, he does not spare those lost in its psychological and emotional mazes.

His new work, flawed though it is, towers over the common run of contemporary plays. It marks a further gain for a young writer becoming a major figure of our stage.

John McCarten (review date 20 October 1962)

SOURCE: "Long Night's Journey into Daze," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 35, 20 October 1962, pp. 85-6.

[In the review below, McCarten censures Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a "vulgar mishmash. "]

Edward Albee, the creator of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, at the Billy Rose, is a young man who has written some short plays that have become quite popular Off Broadway, and, for that matter, from Berlin to Buenos Aires. Having achieved fame in short sprints, he has now set out to experiment with his talent over a route, so we have with us a three-and-a-half-hour interpretation of what makes a weird quartet connected with a New England college tick. Mr. Albee, it seems to me, has assumed the prerogative of loquacity that must be granted to, say, O'Neill, and has done so without having anything much to talk about. His dialogue is so heavily burdened with elementary epithets that I imagine the running time of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? could be cut in half just by the elimination of all the "God damn"s, "Jesus Christ"s, and other expressions designed, presumably, to show us that this is really modern stuff. It is Mr. Albee's whimsey to entitle his three acts "Fun and Games," "Walpurgisnacht," and "The Exorcism." In "Fun and Games," an associate professor of history staggers home to his campus digs with his wife after a cocktail party at her father's manse (the old man is president of the college), and is immediately set upon by his spouse for not laughing very hard at Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a joke she made up or heard at the gathering. That leads to interminable bickering between the couple, with the conversation boiling down to the cruel facts that he is not an academic world beater and that she, when the opportunity presents itself, is promiscuous and is also inclined toward an incestuous relationship with her father. This colloquy begins at 2 a.m., and in the course of it we learn that the wife has invited a newcomer to the college and his wife over for a drink. When the pair arrives, there ensues a consumption of booze that might have given pause to the late W. C. Fields. (How the actors could absorb all that tea, water, or whatever it was is beyond me.) Through a cloud of double-entendres, fo'c'sle witticisms, and general dishevelment, we learn that the newcomer is a biologist, that his wife is a hysterical alcoholic, and that they are lately come from the Middle West. Since the newcomer has been a college middleweight boxing cham-pion, and has kept in good shape, our heroine suggests that they should waste no time in cuckolding the history professor. In "Walpurgisnacht," or Act II, we have more of the same, including a lot of arguments between the historian and his wife about a mysterious son who is supposed to be just reaching his majority. The professor says that his wife has had a practically incestuous relationship with their son (obviously, Mr. Albee is crazy about incest), and the wife contends that the boy hates his father because the pedagogue is an insipid sort. Now, as it happens, the historian is a great one for making up games, among them a form of Truth or Consequences in which, I guess, he hopes to establish the truth, even though everybody is evasive, or tries to be, upon being grilled. During one of these frolics, he asks his wife whether he has a son or hasn't, and we get around to the answer in "The Exorcism," when day is ready to break. (Mr. Albee, you see, observes the unities, if nothing else.)

In this vulgar mishmash, there are indications here and there that Mr. Albee has a certain dramatic flair, however ill-directed it may be in the present enterprise, and the actors—Uta Hagen as the wife; Arthur Hill, as the put-upon professor; and George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon, as the Middle Western couple—are interesting and often exciting, even when they aren't making much sense.

Henry Hewes (review date 27 October 1962)

SOURCE: "Who's Afraid of Big Bad Broadway?" in Saturday Review, Vol. XLV, No. 43, 27 October 1962, p. 29.

[In the review below, Hewes struggles to name the type of drama Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, noting that it is neither tragedy nor Theatre of the Absurd. "For want of a better term, " he concludes, "let's call Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a neo-naturalistic horror comedy and enjoy it with the uneasiness its scowling but frequently merry author would like to evoke. "]

Edward Albee's first long play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, begins with deceptive casualness. An Associate Professor of history named George, and his wife, Martha, who is also the daughter of the college's president, return home from a party a little crocked. As this middle-aged pair start to quarrel over trivial matters, and to swill down more liquor than even full professors can afford, they seem more interested in fighting and hurting one another than they are in whatever they find to quarrel about. Soon they are joined by a young biology instructor and his wife, whom Martha has invited to come back to their house for a long nightcap into daylight.

What is the source of the savage events that follow? Is it Martha's disappointment that George is a failure at his profession? Is it some acquired sexual frigidity which causes her to seek gratification in a constant emasculative assault on her husband? Or could it be, as the playwright suggests, a mass progress towards impotence and depersonalization by the declining Western World?

Whatever it is, its symptoms are revealed in four fascinating and cruel games which are only extensions of incidents you might see at a number of modern well-oiled parties. The first of these is "Humiliate the Host," in which we see Martha rip every protective layer of dignity off of George to the point where he goes berserk and tries to kill her.

Game Number Two is "Get the Guests," with George driving a splinter of unpleasant truth into the young wife's illusions about her husband, Nick. Then comes "Hump the Hostess," of necessity a partly offstage charade which suggests that the scientific Nick, who played too many doctor games with little girls as a child, is having potency problems as an adult. And finally there is "Bringing up Baby," or George's exorcism from their lives of the apparently fictitious son he and Martha have privately pretended they have had during their twenty-three year period of adjustment.

At the end George and Martha are left together in a state of peace following the violent but gratifying games that seem to have served them as a sex-substitute. Ironically, he sings her to sleep with the title song.

Mr. Albee's first Broadway effort contains some of the Freudian criticism of modern behavior that ran through his earlier The American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith. And like his play The Zoo Story, it accepts the necessity for violence as the ultimate means of human contact. But Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is more recognizably real and self-generating than were its predecessors. We don't need to accept psycho-sexual explanations to believe and to be held by this play's events. Indeed we suspect that George's eloquent plea for vulnerable and mysterious humanity in its death struggle with an all-perfecting scientific synthesis voices Mr. Albee's own rejection of psycho-logical determinism.

Under Alan Schneider's relaxed direction, a cast of four plays the three and a half-hour work so entertainingly that we eagerly anticipate each new grim gambit. Arthur Hill captures the slow-burning desperation of George in a way that would have delighted the late James Thurber. Uta Hagen is uproarious as the loud-mouthed Martha. George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon paint an amusing portrait of younger-generation materialism and vapidity. And throughout the evening William Ritman's womb-like set remains inviting, while preserving a formal mystery.

The best things in the play make us laugh, because of what Mr. Albee describes as their "sense of the ridiculous." If we don't find George and Martha as tragic as Strindberg would have drawn them, it is perhaps because their plight seems more voluntary than enforced. On the other hand, things are hardly exaggerated enough to be called "Theatre of the Absurd," either. For want of a better term, let's call Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a neo-naturalistic horror comedy and enjoy it with the uneasiness its scowling but frequently merry author would like to evoke.

Harold Clurman (review date 27 October 1962)

SOURCE: A review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in The Nation, Vol. 195, No. 13, 27 October 1962, pp. 273-74.

[In this evaluation of the premiere production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Clurman declares: "What I … object to in [Albee's] play is that its disease has become something of a brilliant formula, as slick and automatic as a happy entertainment for the trade. "]

Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Billy Rose Theatre) is packed with talent. It is not only the best play in town now: it may well prove the best of the season.

Its significance extends beyond the moment. In its faults as well as in its merits it deserves our close attention.

It has four characters: two couples. There is hardly a plot, little so called "action," but it moves or rather whirls on its own special axis. At first it seems to be a play about marital relations; as it proceeds one realizes that it aims to encom-pass much more. The author wants to "tell all," to say everything.

The middle-aged wife, Martha, torments her somewhat younger husband because he has failed to live up to her expectations. Her father, whom she worships, is president of a small college. Her husband might have become the head of the history department and ultimately perhaps her father's heir. But husband George is a nonconformist. He has gone no further than associate professor, which makes him a flop. She demeans him in every possible way. George hits back, and the play is structured on this mutually sadistic basis. The first cause of their conflict is the man's "business" (or career) failure.

Because they are both attracted to what may be vibrant in each of them, theirs is a love-hate dance of death which they enact in typical American fashion by fun and games swamped in a sauce of strong drink. They bubble and fester with poisonous quips.

The first time we meet them they are about to entertain a new biology instructor who, at twenty-eight, has just been introduced to the academic rat race. The new instructor is a rather ordinary fellow with a forever effaced wife. We learn that he married her for her money and because of what turned out to be "hysterical pregnancy." The truth is she is afraid of bearing a child though she wants one. Her husband treats her with conventional regard (a sort of reflexive tenderness) while he contemplates widespread adultery for gratification and advancement in college circles. George scorns his young colleague for being "functional" in his behavior, his ambition, his attitudes.

So it goes: we are in the midst of inanity, jokes and insidious mayhem. Martha rationalizes her cruelty to George on the ground that he masochistically enjoys her beatings.

Everyone is fundamentally impotent, despite persistent "sexualizing." The younger wife is constantly throwing up through gutless fear. Her light-headedness is a flight from reality. The older couple has invented a son because of an unaccountable sterility. They quarrel over the nature of the imaginary son because each of them pictures him as a foil against the other. There is also a hint that as a boy George at different times accidentally killed both his father and mother. Is this so? Illusion is...

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