By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is probably the most famous and widely studied American play associated with the Theatre of the Absurd, a movement prominent in the 1950s and 1960s. Edward Albee’s play is about the dysfunctional and self-destructive marriage between a history professor and his wife, witnessed over the course of one night (or, technically, one very early morning) following a party.
But how should we analyse Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Before we come to the question of analysis, here’s a brief recap of the play’s absurdist plot.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: plot summary
The setting for the play is a professor’s house on the campus of a New England university. At two o’clock in the morning, George, a professor of history, and his wife Martha return home after a party. Martha is the daughter of the president of the university where her husband teaches. Their first names suggest George and Martha Washington, the first President and First Lady of the United States.
George is in his late forties and his wife is six years older, in her early fifties. Where he is somewhat cynical and world-weary, she is fiery and vulgar. She has invited a young couple back with them: Nick, a twenty-something biology lecturer at the university, and his wife Honey, a plain-looking woman also in her twenties.
The first act, ‘Fun and Games’, sees Martha trying to seduce Nick while humiliating both her husband and, to an extent, Honey. As she gets more drunk, Honey grows bolder and asks George and Martha when their son will be coming home.
Doubts are raised over whether George is the biological father of the couple’s son, and Martha reveals that her father had discounted George as a potential candidate to succeed him as president of the university because he isn’t good enough. Honey rushes off to the toilet to be sick, as she has drunk too much.
The second act of the play is titled ‘Walpurgisnacht’, after the witches’ feast or sabbath. Nick confides to George that he only married Honey because she had a phantom pregnancy and he felt he had to do the honourable thing. The two men talk at length, before Nick makes a comment about getting Martha in a corner and ‘mounting’ her.
Martha then seeks to provoke maximum embarrassment in her husband by dancing suggestively with Nick and telling Nick and Honey that her father stopped George from publishing a novel he’d written, about a boy who murders his parents – a book which George insists was autobiographical.
George turns increasingly nasty, decreeing that they should play a party game he calls ‘Get the Guests’. He mockingly re-enacts Honey’s phantom pregnancy, using the information Nick confided in him to taunt them and sow conflict. In response, Martha tries to seduce Nick again, taking him off to the kitchen so they can ‘hump’ there. George confides that his and Martha’s son is, in fact, dead.
The third act, ‘The Exorcism’, begins with Martha alone; when Nick enters, she accuses him of being a ‘flop’ just like her husband. George tells them that there is one more game to play: ‘bringing up baby’.
He and Martha pay tribute to their son, on his twenty-first birthday, before George tells his wife that their son has died in a car crash. When she demands to see the telegram announcing this news, he claims he has eaten it. George sings a song, ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’, as the curtain falls.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: analysis
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is often analysed as a response to a specific moment in US history: in 1962, when the play premiered, John F. Kennedy was President, and the United States had a confidence in itself as the leading world superpower. At the same time, tensions with the USSR, particularly over Cuba, led to uncertainty over the future.
American life and self-confidence, which had perhaps been at its peak in the 1960s, was beginning to look like a double-edged sword: cosy and comfortable on the outside, but playing host (as it were) to some darker and more worrying secrets and anxieties.
Albee’s play brilliantly dramatises these, reducing them to a domestic setting centred on middle-class America. The names of the two leads, George and Martha, take us back to the founding of the United States and its first President; this further supports the notion that the play should be read as being ‘about’ America, as well as the lives of individual middle-class Americans.
Edward Albee wrote in the New York Times in 1962 that he was ‘deeply offended’ when he learned he was becoming associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. As he argued in an essay, ‘Which Theatre is the Absurd One’, one could argue that absurdist theatre is actually more realist, and closer to reality, than so-called ‘naturalist’ or traditional theatre, which was reliant on conventions which failed to reflect actual life.
So whereas naturalist theatre offers itself as a ‘slice of life’, absurdist drama tends to use dream-like rituals and allegories; whereas naturalist drama follows the rational and logical chain of cause and effect (one character does something; another character reacts as one would expect), absurdist theatre does not have to subscribe to such a rational linearity of plot.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with its strange party games and rituals and its refusal to develop in terms of plot and character, is therefore an emblematic example of absurdism. The ritualistic element is even apparent in the pagan and religious titles given to the different acts of the play, e.g., ‘Exorcism’.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the question of whether George and Martha actually have a son at all. Like Honey’s phantom pregnancy, the sense we’re left with, by the end of the play, is that he never existed at all: he, too, was a phantom, conjured by George and Martha as a focal point for their dysfunctional marriage.
And if we view Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as an absurdist allegory for America at a particular point in its history, the early 1960s, the son that doesn’t exist might be analysed as a symptom of the country’s anxieties over its future.
Just as the couple have no children yet their imaginary son is the heart and soul of their conflicted relationship, so America is looking to its future – the space race which Kennedy had begun the decade by championing – while ignoring the problems and challenges closer to home.
Edward Albee’s original title for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was ‘Exorcism’, which he ended up using as the title for the final act of the play. The eventual title came from a bar which Albee frequented, where patrons would leave graffiti, written in soap, on a large mirror. Albee saw someone had riffed on ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ (from ‘Little Red Riding Hood’) and daubed ‘who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’, a reference to the modernist writer, and Albee made a mental note of the phrase, thinking it would make a good title for a play.