Study Guide

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by Edward Albee

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is regarded as Albee’s most successfully realized play. It premiered on October 13, 1962, and ran for 664 performances. The original cast starred Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard, and Melinda Dillon and was directed by Alan Schneider, who has been closely associated with staging Albee’s work on the New York stage. Audiences and critics alike enthusiastically received the play. The play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Antoinette Perry Award (Tony), and the Foreign Press Award. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? caused a sensational controversy when it did not win the Pulitzer Prize as well. Two distinguished members of the Pulitzer committee resigned in protest. Albee subsequently won two Pulitzer Prizes, for A Delicate Balance and Seascape.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Albee’s first full-length original play. It represents a departure for him, not only in form but also in focus. In his earlier work, Albee stood outside society and vented his anger as an outraged social commentator whose passionate concern for justice and equality made him side with society’s victims. He had been a champion of the lonely and oppressed. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee shifts his concern from the have-nots to the haves—in this case, college professors. They represent the core of civilized society (they educate their country’s future leaders), and what he discovers there is perverse, cruel, hypocritical, immoral, and sterile.

Albee’s play has little or no plot, but it moves forward rapidly. It has four characters: two married couples, with husbands teaching at the same small college. Martha is...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Returning home at 2 a.m. from a party welcoming faculty, Martha, the college president’s daughter, and her husband, George, are squabbling. Martha echoes actor Bette Davis and calls the place a dump but cannot recall from which film the line originated. George suggests Chicago, but Martha rejects that title. George has disappointed her, failing to mix at the party. Despite the hour, Martha has invited another couple home. She demands liquor and recalls her delight when “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was sung instead of “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” George was not amused.

When she asks for a kiss, he demurs, pleading that their guests might surprise them. As the chimes ring, he warns Martha not to mention a certain child, and she curses him. The guests, Honey and Nick, overhear and feel awkward.

After serving brandy to Honey and bourbon to Nick, Martha and George continue skirmishing. The guests agree that “Virginia Woolf” was funny, and they praise the president’s party, which served new faculty. George wonders how he grew rich. He regrets having married Martha, who pushes him to become her father’s successor. She claims other men would sacrifice an arm to marry a college president’s daughter, but George feels more private parts are forfeited.

Responding to Honey’s need for the bathroom, Martha shows her the house. While the women are gone, George confesses that he mistrusts biology. Slim-hipped Honey does not appear suited to having children, he observes. On returning, Honey unknowingly retaliates, expressing surprise that he fathered a son. Martha, provocatively dressed, remembers flooring George in a boxing match. Embarrassed, he finds a shotgun, aims, and pulls the trigger. An umbrella pops out. Terrified and stimulated, Martha asks for a kiss, but George refuses, ceding the palm of terror to Nick, since genetic engineers will alter humanity.

George doubts his paternity, Martha says, but he refutes this. When he leaves for more liquor, she confesses that, like Lady Chatterley, she once eloped with a gardener. “Revirginized” by annulment, she graduated from Miss Muff’s Academy, returned to her father, and married George, who showed promise. When George returns, she details his failures until he drowns her out with “Virginia Woolf.” Honey, nauseated, rushes off, followed by Nick and Martha.

Nick returns, and, though hostile, he exchanges intimate personal details with George such as the fact that Martha spent time in a rest home; that Honey vomits often; and that Nick married her when she “puffed up” and seemed pregnant (the condition passed). George remembers a classmate who accidentally killed his mother. When his prep-school pals visited a speakeasy, he delighted customers by ordering “bergin,” and the delighted management treated the boys to champagne. The lad felt lionized, but the following summer, while taking driving lessons, the boy swerved to avoid a porcupine and his father died in the crash. The boy was institutionalized—and remained so, George concluded. As for George’s child, he dismisses him as a beanbag. Nick wants an explanation, but Martha returns to announce that she and Honey are drinking coffee.

Alone again, the men talk of marriage. A false pregnancy led to Nick’s, but he and Honey, childhood friends, were expected to wed. The money of...

(The entire section is 1400 words.)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Summary

Act 1 Summary

Act I: "Fun and Games"

The play takes place one late night on the campus of a small New England college, in the...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Act 2 Summary

Act II: "Walpurgisnacht"

[The subtitle of this act "Walpurgisnacht," means '' Walpurgis night'' and is commonly...

(The entire section is 651 words.)

Act 3 Summary

Act III: "The Exorcism"

Martha enters, alone, amusing herself with her own prattle but also frustrated at not...

(The entire section is 347 words.)