Study Guide

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by Edward Albee

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Essay - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Introduction

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered on 13 October 1961 at the Billy Rose Theater, New York, in a production directed by Alan Schneider. The play has generated popular and critical notoriety for its controversial depiction of marital strife. It depicts the alternately destructive and concilia-tory relationship between George and Martha, a middle-aged history professor and his wife, during a late-night party in their living room with Nick, George's shallow colleague, and Honey, his spouse. As the evening proceeds, George and Martha alternately attack and patronize their guests before Martha seduces Nick with the intent of hurting her husband; George retaliates by announcing the death of their imaginary son, whom the couple had created to sustain their relationship. The conclusion suggests that George and Martha may be able to reappraise their relationship based on the intimacy—which was both feared and sought all evening—that arises from their shared sorrow.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Although faulted by some commentators as morbid and self-indulgent, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was honored with two Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and other accolades. When Albee failed to receive the Pulitzer Prize because one trustee objected to the play's sexual subject matter, drama advisors John Gassner and John Mason Brown publicly resigned. The play has since been assessed as a classic of American drama for its tight control of form and command of both colloquial and abstruse dialogue. Variously interpreted as a problem play in the tradition of August Strindberg, a campus parody, or a homosexual critique of conventional relation-ships, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has generated a wide array of critical analyses. Daniel McDonald, Ruth Meyer, and many others have focused on the play's exploration of truth, illusion, and ambiguity. Thomas E. Porter has argued that the play represents a rejection of a number of American myths: "the success myth, the image of American manhood and womanhood, the institution of marriage itself." Contrarily, Rictor Norton has argued that "underlying mythic patterns account for the intense dynamic effect of Albee's drama," and Orley I. Holtan has viewed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? specifically as an "allegory for the American historical experience." Other critics have examined the play's language and its depiction of the problematic relationship between love and sex.

Production Reviews

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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Critical Commentary

Daniel McDonald (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Truth and Illusion in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," in Renascence, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter 1964, pp. 63-9.

[McDonald contends that in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee "illustrates how human beings begin with the illusory excellences of youth, see their ideals destroyed by the dark realities of experience, and seek to compensate by creating new illusions. "]

The danger in reading Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is in becoming too involved with the symbolism. The individual who is largely concerned with Martha's being "the Earth Mother" and her father's being...

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Further Reading

Chester, Alfred. "Edward Albee: Red Herrings & White Whales."Commentary 35 (April 1963): 296-301.

Argues that Albee's scheme for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is "all contrivance and that … it functions to conceal the fact that the author is really out to … get his characters."

Choudhuri, A. D. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Death of an Illusion." In The Face of Illusion in American Drama, pp. 129-43. New York: Humanities Press, 1979.

Characterizes Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a "drama of domestic life" in which "many of the cherished and comforting illusions have been destroyed to make us wide awake to the...

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