How is a toxic domestic environment explored, especially between Martha and George, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee explores the toxic domestic environment in which his protagonists exist through the couple’s increasingly poisonous arguments, which include repeated references to a lost child. This child, however, is revealed to be imaginary and serves as a metaphor for the dysfunction inherent in George and Martha’s relationship.

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The toxic environment at the core of Edward Albee's 1962 play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is established and explored almost immediately. The first scene opens with the two protagonists, George and Martha, arriving home late in the evening, inebriated and with a young couple they have recently encountered at a drunken party in tow.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is about the enormously tense, conflicted relationship between George and Martha. Albee carefully and incrementally plays out the underlying foundation of the relationship until the third act’s final denouement, when the secret of the nonexistent child is finally revealed. Until then, the audience can be forgiven for believing that the couple had once had a child that died, or grew up and fled in disgust at the family’s bourgeois existence, or left for any number of other reasons for which a child might learn to resent its upbringing. That a child fails to materialize would likely lead a learned observer to conclude that something was amiss.

The scenes of verbal battle witnessed by Nick and Honey, especially Nick, run throughout the play. The toxic environment in which Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? takes place is quickly established, but Albee explores it in a calculated manner. The titles of the three acts that comprise the play—“Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht,” and “The Exorcism”—reflect the evolutionary nature of the narrative. While evidence of the dysfunctional relationship between George and Martha is presented early and often, the playful if intriguing atmosphere of the first act evolves into a greater and greater emphasis on that dysfunction, with hints of a dark secret faithfully provided.

Act 2 is titled “Walpurgisnacht” because, as in the German legend, a night of frivolity descends into an image of hell, with the antipathy at the core of George and Martha’s marriage becoming painfully obvious. The “truth or illusion” game the two play is a vehicle through which Albee constructs the emotional destruction witnessed by both audiences—that which sits in the dark in the theater and that comprised of Nick and, to a lesser extent, the heavily inebriated and ailing Honey. Note, in the following lines from act 3, the manner in which the author has allowed his main characters to play the game out until there is nothing left:

Martha: Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference.

George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.

Martha: Amen.

Albee explores the toxic domestic environment between George and Martha by enabling the viewer to ponder the dimensions of the enormous emotional gulf between these two characters while slowly, almost imperceptibly coming to terms with the illusion of a once-promising procreation that has served as a metaphor for a failed existence.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
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