Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by Edward Albee

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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 middle-aged, the daughter of the college president, and unhappily married to younger husband George. He has somehow disappointed her by not living up to her high expectations. Nick and Honey, the other (much younger) couple, are also locked into an unhappy marriage. Nick married her for money and what turned out to be “hysterical pregnancy.”

Throughout the long evening George and Martha (Albee names them after the childless George and Martha Washington) argue violently and trade insults with furious savagery. Albee has fashioned a highly fascinating battle of the sexes. The intense love-hate relationship of the couple is evident from the first moment, when they enter their house from a party slightly drunk and weary at 2:00 on a Sunday morning. Eager to go to bed, George is amazed that Martha has invited a new biology instructor and his wife over for drinks. It becomes clear that George and Martha enjoy verbally abusing each other, and the arrival of Nick and Honey only exacerbates the situation.

Albee has given subtitles to each of the three acts in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The first one is titled “Fun and Games,” the second, “Walpurgisnacht,” and the third, “The Exorcism.” Throughout the first act, George and Martha relentlessly bait and exasperate the other couple until Nick and Honey reluctantly enter into the spirit of it. Martha reveals to them that she and George have a grown, secretive son. In act 2, Albee draws a clear parallel between the two couples and shows that frustration is what fuels them—particularly sexual frustration, as exemplified by Nick’s failure to satisfy Martha.

During the first two acts, George has suffered the most abuse, but in act 3 he breaks free of his personal devils and attempts to exorcise the same from Martha; he tries to make her realize that there is not, and never was, a son. Martha’s howling realization and acceptance of the truth brings the embattled pair closer together by the final curtain. Again, Albee reintroduces the...

(This entire section contains 711 words.)

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recurring themes of the destruction of children by their parents and of men and women by each other.

Unlike other playwrights who allow their characters to keep some of their lies and illusions—most notably Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams—Albee strips all of them away from his characters. He makes it clear in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that he believes self-deception is evil and that no fraud should be entertained, no matter how comforting. Only the passionate search for the truth can nurture and fulfill human beings. Albee says that people must live without illusion and accept the inevitable consequences.