Martha, a middle-aged faculty wife and daughter of the president of a small New England college. Martha is loud, aggressive, and vulgar, secure that her father’s position at the college will insulate her from censure. She has a volatile relationship with her husband, George. A crass joke may turn into a vicious insult, followed by a moment of happy intimacy, all smoothed over by constant consumption of liquor. Martha is particularly cruel about George’s lack of academic success. She had envisioned him taking over the history department and eventually the college, but because he is only an associate professor at the age of forty-six, she considers him a failure. Martha and George’s marriage revolves around a series of games, none more central than the myth that they have a teenage son, a fiction Martha in some strange way has convinced herself to believe despite the fact that they cannot have children. When Martha’s continuous attacks on George’s professional status and masculinity prove too much for him to bear, he retaliates by revealing before their guests Nick and Honey that his and Martha’s son is “dead,” effectively shattering Martha’s carefully maintained fantasy world and forcing both him and Martha to face the future without the comfort of fantasy and game-playing.
George, Martha’s husband, an associate professor in the history department. George is more subdued than Martha, but he participates in Martha’s games, becoming especially uninhibited when drinking. George is intelligent and quick-witted, with a gift for wordplay, which he uses against both Martha and Nick. At first, George seems to have an advantage over Nick by virtue of his position at the college, but he soon finds himself threatened by Nick’s youth, attractiveness, and professional ambition. As he drinks, he reveals a streak of cruelty by humiliating Honey with the story of her false pregnancy, which Nick had confided to him earlier. Although at first he seems somewhat reticent, even browbeaten by Martha, when the conversation turns to his and Martha’s supposed son, he accuses Martha of making incestuous advances toward the boy. He then destroys his wife’s illusions in the cruelest way possible, traumatizing Martha and mortifying Nick and Honey at the same time.
Nick, a new faculty member in the biology department. Nick is young, handsome, and ambitious. He is initially willing to play along with Martha and George’s strange games because he wants to ingratiate himself with the older faculty member and particularly with the president’s daughter. His eagerness to please even extends to going to bed with Martha, practically right in front of George. Nick’s inability to satisfy Martha’s sexual demands, coupled with his insecure status at the college, leads Martha to humiliate Nick. He acquiesces until George shatters Martha’s power by revealing the truth about their imaginary son.
Honey, Nick’s young wife. Honey is very timid, especially in contrast to George and Martha. She has neurotic and psychophysiological problems. Nick married her because he thought she was pregnant, but it turned out to be a false pregnancy. Now Honey becomes ill frequently, particularly when drinking or under stress. Honey is cautious and relatively reserved, careful not to mix her drinks and reluctant to become involved with George and Martha’s games, yet fearful of offending them. Under the influence of liquor, Honey loses many of her inhibitions. Her actions are mostly childlike, in contrast to the viciousness of the others. Honey is humiliated when George reveals that Nick has confided the story of Honey’s hysterical pregnancy to him.
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George is Martha's husband. He is forty-six-years-old and a professor of history who has amassed a record of academic mediocrity. He married Martha, daughter of the college president, early in his career but has failed to live up to the overwhelming expectations of his wife and her father, who hoped George would succeed him. George, as Martha is fond of saying, is a bog in the history department; after many years he is not yet even the departmental chair.
As a result of his professional frustration, George feels threatened by up-and-coming young faculty members like Nick and tries to compensate through showy displays of intellectual superiority. George appears to have been responsible for the deaths of both of his parents, in two separate accidents which Martha claims were intentional. He is clearly traumatized by this fact, and tells Nick the story as if it had happened to someone else. While George's "killing'' of the invented son is planned as an act of revenge for Martha's having humiliated him, it comes off more as a mercy gesture, a necessary step to free both him and Martha from destructive illusion.
A twenty-six-year-old blond girl, "rather plain." Like her husband, Nick, Honey is from the Midwest, striving with her husband to make their way in new surroundings. Honey is not depicted as particularly bright, but she is capable of exerting her will. She is afraid of bearing a child, and as George suspects, she has avoided pregnancy without Nick's knowledge. The circumstance of her marriage to Nick, a false pregnancy, is a source of discomfort to both of them (Honey apparently either genuinely believed herself to be—or pretended to be—pregnant). She changes her mind later in the play, announcing abruptly, "I want a child." While the conversion seems scarcely credible it does appear sustained through the play's conclusion.
"A large, boisterous woman, 52, looking somewhat younger. Ample, but not fleshy.'' A traditional view of gender roles would depict Martha as "manlike," for her loud, coarse ways, and domineering treatment of George, against whom she has waged for years a war of attrition. Martha had dreams of power which she feels were defeated by George's lack of ambition. As susceptible as George is to Martha's relentless ridicule over his professional failure, Martha is very sensitive to George's criticisms—of her heavy drinking, her sometimes lascivious behavior, and her "braying'' laugh. George also attempts to pass himself off as her intellectual superior.
Martha is also very well educated, however, if not graduate degreed, and much of the struggle between the couple takes place on intellectual terms (even if it occasionally degenerates to a string of insults in French). During the course of the play, Martha violates the most important rule of the game-playing province she inhabits with George: that their invented son never be mentioned to anyone. George's act of revenge is to "kill" the son, which has a profound effect on Martha, breaking through her obstinate strength. The play's closing moment is perhaps the most tender in the entire play, as Martha is able to let her guard down enough around George to admit, for once, being subject to real human fear.
Nick is described as blond and good-looking, around thirty-years-old. He is a young biology professor who represents a threat to George on a number of different fronts, with his youth, his good looks and sexual energy, and his ambition and willingness to prostitute himself for professional advancement. In short, he seems capable of achieving the promise to which George never lived up. (Although, significantly, the result of his encounter with Martha is impotency, and sexual and professional success are closely linked in the play.) Nick is emotionally empty, a state of being Albee associates (as he does in other plays) with a Midwestern upbringing. As a scientist, Nick's duty is to avoid surprise and establish predictable order. George, meanwhile, is fascinated by the unpredictability of history and seizes on this essential difference in their intellectual pursuits. Further distancing himself from Nick, George essentially accuses the biomedical profession of plotting to turn humankind into a genetically engineered, homogenous species. Critics have suggested that Nick represents to George the threat of voracious totalitarianism, insinuated by the similarity between his name and that of the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev (This is not so much a direct allegory as just one aspect to the depth of characterization in the play.)