Edward Albee, one of the most distinguished American playwrights, wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when he was in his early thirties. The title highlights his concern with fictions and with the way they allay fears and become actual events in people’s lives. By substituting a bisexual feminist writer for a more generally threatening enemy, Albee confronts his audience with more pointed fears: Animal death still lurks behind the title, augmented by the bold and frightening challenges represented by Woolf’s honesty, experimentation, and suicide.
Albee’s great European predecessors, Luigi Pirandello, Samuel Beckett, and Eugène Ionesco, saw the fundamental absurdity of life. They destroyed surface presumptions by presenting as surface the underlying truths that people are characters searching for roles in an unwritten play (Pirandello’s Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore, 1921; Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1922), that they await deliverers who never come (Beckett’s En attendant Godot, 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), and that husbands and wives do not know each other (Ionesco’s La Cantatrice chauve, 1950; The Bald Soprano, 1956). Albee’s major American predecessors, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, were engaged in capturing human experience more realistically, using surreal techniques to help convey the deep psychology of their characters. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee adapts elements from both traditions.
Like his European counterparts, he exposes absurdity with biting comedy in which viewers laugh as much at themselves as at the characters. Like his American counterparts, he deals with problems that can be seen on the surface as “real.” He explores the daily absurdity that life imitates art—both the art that declares itself and the fictions by which people guide themselves. People live in a world of allusions, he declares, their actions determined by lines in their heads as well as by unmediated responses to stimuli. Albee regards the composition of his plays as analogous to music, and through his instruments, the actors, sounds sometimes dissonant themes. His characters range temporally through history and spatially across the eclectic spectrum of modern life, creating chords of allusion—to film, literature, and chronicle, as much as to their own pasts—that govern their lives.
Martha and George share a fictional child. They accuse each other of having abused him in ways that became discussed in the twentieth century. Their conversation is a patchwork of quotations, and they fall into prearranged games of assault that differ in specifics but whose results are predictable. Love oddly undergirds the relationship between the would-be adulterous Martha and her inadequate historian husband, who cannot abide the present and takes refuge in the past. Endearing innocence colors the vapid Honey, and touching insecurities drive her seemingly confident husband Nick, who, if George is right, wishes to change the future because he, too, cannot abide the present.
In the end, the frustrating night the audience shares with them may usher in change. Martha goads George into killing their imaginary child, who dies in an imaginary accident that simulates George’s unpublished autobiography, which is disguised as a novel. The fictional reality of the play thus mirrors its realized fiction. It replicates the patterning of human lives, forcing the audience to consider what real means in a world interpenetrated by fantasy. When actions and their interpretations are tied to scenarios that enter the mind from outside, only the murder of false offspring can usher in hope.