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.
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.