Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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From the opening of the front door at 2 o’clock in the morning, to the final knock-down-and-drag-out battle hours later, the events of this play sweep the audience along in a maelstrom of savage humor and emotion.

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George, a history professor in his 40’s and Martha, his somewhat older wife, have returned from a party with her father, the president of the college at which George teaches. Nick and Honey, a young instructor and his wife, join them for after-party drinks. The rest of the drama centers on the confrontations that occur among these four characters.

There is much talk about George and Martha’s son, who is to be twenty-one the next day. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that the son is fictitious, the product of a perverse game that George and Martha have played during the years of their turbulent marriage. It also becomes evident that although they quarrel violently, they are just as violently dependent upon each other. So, although Martha tries to cheat on George with Nick, and they are often cruel to each other, in the end they are tied by bonds that can be broken only by death.

Nick and Honey have their own secrets, including the fact that Honey trapped Nick into marriage. They are four hurt and vulnerable people, who wound each other because they have nothing better to do. As the four characters continue to drink and challenge each other, more protective layers are stripped away. Finally, each of them stands exposed and exhausted. The audience lives through the experience with them, reaching a kind of emotional catharsis at the end.

Albee has a powerful ability to manipulate the audience, unleashing a flood of conflicting emotions. Although the play is very derivative of August Strindberg, particularly THE DANCE OF DEATH, it is one of the most powerful American plays of the second half of the 20th century. Albee has not lived up to the promise of this play, but it stands as a powerful vision of the inner chaos that many people see at the root of contemporary American society.

Bibliography:

Bigsby, C. W. E., ed. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Five challenging essays on the play give this general survey shape.

Bottoms, Stephen J. Albee: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A thorough study of Albee’s best- known play.

Cohn, Ruby. Edward Albee. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. An invaluable introduction to the playwright that offers sensitive scholarship and understanding. Includes a bibliography.

Kolin, Philip C., ed. Conversations with Edward Albee. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. Valuable interviews containing Albee’s assessments of the creative process, critics, theater, drama, and life.

Paolucci, Anne. From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. A thoughtful assessment of Albee’s genius and use of language in relation to European absurdist and existentialist traditions.

Roudane, Matthew Charles. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Necessary Fictions, Terrifying Realities. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A book-length historical and critical study of the play. Useful and well written.

Places Discussed

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New Carthage

New Carthage. Fictional town named after a city from the ancient world. Carthage was destroyed forever when the Romans added salt to the soil, ensuring that nothing would grow there and that the place would become a wasteland. George and Martha’s marriage is sterile—the only child they produce is an imaginary one—and nothing positive seems to come from their union. The play is a black comedy of vitriolic abuse and tart sleaziness, as it highlights licentious drink and sex, with the two couples descending into sadomasochistic games and behavior.

New Carthage has a symbolic significance in the play. Because it is a place dedicated to higher learning and hence to the progress of civilization, the name of New Carthage is particularly significant. The ancient city called Carthage, founded by the Phoenicians and later destroyed by the Romans, conjoins history and destruction ironically. George is a history professor, but according to Martha, he lacks ambition and so is stuck in a rut. Nick, who has been invited over for drinks with his mousey wife Honey, teaches biology, which implies that he belongs to a class of scientists who would reorder the world even at the price of rendering it mechanized and dehumanized. Therefore, there is an intellectual clash between the man of history and the man of science, along with other lacerating conflicts of a more personal nature. All outward signs of respectability and decorum disintegrate in a searing exposé of corruption.

George and Martha’s home

George and Martha’s home. Private residence on a campus in New Carthage, New England. Martha drunkenly calls the house “a dump” as she and George fumble in the dark after returning at 2 a.m. from a faculty party. However, the setting expresses the anarchic state of her marriage to George, as well as pointing to a larger failure. The set design of the original Broadway production showed a wrought-iron American eagle, an American flag turned upside down, and antique American furniture, along with bookshelves, a stereo set, and a bar. These props and furnishings fortify the symbolism of the names of Martha and George, the names of the first U.S. president and his wife. Albee seems to suggest that the foibles and flaws of the characters are signs of larger flaws in American society.

Historical Context

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In 1962, the year Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? premiered on Broadway, the major shakeup of American society in the late 1960s was still several years away. But already civil rights protests and riots over desegregation at such educational institutes as the University of Mississippi were showing Americans that the unprecedented optimism and economic growth following the second World War was far from a reality for many. Meanwhile, certain artists and other individuals began expressing a dissatisfaction with the social conformity of the 1950s. For the most part, however, American society continued to revel in a complacent idealism, and would do so until President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November, 1963.

Economically and socially, America was being homogenized through planned suburbs, fast food, and shopping centers; a conformity of thought was strongly encouraged by the social politics of the Cold War. Dissenting voices like Albee's registered discontent with what they saw as the corrupt and/or empty values of American society; to such a perspective, past notions of objective reality were no longer reliable guidelines.

Free expression (particularly in the area of political thought) in American society was not as sharply curtailed as it had been during the era of the McCarthy hearings on "un-American activities" (the McCarthy proceedings sought to "root out" communist elements in American society), but several circumstances contributed to a consolidation of political opinion around an aggressive national stance toward the communist Soviet Union. The first had been the launch of the satellite Sputnik on October 4, 1957, which suddenly undermined, technologically and psychologically, America's unquestioned position as the world's superpower.

The Soviet conquest of space castrated the American psyche, and the perceived threat presented by Sputnik and the Soviet's subsequent success in launching a human being into space cannot be underestimated. In 1962 an upswing in American self-image followed the success of astronaut John Glenn in completing the first U.S. Earth orbits on February 7. (The successful launching of the American satellite Telstar I followed on July 12.) Still, political anxiety over the spread of communism throughout the world did not abate, and in the brewing civil conflict in South Vietnam it prompted increased American support toward the elimination of communist Vietcong guerrillas, in the form of money, arms, and field observers (America's support of democratic forces in Vietnam would soon escalate to full military involvement). Meanwhile, with the Cold War seemingly dividing global politics into only two massive spheres, American (democracy) and Soviet (communist), 1962 also saw the establishment of an independent organization of African states and national independence for Jamaica, Algeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Western Somoa, Uganda, and Tanganyika.

The Cold War also focused attention on the island nation of Cuba in 1962. President Kennedy on February 3, ceased all U.S. trade with Cuba as punishment towards the communist government established there by dictator Fidel Castro's coup in 1959. U.S. surveillance photographs revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, prompting Kennedy to order an air and sea "quarantine" of Cuba to prevent any further shipments of arms to Castro. Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev offered to remove the missiles if the U.S. would withdraw its own missiles from Turkey. President Kennedy rejected the offer, and for several days, during what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat of nuclear confrontation loomed large. The situation was quietly diffused and both the Soviet missiles in Cuba and the U.S. missiles in Turkey were removed. Yet the standoff left a permanent scar on the American psyche; the plausibility of nuclear weapons would subsequently be viewed with greater fear and skepticism in the coming decades.

Culturally, the American theatre in 1962 continued a downward trend in creative energy. Some large musical productions did well during the year, but Broadway continued its protracted decline— both economically and especially in artistic terms. While theaters across Europe were typically staging challenging plays of ethical significance (in 1962, for example, Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Physicist, and Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King), American theatre was becoming progressively safer. Producers were increasingly unwilling to take a chance on any new work which might not succeed commercially. In terms of new Broadway productions, the fifty-four plays in the 1962 season were only six more than the all-time low up to that point. By bridging the gap from the experimental off-Broadway (where Arthur Kopit's Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and We 're Feeling So Sad was another success of the year) to Broadway, Albee breathed new life into the mainstream of American theatre.

Literary Style

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A good part of the reason Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? appeared so vibrantly new, so challenging, to theatergoers in 1962 is the novel and often surprising manner in which its author combined different theatrical styles and techniques. In particular, Albee straddled a divide between a predominantly naturalistic American playwriting tradition of social criticism, and what was beginning to be called the "Theater of the Absurd" (Martin Esslin published a landmark study with that same title in 1961). Philosophically almost all of Albee's dramatic writing is aligned with the absurdist idea that human existence is essentially pointless. In describing Albee's mature work, traditional terms such as realism, surrealism, expressionism, absurdism, and naturalism have limited value (especially given that terms like absurdism and expressionism have often been removed from their historically specific context and expanded to mean essentially any form of modern theatre that does not appear realistic).

The divergent aspects of Albee's style are highlighted by the wide-ranging list of dramatic influences usually ascribed to him: Eugene O'Neill (Long Day's Journey into Night), most predominantly, accompanied both by American realists Arthur Miller (The Crucible) and Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and absurdists like Eugene Ionesco (The Bald Prima Donna) and Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot)—indeed, for the American premiere of The Zoo Story Albee's play was paired on the bill with Beckett's Krapp 's Last Tape.

Albee does not usually take issue with the conjectures of critics regarding his influences but at the same time dismisses the singular importance of any one name. "I've been influenced by everybody, for God's sake," he stated in Newsweek. "Everything I've seen, either accepting it or rejecting it. I'm aware when I write a line like Williams. I'm aware when I use silence like Beckett." Trying, with other playwrights of the early 1960s, to prevent theatre in the United States from retreating into lethargy, Albee turned toward Europe for new forms with which to experiment, as O'Neill had done in an earlier generation. The nature of human experience to Albee could not be represented either by a straightforward realism or a casual departure from it.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is realistic in form and structure: it is located in a recognizable setting, the plot unfolds in linear progression, and the characters are fully-realized individuals. Albee, however, does not write in a strictly realist vein; Cohn commented in Edward Albee that "the play has been viewed as realistic psychology. But credible motivation drives psychological drama, and Albee's motivation is designedly flimsy." Albee challenges audience expectations about genre with elements out of place in a strictly realistic environment, such as the play's almost unbelievably merciless sense of humor.

Played at such an intense psychological level, Virginia Woolf almost resembles expressionist drama (meaning that there is a more pronounced expression of the unconscious, rather than character only being revealed through outward action). The Nation's Harold Clurman, for instance, observed that the play "verges on a certain expressionism." The interior, psychological element of the play is a heavy presence, for even while the plot moves forward in real time, it also digs deeply into the past and into the psyche of each of its characters. (Perhaps the strongest example of this tendency is the central importance of the invented—and constantly shifting—history of Martha and George's son.)

While the play is "a volcanic eruption," wrote Howard Taubman in the New York Times, one might as well call it "an irruption, for the explosion is inward as well as outward." Realistic drama usually unfolds by presenting a conflict, then resolving it with each event in the plot connecting to the others in a cause-and-effect manner, but in Virginia Woolf, the most dramatic conflicts and their potential resolutions seem to he deep within the minds of the characters.

Theatrical elements of the absurd are much more pronounced in Albee's experimental one-acts like The Sandbox and The American Dream. Nevertheless, Albee's writing, Virginia Woolf included, shares with the absurdists certain philosophical concepts "having to do," in Albee's words, "with man's attempt to make sense for himself out of his senseless position in a world which makes no sense ... because the moral, religious, political and social structures man has erected to 'illusion' himself have collapsed." In illustrating the collapse of such meaning-endowing structures, Albee also to some extent affirms as a spiritual necessity the need to search for transcendent meaning. Therefore, his work differentiates itself from the utterly nihilistic vision found in much absurdist theatre (nihilism refers to a philosophical doctrine that all values are baseless and nothing is truly knowable or can be communicated). Albee has never liked the phrase Theatre of the Absurd applied to describe his plays, finding negative connotations in the term. To Albee (as he expressed in a 1962 article in the New York Times Magazine), the "absurd" theatre is the Broadway, commercial one, in which a play's merits are judged solely by its economic performance.

Just as the challenge of Albee's stems from the fact that it closely resembles realism in form and structure while departing from it in important ways, so the language of the play reflects this same dichotomy. Albee's characters talk not in fully "realistic'' dialogue," but a highly literate and full-bodied distillation of common American speech," as Clurman described it. The speech manages to sound real within its context but the language is also heightened, and one almost cannot believe what one is hearing. Albee himself observed in Newsweek, "It's not the purpose of any art form to be just like life.... Reality on stage is highly selective reality, chosen to give form. Real dialogue on stage is impossible."

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been described as a blood sport whose "weapons are words—vicious, cruel, unspeakably humiliating, unpredictably hilarious—the language of personal annihilation" (Time). Albee's ability to use the incongruity of little-child talk for dramatic effect has also been widely noted as a strength of his theatrical language. First appearing in The Zoo Story, the technique became even more of a satiric weapon in his subsequent plays, especially Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his first full-length work.

Compare and Contrast

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1962: The Cuban missile crisis in October makes the threat of global nuclear war seem an imminent possibility.

Today: The Cold War over, the United States no longer faces the consolidated military strength of a communist rival. The Berlin Wall, a powerful symbol of Cold War division, fell in 1989. The fear of nuclear war is no longer as great, although there exists widespread concern about the spread of nuclear technology to terrorist groups or so-called "rogue states."

1962: Cold War competition with the Soviet Union affects many aspects of American life. In space, prior Soviet achievements are matched by the U.S. this year, as Col. John Glenn achieves the first U.S. Earth orbit and the U.S. launches its first satellite, Telstar.

Today: The Soviet Union no longer exists as such, first withdrawing its control over the Eastern Bloc countries, and then fragmenting into independent states. While several other countries maintain economic influence of a par with the United States, the U.S. is widely recognized since the fall of the Soviet Union as the world's only remaining "superpower." The U.S. space program, NASA, is the world leader, with regular successful launches of space shuttles.

1962: Institutions of higher education enjoy substantial levels of federal funding and increased enrollments which are the legacy of the post-war Baby Boom and grant programs like the G.I. Bill. College teaching is a secure and expanding profession in most academic fields.

Today: Under severe economic crises, colleges and universities are "downsizing" their faculties, increasing class sizes, and relying more heavily on part-time and adjunct instructors rather than tenured faculty. The inability to advance in academia that George demonstrates would not be viewed today so much as a personal failure as an economic factor of radically shrinking professional opportunities.

1962: The Broadway theatre is in decline as a force in American culture, both economically, and, more acutely, in qualitative terms. Producers are increasingly unwilling to take a chance on any new work which might not succeed commercially.

Today: The decline of Broadway has continued. Fewer new productions than ever are mounted each year and fewer people look to Broadway as the indicator of the American theatre. The majority of new productions are large-scale commercial spectacles such as Andrew Lloyd Weber's Phantom of the Opera. In addition to the alternatives presented off-Broadway, new work prospers in important regional theatres across the county.

Media Adaptations

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A sound recording of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the original Broadway cast was released by Columbia in 1963 (catalog number CDOS 687); though out of print, it is available in some libraries.

The play was also adapted into a highly acclaimed film in 1966, directed by Mike Nichols and released by Warner Bros. The film won the Academy Awards for Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor as Martha) and Best Supporting Actress (Sandy Dennis as Honey), as well as three technical awards in the black and white division (Art Direction, Costume Design, and Cinematography) The film additionally received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Richard Burton as George), Best Supporting Actor (George Segal as Nick), and Best Screenplay based on material from another medium (Ernest Lehman, for his adaptation of Albee's play).

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee, Twayne (Boston), 1969 .

"Blood Sport" in Time, October 26,1962, p. 84.

Clurman, Harold. Review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the Nation, October 27,1962, pp. 273-74.

Dozier, Richard J. "Adultery and Disappointment in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"' in Modern Drama, Vol. 11,1969, pp. 432-36.

"First Nights. Game of Truth" in Newsweek, October 29, 1962, p 52.

Flasch, Joy. "Games People Play in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in Modem Drama, Vol. 10,1967, pp. 280-88.

Gassner, John. Dramatic Soundings. Evaluations and Retractions Culled from Thirty Years of Drama Criticism, Crown, 1968.

Gilman, Richard. Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961-1970, Random House, 1971.

Hewes, Henry. "Who's Afraid of Big Bad Broadway'' in the Saturday Review, October 27,1962, p 29.

"Long Night's Journey into Daze" in the New Yorker, October 20,1962, pp. 85-86.

Quinn, James P. "Myth and Romance in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in the Arizona Quarterly, Vol 30,1974, pp 197-204.

Stavrou, C. N. "Albee in Wonderland" in the Southwest Review, Winter, 1975, pp 46-61.

Taubman, Howard. "Cure for Blues" in the New York Times, October 28,1962, sec 2, p. 1.

Further Reading

Cohn, Ruby. Edward Albee, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis), 1969.
Early, significant assessment of Albee's work, not long but an excellent study of Albee's plays through its year of publication.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit). Volume 1, 1973; Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975; Volume 5, 1976; Volume 9, 1978; Volume 11, 1979, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 25,1983, Volume 53,1989; Volume 86,1995.
The listed volumes of this reference series compile selections of criticism, it is an excellent beginning point for a research paper about Albee. The selections in these ten volumes span Albee's entire play writing career through 1995. For an overview of Albee's life, also see the entry on him in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography (Gale, 1987) and Volume 7 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Gale).

Esslin, Martin. Theatre of the Absurd, Doubleday, 1961.
This is a work on the style of theatre associated with Existentialist ideas about the absurdity of human existence, expressed in an aberrant, dramatic style meant to mirror the human situation. Esslin discusses Albee's early plays in the context of playwrights such as Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter. While a play like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is less absurdist in form than some of Albee's other work, many critics agree that it expresses a similar philosophical perspective but in a realistic form.

Giantvalley, Scott. Edward Albee. A Reference Guide, G K Hall (Boston), 1987.
An extensive annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources by and about Albee. Except for incidental mentions of Albee and some foreign items, this book encompasses most of the listings in previous bibliographies such as Edward Albee at Home and Abroad (Amacher and Rule, 1973), Edward Albee An Annotated Bibliography 1968-1977 (Charles Lee Green, 1980), and Edward Albee: A Bibliography (Richard Tyce, 1986). The guide is organized by year, with extensive cross-listing of topics in the index.

McCarthy, Gerry. Edward Albee, St. Martin's (New York), 1987.
Considers selected plays of Albee's from a performance perspective.

Roudane, Matthew C. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Necessary Fictions, Terrifying Realities, Twayne, 1990.
The first full-length study of Albee's play, which Roudane says "did nothing less than reinvent the American theater." The author places Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? within the context of modern drama as a whole while also examining its historical and political backdrop. Beneath the animosity, he finds in the play an animating principle which makes it, he asserts, Albee's most life-affirming work.

Rutenberg, Michael E. Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest, Avon, 1969.
Rutenberg sees Albee as a writer of effective plays of social protest; he applies psychological and sociological thought to his explications of Albee's plays through Box/Mao. The book includes two interviews.

Wattis, Nigel, Producer and Director. Edward Albee, London Weekend Television, 1996.
A one-hour documentary distributed through Films for the Humanities and Sciences. Includes interviews with Albee and extracts from performances of his work.

Bibliography

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Bigsby, C. W. E., ed. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Five challenging essays on the play give this general survey shape.

Bottoms, Stephen J. Albee: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A thorough study of Albee’s best-known play.

Cohn, Ruby. Edward Albee. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. An invaluable introduction to the playwright that offers sensitive scholarship and understanding. Includes a bibliography.

Kolin, Philip C., ed. Conversations with Edward Albee. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. Valuable interviews containing Albee’s assessments of the creative process, critics, theater, drama, and life.

Paolucci, Anne. From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. A thoughtful assessment of Albee’s genius and use of language in relation to European absurdist and existentialist traditions.

Roudane, Matthew Charles. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Necessary Fictions, Terrifying Realities. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A book-length historical and critical study of the play. Useful and well written.

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