Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Analysis

Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.

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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

In 1962, the year Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? premiered on Broadway, the major shakeup of American society in the late 1960s was...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

A good part of the reason Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? appeared so vibrantly new, so challenging, to theatergoers in 1962 is the...

(The entire section is 1021 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

Today: The Cold...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

What do you feel is the significance of each character's name in this play? What effects did Albee achieve by not giving either couple a last...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Scene from Film Adaptation Published by Gale Cengage

A sound recording of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the original Broadway cast was released by Columbia in 1963 (catalog...

(The entire section is 131 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Zoo Story, Albee's first play written as an adult. The one-act premiered in 1959 and suggests the future...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)


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

"Blood Sport" in...

(The entire section is 626 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 166 words.)