Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

by Edward Albee

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900


Literally meaning "out of harmony," absurd was the existentialist Albert Camus's designation for the situation of modern men and women whose lives lack meaning as they drift in an inhuman universe. Virginia Woolf probes the question of what happens to human beings when they no longer have recourse to the illusions which had previously given their lives meaning. The theme of absurdity is a prevalent one in Albee's plays, as is suggested by the frequent references to the theatre of the absurd in analyzing his writing. Albee describes the philosophical notion of absurdity as "having to do 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." Perhaps the most articulate and sustained expression of the absurdity of existence is found in George's speech near the beginning of the second act, in which he concludes that despite all "the trouble to construct a civilization," when the last trumpet sounds, "through all the sensible sound of men building," the message to humanity will be, simply: "Up yours."

American Dream

Albee's early plays all express discontent with the optimism and conformity of the 1950s with the materialist ideals that prospered in America during the economic boom following World War II. Albee's early play The American Dream, as one would suspect from the title, is a much more explicit treatment of the theme, but in Virginia Woolf, Albee also parodies the ideals which in western civilization are supposed to give life meaning. The historical resonance with the Washingtons (George and Martha) is not meant to go unnoticed, as the play attacks the edifice of dreams and self-deceptions that constitute American mythology as Albee sees it. The decline of the American Dream (and of the country in general) resonates throughout Virginia Woolf. George observes, for example: "We drink a great deal in this country, and I suspect we'll be drinking a great deal more, too ... if we survive."


As suggested by the title, the emotion of fear is a central thematic component of the play. To be afraid of' 'Virginia Woolf,'' as Martha says she is at the play's conclusion, is to admit a very human fear about the lack of inherent meaning in one's existence. In order to feel fear, one has to have shed all of the illusions which had previously seemed to give life meaning. Thus, the play presents Martha's fear (and George's, which he acknowledges by nodding silently in response to her) as a life-affirming phenomenon. Better to acknowledge the fear and work through it, the play suggests, than to continue living a lie.


The will for revenge appears to be a major force in George and Martha's life. Each seems eternally to be seeking retribution for some past slight or insult. George's "killing" of the invented son is planned as the ultimate act of revenge, for a series of humiliations public and private, and especially for Martha's having broken a fundamental rule of their relationship, by mentioning the son to Honey. In the end, however, killing the son comes off more as a gesture of mercy, a necessary step to free both him and Martha from a destructive illusion.

Science and Technology

The play hints strongly at a mass progress towards impotence and depersonalization by the declining western world, which George at least, as a historian and a humanist, blames on scientific advancement. He concocts a doomsday scenario upon which many of his attacks against Nick, the biologist, are based: through genetic technology, "All imbalances will be corrected, sifted out.... We will have a race of men... test-tube bred... incubator-born. . .superb and sublime... But! Everyone will tend to be rather the same.... Alike." One could argue whether or not George's perspective is reflected in the play as a whole, but as American culture at the time was growing more culturally homogenous through technological inventions like television (which portrayed ideals for how people should look and behave), Albee's resistance to such a process shows through in his play.

Truth and Falsehood

Martha comments to George "Truth and illusion ... you don't know the difference," and his reply is, "No; but we must carry on as though we did." The growth of these characters through the course of the play rests in the attempt to cease "carrying on," and to attack falsehood on a number of levels, in the hopes of finding something true. Many deep secrets are revealed in the process, forcing the characters to confront the consequences. The primary "exorcism'' in the play is the killing of Martha and George's imaginary son, but other explosive confrontations with realities past and present abound in the play, for example: Nick's confession of his material motives for marrying Honey, Honey's revelation of her fear of bearing a child, and George's trauma at having caused (if even accidentally) the deaths of his parents. At one point, George observes about his relationship with Martha: "accommodation, malleability, adjustment... those do seem to be in the order of things, don't they?" Throughout the play, characters go through the more difficult process of peeling off layer after layer of pretense and artificiality. The play seems to suggest that even at the naked core of an individual there are destructive illusions, and the pain of losing them is staggering.

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