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."
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...
(The entire section contains 900 words.)
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