Origin / Meaning of the Title:
How did playwright Edward Albee come up with the title? According to a 1966 interview in the Paris Review, Albee found the question scrawled in soap on the bathroom of a New York bar. About ten years later, when he began writing the play, he recalled the “rather typical, university intellectual joke.” But what does it mean?
When I was a child, I remember my parents talked about this play and the theatrical version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. My eight-year-old mind assumed that the title, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” referred to some cartoon wolf named Virginia, perhaps the Big Bad Wolf’s mother seeking revenge against that self-righteous brick-laying pig.
Of course, during college, I found out more about Virginia Woolf. She was a brilliant writer and women’s rights advocate. In addition, she sought to live her life without false illusions. So then, the question of the play’s title becomes: “Who is afraid of facing reality?” And the answer is: Most of us. Certainly the tumultuous characters George and Martha are lost in their drunken, everyday illusions. By the play’s end, each audience member is left to wonder, “Do I create false illusions of my own?”
George and Martha: A Match Made in Hell
The play begins with the middle-aged couple, George and Martha, returning from a faculty party arranged by George’s father-in-law (and employer), the president of the small New England college. George and Martha are intoxicated and it’s two o’clock in the morning. But that won’t stop them from entertaining two guests, the college’s new Biology professor and his “mousy” wife.
What follows is the world’s most awkward and volatile social engagement. Martha and George function by insulting and verbally attacking one another. Sometimes the insults generate laughter:
Martha: You’re going bald.There can be affection in their castigation. However, most of the time they seek to hurt and degrade one another.
George: So are you. (Pause. . . they both laugh.) Hello, honey.
Martha: Hello. C’mon over here and give your Mommy a big sloppy kiss.
Martha: I swear . . . if you existed I’d divorce you….
Martha is constantly reminding George of his failures. She feels he is “a blank, a cipher.” She often tells the young guests, Nick and Honey, that her husband had so many chances to succeed professionally, yet he has failed throughout his life. Perhaps Martha’s bitterness stems from her own desire of success. She frequently mentions her “great” father, and how humiliating it is to be paired with a mediocre “associate professor” instead of the head of the History department.
Oftentimes, she pushes his buttons until George threatens violence. In some cases he purposefully breaks a bottle to show his rage. In Act Two, when Martha laughs at his failed attempts as a novelist, George grabs her by the throat and chokes her. If not for Nick forcing them apart, George might have become a murderer. And yet, Martha does not seem surprised by George’s outburst of brutality.
We can assume that the violence, like many of their other activities, is merely another vicious game that they occupy themselves with throughout their dismal marriage. It also does not help that George and Martha appear to be “full-blown” alcoholics.
Destroying The Newlyweds:
George and Martha not only delight and disgust themselves by attacking each other. They also take a cynical pleasure in breaking down the naïve married couple. George views Nick as a threat to his job, even though Nick teaches biology – not history. Pretending to be a friendly drinking buddy, George listens as Nick confesses that he and his wife became married because of a “hysterical pregnancy” and because Honey’s father is wealthy. Later on in the evening, George uses that information to hurt the young couple.
Similarly, Martha takes advantage of Nick by seducing him at the end of Act Two. She does this mainly to hurt George, who has been denying her physical affection throughout the evening. However, Martha’s erotic pursuits are left unfulfilled. Nick is too intoxicated to perform, and Martha insults him by calling him a “flop” and a “houseboy.”
George also preys upon Honey. He discovers her secret fear of having children – and possibly her miscarriages or abortions. He cruelly asks her:
George: How do you make your secret little murders stud-boy doesn’t know about, huhn? Pills? Pills? You got a secret supply of pills? Or what? Apple jelly? Will Power?
By the end of the evening, she declares she wants to have a child.