Stage Prompts: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

7 months ago
Declan Green

Declan Green is a Sydney-based film, television, and theatre critic, with a keen interest in media of the mid-twentieth century. Stage Prompts is his series of deep dives into culture-defining plays of the past, exploring how their scripts experiment with literary form, style, and language to create meaning.

In 1962, Edward Albee’s absurdist musings on the failures of the American Dream manifested in the
form of the black comedy-drama ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’. Though it secured the Tony
Award for Best Play, it was deemed too profane and sexual to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and
thus had the award revoked by the advisory board. By today’s standards, these parts seem relatively
tame. What still cuts deep is the bitter, nasty jibes traded between a husband and wife, and the
slow, crushing reveal of a shared delusion at the center of their relationship.

[The Original Broadway Production]

George is an associate professor of history at a prestigious college and is married to Martha, the
daughter of the college president where he teaches. After returning home late from a faculty party,
we discover that they have invited a young married couple they have just met over for drinks. Upon
arriving, Nick, a biology professor, and his wife, Honey, quickly realize that they have gotten
themselves tangled up in a messy, complicated marriage. George and Martha humiliate and belittle
each other, justifying it all as “fun and games” – the title of Act One.

Conveniently, the older married couple also happen to share names with the first president of the
United States and his wife, George and Martha Washington. Both sets of Georges and Martha’s
superficially exhibit a solid foundation in the American Dream: the breadwinner, the housewife, and
the bedrock of prosperity. But where the Washingtons’ personal relationship has remained relatively
untainted by the pages of history, Albee presents a twisted vision of these American archetypes
spoiled by the rigid, impossible expectations attached to them. We don’t have to strain hard to
imagine younger, more idealistic versions of George and Martha, as Nick and Honey are mirrors of
their own terrible behavior. The younger couple exhibit similar immature, narcissistic tendencies,
and have naively bought into the same traditional ideals as their hosts, much to George and
Martha’s sadistic amusement.

[The 2017 National Theatre Cast]

Act Two is titled “Walpurgisnacht”, named after the night before May 1 st in German folklore when
witches congregate and wreak havoc. An apt moniker given the escalation of George and Martha’s
antics, introducing new games such as “Get the Guests” and “Hump the Hostess”. The two are foes,
but they are also cronies in a coven, at each other’s necks while allied against their guests. The act
ends when Martha beds Nick, and George devises a plan that will defeat his wife once and for all.
While her rage is constant and derisive, his is bottled up and soul-shattering when released.
It finally fully manifests in Act Three, named “The Exorcism”, as George expels an evil spirit in the
form of a lie which has held their relationship together. Its existence is irrefutable proof of both their
failures to create a healthy, loving family, its cover-up indicating just how sensitive and insecure they
both are around the issue. When this shared delusion is broken, we suddenly stop seeing two adults
at each other’s throats, but rather a husband and wife with nothing left to hang onto but tender,
dysfunctional affection.

Throughout the play George and Martha sing its title as a throwaway joke, the sort that university
intellectuals might make in referencing “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”. At first the insertion of
“Virginia Woolf” is simply a pun on a beloved children’s song, yet it takes a more poignant tone by its
final recitation. They are almost asking themselves directly “Who’s afraid of this classic author who
got into her character’s heads, stripping back their pretenses to uncover their deep emotional
truths? Who’s afraid of living a life without illusions?”

“I am, George,” Martha replies. “I am.”

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