Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Summary and Analysis of Act Two

Act Two Summary:


At open, George is onstage by himself. Nick enters, apologizing for Honey, who gets sick easily. Martha meanwhile is the kitchen making coffee. Nick says he tries not to get involved in other people's affairs because it gets embarrassing. George mocks Nick's reserved disgust and faked sympathy, and Nick disdainfully tells him that he and Martha shouldn't subject other people to them going at it like a pair of animals. When George tells him that he's smug and self-righteous, Nick threatens him by saying he's never hit an older man.

George changes the subject by asking if Honey throws up a lot. Nick says that once she starts, she'll go on for hours. George gets him another drink, and Nick explains that he married her because she was pregnant. Only it turned out to be a hysterical pregnancy ­ "she blew up, and then she went down." George shares a story of his own. When he was sixteen, in prep school, a bunch of his friends and him got to New York on the first day of vacation. This was during Prohibition, and they went to a gin mill owned by one kid's gangster father. One boy, who was fifteen, had completely accidentally killed his mother years before with a shotgun. When it came his time to order, he asked for "bergin and water." Soon, everybody in the joint was laughing and ordering bergin and every time the laughter subsided, someone would order bergin, and the laughter would start again. They drank free that night, bought champagne by the gangster father, and though they all had hangovers the next day, George says that this was the grandest day of his youth.

Nick asks what happened to the boy who shot his mother. George says that the next summer, on a country road, with his learner's permit, he swerved to avoid a porcupine and crashed into a tree, killing his father, who was in the passenger's seat. When they told the boy this at the hospital, he began to laugh and didn't stop until they jammed an needle into his arm. When he recovered from his injuries, thirty years ago, they put him into an asylum and has not uttered one sound since.

After a long silence, George yells for Martha, with no response. George turns the talk back to Honey, saying that Martha doesn't have hysterical pregnancies ­ Martha doesn't have pregnancies at all. Nick asks if they have any other kids, other than they're son, and George makes an odd comment about the boy being a "comfort, a bean bag," which Nick doesn't understand. He goes on about the boy behind the apple of their eyes and tells Nick he's being testy. They argue about that for a moment, and George says he's going to set Nick straight about what Martha said ­ just as Martha yells "hey" from the kitchen. She sticks her head in to say they're having coffee and to exchange a quick series of insults in French with George. She tells George to clean up the mess he made, and after she leaves, George says that for years, he has been trying to clean up the mess he made.

When George tells Nick that things are easier for him, marrying a woman because she was all blown up, Nick says that there were other reasons. George correctly guesses that she has money too. They simultaneously begin to reminisce about how they met their wives, and George lets Nick go first. They grew up together ­ met when they were eight and six and used to play doctor. Their eventual marriage was taken for granted by their families. There wasn't any particular passion between them, even at the beginning of their marriage. George refills their drinks, and talk turns to how much people drink in the US. George asks about Honey's money, explaining he's fascinated by the pragmatism of the "wave-of-the-future boys" like Nick. Nick explains that his father-in-law was called by God when he was six and started preaching and became pretty famous and rich by the time he died. He spent "God's money" on hospitals and churches, but he saved his own.

George shares that Martha has money because her father's second wife (not her mother) was "an old lady with warts who was very rich" ­ a witch who married a white mouse with tiny red eyes and went up immediately in a puff of smoke, leaving the money to the college, the town, Martha's father, and Martha. Nick laughs, saying his father-in-law was a mouse too, a churchmouse. When he says that Martha never mentioned a stepmother, George says that maybe it isn't true. He tells Nick that he's been drawing these stories out of him because he represents a threat to his livelihood. Nick laughs, not really believing him, as George says they've decided he'll take over the history department first, before he takes over the whole game. Playing along, Nick says that what he does is find weak spots and shore them up until he becomes an inevitability. That plan includes "plow[ing] a few pertinent wives."

George compares Martha and the faculty wives to the puntas of South American who hiss at passing men like a gaggle of geese. Nick guesses that Martha's the biggest goose in the gaggle and he just better get her off in the corner and mount her like dog. George continues to play along and Nick suspects he may be serious. George offers him some fatherly advice. He says he disgusts him but has tried to make contact. Nick mocks him, but George continues explaining that you build a civilization and make art and music and reach the saddest of points, when all the music sounds the Dies Irae. The justice, after all the years, is a big "up yours."

Martha leads a weakly smiling Honey in and demands that George apologize for making the lady throw up. George denies this and tells Martha that she makes him sick. Honey stops them, claiming that she gets sick occasionally all by herself for no reason. She claims that before she got married she developed what the doctors thought was appendicitis, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Martha claims that George used to make their son sick every time he came into the room. George says the real reason the boy got sick is that he couldn't stand Martha fiddling with him all the time. Martha says he ran away twice in one month, six times in one year, which George explains happened because Martha used to corner him. George says that it their son used to tell him "Mama's always coming at me," and it was very embarrassing. Nick stops him short by asking why he's talking about it if it was so embarrassing.

Honey asks for a little brandy, despite Nick's objections, insisting that she likes it. When Martha notes that George used to drink "bergin," George tells her to shut up, but Nick has already noticed. Martha wants to know if George started in on his story of how he would have amounted for something if it hadn't been for Daddy ­ if he told Nick about how he tried to publish a book and Daddy wouldn't let him. Nick eggs her on by asking about the book. George begs her to stop and says he's got to find a new way to fight her. Honey interrupts all this by saying she would love some dancing, saying she dances like the wind over and over. Martha and George bicker about who's going to dance with who, and Honey starts dancing by herself, singing along to Beethoven's 7th Symphony. George turns the music off when Martha calls him a son of a bitch. Honey's mad at Nick and wants to be left alone. George asks her if she wants to dance with him, and she says that if she can't do her interpretive dance, she won't dance.

Martha and Nick dance together, on either side of where George and Honey sit, undulating like their bodies are pressed together. Despite George's objections, as she dances toward and away from Nick, Martha tells him how George turned something funny in his past into a novel, but Daddy read it and was shocked by what he read. It was all about a boy who killed his mother and father. Daddy told him if he published this crap, he'd be out on his ass. George continues to scream at her to stop. Honey's just amused by the idea of violence. Martha continues imitating Daddy's rant, at which Nick laughs, until George declares, "The game is over!" Martha won't stop, saying the boy pretends this is all an accident, and the clincher is that this isn't a novel at all. She continues, despite George's objections, and he grabs her by the throat to stop her. While Honey applauds the violence, Nick tears George off of Martha. George, humiliated, drags himself away. Martha softly calls him a murderer, and Nick stops her.

George regains his composure and nervously announces that the game of "Humiliate the Host" is over. What will the do next? "Hump the Hostess?" Honey, completely drunk and oblivious, calls for that. Deciding that Martha wants to save that for later, he calls instead for a game of "Get the Guests." Nick tries to get away but George calls for silence. His second novel, about which Martha knows nothing, is an allegory about a nice young couple from the middle west. He's blond and thirty and she's a mousy type who likes brandy. Nick objects, but Honey says she likes to hear stories. George continues about Mousie's father, the holy man, who died and all sorts of money fell out when they pried him apart. Honey, genuinely puzzled, thinks this story is familiar. They settled in a town like New Carthage, and Blondie was in disguise, with a baggage ticket that had H.I. written on it for historical inevitability. Part of his baggage was the little mouse. Honey begins to recognize the story and grows scared. Martha begins to tell George to stop. George flashes back to how the couple got married ­ when Mousie got all puffed up, and they got married, and then the puff went away. Honey is horrified that Nick told them, and Nick tries to apologize. She runs out of the room to be sick again.

Nick tells George he's going to regret this and says he'll be just what George says he is. He leaves, to look after Honey. Martha compliments George on the most life he's shown in a long time. He says she brings out the best in him. She calls him bastard and says this is pigmy hunting and he makes her sick. He mockingly says he did it all for her and her taste for carnage. It's perfectly okay for her to sit there and tear him apart all night, and he can't stand it. She says he can stand it, and he married her for it. She's getting tired of whipping him after twenty-three years, and it's not what she's wanted. He calls her sick. She gets angry, screaming she'll show him who's sick and more calmly, says that before she's through with him, he'll wish he'd died in that automobile accident. He says she'll wish she never mentioned their son.

He's numbed enough now to be able to take her when they're alone, bringing everything down to a reflex so that he doesn't really hear her. But she's begun not only moving her dirty underthings into public but also moving all the way into her own fantasy world. He says he's worried about her mind and thinks he'll have her committed. Martha tells him their whole arrangement has snapped. You think you can go on forever, making excuses to yourself, like saying that tomorrow you might be dead, but suddenly it breaks. She says she's not a monster. There was a second back there when she could have gotten through to him, but now she's not even going to try. George says that once a month, they get good, misunderstood Martha, and he believes in it because he's a sucker. But now he doesn't want to believe in her, and there is no moment anymore when they could come together. Martha says it went snap tonight when she watched him at Daddy's party and realized he wasn't there. She says she doesn't give a damn anymore and is going to make the biggest explosion he ever heard. He threatens that he'll beat her at her own game. They agree ­ total war.

Nick returns and tells George and Martha that Honey is resting ­ on the bathroom floor. She likes the floor because the tiles are cool. George goes to get some ice, leaving Martha and Nick alone. As he walks away, George says that he wouldn't be surprised by anything Martha does. He makes some remark about Honey's being slim-hipped as the reason she and Nick don't have any kids. Nick remains preoccupied with that as Martha blows kisses at him. As he lights her cigarette, she slips his hand between his thighs, moving her hand up and down his leg, and asking for a kiss. Nick's a little hesitant and nervous, but Martha says that Daddy had a party for them to get to know each other and to consider it an experiment. They kiss, and what begins as a joke grows serious. George enters and sees them intertwined ­ sees Nick put his hand on Martha's breast under her dress. Martha begins to slow him down, and George backs up, singing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" before he returns. They separate, and he reenters with the ice bucket, complimenting Martha's radiance with false enthusiasm and making another round of drinks

George says that he passed the bathroom on his way back, and Honey is "rolled up like a fetus," sucking her thumb. He moves his chair away from them and says he's going to read a book. This infuriates Martha, who exclaims that they have company and he can't read at four o'clock in the morning. With George's back to them, Martha moves closer to Nick, suggesting they amuse themselves. George, without looking, tells her to entertain her guests. Martha and Nick kiss, and she announces she was necking with one of her guests. She lurches into George's line of vision, bumping into the doorbell chimes, and is angry and suspicious when he simply says "Good for you" and telling her to go back to her necking. George says he doesn't know what the younger generation is coming to and agrees when Nick suggests he couldn't care. When he says that Nick's going to throw Martha over his shoulder, Nick calls him disgusting. George observes that Nick is going to hump his wife and he's disgusting? Martha kisses Nick and sends him, still glaring at George, into the kitchen.

Martha demands George ­ who continues reading ­ to listen to her, near tears, or she'll take Nick upstairs. When George finally turns and says "so what," she tells him he asked for it and she'll make him regret the day he came to this college and married her. She leaves. George sits still and begins to read from the book about the decline of the west, then hurls it furiously at the chimes. Honey enters, still sick and half-asleep, saying the bells woke her up and frightened her. George continues to talk to himself, saying he's going to get Martha. Honey continues talking about her dream, in which she was lying somewhere, and the cold wind slipped the blanket off, and she didn't want someone there, and was naked. She begins crying, "I don't want any children." George compassionately says he should have known and asks if Nick knows. He asks how she makes her "secret little murders" so Nick doesn't find out ­ pills? Honey says she feels sick and demands her husband and a drink. Offstage, Martha laughs and dishes crash. George tells Honey that they're in the kitchen, making a sort of dry run for the future. Honey's miserable and insists she doesn't understand.

George announces that when people realize they can't abide the present, they either live in the past, as he has done, or they set about to alter the future. Honey ignores his demands to know if she doesn't want any children to ask who rang the doorbell. George has a revelation. He decides that it was someone with a message about their son, and the message is their son is dead. Honey is sick, and says no. George continues, fully realizing his idea. His son is dead, and he hasn't told Martha. He repeats it, pushing Honey to tears. He says he'll tell Martha in good time. Honey, again, says she's going to be sick, then after they hear Martha laugh, that she's going to die. George tells her to go right ahead. Very amused with himself now, he practices, telling Martha that their son is dead.

Act Two Analysis:

One of Albee's major themes ­ the blurring of illusion and reality ­ takes center stage in this act. Such a concern is characteristic of the Theatre of the Absurd. In his plays, Albee rejected the formlessness of 1960's spontaneous artistic "happenings" and simultaneously eschewed the constrictions of earlier naturalistic playwrights, like Eugene O'Neill. One of Albee's most immediate predecessors is Tennessee Williams, who in plays like A Streetcar Named Desire combined naturalistic dialogue with absurdist or lyrical situations.

Albee explores the relationship between illusion and reality in the contrast between his play's form and content. George and Martha's dialogue, at first glance, seems to be a naturalistic representation of a modern-day couple's arguments. Meaningless topics and repetition imitate the sound of real conversation. But there is more to Albee's repetitious dialogue than surface realism. In addition, this repetition emphasizes the circularity of George and Martha's plight. Despite the amount of arguing and repeating they do, George and Martha rarely if ever seem to reach an understanding. That is, there argument is more about the process of arguing rather than any conclusion or agreement achieved by argument.

For that reason, it is possible to view Albee's portrayal of modern marriage as decidedly existential. The specifics of George and Martha's history or relationship. What we do know about the characters' histories ­ for example, whether or not George is the boy in the story who accidentally killed both his parents ­ is never presented decisively as truth or illusion. The subject of their arguments doesn't matter. It's not important if George and Martha argue about ice cubes or Bette Davis movies. What matters is how they conduct their argument, how they interact with each other ­ how they choose to exist in this situation in which they've found themselves trapped.

The extended metaphor of emotional confrontation as a "game" continues into this act. Within this metaphor, George is the symbolic ringmaster, announcing that Humiliate the Host is over, and that it's time for Get the Guests or Hump the Hostess. While this seemingly blasé attitude towards their personal lives shocks Nick, George and Martha's understanding of "the game" ultimately does not undercut the emotional significance of their battles. If anything, calling these emotional clashes a game serves to make the possibility of emotional destruction more random and uncertain. George says that Martha continually changes the rules on him, and as soon as he learns them, he plays along.

Whereas George functions as ringmaster in announcing the end of Humiliate the Host, he does not normally occupy the position of power in the game. Martha, it is oft implied, defines the game and its rules as she goes along. She is the one in the marriage with the power. The metaphor of the game, therefore, functions to illuminate the ongoing power struggle between George and Martha. The incidents in which George takes control of the game ­ announcing that Humiliate the Host is over, for example ­ are significant as his attempts to subvert Martha's power over him. Even in those cases, however, it is clear that George must struggle to gain power in a system whose discourse has been defined by Martha. She has already defined the games. George can only resist by choosing one of her games over another. That is why he chooses a "game" called Hump the Hostess ­ only partially resisting Martha's hegemony, changing the way in which he is humiliated while not eradicating the act of humiliation itself.

The extended metaphor of the "game" gradually transforms itself in this act into a new metaphor ­ "war." Whereas a game suggests casual disregard for another's feelings, a war suggests complete and intentional destruction. The individual games, like Hump the Hostess, in the three-ring circus become battles in the war. Because war is declared by two opposing parties on each other, it is possible to read all of George and Martha's actions ­ whether or not they occur in the other's presence ­ as intended to inflict destructive power over the other. Martha's flirtation with and seduction of Nick, therefore, is not about a sexual desire for Nick, per se. As her frustration with George's willful ignorance of this act (when he places his chair so that his back is to Nick and Martha on the couch) and her insistence that he know exactly what she plans to do demonstrate, Martha's sexual encounter with Nick is deliberate strategy in her war against George.

The juxtaposition of George's books with Martha's actions emphasizes this war metaphor. He reads aloud from The Decline of the West by Spengler, deliberately ignoring the chaos around him. That chaos, of course, is characteristic of Albee's statement about the American Dream. George and Martha's cozy little college town of New Carthage is a microcosm for the West, threatened and destroyed by conformity (as represented by Nick as biologist) and totalitarianism (as represented by Nick as Nikita Khrushchev).

George's joke, when telling his story to Nick, about attending prep school "during the Punic Wars," the wars during which the real Carthage was sacked, further emphasizes this metaphor in which the chaos in George and Martha's marriage represents the decline of the West. This presentation of ponderous and sincerely meant statements in the context of jokes occurs throughout this play. The Theatre of the Absurd is resolutely not frivolous comedy. Rather, Albee's play finds deep and true meaning in the small and absurd details of life. In those ways, it echoes and alludes to Jung's The Undiscovered Self.

Nick's name has a polysemous function in this play. Not only does it echo Nikita Khruschchev in Albee's social commentary, it also has religious implications. That is, Nick's name recalls "Old Nick," a moniker for the devil. It is interesting to consider the implications of Nick's name in the light of the title of the second act. "Walpurgisnacht" is a religious allusion to the Satanic black Sabbath, in which witches enact an orgy.

Ultimately, however, the metaphor of Nick as Satan is not as sustainable as another reading ­ Martha as Satan. George pointedly refers to her as the devil or Satan twice in this act alone. She is the central focus of the worshippers (George and Nick) in this act. George as the "Host" ­ referring both to his role as master of ceremonies and to the manifestation of the Body of Christ in the Catholic tradition ­ performs an exorcism beginning in this act. Further religious imagery comes in the references to George and Martha's imagined son as a "lamb," making him a Christ figure.

Sound imagery is very important in this play. The central sound granted multiple meanings in this act is the bells ­ doorbell chimes into which Martha twice crashes. The chimes also echo the Catholic Mass, in which chimes signal the transformation of the host and wine into body and blood and mark the progress of the service. The chimes here signal an important moment of progress or movement in this Black Mass. The chimes function as a catalyst for George's realization of what he must do ­ "kill" the "son" ­ perform an exorcism of his and Martha's shared illusions and thus move forward rather than around in circles.

Indeed, for the most part, George and Martha (and Honey and Nick) move in circles. George and Martha, in this act, reference moments when they might have connected, when they might have understood each other, but those moments are always already past and wasted. Again, using humor to underscore his deeper point, Albee employs cultural clichés about a lack of communication to express a belief about the impossibility of human connection. Albee readily admits he has become a caricaturist. George and Martha are unable to connect because they are unable to listen to each other or themselves.

In this play, especially in this act, that connection is portrayed through the medium of language. As is clear from their verbal shorthand ­ "the bit about the kid" ­ left unexplained to the audience or Nick and Honey, George and Martha are able to connect the most on the lexigraphical level. Their games are for the most part verbal. Words have power ­ Martha is clearly hurt to be called a monster, for example ­ but language remains a closed system in which Martha and George communicate.

The power of Martha and George's verbal connection to bind each other together is no more apparent than in Honey and Nick's bafflement in reaction to it. To a great degree, Honey and Nick function as surrogates for the audience. George and Martha's all-out, unabashed war on each other is as shocking to this young couple as it is to the audience. They too must gradually learn to rules of the game and the meaning of the verbal shorthand. Nick's professed embarrassment at hearing George offer up Martha in Hump the Hostess is the audience's discomfort too. Albee's simultaneous portrayal of Honey and Nick as empty, conformist characters is also a statement on his audience as members of contemporary American society. In response to those who criticized the Theatre of Absurd as lacking the noble intentions of earlier American drama, Albee replied that the "public will get what it deserves and no more."

What the 1960's public evidently deserved was a blurring and redefining of the lines between illusion and reality. George and Martha are sustained by an illusion ­ their imaginary son ­ that takes on the power of reality. Much of the "facts" of this act are never proved or disproved. While we know from something Martha says, that there is some truth to George's autobiographical novel ­ reality that becomes illusion ­ it is unclear just how much. George himself tells Nick straight-out that none of what he says may be true. In the end, the Theatre of the Absurd justifies itself through its blurring of reality and illusion. Something can be illusion, like Martha and George's son, and still have a very real emotional impact. Theatre, which by definition is illusion, seeks and when successful achieves that same emotional impact upon its audience.