The play's title, which alludes to the English novelist Virginia Woolf, is also a reference to the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from Walt Disney's animated version of The Three Little Pigs. Because the rights to the Disney song are expensive, most stage versions, and the film, have Martha sing to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush", a melody that fits the meter fairly well and is in the public domain. In the first few moments of the play, it is revealed that someone sang the song earlier in the evening at a party, although who first sang it (Martha or some other anonymous party guest) remains unclear. Martha repeatedly needles George over whether he found it funny.
Albee described the inspiration for the title thus:
I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.
In an interview, Albee acknowledged that he based the characters of Martha and George on his good friends, New York socialites Willard Maas and Marie Menken. Maas was a professor of literature at Wagner College (one similarity between the character George and Willard) and his wife Marie was an experimental filmmaker and painter. Maas and Menken were known for their infamous salons, where drinking would "commence at 4pm on Friday and end in the wee hours of night on Monday" (according to Gerard Malanga, a Warhol associate and friend to Maas). The primary conflict between George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? derived from Maas and Menken's tempestuous and volatile relationship.
Martha and George share the names of President George Washington and his wife Martha Washington, America's first First Couple.
The play is incredibly fast paced and full of tongue twisters, very Albee-esque, but examines the breakdown of a marriage of a couple that are also each other's glue. Both Martha and George exhibit signs of bipolar disorder, but in an even more rapid succession. Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is characterized by episodes of mania and episodes of depression, either or can precede the other. Perhaps due to the self-medication of excessive consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, Martha and George are able to showcase a condensed version of their manic depressive states to their guests. A possible cause for their fractured mental states is the play's big reveal: the son they speak so adoringly, and so mysteriously about, does not exist. "A protracted and painful struggle with infertility seems to be part of the answer." Post-partum depression affects nearly 9-16% of women, and what is forgotten is that it can also affect up to 10% of men, both prenatal and/or post-partum. But what happens to the couples who experience that depression when the child isn't even present? Some couples make the decision, and possible mistake, of having a child to save a marriage. George and Martha don't have that option, yet lie about a child as a game to keep some type of nuance in their union. The possibility that both George and Martha may have bipolar disorder, or some type of mental disorder, is harrowing on both. It is vital for them to have "open communication" and to "adjust to the tendencies of each other", unfortunately, George and Martha butt the issues of their marriage with bouts of jealousy, rash insults, and twisted games to test the boundaries of each other's human emotional capacity. They demonstrate the characteristic of bipolar disorder or social disorder in their inability to recognize others' discomfort. Or perhaps they are not mad at all and fully aware of their intentions. That would then make them emotional and mental sadists.