Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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

Act One Summary:

"Fun and Games"

Open on the home of George and Martha, a middle-aged couple in the East coast college town of New Carthage. We hear a crash in the darkness. The door opens, the lights come on, and Martha enters followed by George. Martha quotes the line "What a dump!" from a Bette Davis movie, then proceeds to nag George, demanding he figure out what movie it's from. George at first humors his wife but clearly doesn't know or care. He accuses her of braying, but when she brays, "I don't bray!" he quickly recants.

Martha demands George make her a drink and then informs him they've got guests coming. Martha invited a couple they met at a faculty party that evening ­ a thirtyish, blond man from the math department and his mousy, slim-hipped wife ­ because her Daddy, the president of the college, said they should be nice to them. George is not happy. It's two o'clock in the morning. Martha accuses him sulking, then patronizingly acts sympathetic. When she doesn't get a reaction, she begins to sing, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to the tune of "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" insisting that George ­ who continues to ignore her ­ thought it was hilarious at the party.

Fed up, Martha begins to rant about George being a "simp." She gets off track saying he "doesn't even have the ­ the what?" and George calmly finishes the sentence for her ­ "the guts." They share a moment of laughter, and the tension diffuses momentarily. The talk turns to the ice in Martha's drink ­ which she always eats ­ and George reminds her that she'll always be six years older than him. She demands a kiss, but he refuses, with the excuse that he'll get too excited, have to take her in the floor, and then their guests will come in. Martha, a heavy drinker, wants another drink, and George tells her she better stay on her feet and keep her clothes on when the guests arrive.

The doorbell rings. Martha demands George get it but when he refuses, she just yells, "Come in!" He moves toward the door, begging her not to do "the bit about the kid." They argue about it, and just as Martha yells, "screw you" at George, Nick and Honey step inside. Martha covers with an expression of over-politeness, inviting them in. Nick wonders if maybe it's too late and they should go, but Martha pushes them to sit down. Nick attempts to comment on a painting but George mocks him by finishing his sentences with meaningless insights.

Martha offers to get them drinks (brandy for Honey, bourbon for Nick), and George remarks on Martha's changing taste drinks since they were courting. Martha launches into another rendition of "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Nick when pressed says it was funny. When George remarks on Martha's demand that people who find something funny "bust a gut," Honey pipes up that she had fun at the party and compliments Martha's father, the college president. George deadpans that he's a god and remarks on how many faculty parties he's been to. Nick kills the attempted rapport by describing the poor reception he received when teaching in Kansas. Honey says she had to introduce herself to the other wives at the supermarket.

Martha's insistence that "Daddy knows how to run things" prompts George to confide that there are easier things than to be married to the daughter of the president of a university ­ to which Martha declares that for some men, it would be an opportunity. Honey tries to escape by asking the way to the restroom, and Martha offers to show her the whole house ­ but not before scoffing at George's reminder not to shoot her mouth off about "you-know-what."

Left alone, George refills Nick's drink and attempt to make small talk by asking if Nick's in the math department. He's not. When he starts playing with Nick, turning his answers around, Nick gets testy. George says he's been here ever since he married Martha ­ "forever" and demands Nick comment on his declension: "Good. Better. Bested." Nick calls George on his little game, and George sincerely tries to calm him down, wrenching the glass out of his hand to freshen it. Nick wants to leave, assuming that George and Martha are having a fight and not wanting to get into other people's affairs, but George says it's just exercise. Besides, "musical beds is the faculty sport around here."

George acts Nick's age (28) and says he's fortysomething, though he looks older. He asks his weight and says they should play handball sometime. Honey, Nick says, is 26. George turns back to the topic of Nick being in the math department, but Nick says that in fact he is in the biology department. George is "very mistrustful" of the biologists who are going to make everyone exactly the same by rearranging all the "chromozones." George, however, is in the History Department ­ though Martha would prefer that he be the History Department, that is be the head of the History Department. He did run it for four years during the war but then everybody didn't get killed and came back to the university.

Suddenly, George comments that Nick's wife is "slim-hipped," wonders what the women are doing upstairs, and asks if Nick and Honey have kids. Not yet, Nick says, but hedges that they are going to have some when George asks. When asked if he's going to be happy in New Carthage, Nick says he thinks they'll stay, though not forever. George tells him that Martha's father likes devotion from his staff. One man actually died "in the line of service" in the cafeteria line at lunch. But the old man is never going to die and according to George is two hundred years old.

Suddenly George yells for Martha, who howls back. Honey reenters, and George and Martha keep shouting at each other. Honey says that Martha is changing to be comfortable and remarks she hadn't known till a minute ago that George and Martha had a son. Tomorrow's his birthday. He'll be twenty-one. George is strangely flustered and insults the absent Martha. Honey suggests to Nick that they be getting home, and a preoccupied George asks if they're keeping the babysitter up. Nick sounds like he's warning George when he reminds him that they don't have children and tells Honey they'll go in a little while.

George tells Nick that Martha must be changing for him, as she hasn't changed for George in years. Martha enters looking more comfortable and most voluptuous, showing her body off and acting flirtatious. There's a seemingly friendly exchange about the men wanting to know what the women were talking about. Honey has told Martha that Nick got his masters when he was only 19. Martha doesn't think George is impressed enough, and George says he wouldn't be surprised if Nick took over the History Department. Martha notices his mistake and proclaims that George is preoccupied with the History Department ­ and George finishes for her, because he is not the History Department ­ and continues that he's bogged down in it, laughingly calling him swampy.

George restrains his anger with some trouble and offers to get Martha something ­ saying that he holds her hand when it's dark and takes her gin bottles out after midnight so no one sees but will not light her cigarette when she asks. Nick lights Martha's cigarette, and she coos over his football and boxing experience, as well as his body. George is amazed that Honey acts amused. George stalks off down the hall.

Martha launches into a story about a boxing match she and George had about twenty years ago, a couple of years after they were married. It was wartime, and her Daddy was on a physical fitness kick. He wanted to box with George in the backyard one Sunday, and George didn't want to. So Martha put on a pair of gloves and snuck up behind George, yelled his name, and punched him much harder than she expected in the jaw, knocking him down. George advances from down the hall and pulls a shotgun on Martha. Honey sees it first, then Nick, and just as Martha looks up, he pulls the trigger. A large parasol blossoms from the barrel of the gun. Honey, who had just screamed, laughs, as do Martha and George.

As Nick examines the gun, Martha demands a kiss from George, who reluctantly gives it to her, then pulls away when he places his hand on her breast ­ accusing her of having blue games for the guests. She's angry and hurt. He gets drinks for all and shows Nick the gun and parasol. Honey, looking for attention, keeps insisting that she's never been so frightened in her life. Martha laughs when George asks is she thought he was going to kill her but he says he might, some day. Nick sets off for the bathroom. When he sets his glass down, George says that it's okay, since Martha leaves them all over the house, even in the freezer once. Amused in spite of herself, Martha insists that she didn't.

Honey, who's still drinking brandy, says she never gets a hangover because she doesn't mix and doesn't drink much. When George brings up Nick's talk about the chromosomes, Martha insists that Nick is in the Math Department until Honey quietly contradicts her. Martha says that biology's even better because it's right at the meat of thing ­ which she tells Nick when he returns, launching into her rant about "swampy" George not taking over the History Department. She compliments Nick on his chromosome work, saying she loves chromosomes.

George complains that they are tweaking chromosomes to make a race of test tube bread men who are superb and exactly the same. They'll all look just like Nick. The dark side is that hundreds of "sperm tubes" of the stupid, ugly, imperfect, and infirm will have to be cut, in order to have this race of glorious men ­ a race of blond scientists at the middle weight limit. There will be a loss of liberty and diversity of course. Nick's not happy. George goes on that his field, history, will lose its unpredictability, and there will be order and constancy. He refuses, however, to "give up Berlin" ­ because there is a saloon in West Berlin where the barstools are five feet high. He will fight Nick, with one hand on his scrotum, to the death. Martha mock laughs. Honey, drunk, doesn't why Nick never told her this. Nick is furious.

When Martha salaciously asks if everyone is going to look like Nick in this new world, he says he's going to be a personal screwing machine. Honey doesn't want to hear this and pouts for a second, then giggles insanely, asking George where his son is. Very formally, George asks Martha when their son is coming home. Martha tries to brush off this topic of conversation, but George insists, reminding her that tomorrow is the "little bugger's" birthday. Martha announces that George talks disparagingly about the "little bugger" because he's not completely sure it's his own kid. Drunk, Honey is blown away by all this. George insists that at the core of his being, he's certain of his "chromosomological partnership" in the creation of this "blond-eyed, blue-haired" son.

Martha's impressed and says she knows better. She's been to college like everyone else. George says she's also been a convent when she was younger. Martha says she was an atheist then and still is ­ but George corrects by calling her a pagan. There's some relatively good-natured joking, and Martha calls George a floozie ­ until Honey corrects that Martha's a floozie and asks for more brandy. Martha says that their son has green eyes, and they argue about that. Her own eyes are green ­ but more like hazel ­ George's are milky blue, and Daddy's are green. George insists that her father has tiny red eyes and white hair and is in fact a big white mouse. Martha says that George hates Daddy for his own ­ inadequacies, George finishes. George leaves.

Martha tells Nick that George hates her father. Nick tries to make light of it, but she insists she's not kidding and has no sense of humor Honey's excited when Martha says she's going to say why "the SOB" hates her father ­ her mother died early, she grew up with Daddy and worshipped him. Daddy built the college and is the college. After Martha got back from college, Miss Muff's Academy for Ladies, where she had been married for a week, her sophomore year, in a "kind of junior Lady Chatterly arrangement," to a naked landscaper, until Miss Muff and Daddy got it annulled, she sat around for a while and acted as hostess for Daddy. Then, she got the idea she'd marry into the college, someone to be groomed to take Daddy's place. This was her idea, not Daddy's. Then George came along.

George enters and hears this. Honey, who has been pretty out of it, is glad to see him back. Martha continues that George was young and intelligent ­ and six years younger than her, George says ­ in the History Department, and she fell for him. George plays along, calling her a romantic at heart, until Martha brings up the idea of succession. He too-patiently tries to get her to stop, especially now that she's already sprung a leak about their son, and warns her if she continues, he's going to get angry. Martha continues as George fumes at the bar.

Daddy thought this grooming thing was a good idea until he watched George for a couple of years and realized George didn't have the stuff ­ that George was a great big FLOP. George breaks a bottle against the bar and stands there, almost crying, telling Martha to stop. He drops it on the floor, as Martha calmly warns them he better not have wasted good alcohol, since he can't afford that on an Associate Professor's salary. She continues that he was no good at trustees' dinners, fundraising, and now she's stuck with this flop who's married to the president's daughter and expected to be somebody. Under her entire speech, George sings "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But instead she's stuck with a contemplative bookworm that doesn't have the guts to make anybody proud. Honey joins in singing with George, then suddenly says she's going to be sick and runs down the hall. Nick goes after her. Martha goes after them, leaving George onstage alone at curtain.

Act One Analysis:

The action of this act takes place in the home of George and Martha in New Carthage, Connecticut. In his use of setting, Edward Albee critiques the very subject matter he had first attacked in his earlier one-act play American Dream. Albee wrote this play in the early 1960's, at a time when Americans were beginning to question the American dream of the postwar 1950's. George's critical references to World War Two throughout this act reveal the way the author and characters' lives have been shaped by twentieth-century American history.

George, who says he was at the college helming the History Department during the war, was clearly exempt from service. Though we are given no explicit reason why he didn't serve as so many of the professors did, his lack of participation in the military is one of many reason that he ­ and more so, Martha ­ doubt his manhood. Another example in which manhood is even more explicitly linked to fighting is the anecdote about Martha's father, who wanted to box with George. George's recognition that his father-in-law, though old, is stronger than him, and his refusal to fight demonstrate just how deeply George has internalized his belief in the old man's power over him.

George's insistence that no one from New Carthage College died during the war exposes the myth of the American dream as false and empty. The association between manhood and military service is false; according to George, non of the other New Carthage professors risked their lives in the war. Ironically, George's temporary success ­ his temporary position as head of the history department during the war ­ comes only as a result of his perceived weakness. Only because he was not perceived as possessing the requisite strength to prove his manhood in war did he have a chance to (temporarily) achieve the position he could not achieve through direct action.

George's accomplishment of action through passivity ­ what might psychologically be labeled passive aggression ­ is evident from his very first interaction with Martha. At first, as she rants about Bette Davis and hounds George to recall what movie she's describing, it seems that George is simply ignoring her, out of tiredness or apathy. As her anger mounts, however, it becomes apparent that his vague responses and refusals to engage in a shouting match with her and as much a power struggle and part of a game as her louder attempts are.

The title of this act is "Fun and Games." In part, this title is ironic. The games Martha and George play are not fun for them or for their guests. Yet, the interactions in this act are very much games. Something as little as Martha demanding George answer the door, light her cigarette, or kiss her became imbued with additional meaning as they're integrated into an ongoing power struggle. Only gradually does it become clear to the viewer, as well as to Honey and Nick, that these are games. As real as the emotions that George and Martha feel and express, the couple also derives a perverse pleasure from their ongoing emotional and psychological games.

Albee employs a great deal of contrast in allowing his viewer/reader to understand the game-playing that characterizes George and Martha's interaction. On a character level, there is immediate contrast between Martha's "braying" aggression and George's passive display of apathy. Despite the initial appearance, this is not a simply portrayal of strength vs. weakness, as we see when the power struggle shifts later in the scene. On a larger level, there are immediate and sudden contrasts between hostility and anger and more amused game-playing. The first example of this occurs when, in the midst of their initial argument, George finishes Martha's sentence insulting him. For a moment after that, the tension seems to defuse, and George and Martha share a moment of laughter. From that moment, it is also clear that these arguments are a common part of George and Martha's interaction.

This is not to say that Albee lessens the emotional important of George and Martha's conflict by exploring it through the metaphor of the game. This is clearly a brutal, deadly-serious game. The juxtaposition of the real war with Martha's father's attempts to train the remaining faculty to box ­ to punch the Germans should they invade, Martha jokes ­ demonstrates that what are considered "only" games can have just as serious consequences as conventional warfare.

The warfare metaphor is continued in George's refusal to surrender Berlin demonstrates the character and authors' understanding of the very real meaning of symbols in the world. Though the city of West Berlin itself was very small in comparison to the rest of Europe, it was at the time a symbolic location during the Cold War. The American government believed that were they to surrender Berlin to the Communists, other nations belief in American power would unravel and chaos would ensue. Thus, while Berlin was in many ways a symbol of Western resistance to Communist power, the destruction of such a symbol was believed to have had destructive real-life consequences. From his reference, it is clear that George understands the power of a symbol. This realization foreshadows a significant act George will make in the third and final act of the play.

One symbolic act George undertakes in this part of the play is the "killing" of Martha with the Japanese gun. It is significant that he "shoots" her with a Japanese gun. Given his inability to protect her and the country during World War Two, he now symbolically destroys her with an instrument of the war. However, it is an interesting contrast and juxtaposition to the violent subtext that a parasol ­ an instrument of protection rather than destruction ­ shoots out. Thus, it may be inferred that despite his animosity towards her and attempts to destroy his wife, George has a simultaneous and oft-thwarted urge to protect her.

From their initial shared laughter to Martha's continued demands for kisses, the dialectic of love/hate becomes clear in this play. Albee demonstrates that love and hate are dialectical ­ two sides of the same coin. Hating each other does not preclude George and Martha from simultaneously loving and needing each other. Martha's story of falling for young George can be taken seriously, and there are complicated motives behind her demand for a kiss.

Albee wrote in the school of the Theatre of the Absurd, whose earlier writers included Beckett and Genet. One of the characteristics of absurdist drama is the characters' recognition of the absurdity of existence. They did not ask to live and they will die without wishing it. Thus alienated from their surroundings, they seek comfort in illusion. Characters' recognition of this illusion and struggle to survive the absurdity of existence characterizes Theatre of the Absurd. Clearly, Martha and George ­ and to a lesser extent, Nick and Honey ­ are characters who thrive on illusions. To deprive them of these illusions is tantamount to a violent act.

George and Martha's entire existence is based on illusion. Martha married George not because of who he was but because of who she imagined he ­ and by extension, she ­ could become. She married the illusion of George-who-would-be-university-president. George too bought into that illusion, and the realization that it is untrue, that George is in fact a flop, has wrought significant damage on their lives.

One of the biggest illusions in this play is hinted at from early on in this act, when George begs Martha not to do the bit about the kid. Though this is not confirmed with certainty until the third act, their veiled arguments about the kid here foreshadow the revelation that "the kid" is not real. He does not exist but rather is a shared and private illusion. George and Martha's battle about who can talk about the kid and their later talk of his parentage makes clear that this is a shared creation and illusion. George's underlying fear seems to be that by sharing their illusion with outsiders would threaten to expose it as illusion and destroy the comfort it brings.

To a lesser but no less true degree, Nick and Honey are also creatures of illusion. Certainly, their little social niceties ­ pretending not to notice George and Martha's arguments, laughing at things they don't find funny, changing the subject of conversation ­ are meant to preserve an illusion of civility and present the image of a happy couple. While for Nick, the tete-a-tete with George destroys the illusion to a great degree, Honey's increasing drunkenness and her offstage talk with Martha only increase her susceptibility to illusion. Seeming only to exist in the moment, she takes at face value what she hears, eager, for example, to hear Martha's story of how she came to marry George.

As well as appearing as a parody of the stereotypical young society wife, Honey functions as a Greek chorus in this play. Her increasingly intoxication functions to make her reactions more honest and immediate. She is also a childlike figure, the most guileless character in the play, and therefore susceptible to the illusions woven by the other characters.

Classical mythology also gets referenced in the setting of the play ­ New Carthage. Classical Carthage was the home of the mythical tragic lovers Dido and Aeneas, who provide an unexpected counterpoint to George and Martha. Later, Carthage was destroyed. Here, New Carthage is the site of the destruction of the American dream.

The New England setting of the play is also significant in Albee's commentary on the American dream. Simply the word "New" in New Carthage is a suggestion of hope and a second chance. We learn in this act that George is Martha's second husband, her second chance at a happy marriage. As a younger counterpoint to George and Martha, Nick and Honey are also a more hopeful attempt at fixing the mistakes of the past.

The symbolism inherent in George and Nick's chosen departments is obvious. George ­ already obsolete, meaningless and powerless ­ is "bogged" in the history department. He is already a relic of the past. Nick, in contrast, embodies the future in his youth and his position in the biology department. George's description of a genetically-altered race of supermen that look just like Nick emphasizes Nick's very embodiment of the scientist-as-wave-of-the-future. Some critics have even suggested that Nick's name recalls that of Nikita Khruschchev, who had recently risen to become Premier of the Soviet Union at the time of the play's writing. Thus, "Nick" succeeds in destroying illusions like Berlin and the American dream.

George's description of the "dark side" of chromosomal research is significant. He says that the ugly, the imperfect, and the stupid would be, in effect, sterilized, and he threatens to fight against Nick and this future while holding onto his scrotum. Thus, it is clear that George perceives Nick's position in the biology department not only as a threat to the world at large but more so as a threat to unman him.

Interestingly, George and Martha's imaginary son embodies the "perfect" appearance of this equally imagined race of future men. The boy's physical perfection ­ blond hair, blue eyes ­ foreshadows the fact that he is an illusion. Nick functions as a parallel to the imaginary son not only in appearance but in George's reference to him. At one time, he accidentally refers to Nick, who is 28, as being 21 years old ­ the same age as Martha has said their son will turn tomorrow. Indeed, throughout this play, George and Martha at times function as albeit dysfunctional parental figures to Nick and Honey, shaping and molding them, though not necessarily in positive ways.

George and Martha themselves embody the failure of the American Dream. Their first names, of course, evoke the country's first president and first-lady. This George has failed to be president like his namesake. Unlike Washington, who could not tell a lie, George thrives on illusion. And this Martha, far from being the respectable image presented by Martha Washington, is a floozie who flirts with other women's husbands in front of them.

The title of this play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, comes from a joking, intellectual take on the nursery rhyme, evidently told as a joke at the faculty party attended by the foursome. At first, it seems like only nonsense but gradually becomes an emotional anthem, as when George chants it, fearful of Martha's revelations about his failure. Not only does the rhyme recall "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from the nursery rhyme and thus remark on the interior fear of all the characters but it references Virginia Woolf, a writer who wrote about modern people's alienation from each other and ultimately killed herself. Edward Albee has said he saw the sentence scribbled on the wall of Greenwich Village bar.