Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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

Act Three Summary:

"The Exorcism"

At open, Martha enters. The stage is empty and she talks to herself, wondering where everyone is. To amuse herself, she creates a conversation between herself and George, in which he says he'd do anything for her. She says Hump the Hostess and laughs at that, saying "fat chance." Martha goes on to create a conversation between herself and her father, in which she says that he has red eyes because he cries all the time. She says she and George cry all the time too, then freeze their tears to make ice to put in their drinks. Throughout the entire speech, she periodically yells to ask where everybody is. She concludes by imitating the ice cubes, "CLINK!ŠCLINK!ŠCLINK!ŠCLINK!"

Nick enters. He thinks everyone's gone crazy and repeats that assertion several times. Honey is lying on the floor of the bathroom, peeling the label off a liquor bottle. In response to him calling her crazy, Martha tells him he's a "flop." In fact, they're all flops, while Martha calls herself the Earth Mother. She says that she disgusts herself with her would-be infidelities, waiting for a bunch of impotent lunk-heads with her dress up over her head. George is the only man in her life who has ever made her happy. Nick can't believe it and thinks she's kidding. But Martha says that George keeps learning the game as quickly as she can change the rules and makes her happy. She concludes "George and Martha: sad, sad, sad," repeating that line over and over again.

Nick remains confused. Martha says that Nick doesn't see anything. When he gets snappish, she calls him a gelding and imitates a gattling gun. Just then, the doorbell chimes. Martha yells at Nick to answer it ­ telling him he can be the houseboy now. Nick gives in and opens the door. George stands there, his face covered by an enormous bouquet of snapdragons, and says, "Flores para los muertos." He pretends to mistake Nick for his "sonny-Jim," but Martha tells him that's the houseboy. Nick tries to get away, but Martha and George join together in mocking him as houseboy. When George says he picked the flowers by moonlight, it spurs an argument with Martha, who says that there is no moon ­ she saw it go down from the bedroom. George says that the moon came back up ­ just like it did one time when he was sailing past Majorca. Martha says that's lie. Nick says he doesn't know when they're lying or not. Martha and George argue about whether he's been to Majorca, where he says his parents took him as a college graduation present. When Nick asks if this was after he killed them, Martha and George pause, then say maybe, maybe not.

George begins tormenting Nick, calling him houseboy, and Nick pleads with Martha to tell George he's not a houseboy. When Martha tells George he doesn't know the difference between truth and illusion, he says that they must carry on as if they did. Nick is grateful to Martha when she does. George, in contrast, starts dancing around, through the snap dragons at Martha and saying "snap" each time, asking Nick if he is a houseboy and saying he disgusts him.

When Martha asks George if truth and illusion doesn't matter to him at all, George announces he has one more game to play ­ bringing up baby. He orders Nick to sit and calls for "SOWWIEE" for Honey until Nick goes to get her himself. Near tears, Martha pleads with George for no more games, tenderly moving to touch him. He grabs her by the hair and tells her she can't just go on and stop when she has enough blood in her mouth. He's going to make her performance look like an Easter pageant. He wants an equal battle and he wants her mad. She gets mad, and he says they're going to play this one to the death. Martha says she's ready, as Nick and Honey enter.

Honey is pretending to be a bunny. As George starts the game, saying she doesn't remember anything and saying "Hello, Dear," to Nick until he embarrasssedly says hello to her. When George begins to recap the games of the evening, Honey adds "peel the label" to the list. George says they all peel labels ­ and when you get down to the bone, there's something still inside, and you've got to get at the marrow. The marrow is particularly resilient in the young ­ like their son.

Martha doesn't want to talk about him. George starts describing him, saying he's a nice kid in spite of his home life ­ what with Martha's drinking, trying to break into the bathroom to wash him when he's sixteen, and all. Martha, near tears, takes over the description. George prompts and echoes her as she goes. Her story is an idyllic recitation. He was born on a September night. It was an easy birth ­ after it had been accepted. He was a healthy child with black hair that later turned blond as the sun. She had wanted a child. And they raised him with teddy bears and transparent floating goldfish. He was a restless child, who kept arrows with rubber tips under his bed "for fear." On Saturdays, he ate banana boats. His eyes were deep green. He loved the son, and was a beautiful boy.

George begins to chant the Requiem mass for the dead as Martha continues speaking. She talks about how he broke his arm when he saw his first cow. He grew and walked between them, a hand out to each of them, to protect himself and them. She concludes "So beautiful. So wise." Suddenly, Honey cries out in tears that she wants a child. Martha ignores the interruption and continues, saying that this perfection couldn't last long with George around. George tried to pull him down with him, but Martha fought him. When George interjects, asking how he tried, Martha suddenly insists that their son is fine and is away at college.

George tells Martha she just can't stop a story like that. Martha, he says, has a problem with liquor and a father who couldn't give a damn whether she lives or dies. Her son didn't want to be used as a weapon against his father and fought her every inch of the way, unable to tolerate her braying. Martha calls this lies and says he couldn't stand his father being a failure. She says that he only writes her letters. George claims he writes him letters at his office. Martha says the son spends his summers away because he can't stand the "shadow of the man" his father has become. George says he stays away because there is no room for him with the liquor bottles. As Martha continues to insist that she has raised her son to be good against all odds in her marriage, George again begins to chant the Requiem and then Kyrie Eleison.

Honey grows hysterical and screams for them to stop it. Knowing what is coming, she begins weeping as George tells Martha he has some news for her about "sonny-Jim." While she and Nick were out of the room, he and Honey were sitting there ­ and the doorbell rang. It was Western Union with a telegram. Some telegrams you have to deliver; some you can't phone. Honey keeps telling George to stop. Finally George tells Martha that their son isn't coming home for his birthday ­ he can't. Martha objects, but George continues, slowly telling her that their son is dead. He was killed late in the afternoon, driving on a country road with a learner's permit in his pocket, when he swerved to avoid a porcupine and drove straight into a tree.

Martha screams that George cannot do that. She tells him he can't decide for himself. She won't let him decide these things. George coolly continues, saying they'll have to go around noon to identify the body. She leaps at him, but he holds her back as she says that she won't let him do this. She begins moaning "no" and sinks to the floor, insisting he is not dead. George insists he is. Nick tries to comfort her by telling her it wasn't George's decision, but Martha screams that George can't kill him ­ can't have him die. She demands to see the telegram, but George says, with a straight face, that he ate it. Martha spits in his face. Honey agrees that he ate it. She watched him.

Martha tells George he's not going to get away with this, but George tells her she knows the rules. Nick begins to realize what's going on. As Martha insists he is their child, George insists he has killed him. Nick furiously announces that he thinks he understands. Martha, no just sad, repeats that George doesn't have the right, but George tenderly tells her that he does have the right. They never spoke of it, but he could kill him any time he wanted. Martha asks why, and George tells her that he broke their rule and mentioned him to someone else. Martha demands who, and a crying Honey says me. Martha screams that she forgets. Sometimes when it's night and everyone is talking, she forgets, but George didn't have to kill him. George simply repeats in Latin the last lines of the funeral service, to which Honey gives the appropriate responses.

After a long silence, George says that it will be dawn soon, and the party's over. Nick quietly asks if they could have any. George and Martha agree that "we" couldn't. Nick takes Honey's hand, and they get up to leave. Before he goes, Nick says, "I'd like toŠ" but George cuts him off, saying good night. Nick and Honey exit.

The final section is very quiet. George picks up glasses and asks Martha if she wants anything. She doesn't. He asks if she's tired. She is. After a long silence, she asks if he had to. He pauses and says yes. She asks again, and he says yes and adds that it was time. After a pause, Martha says she's cold. George says it's late. After a long silence, he says it will be better. She says she doesn't know. He says that it will be ­ maybe. She's not sure and asks "justŠus?" He says yes. She asks if maybe they could -- and he says no. She says, "Yes. No." He asks if she's all right. She says, "Yes. No." He puts his hand on her shoulder, and she leans her head back. He sings very softly, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "I Š amŠGeorgeŠIŠam," Martha says. George nods slowly. The play ends with this tableau in silence.

Act Three Analysis:

Albee explore the theme of circularity in this final act. He employs the device of contrast not to demonstrate how much things have changed between the beginning and end of the play but to show, despite appearances, how little things have changed.

Both the opening and closing scenes of the play feature Martha and George alone on stage. Both scenes feature one of them singing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But whereas the first scene is fast-paced and loud, full of dialogue and frenetic energy, the final scene is quiet and contemplative. George and Martha speak in short sentences and monosyllables. Whereas Martha considered the song a "scream" and considered it a humorous means with which to rile George in the first scene, in the final scene George sings the song as a sort of lullaby to comfort her. Despite the contrast in energy, however, how much has really changed? Martha and George's marriage is still miserable. They still desire illusion and eschew reality.

Albee has said that "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" means "Who is afraid to live without illusions?" At the end, after George sings it, Martha simply says, "I am." Those are the final words of the play. Albee's ultimate message is that we must live without illusions, however much comfort they give us. When Martha begins to suggest the possibility of creating another imaginary child, George says no before she can even finish the sentence.

According to Albee, the song "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wool?" came from words he saw scrawled on the wall of Greenwich Village restaurant's bathroom. But the reference to Virginia Woolf, the famous writer, is meaningful in terms of the literary illusions it suggests. For one thing, Woolf went mad and committed suicide. Her self-destruction can be seen as a commentary on George and Martha's self-destruction. Also, as a fiction writer, Woolf created beautiful and elaborate, but ultimately illusory, stories ­ just as Martha and George have created a perfect, but imaginary, son.

In this act, as in the rest of the play, Albee continues to explore the problematic relationship between illusion and reality. When Martha tells Nick that George is the only man who has ever been able to make her happy, Nick things she's kidding. In response to his disbelief, Martha says, "You always trade in appearances?" Nick, like most of the audience, believes that what he sees and is told is the truth; only in the last minutes of the play, does Nick come to the shocking realization that much of what he has been told is not in fact true.

Later, Martha and George both admit that they cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality ­ but it's important to act as if they do. This is the very danger Albee's play functions as a warning against. Martha's inability to distinguish between illusion and reality is responsible for George's decision to "kill" their son. In her tearful pleas to him after he announces the boy's death, Martha explains that sometimes when it gets late, it's hard for her to keep him a secret. George, more than Martha, sees the danger this blurring causes, and his perspective allows him to make the decision to end the game.

Along with Nick, the audience is forced to recognize in this act just how tenuous George's and Martha's grasp of ­ and Albee's presentation of ­ illusion and reality has been. When George, in the midst of another argument, asserts that his parents took him to Majorca as a college graduation present, Nick coolly asks if this occurred after he killed them. His shock and betrayal at this assertion and at the revelation that the child is imaginary reveals his assumptions with regard to appearances and reality.

Honey, who has functioned throughout the play as a Greek chorus, makes some surprisingly apt remarks here. Her drunken insistence that the group play "peel the label" leads George to make a significant remark about how it is important to go below the surface, below the bone, right to the marrow. Killing the son is going to the marrow for George. Though not consciously, Honey is more deeply attuned to the emotional truth of the situation than appearances-trading Nick. When she responds appropriately to George's recitation of the Requiem for the dead, she subconsciously recognizes that the death of this child, even though imaginary, is a painful and final experience for George.

Albee makes numerous literary allusions throughout the play but here he focuses in particular on Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. When talking to herself at the beginning of the scene, she references "The Poker Game," the painting based on the scene in which fragile Blanche comes in on her animalistic brother-in-law Stanley's poker game. Secondly, when he comes in with the snapdragons, George quotes a line of dialogue from Williams' play ­ "Flores para los muertos," flowers for the dead. In Streetcar, that line foreshadows Blanche's imminent spiritual and emotional (though not physical death). While George's use of the line foreshadows his announcement of "sonny-Jim's" death, it also proceeds the spiritual decimation of his and Martha's marriage.

Another literary allusion in this play is to Hamlet. When George enters with the flowers, Martha exclaims, "Pansies! Rosemary! Violence! My wedding bouquet!" This line echoes Ophelia's mad speech in Hamlet in which she offers the other characters imaginary flowers, telling them their meanings ("Rosemary is for remembrance"). Here, Martha, in another example of the linguistic cleverness of her dialogue with George, substitutes "violence" for "violets," characterizing her marriage. Additionally, this literary allusion offers more foreshadowing of death. Ophelia gives her speech before drowning herself.

Though mentioned elsewhere in the play, Biblical allusions take on a central meaning in this act. Albee entitles this act, "The Exorcism," referring to George's exorcism of the destructive power of their illusory son on their marriage. From the chimes in the previous act to more explicit references here, George and Martha's son becomes a Christ figure sacrificed for the good of their marriage in a Christian allegory. George chants Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy) and the Requiem (Catholic funeral service) during Martha's monologue about their son. Martha herself calls the boy a "poor lamb," and Jesus is also known as the "Lamb of God" for his sacrificial death.

Ultimately, the son is a profoundly ambivalent symbol in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Though he is the source of many arguments between George and Martha, who argue over everything from his eye color to the letters he writes home from college to which of them has ruined his life more, he is also a force that brings them together. Martha's final monologue about his life presents a perfect, idealized child. She describes the boy who "walked evenly between usŠa hand out to each of us." From this monologue, we finally see what appearances have no previously shown. We see the importance of this son, even though imaginary, to George and Martha. Clearly, he has been created of a means of binding George and Martha together. Their dialogue and Martha's emphasis on "we" when Nick asks if they've never been able to have children shows us how much their individual son bonded George and Martha together. George's decision to kill him, therefore, is an incredibly meaningful and significant one. Though he was imaginary, his impact on their emotions and the future of their relationship is clear from their reactions to the boy's "death."