Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Themes

Reality vs. Illusion

Edward Albee has said that the song, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" means "Who is afraid to live without illusion?" At the end of the play, Martha says that she is. Indeed, the illusion of their son sustains George and Martha's tempestuous marriage. Ultimately, George takes it upon himself to "kill" that illusion when Martha brings it too far into reality. Throughout the play, illusion seems indistinguishable from reality. It is difficult to tell which of George and Martha's stories ­ about their son, about George's past ­ are true or fictional. Similarly, Nick and Honey's lives are based on illusion. Nick married for money, not love. Though he looks strong and forceful, he is impotent. Honey has been deceiving him by using birth control to prevent pregnancy. As an Absurdist, Albee believed that a life of illusion was wrong because it created a false content for life, just as George and Martha's empty marriage revolves around an imaginary son. In Albee's view, reality lacks any deeper meaning, and George and Martha must come to face that by abandoning their illusions.

Games and War

The title of the first act is "Fun and Games." That in itself is deceptive, for the games that George and Martha play with their guests are not the expected party games. Rather, their games of Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, and Hump the Hostess which involves the characters' deepest emotions. George's characterization of these emotionally destructive activities as games and assumption of the role of ring master reveals that all the events of the evening are part of a power struggle between him and Martha, in which one of them intends to emerge as victor. Martha and George's verbal banter and one upsmanship is also characteristic of their ongoing game-playing. Years of marriage have turned insults into a finely honed routine. By characterizing these activities of games, Albee does not suggest that they are frivolous or meaningless. Rather, he likens game-playing to war and demonstrates the degree to which George and Martha are committed to destroying each other. George and Martha in fact declare "all out war" on each other. What begins as a game and a diversion escalates over the course of the play until the characters try to destroy each other and themselves.

History vs. Biology

George and Nick's academic departments at New Carthage College set up a dialectic in which Albee presents a warning about the future of life. George is an associate professor in the History Department, while Nick is a new member of the Biology Department. Old, tired, and ineffectual, George exemplifies the subject that he teaches. What's more, he notes that no one pays attention to the lessons of history ­ just as Nick ignores George's sincere advice, responding contemptuously, "Up your!" Nick, as a representative of science, is young and vital. In the words of George, he is the "wave of the future." Through Nick and George's argument about Biology and History, Albee demonstrates two clashing worldviews. George's lack of success in the History Department and inability to rise to power as successor to the president of the college contrasts with Nick's plans and seeming ability to move ahead ­ first taking over the Biology Department, then the college. Albee clearly intends for us to perceive Nick's (half-joking) plan as a threat. George's criticism of Biology's ability to create a race of identical test tube babies all like Nick and Nick's ruthless willingness to take any means necessary (including sleeping with factory wives) to get ahead reveals the absence of morality and frightening uniformity in a future determined by science. What's more, in exposing seemingly virile Nick's impotence, Albee demonstrates the underlying powerlessness of science and in George's perseverance, the unexpected staying power of history.

The American Dream

The title of one of his earlier plays, the American Dream was a significant concern of Albee's. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he explores the illusion of an American dream that masks a core of destruction and failure. Writing during the Cold War, Albee was responding to a public that was just beginning to question the patriotic assumptions of the 1950's. His George and Martha reference patriotic namesakes ­ George and Martha Washington. Albee uses this symbolic first couple's unhappy marriage as a microcosm for the imperfect state of America. When George and Martha's marriage is revealed to be a sham based on the illusion of an imaginary son, the viewer is led to question the illusions that similarly prop up the American dream. Nick and Honey, a conventional American dream couple, are also revealed to be presenting a falsely happy façade. They too secretly take advantage of and lie to each other. What's more, Nick's name is a direct reference to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, and his threat to George and Martha's marriage references the Cold War turmoil of America.

The Christian allegory

Subtle references to Christianity, particularly to Catholic rites and rituals, abound in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. For instance, Martha refers to her (imaginary) son as a "poor lamb," making him a Christ symbol ­ for Jesus is also known as the Lamb of God. George chants the Kyrie Eleison, Dies Irae, and Requiem from Catholic liturgy. The doorbells chimes which sound at the end of the second act echo the chimes that sound during a Catholic mass. Albee even names the third act of the play "The Exorcism." That name, of course, refers to George's attempt to kill the "son" and thus exorcise illusion from his marriage. The killing of the "lamb" can also be seen as a sacrifice necessary to save George and Martha's marriage. George calls the proceedings "an Easter pageant," referencing the day the Lamb of God was sacrificed to save the world, and the scene even takes place early on a Sunday morning.

Love and Hate

In his portrayal of George and Martha's marriage, Albee seems to make the not-uncommon literary assertion that love and hate are two parts of a single whole. From their vitriolic banter, it clearly appears that George and Martha hate each other. In fact, they say as much and even pledge to destroy each other. Nonetheless, there are moments of tenderness that contradict this hatred. George even tells Nick not to necessarily believe what he sees. Some of George and Martha's arguments are for show, others are for the challenge of arguing, while still others are indeed meant to hurt each other. However, Martha's declaration that George is really the only one who can satisfy her suggests that there are or have been positive aspects to their marriage. Clearly, as much as they fight, they also need each other, even if just to maintain the illusions that keep them going.