ClassicNote on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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ClassicNote on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

On June 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy traveled to West Berlin and uttered the now-famous statement, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Nearly two years earlier, on the night of August 13, 1961, the Communist East German government had erected the Berlin Wall. Not only did this wall physically close the border between East and West Germany, separating families and prohibiting travel between the two nations, but it soon because a potent symbol in the Cold War.

In his famous speech, Kennedy declared that Berlin was a symbol of democracy and freedom. "Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us." Indeed, Berlin became a potent and embattled symbol during the Cold War 1960's in both politics and literature.

George, the battle-weary male protagonist of Edward Albee's 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? references this Cold War understanding of Berlin. In act one, George proclaims, "I will not give up Berlin!" George's reference to Berlin, in the heat of battle with his braying wife Martha, not only reveals the influence of the Cold War on Albee's play but suggests deeper and darker meanings for the symbol of Berlin than those touched upon in Kennedy's famous speech. This reference to Cold War politics was intentional. Albee later explained in straightforward terms the influence of the era on his play: "Here was a time when Russia was trying to take Berlin, the Berlin blockade."

Berlin's symbolic power and the Cold War perception of it as an embattled site can be traced back to geographical and historical realities. Berlin, of course, is the capital city of Germany. When Germany was partitioned into two halves, to be administered by the Soviet Union and the Allied western powers after World War II, Berlin was split in half. However, Berlin's location within the country of Germany presented specific geographical concerns. Berlin is not at the center of Germany but rather in the eastern half of the country. West Germany, Kennedy's bastion of freedom, was therefore geographically surrounded by what became Communist-controlled East Germany.

In 1948, after the initial partition, Soviet powers had blockaded Berlin in a lengthy stand-off. In 1961, White House foreign policy experts worried that such a situation could easily occur again. At that time, the illegal flow of East Germans into West Berlin was increasing, and Germany was perceived as a pressure cooker about to blow. Nonetheless, Washington did not expect the Soviet-controlled East German government to respond by building a wall. Therefore, Kennedy was caught off guard by his nemesis, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Albee purposefully named the character Nick, the young Biology professor in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, after Nikita Khrushchev. Decades later, speaking to a group of Howard University Students, Albee explained, "I was having some fun writing this. It was written in 1962, and I named Nick after Nikita Khrushchev. That was a private choice." George, whose first name echoes that of George Washington, represents the old American dream. But unlike Kennedy, who found optimism in the democracy of West Berlin, Albee was led by the Cold War to conceive of a much darker and more cynical vision of American culture.

Berlin, a site in which Communism and Democracy existed side by side, their coexistence held in check only by violence and the threat of violence, understandably became a microcosm for the Cold War world ­ divided along Eastern and Western, Communist and Democratic, lines. Similarly, the single set of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the living room of George and Martha's house, functions as a microcosm in which Edward Albee explores the destruction of the American dream.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway on October 13, 1962. That same month, the world seemed poised on nuclear war when the United States faced off against the Soviet Union over the presence of nuclear weapons on Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During those tense thirteen days, Kennedy and an executive council of advisors met and discussed the fate of the world. On October 18, only five days after the opening of Albee's play, when faced with the question of whether to warn Khrushchev before striking Berlin, President Kennedy mused, "And then if he says: ŒIf you are going to do that, we're going to grab Berlin.' . . . He'll grab Berlin, of course. Then either way it would be, we lost Berlin, because of these missiles.

Albee's play was clearly a product of its time. Indeed, the profanity and hateful words between George and Martha that so shocked audiences in the 1960's now seem commonplace to an American public accustomed to Jerry Springer and other television shows of that ilk. Such was not the case, however, in 1962 American, still lingering in the halcyon days of 1950's optimism. This was a time before Vietnam, before Watergate, before the Camelot era ended with Kennedy's assassination.

Honey and Nick, the young married couple who stumble into George and Martha's marital battlefield, are products of that era. Notably, Albee does not praise them or set them up as standards of perfection. Rather, he demonstrates that at their cores, they are hollow and flawed. Honey and Nick function as surrogates for the audience inducted into George and Martha's chaotic world. In recognizing their commonality with this young couple, the audience is forced to comprehend Albee's criticism of the American dream.

At the time that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was produced, Albee was already a successful and noteworthy new playwright, most well known for his one-act, The Zoo Story. Both plays showcase his talent for combining realism and absurdism.

The audience ­ the very audience whose dreams and assumptions Albee sought to critique ­ was immediately polarized by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The play was an enormous commercial success. Many audience members and critics lauded it as revolutionary and as marking a new era in American drama. Within the decade, Albee became the second most produced playwright, after Shakespeare, on college campuses. (Albee's biggest competition for that spot was with Eugene Ionesco, another absurdist playwright.)

But many of the people who saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? during its 1962 run found its language and sexual content shocking and labeled it "perverse" and "dirty minded." While this debate raged far and wide, even among those who had not seen the play, it had specific ramifications in the world of theater critics.

The committee selected to chose the play that would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962 voted to make Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the winner. However, the Pulitzer Prize is overseen by Columbia University, and the trustees of the university decided that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'s explicit language, interest in "taboo" subjects, and controversial public reception made it the wrong choice. Though it had won the vote, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did not receive the award, which was not given to any play that year as a result.

Nonetheless, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Tony Award for Best Play that year. Albee has won three Pulitzers in years since. The production, which ran at the Billy Rose Theatre, featured Uta Hagen as Martha, Arthur Hill as George, George Grizzard as Nick, and Melinda Dillon as Honey, and was directed by Alan Schneider.

In 1966, Mike Nichols directed a film adaptation of the controversial play, starring famous and controversial then-couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Martha and George. Sandy Dennis played Honey, and George Segal played Nick. Studio honcho Jack Warner insisted on maintaining the integrity of the play, and The screenplay, adapted by Ernest Lehman, preserved virtually all of Albee's dialogue, though it did open up the locations of the one-set play beyond George and Martha's living room. The film was shot on-location as Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Drawn by the power of its controversial stars and the fame of the play itself, the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a resounding commercial success. It was the most expensive black and white film ever made. Stars Burton and Taylor drew $750,000 and $1.1 million, respectively. Though Albee rumoredly wanted to cast Bette Davis and Henry Fonda in the roles, studio heads prevailed. Burton pushed Taylor to sign on. She then brought first-time director Mike Nichols on board, and Nichols in turn cast Burton as George.

Friend familiar with the play warned Taylor and Burton that portraying this hate-filled couple would be detrimental to their marriage. Indeed, it is believed that the film ­ for which Taylor gained 20 pounds ­ led to their breakup. Taylor also chipped a tooth during filming. Not only was it Nichols directorial debut, it was also actress Sandy Dennis's first film. Pregnant when production began, she suffered a miscarriage during the filming of the movie.

Despite Jack Warner's warnings, Nichols shot the film with the script's profanity in tact. For the most part, the censors let it by. This not only added to the immediacy and believability of the film at the time but helps it to remain effective even today. Nonetheless the dialogue that was cut from the play upset Albee, who felt that the political message of his play were excised from the film.

The film opened on June 22, 1966, at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. All of the film's actors were nominated for Academy Awards. At the time, that was the first time this had every happened. It has only happened once since (in 1972), with Sleuth. Ultimately, Elizabeth Taylor won the Oscar for Best Actress and Sandy Dennis won for Best Supporting Actress. The film also won for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

There have been two major theatrical revivals of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf since its original Broadway production. Both were directed by Edward Albee himself. The play was first revived in 1976 on Broadway. Its stars, Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara, were both nominated for Tony Awards for their performances. Only fourteen years after the initial production, American was a far different place. Watergate, Vietnam, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, had all made America a much more cynical place politically. Culture had changed too. No longer was George and Martha's animosity so shocking or controversial.

The second revival was in Los Angeles in 1989 and starred Glenda Jackson and John Lithgow. In November of that year, chaos began to reign in East and West Berlin. The East German government was collapsing. East German money was worthless. Crowds began to gather at the Berlin wall. On November 9, the Berlin Wall, the symbolic and physical barrier separating East and West Berlin, fell. Just as George and Martha move from chaos to tentative reconciliation in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the two parts of Germany began the process of reconciling themselves into one nation. Though it remains famous ­ increasingly included in literature courses and still performed by theatrical companies and on college campuses ­ Albee's play was without a doubt the product of an era. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, that era game to an end, but the power of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lives on.

Character List:

Martha: The fifty-two-year-old wife of a college history professor. Martha defines herself through her "Daddy," the president of the college in the New England town of New Carthage. In her past, after her mother died when Martha was a child, she attended a convent school and young ladies' junior college, where she fell in love with a blue collar gardener and married him on a whim. Her shocked, upstanding father quickly annulled the marriage ­ though it was consummated ­ and brought her home, where she reveled in the power of playing hostess for her widowed father. She chose George, believing he had potential to become the head of the history department and eventually to replace her father as president of the university. George's failure to rise to this position is her biggest disappointment, and she refuses to let her husband see just how much of a disappointment he is to her. Now 52, Martha is a braying, heavy-drinking embarrassment, who seduces new faculty member Nick just to anger George and has no qualms about airing her dirty laundry in front of guests. Martha's decision to share the story of their imaginary son with the guests breaks the unspoken rules of the emotionally cruel games she plays with George and leads to chaos.

George: Forty-six years old and an acknowledged failure. George is in the history department, though much to Martha's chagrin, he is not the head of the history department. As a teenage boy he may have accidentally shot his mother and accidentally killed his father in a car crash. Or this may be just a fiction he has created. George's professional high-point came during the war when he was left in charge of the department while the other faculty members were serving in the military. Since then, he has written an autobiographical novel, the publication of which was forbidden by Martha's father. Always in the shadow of his father-in-law, whom he calls a great white mouse with red eyes, George plays along with Martha's games. When alone with her, he ignores her as much as possible. But when she launches into a game of Humiliate the Host, exposing his most painful secrets to Nick and Honey, George decides to strike back. Unable to control his wife, George usually retreats into his history books. He makes the biggest power play of his life here, "killing" the imaginary son he shares with Martha, thus punishing her for bringing their illusion into the harsh light of reality.

Nick: Nick is thirty years old and blond, a young genius who received his Master's degree at twenty. He grew up in the Midwest with his wife Honey, whom he knew since childhood. Though he initially appears to love his wife, it becomes evident that he married her for her money and because she was pregnant with what turned out to be a hysterical pregnancy. An ambitious new member of the college's biology department, Nick is the golden-haired boy who just might succeed where George failed ­ taking every opportunity offered to him to get ahead, including sex with faculty wives. At first, he acts horrified by George and Martha's antics but soon becomes drawn in. He attempts to sleep with Martha and is proved impotent.

Honey: Nick's twenty-six-year-old wife. She's frail and "slim-hipped." Honey is rich, left money by her late evangelist father. She drowns her sorrows in brandy, getting silly and childlike. She suffered a hysterical pregnancy, which led Nick to marry her. While drunk, she confesses to George her fear of the pain of childbirth and of getting pregnant ­ which she is, unbeknownst to Nick, preventing secretly. Drunk and throwing up in the bathroom for most of the play, Honey is the most innocent of all the characters. Her immediate reactions to the chaos around her function as a sort of Greek chorus on George and Martha's marriage.

Main 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.

Short Summary:

Act One, "Fun and Games," opens at two o'clock on a Sunday morning as middle-aged couple George and Martha return home from a faculty party at a small college in the New England town of New Carthage. Over the course of the scene, as Martha bickers with George, we learn that George is a going-nowhere history professor, while Martha is the daughter of the college president. She soon informs him that she has invited a new member of the Math Department over for drinks. Martha also loudly sings, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" a joke of a song they heard at the faculty party and is angry that George doesn't laugh. Before their guests arrive, George warns her not to do "the bit about the kid."

Their guests are Nick, a blond 30-year-old professor in the Biology Department, and his wife Honey. Nick and Honey are somewhat shocked at being thrown into the war zone that is Martha and George's marriage. While Honey copes by drinking brandy after Brandy, Nick attempts to insinuate himself into his hosts' good graces. Drunken Martha is shamelessly flirting with him immediately. Martha goes off to show Honey to the bathroom. While the women are gone, George bitterly suggests that Nick will take over the Biology Department and the college. When Honey returns, she mentions that she didn't know George and Martha had a son. George is furious at Martha, who has told Honey that their son, whose 21st birthday is tomorrow, will be returning home the next day.

Martha, who has changed into a seductive outfit, continues shamelessly flirting with Nick and insulting George, telling a story about how she punched George when he refused to join in a boxing match with her father. George grows fed up and leaves the room. He comes back with a rifle and shocks everyone by firing it at Martha. A parasol, not a bullet, erupts from the barrel. The tension dissipates a bit and George, much to Martha's chagrin, insists on talking about their son. The two argue which has been the worse influence on the boy, and Martha proceeds with her tact of humiliation by telling Nick and Honey how George is flop who failed to take over the History Department, as she'd anticipated when they got married. Their shouting match ends when George grabs Honey and dances around with her while singing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Honey rushes off to the bathroom to be sick.

Act Two, "Walpurgisnacht," opens as Martha is making coffee in the kitchen. George learns from Nick that he married Honey because she was pregnant with what ended up being a hysterical pregnancy. The added bonus is that she is rich, left money by her evangelist father. He half-jokingly confides his plan to rise to power at the college by sleeping with wives of important faculty members. George shares an anecdote of a boy, whom he says he knew in prep school, who ordered "bergin" at a gin joint with his friends. This boy had accidentally killed his mother with a shotgun, and a year later, with his learners permit in his pocket, he crashed into a tree and killed his father.

Martha and Honey return. Martha is even more blatant in her flirtation with Nick. When Honey declares that she wants to do Interpretive Dance, Martha takes the opportunity to dance with Nick in a blatant lascivious manner. George gets fed up when Martha continues to insult him, suggesting that the boy who ordered "bergin" and killed his parents was George and mocking his failed attempt at publishing a novel. He tries to strangle her, but Nick pulls him off.

George announces it's time for a new game. They've just finished playing Humiliate the Host, and there will be time for Hump the Hostess later. Now, it's time for Get the Guests. George toys with a confused Honey by telling her a story of a girl named Mousie who puffed up and whose puff went "poof." Honey again runs off to be sick again.

While Honey is lying on the cool tile of the bathroom floor, George turns his back to Martha and Nick, who begin to kiss and grope on the couch. Martha is annoyed that George is not paying attention and getting angry. She and Nick eventually move off to the kitchen, bumping into the doorbell chimes on the way. Honey stumbles out to the living room, still half in her dream, telling George that she heard bells. Honey's half-coherent mumblings reveal that she's terrified of having children and has actually been secretly preventing getting pregnant. Honey's continued talk of bells gives George an idea of how to get even with Martha ­ he'll tell her he received a telegram that said that their son is dead.

Act Three, "The Exorcism," opens as Martha wanders onstage alone. Drunk and exhausted, she launches into a confused monologue which reveals her desperation and loneliness. She says that she and George cry all the time, then freeze their tears into ice cubes for their drinks. Nick comes back onstage, wondering what has happened. George is gone, and Honey is back in the bathroom. Martha calls him a flop and reveals his impotence, surprising him when she tells him that George is the only one who can satisfy her. She tells Nick not to believe appearances and praises George's ability to learn the games as quickly as she can change the rules.

Nick is furious and grows more so when Martha continually refers to him as a houseboy and a gigolo. When the doorbell starts ringing, she tells the houseboy to get it. It's George, hiding behind a bouquet of flowers, quoting a line from Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire: "Flores para los muertos." George pretends to be a Western Union man and acts as if he's mistaken Nick for his and Martha's son. Nick gets fed up and calls them vicious, and George and Martha join together in deriding them.

Soon, George and Martha launch into another series of arguments over seemingly meaningless topics ­ whether or not there is a moon that night, whether or not George has taken a trip to Majorca ­ that continually reference truth and illusion. George starts throwing his bouquet of snapdragons at Martha, telling her their marriage has gone snap.

George drags Honey back into the room and announces one last game, Bringing Up Baby, to be played to the death. Honey, very drunk and holding a bottle, wants to play Peel the Label instead. George assures her they have. George begins to tell a rehearsed story about their son, scared away by Martha's overbearing presence. Martha counters with a story of her own describing an idealized childhood. During her story, George begins to chant the Requiem. In the midst of this, Honey suddenly cries out that she wants a child. Martha begins to blame George for dragging the boy down with him, and their argument intensifies. Honey pleads for them to stop.

Slowly and deliberately, George tells Martha that their son is dead. He was driving on a country road, swerved to avoid a porcupine, and crashed into a tree, the exact details of the "bergin" boy's story. Martha is furious and yells that George has no right to do this. George insists that those were always the rules of the game, and that once she broke the rules by mentioning their son, he had no other choice. Nick finally realizes that the son is imaginary, and George confirms his suspicions. They couldn't have any children. He suggests Nick and Honey go home.

The last few minutes of the play are quiet and tender. George assures Martha that things will be better and says a quiet no to her suggestion that they create another child. He begins to sing her "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" as a sort of lullaby, and Martha answers, "I am."

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