1 minute read

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


a play by Edward Albee, his first major success. It examines the marriage of George, a middle-aged history lecturer, and the older Martha, the wealthy college president's daughter. They spend the night in a sexually fraught drinking bout with a young biologist, Nick, and his ‘slim-hipped’ wife Honey who are drawn into the marital crisis. George and Martha, childless, have compensated for that lack by creating a fantasy child, the intangible measure of their destructive love, now aged 21. The three acts—‘Fun and Games’, ‘Walpurgisnacht’, and ‘The Exorcism’—represent a movement from caustic with through the demonic power of contradictory illusions to a potential purging of self-deception, and the play powerfully interweaves political, psychological, and metaphysical meanings. The names George and Martha evoke the idealism of the American Revolution, and their harrowing marriage symbolizes the collapse of American liberalism. Nick's brilliance as a biologist foreshadows a totalitarianism in which ‘we will not have much music, much painting, but we will have a civilisation of men, smooth, blond, and right at the middleweight limit’, while Honey's sexless insipidity conceals a hunger for violence, and George fosters a liberal humanism which seems imprisoned in the past. The older couple's childlessness is mirrored in the phantom pregnancy which prompted the younger couple's marriage, and both represent the sterility of an exhausted culture. George's decision to ‘sacrifice’ their son marks the play's climax: the Walpurgisnacht spirits are exorcised, and May-day dawns with the young couple's departure and Martha's defeat. George's historical awareness and ritual skill have compelled Martha to acknowledge the relationship and renounce a fiction, but his earlier question remains both urgent and profound: ‘Truth and illusion, who knows the difference, eh, toots?’

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Patrick White (Patrick Victor Martindale White) Biography to David Wojahn Biography