Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A dark comedy, Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? portrays husband and wife George and Martha in a searing night of dangerous fun and games. By the evening’s end, a stunning, almost unbearable revelation provides a climax that has shocked audiences for years.

Type: Full Length Play

Acts: Three

First Performance: 13 October 1962, Billy Rose Theatre, New York

Awards: New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1962. Tony Award for Best Play, 1963. Foreign Press Association Award, 1963. Antoinette Perry Award, 1963. Outer Circle Award, 1963. Saturday Review Drama Critics Award, 1963. Variety Drama Critics’ Poll Award, 1963. Evening Standard Award, 1964.

Nominations: Drama Desk Award Outstanding Director of a Play [Albee], 1976. Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, 2005.

The Pulitzer Prize committee for the Best Play in 1963 recommended Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but the Pulitzer board, which has sole discretion in awarding the prize, rejected the recommendation, and no award was given that year.

Plot Summary and Critical Analysis by Ashley Gallagher

Plot Summary

“What a dump.”[1]  Martha’s frank discontentment sets the tone of Edward Albee’s most renowned play: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  The three act evening opens with sparring between Martha and her history professor husband, George.  At the beginning of Act I, titled “Fun and Games,” Martha and George have just arrived home from another of Martha’s father’s late night soirees he hosts as college president.  Unbeknownst to George, Martha has extended an invitation to a new, young biology professor, Nick, and his wife, Honey, to come back to their home for drinks. After Nick and Honey arrive, George and Martha begin exposing the dysfunction of their over twenty year marriage, at times violently and brutally. As the night progresses and the liquor flows, Martha makes a fatal mistake: she confesses to Honey that she and George have a son. When George learns of Martha’s indiscretion, he immediately goes on the offensive. At the end of the act, Martha humiliates George in front of their guests by calling him: “A great…big…fat…FLOP!”[2]  Honey then becomes ill and is ushered to the bathroom by Martha.

Act II, entitled “Walpurgisnacht” meaning “…a Witches’ Sabbath…[or] nightmarish wildness,”[3] begins with Nick and George alone onstage exchanging stories of their pasts while Martha tends to Honey offstage.  Upon Martha’s return, the two couples begin playing a series of “games” starting with “Humiliate the Host” in which Martha exposes the autobiographical inspiration behind a story George tells Nick in her absence involving a young boy who unintentionally shoots his mother and later kills his father in a car accident. The truth Martha implies is that George is the young boy in the story. In retaliation, George conducts two additional games. Seeking to reassert his power in “Get the Guests,” he trivializes Nick and Honey’s marriage through a “puffed up”[4] mouse analogy. Honey, although slow to catch on, realizes that Nick has shared the sordid circumstances of her “hysterical pregnancy” and their subsequent marriage. As a result, Honey experiences another bout of sickness. Martha seeks to even the score at the end of the act by pursuing a sexual encounter with Nick, cueing the next game of the evening: “Hump the Hostess.”

At the onset of Act III, “The Exorcism,” Martha announces Nick’s inability to sexually perform because he has had too much to drink. Soon after, while cradling a bouquet of snapdragons for Martha, George arrives at the front door imploring: “Flores; flores para los muertos. Flores.”[5] They soon return to their aggressive behavior after ganging up on Nick. George warns Martha: “I want you on your feet and slugging, sweetheart, because I’m going to knock you around, and I want you up for it.”[6] After this declaration, he initiates the final game, “Bringing up Baby” which culminates with his revelation of their son’s death.  Aghast, Martha claims that George does not have the right to “…decide these things” without her approval.[7] However, George has been pushed to his limit and, as such, chooses to end the evening of games by destroying the illusion of a son that he and Martha created so many years ago when they were unable to conceive.  After the truth has been revealed about George and Martha’s fictitious son, Nick and Honey exit, leaving George to care for Martha who ultimately admits that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf, of living life free of illusion.

Critical Analysis

In July 1962, just months before the Broadway opening of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, producers Clinton Wilder and Richard Barr were met with wavering support for the production by the Actors Studio.[8] Without their perseverance, Albee’s play may never have had such a successful six hundred sixty performance run at the Billy Rose Theater.[9] Despite its initial critics, the characters and their conflicts have largely contributed to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s becoming a classic of modern drama. Toby Zinman writes: “The plot stands as one of the great theatrical treatments of the dysfunctional family, a subject American drama has been in love with from the beginning; this is not the drippy prime-time variety of television’s version of ‘family drama’…but rather the obsessive reexamination of how families love and hate each other, the domestic battlefield where truth and illusion are locked in mortal combat.”[10] Indeed, the major theme critics have gleaned from the play in the fifty years since its debut is the concept of truth versus illusion.  George and Martha revel in the dissection of the truth and illusion that have kept them bound in their fiery marriage. The illusionary component of George and Martha’s relationship is best symbolized by their imaginary son. George, jarred by Martha’s breaking of their rule, decides to kill off or “exorcise” their son, thus explaining the significance of Act III’s title. Adler writes, “…George exorcises the child not only to kill the illusion and live in reality, but to destroy one reality—that in which he has failed to exercise the strength necessary to make the marriage creative even without children–and create a new reality to take its place. George, through mapping out for Nick and Honey the way to redirect their lives, achieves for Martha and himself a radical redirection of their own.”[11] Unlike Martha and George who are universally acknowledged by critics as having married for love, Nick and Honey’s marriage was only initiated because of Honey’s pregnancy coupled by her father’s wealth.[12] George tries to steer Nick and Honey away from the fate that he and Martha are currently battling: the use of illusion as a weapon against each other.[13] Martha, too, as Hoorvash and Porgiv comment, “…senses that something is lacking, not merely in her marriage or her life, but also in the lives of everyone else.”[14] Paolucci further asserts: “The younger couple mirror our own embarrassment and own public selves; Martha and George, our private anguish.”[15] In an interview with Rakesh H. Solomon, Albee comments on George and Martha’s imaginary son as a metaphor for this profound discontentment: “There is a distinction between the death of a metaphor and the death of a real child. And the play for me is more touching and more chilling if it is the death of the metaphor.”[16] George’s shattering of the illusion of his and Martha’s son is his answer to Martha’s desire for him to “…assert his strength” against her “many masculine qualities…[which] feeds off of George’s emasculation.”[17] The duality of George’s personality allows for a breadth of interpretations for actors. Albee comments: “‘Once you’ve played George in my play no other role with the possible exception of Hamlet will challenge you quite as much as far as magnitude of text, complexity of language and the challenge of working on many planes at the same time.’”[18] Fittingly, the role of George has been played by many renowned film and stage actors such as Richard Burton in 1966, Bill Irwin in 2005, and Tracy Letts in 2012.

George and Martha’s inability to conceive also plays into the extended metaphor of Albee’s play, suggesting that “…sterility and fertility are simply metaphors for social stagnation and progress, respectively.  George’s solution, rather, is closer to a religious one, which has always been part of the American ideology”[19]  Albee’s inspiration for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the tumultuous state of American society during the 1960s.  Dircks writes of Albee: “Albee saw an American society as sustaining itself on national illusions of prosperity and equality; here too, the situation demanded an honest confrontation of problems and a heightened state of communication.”[20]  Zinman, too, states, “Albee’s political and cultural agenda is woven into the characters’ preoccupations, and thus into the dialogue.”[21]  Thus, there can be no mistaking Albee’s allusion to George and Martha Washington, the first couple of the United States.[22]  Still, other critics attribute Albee’s inspiration to not just American politics but also to Virginia Woolf, herself, and her short story: “Lappin and Lapinova.”[23]  Others, like Konkle, see links between characters in Albee’s previous work The American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: “…Martha is a domineering wife like Mommy, George is an ‘ineffectual’ husband like Daddy, and together they ‘mutilate’ their imaginary son as cruelly as Mommy and Daddy did their adopted son.  Furthermore, George and Martha’s son, as a fiction, is as insubstantial as the vacuous Young Man, Mommy and Daddy’s new ‘adopted’ son in The American Dream, and Nick is a more fleshed-out version of the Young Man….”[24]  Over the years, Albee has also edited the script including a pivotal scene between George and Honey at the end of Act II in which Honey confesses her use of birth control and George begins to plot for his next game: “Bringing Up Baby.”  During Albee’s self-directed version of the play at the Alley Theatre in 1990, Solomon inquired, “…you made several changes in your text for this production.”[25]  To which Albee responded, “Oh, very few,” then began to list over a dozen changes ranging from simple typos to significant updates like Martha’s: “Truth and illusion, George; you don’t know the difference” to “Truth and illusion, George; you know the difference.”  These edits continue to preserve the universality of Albee’s play.  Paolucci writes, “It is a peculiarity of Albee’s and a trademark of his that the protagonists of his plays are at one and the same time distinctly Everybody Else.”[26]  Even without Albee’s revisions to the script, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains an impactful script that speaks to universal conflicts each generation must face: Who are we? What do we represent? and What will our futures hold?


[1] Albee 7.
[2] Albee 40.
[3] Gilchrist 857.
[4] Albee 65.
[5] Albee 80-81.
[6] Albee 86.
[7] Albee 95.
[8] Gardner 11.
[9] Calta 53.
[10] Zinman 39.
[11] Adler 67.
[12] On page 40, Zinman acknowledges the fact that Martha and George married for love unlike Nick and Honey. The quotation is from Albee’s play on page 44.
[13] Gilchrist 859.
[14] Hoorvash and Porgiv 14.
[15] Paolucci 46.
[16] Solomon 215.
[17] Adler 69, Eby 604.
[18] Zinman 52.
[19] Konkle 56-57.
[20] Dircks 140.
[21] Zinman 40.
[22] Konkle 50.
[23] Gilchrist 855.
[24] Konkle 49.
[25] Solomon 216.
[26] Paolucci 46.

Works Cited

Adler, Thomas B. “Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: A Long Night’s Journey into Day.”

Educational Theatre Journal 25.1 (March 1973): 66-70. Web. 26 June 2013.

Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Rev. ed. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2005. Print.

Calta, Louis. “Virginia Woolf to Close May 16: Albee Hit Leaves Broadway After 660 Performances.” New York Times 5 May 1964, 53. Web. 26 June 2013.

Dircks, Phyllis T. Edward Albee: A Literary Companion. Jefferson: McFarland, 2010. Print.

Eby, Clare Virginia. “Competitive Masculinity in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Modern Drama. 50.4 (Winter 2007): 601-619. Web. 11 June 2013.

Gardner, Paul. “Backers of Play by Albee in Doubt: Actors Studio May Not Be a Sponsor.” New York Times 4 July 1962, 11. Web. 26 June 2013.

Gilchrist, Jennifer. “‘Right at the Meat of Things’: Virginia Woolf in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Women’s Studies 40 (Routledge 2011): 853-872. Web. 11 June 2013.

Hoorvash, Mona and Farideh Pourgiv. “Martha the Mimos: Femininity, Mimesis and Theatricality in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies. 33.2 (December 2011): 11-25. Web. 11 June 2013.

Konkle, Lincoln. “‘Good, Better, Best, Bested’: The Failure of American Typology in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.” Edward Albee: A Casebook. Ed. Bruce J. Mann. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Paolucci, Anne. From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1972.

Solomon, Rakesh H. Albee in Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. Print.

Zinman, Toby. Edward Albee. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.

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