Critical Analysis of Marriages in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee was a pioneer of his time when he wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He wrote the play as a way to look into two marriages, one that has been long going and one that has just begun. Then taking it one step further George and Martha are able to live vicariously through the newer marriage of Nick and Honey which allows for problems of their own to surface. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? uses setting and intoxication to contrast the conflicts of a new and old marriage through the long term marriage of George and Martha and the newly married couple Nick and Honey.
Albee uses the opening act “Fun and Games” of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to set a precedent and setting for the remainder of the play. The play is set in New Carthage in New England during the 1960's. As play opens and the stage is dark and the first noise heard is a crash against the door, followed by Martha's laughter. This is followed by her opening their door to their house and which she turns on the lights and says “Jesus…H. Christ” (Albee 3). According to Richard Amacher, the “crash against the front door, Martha's laughter, and (as the lights switch on) her opening speech… all indicate some degree of inebriety (68). Going further into the setting of the living room which is used throughout the rest of the play, Martha says repeatedly referring to their house as “What a dump” (Albee 4). Even though the living room is the setting throughout the play it is also significant to note that the house is on a college campus which would indicate some sense of intelligence amongst the couples. After she says this statement a few times we as readers are able to get more insight into the marriage of George and Martha because of the quarrel that ensues between the two. Albee uses the intoxication of the couple as well as the seclusion and comfortableness of them being alone in their living room to show the true relationship that the two have. The “Fun and Games” as according to the title of Act 1 finally start once George is told that they will be having company over with no regard to his say in the matter. The door bell rings and George purposely waits against Martha's commands in an attempt to get her angry and he does so very successfully with his snide remark when he refers to her as “some subhuman monster yowling” (Albee 20). George then opens the door at the most opportunistic time that as he opens it Nick and Honey get a full comprehensive of Martha's bellowing “FUCK YOU!” which was directed toward George (Albee 20). Then Albee gives the reader some an aside that showing George's “pleased recognition… and… satisfaction at having Martha's explosion overheard” (Albee 20). These elements of setting along with the obvious bickering between George and Martha in front of Nick and Honey along with their intoxication set a base for the rest of the play.
From the initial time that Nick and Honey are introduced they have a sense of hesitancy on entering because they do not want to get involved in other people's business as shown by Nick when he says “Well, now, perhaps we shouldn't have come” (Albee 20). During their initial welcoming and settling in they quickly establish their characters individually and as couples particularly we get descriptions from each spouse discussing their partners. To further show the contrast between the couples George and Martha are discouraging when describing and talking about each other. George's first description of Martha is that, “Martha's a devil with language” (Albee 21). This instills the thought of Martha as a devil and cunning figure and gives her a sense of evil. Martha gets an almost enjoys the humility of George when she discusses their relationship and how they met with Nick and Honey. Martha goes into detail with George's many failures and inability to become head of the History department for any time longer than when his fellow professors went off to fight in the war. She also enjoys discussing the fact that she had been married once but her father forced the marriage to end. In the way she discusses these and the amusement she receives in doing so the reader can tell that she enjoys humiliating George. These descriptions are coming from the couple out of the two who have been together they longest. Along with the time they have been married and their intoxication it allows them to truly speak about how they feel about one another with almost too much honesty because most people would not fight with company over. It is apparent to the reader that these are “characters who take delight in attacking others, in belittling those whose self-interests differ from their own” which throughout the play make Nick and Honey uneasy (Roudane 39). In opposition to George and Martha, Nick and Honey talk about each other with positive things to say about one another like most other married couples would do, especially a newly married couple. While Martha is showing Honey around the house it is apparent that Honey mentions to Martha that her husband had been a football player back in his college years. Martha shows this when she gets back with the men and asks Nick, “Hey, you played football hunh?” (Albee 54). From the dialogue following this you can tell that Nick enjoys boasting of his being a quarterback and the time he spent as a boxer. Honey backs up Nick's boasting and proudly tells George and Martha that “He was intercollegiate state light heavyweight champion” (Albee 56). This scene is where as the reader you begin to get a different feel about the story through Martha's attempts to sexually lure Nick onto her side. But also at the same time it is obvious to George what her intentions are and he pulls Honey aside by asking her to take a walk with him through the garden. During this first act of the play it is if though Martha is using Nick, and George is using Honey in an attempt to provoke jealously from one another.
Once George and Martha have almost won over opposite sexes from the other couple it allows for more insight into the real problems that exist throughout both marriages. “The play, which also contains a secondary exploration of character in conflict in the case of a second couple, is alive in the struggle rather than in the explanation” (Gassner 49). This is shown when the couples are discussing how and why they feel in love with one another. Since George and Martha are already in the explanation stage, Martha is able to tell the whole story with George right next to her. Martha's plan for George after they married was that as she tells Nick and Honey, “He'd takeover someday…first, he'd take over the History Department, and then, when Daddy retired, he'd take over the college” (Albee 92). Martha then takes joy by exclaiming that George was unable to do this after he daddy had watched him work and realized that he did not have it in him to take over the college, much less his department. Albee includes this into his play to show a feminist approach of the time the play takes place in the sixties. Martha does not once attempt to grow in a way that would allow her to take over the college but marries George instead to mold him and allow him to take over the college so that she could still take over the college but just through him. Now in contrast to this explanation in front of everyone, Nick explains his marriage situation to George after Honey has to throw up and Martha leaves the room to help her. Now that it is just the two men by themselves and of course with the intoxication Nick has no hesitancy when discussing his reason for marriage. When he begins by telling George he marries because of his wife's hysterical pregnancy, George instantly believes that there is more to it than just this, which he comes to find out is true. Nick tells the story of how Honey's father has made a lot of money in his life as a preacher “and when he died, he had a lot of money” (Albee 121). This is an example of reverse feminism because at this time it was not common for a man to marry for money because as a man he was supposed to be the bread maker of the house hold and bring in all the money. The differences in the two marriages are obvious but the older couple's openness allows for Nick and Honey to show that they also have significant problems in their marriage.
Even with the contrast of the two different couples, Albee's purpose in the play “is to focus attention on an action which all the characters share by analogy: their perception of what it feels like to lose a child - the child that one once was, that one never can be again, that one never conceived” (Roy 91). In Martha and George's case their inability to conceive a child allows for Martha to sexually desire something that she cannot have with George but sees in the younger male Nick. In the same sense the lack of a child between Nick and Honey stems to the fear of wanting to have any sexual intercourse by Honey. The attempt to create a nonexistent child is in fact what leads to the climax of the play when George kills this child. The creation of this child is strange to most people but is the factor that allows Nick and Honey to connect with them. This is because the main base of Nick and Honey's marriage is that they had believed she was pregnant which later turned out to be a hoax. As the right before the climax of the play the infidelity that happens between Nick and Martha are that they both stuck with the people that they are married to and both want children and their spouses will not produce any offspring. This also shows that even a marriage that appears to be what could be considered perfect on the surface has many problems of its own.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play in which shows the contrast of old and new marriages and the conflicts that take place between the two. In doing so Albee is able to show gender differences and stereotypes that can be broken in marriages. The intoxication introduced from the beginning of the play allow for straight talk and honesty to ensue between the two couples when discussing personal matters.
Albee, Edward. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Signet, 1983. Print.
Amacher, Richard. Edward Albee Revised Edition. Ed. Warren French. Indiana University: Twayne Publishers, 1982. Print.
Gassner, John. “[Review of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?].” Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Ed. James Nagel. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall &Co., 1986. 48-49. Print.
Roudane, Matthew. “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Toward the marrow.” The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Ed. Stephen Bottoms. Cambridge University Press, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 39-57. Print.
Roy, Emil. “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Tradition.” Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Ed. James Nagel. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. 87-94. Print.