Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who doesn’t love a party with interesting conversation? To describe Edward Albee's famous Broadway play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf(1962), the word interesting would be an understatement. The play depicts an utterly absurd party at a middle-aged couple's New England home. A drunken night of fun and games turns uncomfortable, volatile, and downright confusing, as Albee explores the complications of married life and the boundaries of living in an illusion versus reality.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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Table of contents

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Whiskey, StudySmarterFig. 1 - In the play, the four characters unhealthily mask their troubles, insecurities, and discomfort with drinks throughout the night.

    The Author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) is a three-act original play written by the famous American playwright, Edward Albee (1928-2016). Edward Albee is known for his satirical, psychological dramas in which characters act in absurd ways that suggest and question truths held about human nature and society.

    This original play by Edward Albee premiered in a theatre on Broadway in 1962. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?(1962) won both a Tony Award and New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Play. It was translated into a film starring the actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1966. In the film, Richard Burton plays George, and Elizabeth Taylor stars as his wife, Martha.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: title meaning

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? is a pun on the Disney song, ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,’ from an animated film of The Three Little Pigs (1933). In the film, the character of The Big Bad Wolf disguises himself in order to deceive others. Edward Albee uses this allusion to suggest the theme of false appearances, or illusion versus reality. Edward Albee inserts the name of the famous 20th-century writer, Virginia Woolf in the title to reflect the academic, scholarly context of the play, as the characters meet after a university faculty party.

    Virginia Woolf was a writer known for her deep examination of the minds of her characters. In the play, Albee's characters are afraid of deeply examining their own lives and facing reality. They sing 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' numerous times in the play to distract themselves from their problems. However, at the end of the play, Martha admits that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf. She is afraid of reality and of examining the desperate state of her life.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Characters

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Character Summary
    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? CharacterRole in the play
    MarthaDaughter of the university's president and wife of George. She is disillusioned with her life and marriage, and seeks to escape through alcohol and flirtation with other men.
    GeorgeA history professor at the university and husband of Martha. He is bitter, resentful, and has a tendency to use his wit as a weapon.
    NickA young biology professor at the university and his wife's guest. He is ambitious, arrogant, and is attracted to Martha.
    HoneyNick's wife and a former beauty queen. She is naive, childlike, and has a weakness for alcohol.

    These characters interact in various ways throughout the play, with Martha and George's dysfunctional marriage at the center of the story. Nick and Honey's presence disrupts their routine and brings to light many of the underlying tensions and secrets in their relationship.

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Summary

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is split into three acts. The first act, ‘Fun and Games,’ revolves around George and Martha’s aggressive, emotional games. The second act, ‘Walpurgisnacht’ is named after a German festival celebrating the feast day of a saint who protected the people in her town from witchcraft. Albee uses this title satirically to suggest the wickedness and nightmarish quality of the night. The third act’s title, ’The Exorcism,’ refers to the expulsion of George and Martha's imaginary son, who the couple has invented. George tells the story of his death at the end of the act.


    Summary of the Play: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
    Author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Edward Albee
    Published1962
    GenreDomestic drama, absurd play
    Summary of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?The play takes place entirely in the living room of a married couple, George and Martha. The couple invites a younger couple, Nick and Honey, over for a late-night party, where alcohol-fueled games of truth and illusion lead to revelations about their troubled relationships and personal demons.
    List of main charactersMartha, George, Nick and Honey
    ThemesIllusion vs reality, marriage, family, American Dream, competition
    SettingThe living room of George and Martha's house which is based in New England.
    AnalysisThe play's title is a reference to the English novelist Virginia Woolf, whose work is used as a symbol throughout the play. The play is a complex and intense play that challenges the audience to confront uncomfortable truths about human relationships and societal norms.

    Summary of Act 1: Fun and Games

    George and Martha return home a bit drunk in the early morning after a University faculty party. George is a history professor at a small New England university where Martha's father is the dean. George suggests they have a final drink at night before bed, but Martha informs him that they have guests coming over—Nick, a biology professor who is new to the university, and Honey, his wife whom Martha describes as a mousy woman without any hips. George is not pleased they are coming over, but Martha's father insisted they entertain the new couple. George reminds Martha not to mention the child.

    Nick and Honey arrive. George is annoyed and belittles young, handsome Nick. George starts conversations about how he does not agree with genetically engineering people, and ignores Nick when he tries to clarify that this is not what he does. George and Martha passive-aggressively fight in front of the guests, who grow increasingly uncomfortable throughout the night. Nick says that they should leave but George says they cannot as the fun is just about to begin.

    Martha goes upstairs to change into a sexier dress. George reveals to Nick that Martha wanted him to be the head of the history department, and he was for a while until everyone else came back from the War. Nick asks George whether he and Martha have children, and he skirts around the question. However, when Honey returns, she announces that Martha told her about their son.

    Martha comes back and overtly flirts with Nick. She insults George while praising Nick's figure and tells a story about how she knocked George out in a boxing class. George comes up behind Martha with a gun in his hand. He pulls the trigger, and an umbrella pops out.

    Later in the night, Honey, who is extremely drunk, asks when George and Martha's son is coming. George and Martha have an argument about their son and debate about the color of his eyes. It is suggested in this instance that they are making him up.

    Martha tells the couple about how she married George with the idea that he could take over the university, but that he is a disappointment because he did not have it in him to take over. George sings 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' loudly to drown out Martha's insults. Honey runs to the bathroom, saying that she needs to throw up.

    Summary of Act 2: Walpurgisnacht

    George and Nick talk alone about their pasts. George reveals a strange story about a childhood friend of his who accidentally killed his mother and father and then went to an asylum and never spoke again. Nick reveals that he married Honey because she had a hysterical, or false pregnancy, and her father is a wealthy preacher. Nick talks about how Martha is one of the most powerful women at the university because her father is the dean. The two get into an argument, trying to compete with one another.

    Martha and Honey arrive after Honey is finished throwing up. Honey is still drunk and disoriented. She mentions that she throws up quite often. Martha dances inappropriately with Nick and tells the guests about how George tried to publish a novel about a boy who accidentally killed his parents, but her father would not allow the publication of something so foolish. George is enraged and goes after Martha, but Nick separates them.

    George presents a new game he calls "Get the Guests" and goes on insulting Honey by telling a story about a girl named "Mousie" and revealing all the secrets Nick told him. When Honey realizes that the story is about her and that Nick told George about how he married her because of her hysterical pregnancy, she feels sick again and runs off to the bathroom. Nick follows her.

    Martha mocks George for taking the game too far. The two decide that it is time to go full out in their attacks on one another. Martha makes out with Nick in front of George. George, pretending not to care, goes and tells them to carry on in another room.

    Summary of Act 3: The Exorcism

    Martha appears talking to herself with a drink in her hand. Nick enters the scene and he says that Honey is on the bathroom floor trying to feel a label off of a bottle. It is revealed that Nick and Martha went to bed together but Nick could not perform properly. Martha becomes more vulnerable, revealing that George is the only one she has ever truly loved and she is afraid she has broken him. Nick insults George, but Martha defends him.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Sticker Peel, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Honey peeling the label off a bottle on the bathroom floor suggests a search for truth in peeling off the exterior to see what is underneath.

    The doorbell rings and George appears with flowers, saying they are "flores para los muertos" (flowers for the dead). He goes on to talk about his trip to Majorica, Spain. George and Martha now gang up on Nick, referring to him as the houseboy. George proposes a final game called "bringing up baby." Martha begs for no more games, but George insists.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Snapdragon Flowers, StudySmarterFig. 3 - George brings snapdragon flowers to the door. Snapdragons are a symbol of deception, foreshadowing George's plan to declare that their imaginary son has died.

    Martha and George go on to describe their son and his childhood in extreme detail. They accuse one another of making their son unhappy. The conversation escalates to the climax of the play in which George declares that a telegram came stating that their son died after swerving off the road to avoid hitting a porcupine. Martha screams at George, telling him he cannot do this, but George tells her she broke the rules of the game when she mentioned their son to the guests.

    Nick finally realizes that their son does not exist. Martha and George admit that they could not have children.

    Nick and Honey finally leave. Martha asks George if she really had to kill their son, and he says yes. He says that things are better this way. George begins singing 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,' and Martha replies that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf. The play ends.

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Plot

    The plot of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has a great deal of rising action in which tension builds up until the climax when George kills off the imaginary son. Edward Albee builds tension in the play through heated dialogue and strange events throughout the night, which present George and Martha's frustrations with one another.

    Plot structure can be examined in five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution:

    1. The exposition is the introduction of the story, where the audience finds out about the setting, characters, and their situation.

    2. The rising action is the build-up of tension towards the climax.

    3. The climax of the novel is the main event, or the point that the story builds towards. Something changes at the climax of a story.

    4. The falling action is the decrease of tension after the climax, leading to the resolution.

    5. The resolution is the ending of the story, where the audience is called to reflect on what has happened and what has and has not changed.

    Try to describe the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on your own before reading on.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plot: exposition

    At the beginning of the play, the audience is introduced to the setting and the four characters: George, Martha, Nick, and Honey.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? takes place at George and Martha's New England home in the 1960s. George and Martha are a middle-aged couple. They have a nice home, which reflects their upper-middle-class lives. George is a history professor and Martha is the daughter of the dean of the university where George works.

    The couple returns home drunk from a University faculty party, and Martha recalls a joke from the party, singing 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.' Edward Albee uses this context and this joke to suggest the pretentious, academic background the couple comes from. He sets up an expectation that these people are to act in a refined, educated manner, yet they do the exact opposite.

    George and Martha's guests, Nick and Honey, represent a younger version of the couple. Nick is a handsome, intelligent biology professor who represents intelligence, pridefulness, and ambition. While Honey is a thin, fragile woman who is a picture of innocence and unknowingness. Nick and Honey appear to be a normal, happy, picturesque couple. However, Albee later reveals the flaws in their marriage to suggest that appearances can be deceiving and that Nick and Honey could very well end up being bitter and crazy like George and Martha.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plot: rising action and climax

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is built on the tension between Martha and George, which comes across through their absurd, heated discussions and attempts to humiliate one another in front of their guests. The rising action of the play is developed through the escalation of George and Martha's crazy games and the guests' increasing discomfort and confusion, which they all numb with alcohol.

    The climax of the story occurs in the third act, when George declares that their son was killed. Martha reacts hysterically, shouting at George and telling him he cannot do that because it is against the rules of their game. Martha and George play a game in which they tell stories about their imaginary son to mask the pain and actuality of the fact that they were unable to have children. Their hostility toward one another and the strange mentions of their son throughout the play are all directed towards this point of the night in which the games finally come to an end.

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plot: falling action and resolution

    The falling action in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is quite brief. Nick finally realizes that George and Martha's son does not exist and he and Honey finally leave. The tensions of the night are released, but there is still the question of what is next for George and Martha, and why they have played all of these games.

    In the resolution, or ending of the play, George assures Martha that it is for the best that their son died. He puts his hand on Martha's shoulder and sings 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.' Martha replies that she is afraid, indicating that she is afraid of living without games and illusions. She must now face the reality of her childlessness and the hurt and harm of her marriage.

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Themes and Meaning

    Amidst all the absurdities in the play, Edward Albee reveals the meaning of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through his exploration of the themes of illusion vs. reality, marriage and family, and competition.

    Illusion vs. reality

    Throughout Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it is difficult to discern what is true versus what is made up, as George and Martha share all sorts of strange things. George and Martha play games and speak passive-aggressively because they are avoiding reality and confronting their true feelings and problems. They use illusions to mask the reality of their situation. This can be best seen in the invention of their son. Once the games are over and their imaginary son is dead, Martha is forced to face the reality of her desperate situation, which she fears.

    Through the theme of illusion vs. reality, Edward Albee suggests that people prefer to hide behind illusions and pretenses rather than seriously face the hardships of their realities. However, all illusions must eventually come to an end, and then people are forced to face what is in front of them earnestly.

    Marriage and family

    In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee plays on the stereotype of the perfect American family. While the couples may appear well-matched from a social and superficial standpoint, there are deep issues beneath their appearances. While George and Martha have given up on trying to present their marriage in a positive light, Nick and Honey are still embarrassed about the issues they face as a couple.

    Albee presents marriage and family as a powerful thing that determines much of a person's life and happiness. George's life is overshadowed by Martha's father, who is Martha's basis of comparison for who George should be. George cannot even publish his novel because Martha's father disapproves of it. A great deal of Martha's dissatisfaction comes from the fact that she wanted him to be a leader in the university like her father, but it is not his nature.

    The idea of having children is present all throughout the play as well. Martha and George's marriage is colored by their inability to have children, which they mask by telling tales of an imaginary son. Nick reveals that he married Honey because she was pregnant, but it turned out to be a "hysterical pregnancy" (a phantom pregnancy, in which a woman experiences pregnancy symptoms because she thinks she is pregnant but is not). Having children is something that completes the image of the American family, but Albee suggests that the characters have deeper issues and desires that they wish to quell by having a child.

    Competition

    Throughout Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee presents competitive nature as something that often supersedes a person's reason to be kind or rational. The competitive nature is introduced in the games played throughout the night, but is also seen in the relational power dynamics.

    George and Nick are competitive in the sense that they continually try to outsmart one another and they are both academics at the same university. Nick also tries to compete with George for Martha's affections, though George pretends not to care. George and Martha are in constant competition to see who can humiliate the other most severely. Martha subtly feels she is in competition with Honey, who is young and still able to have children. Thus, she flirts with Nick all night to assert her own worth.

    The idea of competition is also suggested through the conversations about the genetic engineering of people. Georges fears the creation of a uniform, "perfect," superior race that would likely overpower and erase the need for people like him.

    Edward Albee suggests that competition can bring out the pridefulness in people as they try to mask their fears with the idea of winning or being right.

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Quotes

    Martha alludes to the fact that she knows she and George are hiding their true emotions. She explains that they drink away their sadness and troubles to mask it:

    Martha: ... I cry allllll the time; but deep inside, so no one can see me. I cry all the time. And Georgie cries all the time, too. We both cry all the time, and then what we do, we cry, and we take our tears, and we put 'em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they're all frozen and then... we put them... in our... drinks.” (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Act 3)

    This quote summarizes the overall feeling of the play from George and Martha's perspective, their guests' perspective, and the audience's perspective. No one is sure what to believe anymore, but the play keeps going on and increasing in absurdity. Through this dialogue between Martha and George, Edward Albee directly points to the theme of illusion vs. reality:

    Martha: Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference.George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.Martha: Amen.” (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Act 3)

    These final words of the play suggest that Martha is afraid to examine herself and face her own fears and realities. Virginia Woolf was an author known for her deep examination of the minds of her characters. Martha prefers not to examine things too deeply, but to carry on with games and illusions. Now that her imaginary son is dead, she cannot continue living in a false reality:

    George: Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?Martha: I am, George. I am.” (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Act 3)

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Key takeaways

    • Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) is an original play written by the famous American playwright, Edward Albee.
    • Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is split into three acts entitled 'Fun and Games,' 'Walpurgisnacht,' and 'The Exorcism.'
    • In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, tension builds through Martha and George's absurd, heated discussions and attempts to humiliate one another in front of their guests, Nick and Honey.
    • The climax of the play is when George declares that he and Martha's imaginary son is dead.
    • Key themes in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? include illusion vs. reality, marriage and family, and competition.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    What is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf based on? 

    The film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) is based on a 1962 original play written by Edward Albee. 

    Why is Martha afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    Martha is afraid of Virginia Woolf because Virginia Woolf was an author who explored the depths of her characters' minds and troubles. Martha is afraid to face her own fears and realities. She prefers not to examine herself too well and to live with games and illusions. 

    What does Martha want in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

    Martha wants to have a child and for George to be the head of the History department in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

    Why is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf an absurd play?

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is an absurd play because there is no clear boundary between reality and illusion in George and Martha's games and conversations.

    What are some significant quotes from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

    Significant quotes from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf include: “Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference," and "George: Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Martha: I am, George. I am.”

    What is the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee?

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play by Edward Albee that was first performed in 1962. It depicts the troubled marriage of a middle-aged couple, George and Martha, and the emotional and psychological games they play with each other and with their guests, a young couple named Nick and Honey. The play is known for its intense and often brutal dialogue, its exploration of themes such as truth, illusion, and the American Dream, and its use of alcohol as a recurring motif.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is not a name of one of the three acts of the play?

    How would you describe the way George and Martha interact with one another?

    True or False: Martha admits to Nick that George is the only man she has ever really loved and she feels sad that she has beaten him down. 

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