Edward Albee Written by Edward Albee, is a play that takes us into one evening of the lives of one couple entertaining another. This play has very dramatic characters that are very diverse and dynamic. Albee explores the dangerous fun and games played by one married couple and how they use two seemingly innocent people as pawns in their games. By the end of the night, a stunning revelation is revealed that threatens both couples’ emotional sanity. The play is soaked in imagery and above all symbolism that Albee uses to portray and dismantle the perfect American dream. Edward Albee was born in Washington, D.C.
on March 12, 1928. Two weeks later he was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee and taken to live in the family home in Westchester, New York. Albee’s adoptive father owned a nationwide chain of vaudeville theaters, which meant that young Edward got much early exposure to theater personalities. Albee’s childhood was very comfortable. He had many servants, tutors, riding lessons, winters in Miami, summers sailing on the sound and an inexhaustible wardrobe housed in a closet that was as big as a room.
His father was believed to be dominated by his wife, which is a very evident in, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In the play, Martha is very domineering and controlling of the meek and suppressed George. Albee attended the Choate school from 1944 to 1946, when he enrolled at Trinity College, a small liberal arts institution in Hartford , Connecticut. (Burns 2523) His stay there was brief, but he gained some dramatic experience playing the role of characters in plays. Over the years, Albee has introduced thirteen plays to the American stage. He is an important figure in the American theater no only for his works, but also for his efforts to introduce new opinions.
(Albee ii) In Albee’s own words, his plays are “an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.” (Flasch 283) The title of the play (Virginia Woolf) is the name of a famous British novelist who went insane and drowned herself. The title of the play is also related to the nursery rhyme, “The three little pigs.” When the characters of the play are drunk, they go around singing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” much like “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?” The play consists of four characters. George is a middle-aged professor of history in a small New England who is married to the daughter of the president of the college. Martha is George’s wife, seven years his senior. She is a very domineering woman who goes between loving and hating her husband throughout the play.
Nick is a new addition to the small faculty who is young and very ambitious. Honey is Nick’s wife. She is very timid and childlike. There are several themes in the play that often overlap and support one another in ways that make the play very complex. The theme of truth and illusion is apparent in the play. George and Martha have to face the fact that the imaginary child that they have created and that possibly holds their marriage together must now be destroyed.
In addition, the “truth” behind each character seems to show itself. The loud and vulgar Martha is really vulnerable and needs to be protected by the outside world. George, who seems passive at first, is the one who finally takes control of his and Martha’s lives. Nick, the “stud” turns out to be impotent in bed with Martha. That leaves Honey, the seemingly simple minded girl has been deviously using birth control to prevent pregnancy.
This is the plays most important theme: that people today have been forced to create illusions for themselves because reality has become too difficult and painful to face. A very important part of this play is the symbolism involved. On one level, George and Martha portray the American dream gone wrong. Their imaginary child is shown to us as all of their unsuccessful hopes and dreams. On another level George and Martha are chosen to symbolize George and Martha Washington as the founding parents of our country, whose child (America) has died because of all the greed and cruelty in the world and the greed and cruelty they have shown each other. Daniel McDonald stated that, “A more honest or moral playwright does not exist.
And if what Albee is doing is giving us a “sentimentalized” view of ourselves rather than one as harshly and starkly unsentimental as any I know, why didn’t those theatre party ladies buy it up ahead of time as they do all those other technicolor postcards which pass for plays? Or is Albee not rather dedicated to smashing that rosy view, shocking us with the truth of our present-day behavior and thought, striving to purge us into an actual confrontation with reality.” (McDonald 64) Another critic, Wendell Harris was not as impressed by the play as McDonald was. Harris stated, “I am outraged at a theatre and an audience that accepts as a masterpiece an insufferably long play with great pretensions that lacks intellectual size, emotional insight, and dramatic electricity. I’m tired of play-long “metaphors”-such as the illusory child of Virginia Woolf-which are neither philosophically, psychologically, nor poetically valid. I’m tired of plays that are badly plotted and turgidly written being excused by such palaver as “organic unity” or “inner form.” I’m tired of morbidity and sexual perversity which are there only to titillate an impotent and homosexual theatre and audience. I’m tired of Albee.” (Harris 252) As the critics have concluded, there are many different opposing opinions on the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Like in any great form of literature there will always be conflicting beliefs.
I would rather agree with McDonald in his statement that “A more honest or moral playwright does not exist.” (McDonald 64) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? highlights the different personalities, fears, and beliefs held tightly by the American public even in today’s times. Albee was able to portray all of these themes into one beautifully written and well-crafted play. We are able to go from the loss of one dream, George and Martha’s imaginary child that they use to throw at one another for the pure purpose of pain. To the hope of another dream, George and Martha facing the truth about their lives to one another and the new hope now that Nick and Honey will not end up in the same fun and games emotional battle that George and Martha have been in. In a way, Nick and Honey have come to represent the lost child of George and Martha, yet Nick and Honey have the chance to live on to the next day.
Bibliography Albee, Edward. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1962) Burns, Carol. “The Heath Anthology of American Literature.” (1998): 2523-2528 Flasch, Joy. “Games People Play in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Modern Drama 10 (1967): 280-88 Harris, Wendell V. “Morality, Absurdity, And Albee,” Southwest Review 49 (Summer 1964): 249-256 McDonald, Daniel.
“Truth and Illusion in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Renascence 17 (1964): 63-69.