Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is in many important respects a “first.” In addition to being the first of Albee’s full-length plays, it is also the first juxtaposition and integration of realism and abstract symbolism in what will remain the dramatic idiom of all the full-length plays. Albee’s experimentation in allegory, metaphorical clichés, grotesque parody, hysterical humor, brilliant wit, literary allusion, religious undercurrents, Freudian reversals, irony on irony, here for the first time appear as an organic whole in a mature and completely satisfying dramatic work. It is, in Albee’s repertory, what Long Day’s Journey into Night is in O’Neill’s; the aberrations, the horrors, the mysteries are woven into the fabric of a perfectly normal setting so as to create the illusion of total realism, against which the abnormal for the first time, the “third voice of poetry” comes through loud and strong with no trace of static.
—Anne Paolucci, From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee
The Broadway opening of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on October 13, 1962, certainly qualifies as one of the key dates in American drama, comparable to March 31, 1945, and December 3, 1947 (the Broadway premieres of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire), February 10, 1949 (the opening of Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman), and November 7, 1956 (the first U.S. performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night). A few months before it opened Albee published a scathing attack in the New York Times asserting that Broad-way was the true theater of the absurd because of its slavish devotion to the superficial and the unchallenging. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee’s first full-length play and Broadway debut, was a direct assault on a lifeless and shallow commercial American theater, igniting a new excitement and vitality by its radical style and content. With this play American drama, as it had not had since the 1940s, regained its power and importance as an instrument of truth. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in the words of critic Gilbert Debusscher, “immediately became the subject of the most impassioned controversies, the object of criticism and accusation which recall the storms over the first plays of Ibsen, and, closer to our own time, Beckett and Pinter.” Few other characters on the American stage had ever gone at one another so mercilessly nor exposed their psychological core in language that drama historian Ruby Cohn called “the most adroit dialogue ever heard on the American stage.” Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? propelled Albee into the front rank of American dramatists. He would go on to dominate American drama in the 1960s and 1970s, serving as the link between the previous generation of American dramatists—O’Neill, Williams, and Miller—and the next that followed him, including David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Tony Kushner. President Bill Clinton at the Kennedy Center’s honors ceremony in 1996 aptly summarized Albee’s achievement by declaring to the playwright, “In your rebellion, the American theater was reborn.”
Abandoned shortly after his birth in 1928, Albee was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee, heirs to the Keith-Albee theater chain fortune, founded by the playwright’s adoptive grandfather and namesake, Edward Frances Albee. Growing up in a mansion in Westchester County, New York, the “lucky orphan,” as Albee described himself, was raised, as one magazine reported, in a “world of servants, tutors, riding lessons; winters in Miami, summers sailing on the Sound; there was a Rolls to bring him, smuggled in lap robes, to matinees in the city; an inexhaustible wardrobe housed in a closet big as a room.” Because of the family’s theatrical connections, actors, directors, and producers were frequent house guests. Albee attended performances from the age of six and wrote his first play, a sex farce, when he was 12. Enrolled in and expelled from a number of boarding schools as an undisciplined and indifferent student, Albee eventually graduated from Choate in 1946 where he had begun to distinguish himself by his writing, publishing poems, short stories, and a one-act play in the school literary magazine. After attending Trinity College briefly Albee left home in 1950 determined to pursue a writing career. Supported by a trust fund that provided him with $50 a week, Albee became, in his words, “probably the richest boy in Greenwich Village.” For the next decade, through his 20s, Albee worked in a succession of odd jobs—as an office-boy in an advertising agency, as a luncheonette counterman, writing music programs for a radio station, selling records and books, and delivering messages for Western Union. Most of the poetry and the long novel he wrote during this period have never been published. Searching for direction Albee was encouraged by Thornton Wilder to concentrate on drama. During his “Village decade,” Albee, as his roommate William Flanagan recalled, “was, to be sure, adrift and like most of the rest of us, he had arrived in town with an unsown wild oat or two. But from the beginning he was, in his outwardly impassive way, determined to write. . . . He adored the theatre from the beginning and there can’t have been anything of even mild importance that we didn’t see together.” Through the period, Flanagan remembered, Albee had a “thoroughly unfashionable admiration for the work of Tennessee Williams.” Other influences that would impact his initial dramatic work came from European dramatists of the absurd, such as Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.
On the eve of his 30th birthday, in despair over his inability to produce anything of importance and “as a sort of birthday present to myself,” Albee completed his first major play, The Zoo Story, a one-act, two-character drama in which two strangers—Jerry and Peter—meet in New York City’s Central Park. Jerry, lonely and desperate for meaningful contact with another, provokes Peter into a fight in which he impales himself, gratefully, on the knife he has given Peter. A tour de force of compression and intensity, The Zoo Story serves as a kind of overture to themes that would dominate Albee’s subsequent work, including the shattering of complacency, the connection between love and aggression, and the relationship between fantasy and reality. Initially rejected by American producers the play was first performed at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt in West Berlin in 1959. It debuted in the United States in 1960 at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village on a double bill with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, establishing the connection between Beckett and Albee that marked the younger playwright as an American proponent of the theater of the absurd. The designation initially offended Albee, but he eventually accepted the association with a characteristic contrariness. “The Theatre of the Absurd,” he insisted, “. . . facing as it does man’s condition as it is, is the Realistic theatre of our time; and . . . supposed Realistic theatre . . . pander[ing] to the public need for self-congratulation and reassurance and present[ing] a false picture of ourselves to ourselves is . . . really and truly The Theatre of the Absurd.” He would later define the theater of the absurd as “an absorption-in-art of certain existentialist and post-existentialist philosophical concepts having to do, in the main, with man’s attempt to make sense for himself out of his senseless position in a world which makes no sense—which makes no sense because the moral, religious, political and social structures man has erected to ‘illusion’ himself have collapsed.” Albee’s next three plays (The Sandbox, The American Dream, and The Death of Bessie Smith), all produced in 1960–61, are scathing critiques of these collapsed illusions, exposing the absurdity of American family life and racial prejudice. Like The Zoo Story, they counter the dominant realistic mode of American drama with antirealistic techniques derived from the European modernist dramatic tradition.
Albee’s breakthrough drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, synthesizes both naturalistic and absurdist theatrical elements such that the realistic American family drama, whose precedents include A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, is infused with the methods and existential themes derived from European postwar drama. “Like European Absurdists,” Cohn argues, “Albee has tried to dramatize the reality of man’s condition, but whereas Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, and Pinter present reality in all its alogical absurdity, Albee has been preoccupied with illusions that screen man from reality.” Asked to describe his work in progress that would become Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee called his play a “sort of grotesque comedy” concerning “the exorcism of a non-existent child” that deals with “the substitution of artificial for real values in this society of ours.” Albee initially called the play “The Exorcism” (the title later assigned to act 3) but arrived at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? after discovering the phrase as graffiti in a Greenwich Village bar. Albee has explicated his title with its reference to a writer centrally concerned with the nature of reality, to mean “Who is afraid of facing life without illusions?” The question serves as the play’s repeated refrain and ultimatum. Set in the New England college town of New Carthage, in the living room of a history professor and his wife—George and Martha—the play depicts the boozy, late-night verbal warfare and lacerating revelations that emerge when they entertain a new faculty member and his wife, Nick and Honey.
Act 1, “Fun-and-Games,” introduces the four combatants. George is a 46-year-old associate professor who has failed to realize the expectations of his wife, the daughter of the college’s president, to succeed her father. Martha is “a large, boisterous woman, 52, looking somewhat younger. Ample, but not fleshly.” Their continual and escalating quarrelling, which George calls, “merely . . . exercising,” is rooted in their mutual dependency, frustrations, and guilt. Having returned late from a faculty party, Martha repeats the joke she has heard earlier in the evening in which “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is sung to the tune of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” while informing George that she has invited “what’s-their-names” over for a drink. Nick is a new young biology professor married to Honey, a “rather plain” blond, who arrive after George has warned Martha “don’t start in on the bit ’bout the kid” to which Martha responds with a decisive “Screw You!” The act then proceeds with George and Martha’s “exercising” in front of their guests. Warning Martha, who escorts Honey to the “euphemism,” not to talk about “you-know-what,” George evades Nick’s question about whether they have children by responding, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” Honey, however, returns saying that “I didn’t know until just a minute ago that you had a son.” Martha follows, having changed into a more provocative outfit, and begins to flirt with Nick while disparaging George’s masculinity with a story about how she once boxed with him and knocked him into the huckleberry bushes. “It was funny, but it was awful,” she explains. “I think it’s colored our whole life. . . . It’s an excuse anyway. . . . It’s what he uses for being bogged down anyway.” George responds by retrieving a shotgun and aims it at the back of Martha’s head. As Honey screams, Martha turns to face George, and he pulls the trigger, fi ring a Chinese parasol. “You’re dead! Pow! You’re dead!” George exclaims. Martha, evidently pleased by his performance, demands a kiss, and when George refuses her advances in front of their guests, she shifts her attention back to Nick, saying “You don’t need any props, do you baby? . . . No fake Jap gun for you.” Martha’s taunting of her husband (“You see, George didn’t have much push . . . he wasn’t particularly . . . aggressive. In fact he was a sort of a FLOP!”) prompts George to drown out her needling with the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” song. Honey becomes sick and retreats down the hall, pursued by Nick and Martha, as the act ends with George alone on stage, embodying defeat and hopelessness.
Act 2, “Walpurgisnacht”—the witches’ orgiastic Sabbath—both increases George’s torment and creates the conditions that make a recovery possible. Locked into their marital mutually assured destruction and sustained by the illusion of a son as an embodiment of their relationship, George and Martha move toward the recognition of painful truths. Proposing a new series of games—“Humiliate the Host,” “Hump the Hostess,” and “Get the Guests”—George begins with the last, betraying Nick’s confidence about his courtship and marriage to Honey motivated by her family fortune and a false pregnancy. Upset, Honey rushes out to pass out in the bathroom. As Nick and Martha dance and kiss, George ignores them by reading a book, but when they leave together, he flings the book hitting the door chimes. The noise rouses Honey who asks who is at the door. This gives George the idea that a messenger has come announcing the death of their son.
Act 3, “Exorcism,” represents the play’s dramatic turn, the casting out of the various devils—jealousy, frustration, anger, and remorse—that have condemned George and Martha to their marital hell in which their mutual destruction has replaced self-recognition. Martha enters the living room upbraiding Nick, who she renames “Houseboy,” for his failed sexual performance. George arrives carrying a bouquet for Martha, echoing a scene from Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (“flores para los muertos”) as a prelude to announcing the death of their son. He calls for one final game (“we’re going to play this one to the death”). As Martha rapturously talks about their “beautiful, beautiful boy,” George intones liturgical Latin before declaring “Our son is dead!” Martha reacts with horror, screaming “You cannot do that!” She demands to know why he has killed their imaginary child, and George answers that she has broken the rules by mentioning him to another. Martha responds: “I mentioned him . . . all right . . . but you didn’t have to push it over the EDGE. You didn’t have to . . . kill him.” To which George replies with the benediction from the mass and the words, “It will be dawn soon. I think the party’s over.”
After Nick and Honey have gone, George and Martha are left alone on stage. Martha persists in asking George “did you . . . have to.” He insists that “It was . . . time,” and that their lives will be better for the truth. Martha is doubtful.
Martha: Just . . . us?
Martha: I don’t suppose, maybe, we could . . .
George: No, Martha.
Martha: Yes. No.
George: Are you all right?
Martha: Yes. No.
George: [Puts his hands gently on her shoulder, she puts her head back and he sings to her, very softy.] Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf
Martha: I . . . am . . . George. . . .
George: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf. . . .
Martha I . . . am . . . George. . . . I . . . am. . . . [George nods, slowly. Silence, tableau.]
Having divested themselves of the fantasies that have ruled and sustained them, George and Martha confront themselves and their reality with sorrow for their loss and uncertainty about their future. After the preceding Sturm und Drang, the play reaches a stunned silence, and George and Martha, who have played role after role in their marital battle, settle into a final resemblance: Adam and Eve after the fall, contemplating a life without illusions. Their brave new world of existential reality is matched by the new departure for American drama that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made possible, in which unrelentingly honest dialogue and characterization unite to explore key human and existential issues.