Edward Harvey was born March 12, 1928 in Virginia. He was adopted by Francis and Reed Albee from whom he took the name Albee. He switched many private schools and even attended a military academy, finishing his education at Trinity College in Hartford. Albee wrote poetry and short stories but when he started writing plays he found his true passion. The first play he wrote was called The Zoo Story which was first staged in Berlin where his second play, The Death of Bessie Smith, also premiered. Who´s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was the third play that he wrote and it is seen as his most famous and iconic work. This play opened on Broadway in 1962 and was performed 664 times before it closed in 1964. Who´s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? recieved the Tony Award for the best play and was selected for the Pulitzer Prize but the advisory committee refused to give the award to Albee because the play was seen as too controversial. Although Albee did not win the Pulitzer Prize for this play he won more Pulitzer Prizes than any other playwright.
Although today we would not say that this play is that controversial, it was in the 60s. Albee openly wrote about sex and used sexual references throughout the play. In Who´s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee shows how “low” love can go, i.e., how horrible, traumatizing and vicious the darkest side of love can be. In this paper I will focus on character analysis and the analysis of the complicated and intriguing relationships between the characters.
Martha is the daughter of the college president. She is obsessed with her father and often idealizes him and compares George with him. Martha is very unhappy with George´s work progress. She sees him as a flop, as someone who hasn´t got enough potential to climb the academic ladder and that frustrates her.
MARTHA: … I watched you sitting there, and I watched the younger men around you, the men who were going to go somewhere. And I sat there and I watched you, and you weren´t there! And it snapped! It finally snapped! And I´m going to howl it out and I´m not going to give a damn what I do, and I’m going to make the damned biggest explosion you ever heard. (pg.158)
MARTHA: … I mean, he´d be…no good…at trustees’ dinners, fund raising. He didn´t have any…personality, you know what I mean? Which was very disappointing to Daddy, as you can imagine. So, here I am, stuck with this flop. P.85
George was meant to succeed her father but he obviously is not suitable for that role. Martha has a very big personality and is very loud which makes her a predominant character in this play. She is an alcoholic, which is probably a consequence caused by her mental instability. She is mean, vicious and enjoys tormenting George. With every argument Martha tries to push the boundary further. She constantly emphasizes how her marriage to George makes her unhappy and miserable. She has given George several nicknames such as “cluck”, “Georgie – Porgie”,”sour – puss” etc., just to humiliate him. She even tries to undermine George by saying that he is not the real father of the fictional child. Deep down, beneath her cruelty and viciousness, Martha is a sad and depressed person. That is clear from the start of the play when she quotes the line from a Bette Davis picture and later tries to explain it to George, not missing the opportunity to call him a cluck once again.
MARTHA: Yes they´re married. To each other. Cluck! And she comes in, and she looks around, and she puts her groceries down, and she says, “What a dump!”
GEORGE: (Pause) Oh.
MARTHA: (Pause) She´s discontent. (pg.6)
Martha is very depressed and, usually when she is very drunk, her emotions and vulnerability, which are hard to believe to exist in such a person, come out. In the beginning of act three, Martha gives an emotional monologue that describes her true, buried feelings. Appropriately, she performs this monologue while she is alone so no one can hear her.
MARTHA: I cry all the time too, Daddy. I cry alllll 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 out 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.
George works as a history professor at Daddy´s (Martha´s father) university. In the beginning, George seems as a passive husband, bullied by his wife.
GEORGE: Let me tell you a secret, baby. There are easier things in the world, if you happen to be teaching at a university, there are easier things than being married to the daughter of the president of that university. There are easier things in this world. P.27
As the play progresses, he shows the ability to oppose Martha and, in the end, he was the one who broke her. Although he gave the “final punch” by killing their non – existent son George is also a broken man. He is unhappy with himself, with his career and with his marriage. He couldn’t accomplish everything he wanted to (or everything Martha wanted him to accomplish) and he is constantly reminded of it by his wife. He seems to calmly answer to Martha´s constant provocations but displays rage and violence at certain points, especially after Martha would mention certain things George forbid her to mention like, for example, their son or the novel he wanted to publish. It is interesting how he talks openly about those things with Nick but when Martha mentions them, he becomes enraged. George broke bottles, tried to strangle Martha and even pulled a twisted prank with a shotgun. While reading the play, in my opinion, George seemed like an impulsively violent person. His calmness that exploded very quickly into rage is interesting in comparison to Martha who is very loud and vicious all the time but never shows actual physical violence. In favour of this statement goes also the fact that George possibly could have killed his parents. In my opinion, we cannot say for sure whether he did it or not because this is also a play filled with illusions. George does not display his pride often with Martha but he does it with Nick. He sees him as a threat and as someone who could become everything he didn´t. He constantly tries to show his intellectual superiority and tries to make him feel unimportant by often stating wrong facts about Nick. An example of this is
Nick is, as Martha emphasized more than once, a young, good looking professor who works at the same university George does. In the beginning, Nick feels awkward and unpleasant in the atmosphere George and Martha created but towards the end, he learns to play their game and participates in it. He seems as a perfect man – he has a wife, a good career, he is intelligent and good looking but in the end, his flaws become apparent and his false façade crumbles down. During the play, it becomes apparent that Nick is also living in an illusion. His frustrations become visible and the image of a happy young man full of potentials dissolves near the end.
Honey is Nick´s mousey, slim – hipped wife. She seems like good person with no bad intentions but she is not very smart. Most of the time she barely understands what is going on, either because she is drunk lying on the bathroom floor or because she does not really understand everything that is going on around her because of her lack of intelligence. She remains sweet and polite despite everything that happened during the evening. She tries to participate in conversations but often misses the point and the subliminal messages. She had a pregnancy scare once and that is the reason why she and Nick married. Honey seems to be scared of giving birth but she does express the wish to have a baby at one point during the play.
GEROGE AND MARTHA
George and Martha have been married for a long time. Their relationship is poisonous, hectic, destructive and sick. According to George, they did love each other at one point.
GEORGE: … There are always compensating factors…as in the case of Martha and myself…Now, on the surface of it… … it looks to be a kind of a knock – about, drag – out affair, on the surface of it… … but somewhere back there, at the beginning of it, right when I first came to New Carthage, back then… 103/104
In this moment we can see George´s affection towards Martha. He did not complete his thought because Nick interrupted him. It is a proof they did have nice memories and that there was something positive that bounded them together. What exactly went wrong then? In my opinion, it is the sadness and dissatisfaction they both feel. The frustrations got the best of them. Right from the beginning of the play their bickering and fighting starts and it just gets worse towards the end. The hostility between them increases but does not interfere with their, at least in the beginning, polite approach towards the guests. Besides name calling and various creative insults, Martha and George like to play games. “There are also abundant references to games, rules, toys, winners and losers. George and Martha are constantly playing games, matching wits, seeking the upper hand.”(adams 29) The games they play serve as a competition. They have a relationship in which they want to challenge each other but, unfortunately, they are doing it in a wrong way. The main goal of every game is to hurt, humiliate and outsmart the other person. Martha and George find strange amusement in those games and accept to play them even though they get hurt in the end and often explode with rage.
“The characters are constantly, but unsuccessfully, attempting to communicate on a deeper level with each other. Martha and George trade competitive insults and verbal cruelties until the last scene, when they finally achieve some sense of mutual understanding.)adams 27 Their communication is harsh but they tell each other every day what they dislike about each other. It is definitely unhealthy, but Nick and Honey, for example, never actually communicate. Martha and George are not solving their problems but they are at least out in the open.
The boxing match mentioned in the play is, in my opinion, a very good representation of Martha and George´s relationship because it sums up very well their dynamic. The whole story starts when, George refused to fight with Martha´s father. Instead of supporting George´s non – violent behaviour Martha, along with her father, mocks him. All of a sudden, Martha comes and punches him in the face. In my opinion, it is a scene that corresponds well with Martha´s tendency to start provoking or insulting George out of the blue. George was off balance and fell into a bush which corresponds well with how he is more passive than Martha. She, on the other hand, enjoys telling the story and emphasizing how it influenced their marriage and how George was emasculated because he refused a fight with her father and was later knocked down by his own wife. This, according to Martha, is also why he never advanced in his career.
MARTHA: … It was awful, really. It was funny, but it was awful. I think it´s colored our whole life. Really I do! It´s an excuse anyway. It’s what he uses for being bogged down, anyway…why he hasn´t gone anywhere. P57
While reading the play it is perfectly normal to ask the obvious two question – why are Martha and George still married and do people like this really exist? Hornby answered the second question by saying that that kind of people probably does not exist, but Albee´s imaginative ability to present all the pettiness, territoriality, anxiety and backbiting make it seem very real and possible. (p.220) It remains to answer the question why are they still together? It could be, in my opinion, because of various reasons. Both Martha and George have sadistic but also masochistic tendencies. They torment each other in various ways and exchange insults that are hard to forget.
MARTHA: Uh…you make me puke!
GEORGE: That wasn´t a very nice thing to say, Martha.. p(13)
GEORGE: In my mind, Martha, you are buried in cement, right up to your neck (MARTHA giggles) No…right up to your nose…that´s much quieter. (p.64)
Their reactions vary; George is mostly calm but at certain points suddenly explodes with anger. The reader expects him to do so but George surprises us by crossing the line by bringing the shotgun or strangling Martha. On the other hand, Martha is always loud but never hurts George physically. The peak of her viciousness is when she tried to sleep with Nick, knowing it will destroy George. At the same time, George reacted calmly to her attempted infidelity, but I believe it affected him more than he let us see. I also believe it was one of the reasons he dared to “kill” their son. After analysing their fights and reactions, I concluded that they are a challenge to each other and they enjoy it. Their relationship has some masochistic elements, but I believe they want it to be like that. In my opinion, George enjoys it but not as much as Martha, since it is obvious sometimes he cannot stand it.
GEORGE: You can sit there in that chair of yours, you can sit there with the gin running out of your mouth, and you can humiliate me, you can tear me apart…ALL NIGHT…and that´s perfectly all right…that’s OK
MARTHA: YOU CAN STAND IT!
GEORGE: I CANNOT STAND IT!
MARTHA: YOU CAN STAND IT!! YOU MARRIED ME FOR IT!! (P.152)
“Who is to blame, then, is clearly not as important in Albee´s mind as the fact that both George and Martha urgently desire a changed relationship, a marriage rebuilt on new foundation, for they sense that the opportunity and ability to establish one diminish with the passing of time.” 69 long nightI do agree with this statement because it is obviously necessary that they need a new beginning, but I also believe that deep down they enjoy it. That they are twisted people, in my opinion, it is obvious, but I do believe there exists real and genuine love. It is maybe hard to see it but it is obvious in the end of the play. When the illusion is shattered they are left alone and a new hope is born. The dynamic suddenly changes and they are not fighting anymore. In my opinion, they were in a state of light shock but with a willingness to try and carry on. After all that happened that night it seems as they will dare to try again.
NICK AND HONEY
The young couple has a dull and dry relationship. When we first encounter them, they seem as a perfect couple, but, in reality, they are also frustrated with each other, especially Nick. He tells George that he married Honey because he thought she was pregnant and because of her wealth. Nick is visibly annoyed by Honey throughout the evening, constantly saying Jesus Honey as a sign of frustration. He comes out as a pretentious person while Honey, on the other hand, does not seem as a person who could challenge him intellectually, thus, he never tried to explain her what his job actually is. “… what may seem like vicious games at the guests´ expense are actually George´s attempt to do what he must to make Honey understand that selfishness and destructiveness of her fears and Nick the sterility of his life on all levels – biological intellectual, and ethical.” Long nihg 67 George is wiser than the kids and he, in just one evening, got to the core of their problems. Nick is impotent and it makes him feel emasculated, that is why he tried to prove himself by sleeping with Martha. Another perk of sleeping with Martha is the fact that she is the daughter of the president of the university, so Nick could have seen this as an opportunity for his career to benefit. He eventually fails in his attempt and leaves the “party” even more frustrated, disturbed and unhappy than before. In my opinion, there is no hope for Nick and Honey because I did not see love between them at no point of the play. It all seems false and very dry.
NICK AND GEORGE
Although they are not romantically involved, I believe I should dedicate a part of this seminar to their complicated relationship. George sees Nick as a threat, both intellectually and territorially.
GEORGE: DISGUSTING! (Quietly, but with great intensity) Do you think I like having that…whatever – it – is…ridiculing me, tearing me down, in front of…(Waves his hand in a gesture of contemptuous dismissal) YOU? Do you think I care for it?
GEORGE: Your sympathy disarms me…your…your compassion makes me weep! Large, salty, unscientific tears! 91
George made it very clear that he was not impressed by Nick´s scientific approach to life or by his career. He demonstrates fear of his scientific research that will, as George says, make everyone the same.
GEORGE: … that you people are rearranging my genes, so that everyone will be like everyone else. Now, I won´t have that! P 37
Nick is a threat to George because of what he does for a living, the way he looks and because he could take over the university one day. George gets very territorial and insults Nick all evening. In my opinion, he also feels emasculated because Martha humiliates him in front of someone like Nick. Martha did it intentionally because she knew it would infuriate George if she compared him to Nick, showing how Nick is more successful and better looking than he is.
In conclusion, this is a play that has many layers that can be explored and analysed, but I saw the complexity of the relationships between those interesting and twisted characters as most interesting. Albee shows what the deepest and darkest corners of our mind can to do us, but also to people around us. It is a new outlook on the destructive power of love that turned to hatred. The end, in my opinion, gives the reader a chance to decide what will happen next, i.e., whether or not the couples will succeed in staying together or not. Albee, at least I believe so, gives us hope.