Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), is intoxicating – literally. With every turn of the page, the reader is taken deeper and deeper into the twisted mind of the play’s main characters, George and Martha. This married couple, one the daughter of the college President and the other a Professor of History, horribly stagnant in his career, bring a fresh young couple (the new Biology professor and his wife) over for drinks after a late faculty party at Martha’s father’s house.
If the scenes reflect the actualities of “behind the scenes” University leadership life, then perhaps college education should not be such an American ideal. The examination of mental instability (i.e. sociopathic tendencies, narcissism, and schizophrenia) are riveting and terrifying all at once, particularly as the story unfolds and more and more truth is sucked out from the multitude of fictions. The dangers of the enabler, too, and the perverse pleasure which can be gained from progressing another person’s instabilities and delusions is interesting and embarrassingly amusing.
The description for the play states that one of the greatest points for this drama is its dramatic revelation at the end, and this is true. While some readers may see it coming from early on, many readers probably will not and, regardless of knowing or not knowing, the revelation and its subsequent affect on the small party is stunning and quite daring for its time.
The two main characters, George and Martha, are brilliantly rendered.
As their mania unfolds, their twisted personality traits—their motivations, desires, and failings—all come to light in a loudly subtle way, seen seldom in any piece of writing. Their son, too, and Martha’s father, though the reader never actually meets either of these characters, are so well described and recalled by George and Martha, it is almost as if they are active characters in the play. This is something Albee deserves immense credit for having achieved, as it adds an interesting sub-plot which advances the over-the-top major scenes quite nicely.
Also, Nick and Honey—the younger couple—are developed just as much as they need to be in order to allow George and Martha’s story to unfold. They are there to serve a purpose, which is to allow George and Martha’s “games” to progress, their animosity to reach the boiling point, and the great truth (or lie) to be revealed in the final pages. Their presence also allows the reader to contrast a simple, well-planned, and expected “romance” (Honey and Nick) with a ravenous, destructive, sickening lasting-passion (Martha and George).
In a play or drama, the biggest indicator of great “prose” is really great dialogue, scene direction, and description. This play in particular does not have much scene direction, though the points where Albee does make suggestions as far as stage placement, facial expression, etc. are so well-thought that the play almost requires nothing else (each director will be able to make this play his/her own, but with the direction Albee affords, it is almost certain that the most important moments will be executed in the right ways).
The character reactions and descriptions, too, are simply stated, but make all the difference, such as when Nick is directed to be: “Stretching . . . luxuriating . . . playing the game.” What really progresses this play, though, is the interaction between the characters—the simple, flippant replies, the overly-dramatic reactions to the most mundane situations—Nick’s embarrassed replies; Honey’s confusion and naivety. Each of the characters is completely “on point,” though the only one who really seems to develop at all is Nick. This is fitting because George indicates that Nick will indeed be the one to move forward while the rest of them remain stagnant in their lives, relationships and, most notably, careers. The most development, though, is not with the characters, but with the story itself.
One of the most interesting elements of this particular story is that it deals with characters that are completely mentally unstable and irrational, illogical in every way, but working in what one would assume to be one of the most sound, logical professions, higher education. Who could be more staid and calm than a History professor? Who could me more respectable and proper than a University President’s daughter? Edward Albee grabs us from the start by putting these seemingly simple character types into a relationship which is highly volatile and unpredictable, in a setting which should be nothing but calm and moderate.
The inclusion of the two “new kids” on the collegiate block adds much in comparison, as if to say, with age and experience comes not wisdom, but insanity. Of course, Albee is not making generalizations; but, still, he does seem to be saying: “Dear reader, take another look – things are rarely what we expect them to be.”
The nature and art of psychological warfare is put under the microscope and the outcome is extraordinary. Watching Martha and Gorge go back-and-forth with their “games” is at times invigorating, at times exhausting, but always interesting and unbelievable (except that it seems entirely natural). Sexuality, too, as well as alcoholism, politics, and science vs. society are all discussed as a part of the dialogue of this one evening, and these elements progress the story further into its madness and resolution.