Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a play about the emptiness that comes with regarding a material lifestyle as a fulfilling one, and the cruelty associated with people who suffer from a lack of more spiritually rewarding pursuits. For example Martha and George’s inability to have children, and her corresponding harsh comments to George on the subject of their son, “who could not tolerate the shabby failure his father had become”.
The games and rituals George and Martha are so obsessed with are in many ways an outlet for raw emotion they cannot vent in more meaningful ways, Martha simply a woman with too much time and George a ‘bogged down’ History lecturer. However, the games George and Martha play often serve to reinforce the love in their marriage – the ability to simply allow these comments to run off shows how comfortable they are with one another.
Albee’s customised Genre attempts to contradict the popular notion of faultless marriages and living happily ever after. A quote from Albee himself said he was trying to break away from the Broadway productions of the period, which were simply, “A reaffirmation of the audience’s values, for those who wanted reminding of the status quo”. It appears Albee uses the games as a metaphor of the trivial pursuits that people wade through having overlooked the more valuable things in life. The games are a test of endurance, and in general are based around winning a contest fairly based on rules.
Honey and Nick represent a sheltered section of society that when exposed to the relentlessness of the games discover things about themselves that were previously unknown to them. Its as if they see the how hollow these games really are, and search for what they truly represent. For example the symbolic ‘bringing up baby’ game helps Honey realise that she really does want a child, when previously her illusions of the importance of keeping those slim hips threatened her purpose in life of procreation.
In some ways Albee’s use of the games put the audience in Nick and Honey’s position, and the games convey the sub-text of the play that aren’t immediately obvious. In playing these games with the audience he gets the people thinking of the other hidden symbolism that piece together to give the overall message of the play; Albee revelled in giving the audience an experience they would remember. For example the names George and Martha, those of the founding couple of the American Constitution: a solid moral base for a nation that slowly warped over the years.
The consumer revolution of Albee’s time signified the loss of sight of the true importance of one’s roll in society, and the reluctance to recognise such mistakes is the biggest blunder of all. In many respects, George and Martha failed to snip their obsession with games and rituals in the bud and face the prospect of years of torment. Yet the final exorcism suggests that a sacrifice of some kind could allow the purity to return, most likely a message to the audience that the material illusions that have so heavily affected their lifestyles are a hindrance to a more meaningful progression.
But the bringing up baby game is one of the more ritualistic games, and highlights the difference of the two. While Albee uses games to build the tension, and subtly suggest underlying themes, the rituals are usually used to diffuse the tension. Due to the nature of the games, there is an unpredictability that relies on the people playing, a theme Albee made sure to include by showing segments of everyone playing off against each other, some more significant than each other. For example George and Nick, the old and the new, the professor of the future of science and the professor of history, have a reasonably long ‘debate’, a form of game.
It has connotations of the knowledge learnt from the past overriding the more ‘here and now’ approach, another concealed message that there are things to be learnt from the past. However the rituals are more solid and planned, as with the rituals associated with the church they have a purpose, a meaning – they’re symbolic. Games keep you occupied momentarily, but the rituals have an affect on your attitude to life. The rituals that Albee presents are very much simply a more dramatic and emotive effect than any games do. They give deep insight to the true nature of the characters, that cannot be judged purely on face value.
It is Martha’s ritualistic, rehearsed account of her son that provokes Honey’s reaction of, “I want a baby! “, which in some respects relieves previous anxiety she would have suffered from over her indecision i. e. the proposed abortions. The most moving and important ritual of the play, the final Requiem Mass, relives all of the tension caused by the bitter conflict. It finishes with a quite calm and sane approach to the situation they are in; it awakens Martha to the truth of her illusions; she has come to rely on what at first helped her cope, much like the world has come to rely on the material things in life.
The play finishes with the prospect of hope. The rituals in the play come in two forms. There are the routine, habitual practices that come as second nature to George and Martha, such as the antagonistic references to Martha’s ‘braying’ and George being a ‘bog’, and customary insults. But then there is the darker notion of a more ceremonial practice, such as the apparently set service of George’s exorcism. The interspersion of light-hearted games and sinister rituals, serves to stress the devolution of Martha and George’s relationship as the lines between the two slowly faded.
In the same way a couple can jokingly accept a frivolous jibe, George and Martha have come to deem poignant, offensive comments as rudimentary. “Martha: Uh … you make me puke. George: That wasn’t a very nice thing to say … … Martha: I like your anger … ” The tone of the play builds towards the end because the Games slowly develop to rituals. At the start of the play, Martha’s comment of, “you make me puke” is quickly fixed when Martha tries to give George, “A big sloppy kiss”, and it is taken in jest. But as the play advances, their interaction becomes more ritualistic.
At one point their argument diffuses into calling each other names in French, something they are obviously accustomed to as they have French insults at the ready. Martha and George’s arguments become increasingly ritualistic, leading up to the previously collaborated behaviour of their son. They accuse one another of having failed their son, “A son that came to his father for advice … that wasn’t mixed with sickness” to which Martha retorts, “… A son who was so ashamed of his father … “. These are clearly things that they have accused each other of before, over a son that doesn’t even exist.
The comments are those divorces are made of, over the illusion of a son that can in actual fact give no input, meaning they are left to make up the rest for themselves, entrapping themselves in a web of further deceit. The irregularity of George and Martha’s relationship is really due to the collage of games and rituals that govern their life – their sniping is a set routine, a series of games, some of which they have become so accustomed to that they have become rituals.
For example Martha’s accusation of ‘Phrasemaker’, an idea we see so often throughout the play, with finishing each other’s sentences,that they even do it to their guests; Nick: actually, she’s very frail and … George: Slim-hipped”. A prime example of the poisoning affect of the Games Martha and George’s relationship revolves around is that they seem to forget others aren’t familiar with the barrage of insults, that often appear intentionally offensive, “Nick: I try not to … George: Get involved. ” The games and rituals serve the purpose of revealing things about characters we may have previously been unaware of, and build great amounts of tension that keep the audience enthralled. However, Albee has also used them to give structure to an otherwise talking-based play.
The games add an erratic element, in the idea that it is a contest to be one. People arguing can just seem relentlessly stressful, which admittedly at times Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is, but by presenting them in this way Albee turns it into a spectator sport. Albee achieves realistic conflict and tension, but simultaneously intersperses the human arguments with the more surreal and metaphorical sections of the play. The overall message created can be as awakening to the audience as it has been to some of the characters.