Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Symbolic Foreshadowing:
Time poor participants to literary material, who perhaps crave relevance and linearity more than ever, should be encouraged to read for clues and to embark on a comprehensive thematic understanding over the briefest possible exposure to the text. By no means does this suggest that a play should not be read in its entirety, but that participants should challenge themselves to perceive its essence from a line, a handful of lines or a single page. Appreciation of the total play is greatly enhanced if a deeper understanding is reached from and by the play’s beginning. This is a surprisingly accessible task because great drama is deliberately accommodating in that it is structurally geared towards foreshadowing through visual clues, logic, focussed action and symbolism.
The Symbolism of Geography in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’:
The immediate impression offered by Martha is that the interior state of their house, symbolic of their marriage, is in decay. She may be exaggerating through her Bette Davis impression, but George takes up a similar line in reference to the stowing of Nick and Honey’s coats: “Anywhere… furniture, floor… doesn’t make any difference around this place.” The sense of decay is clearly mutual. Honey’s “wonderful old house” reinforces the idea of structural decline.
The term, New Carthage, is interesting. The title may or may not exist according to actual fact; but is nonetheless quite real according to the genre of realist-absurdity, and in accordance with how George feels about his life. Taking the cue from history, if George and Martha’s house dwells within the bounds of a “small college” in New Carthage, following the analogy, the original Carthage will have been sacked by the dominant Roman power – in this case the university under the presidency of Martha’s father. Further, New Carthage, or usurped Carthage, will have suffered dreadfully at the hands of this dominant power: slaves will have been made of its inhabitants, the original city levelled and, if legend holds, salt poured into its earth to prevent fertility. This last point provides a clue concerning the childless pair: it is worth speculating on the idea that Martha’s father has symbolically killed any prospect of her daughter having a family because of his dissatisfaction with his son-in-law. He has played a powerful hand in fracturing or neutering their marital bond. The Rome-as-Daddy metaphor is certainly strong for George, and is a potent link to the play’s war references and fractious air. Moreover, it sets up a key idea in the tragedy – the power that parents hold over the lives of their children.
The fact that George’s sarcastic reference to Parnassus, another in a series of examples from antiquity, is lost on Nick is part of the history/biology tension and sets up the idea that history itself might be lost on Nick. The exchange surrounding the abstract painting can be perceived in two ways: either that Nick can’t comprehend the abstract or the absurd, only the rational laws of science and biology; or that George prevents or denies his access to the art, a faculty that is more closely aligned with history, by interrupting the young man’s attempts at expressing his interpretation of the piece. Either way, it marks the territorial domains of the two men, and presages deeper conflict between them.
A half-filled glass of alcohol may depict a number of moods, characteristics, and emotions: hedonism, carelessness, or absent-mindedness to name a few. The fact that, according to George: “We’ve got half-filled glasses everywhere in the house, wherever Martha forgets she’s left them… in the linen closet, on the edge of the bathtub… I even found one in the freezer, once” is perhaps a signpost to Martha’s discontentment, restlessness, and need to bury her pain and to spread this to all parts of the house. It is difficult to understand a drinker, as Martha is, not consuming her alcoholic quarry, other than to suggest an-hedonistic reasons and bitter unrest. In this depressed state Martha’s behaviour may also be symbolic of marking scent – after all, she has been likened to a cocker spaniel and a hyena.
First Line Investigation:
- How might the ideas of cursing and blasphemy play a role in this play? (destruction / Carthage legend)
- To what extent is a sense of dissatisfaction, that comes with this line, significant? (pain / loss / expectations / ideals / emotional fragility)
- Is the idea of a saviour at all relevant? (son / rebirth / fertility / success / need for love and intimacy)
- In what way or ways is Martha’s altered state of drunkenness that, in part, induces this line, significant to the play? (fantasy / versions of reality)
- What evidence is there to suggest that Albee is criticising the post-war / post-modern American Christian ethic and the values that accompany it? (illusion / truth / acceptance)
Visualising the Opening Scene:
Prior to the arrival of Nick and Honey, George and Martha illustrate their bond through a turbulent exchange that depicts the unfathomable nature of love, in which acceptance and the tenderness of surprising surrenders are irreconcilably intertwined with discontentment, condemnation, and disgust. The oscillating nature of the scene conveys the elasticity and resilience often required of participants who are in complex, long-term relationships. George and Martha are clearly equals, each possessing an arsenal capable of landing blows upon the other. They are the God and Goddess of each other’s retribution. There is also the sense that George and Martha, in accordance with the ironic title of the first act (fun and games), are warming up, exercising, or practising for the main event; that they are, in essence, bringing us the Pre-game: a perverse test (not unlike the Crash Test or trial that cars are put through) to probe each other’s durability for the crucible of the long game – in which their love will be challenged to the brink of destruction.
In the brief pages before the arrival of guests, Nick and Honey, there are definite insights into the problems within the marriage of George and Martha, reflecting a range of themes and their oppositions that will be carried through and inform the play’s catharsis.
The theme of discontentment within marriage is immediately felt by George’s shame at Martha’s boisterous ingress. That Martha is loud and insensitive at this time of night provides the suggestion of her moral compass, about which George is often appalled. Her response, “What a cluck! What a cluck you are” although endearing enough at this point, reflects her own dissatisfaction with her husband’s sense of propriety. It is also a mild attack on his masculinity and presages deeper, more personal insults against his manhood. That she persists in her demands for him to know the name of the Bette Davis picture tells us that the conversation has little to do with movies. That her demand is for one thing (“One single little epic.”) reads: “God knows, I don’t ask for much!” From Martha’s point of view there is also the suggestion that in a perfect world her husband would be more fashionable, more fun, more willing to engage and, of course – younger. Not remembering is a sign of ageing and the streamlined participation that accompanies it. In Martha’s eyes it is failure, even though she cannot remember the film’s male lead. Within the first half page the manifestation of her discontentment with George has moved from the moderate and endearing cluck to the altogether harsher dumbbell. Despite George’s weary disengagement, his belated single offering of 1930s musical, Chicago, fails to appease Martha or elevate his masculinity.
Symbolically referencing Bette Davis’ discontentment in the unnamed film might seem like a heavy-handed way to convey the couple’s situation at an early point. However, by underscoring discontentment so strongly, Albee is bringing to mind an important counterpoint. When people are discontented, not merely with their partners, they often develop the need for illusion. In defence of his failure to recall the film’s title, George’s relatively innocuous “Well, that was probably before my time…” brings Martha’s utterly mirthless overreaction: “Can it! Just cut that out!” Martha’s offense at the suggestion of her age demonstrates the vanity and emotional fragility of a person who can only perceive herself as a young woman. It comes as a shock to learn that she is six years older than George. From this tiny crack on the second page of the play it is possible to speculate on the depth of Martha’s illusion, and the gravity of the couple’s private pain and loss: she is clearly fixated on the time of her fertility and potential to yield the ideal of familial success – or upon the life-stage when it was socially expected but denied to her through circumstance or health.
The ideal of success naturally extends to employment and status, and forms a significant adjunct to the theme of discontentment. Martha’s condemnation of George’s lack of ambition, drive, and energy in his job: “…you haven’t done anything all day… you never do anything” reflects an era in which a husband’s success often elevated the wife. From the stagnation and bitterness evident in the opening pages it is possible to observe the nexus that so often entraps couples. Reasonably, at some point, George perceived gain by marrying the daughter of the president of the university, while Martha’s self-interest lay in marrying a man who would rise within said university under the tutelage of her influential father. The festering wound of these failed expectations, soon to be aggravated by the young guests and the ambitious Nick, further prefigures the need for the cleansing power of truth, acceptance, and rebirth made possible through the destruction of illusion. Indeed, a common interpretation of the play’s title takes from the musical theme of the original nursery rhyme of the Three Little Pigs (Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?), reflecting the fear of living in absence of illusion.
George and Martha’s volatile and often fluctuating relationship is summed up in these pages by two opposing ideas: the suggestion of Martha’s need for and history of infidelity, and Martha’s need for love and intimacy with her husband:
MARTHA: …He’s in the math department… about thirty, blond, and…
GEORGE: … and good looking…
MARTHA: Yes… and good-looking…
GEORGE: It figures.
That George can’t remember meeting anyone at the faculty party doesn’t stop him from possessing an accurate assessment of the nature and appearance of the impending guests. In her attempts to seduce much younger men it would seem that Martha has form, and George is emasculated and further disempowered in the wake of Daddy’s directive. Yet, moments later, after a potentially violent and aggressive moment between the pair softens, Martha asks for a “big sloppy kiss” and is palpably hurt when George rejects her. Perhaps George is withholding to retain a degree of power and status in the relationship – a theme further explored in the standoff to open the door. Perhaps he oscillates at all times between attraction, tenderness, and repulsion.
As the scene unwinds and plunges again into anger and mutual contempt we are introduced to the couple’s central illusion:
In the instance that this is brought to light there can be no understanding of what it might convey. Nonetheless, a ‘bit’ is a term used in stand-up comedy, reflecting an element of a comedian’s routine. Only through Martha’s probing do we discover that George is referring to “the bit about the kid.” She understands implicitly, taking equal possession and rising to the challenge. In spite of the reference to stand-up comedy this is not a moment for levity. George and Martha’s ‘bit’ is a secret, private fantasy that reflects a profound need for game playing. The gravity of “the bit about the kid” will become horrifically apparent as the play unfolds; but of interest here is George’s suspicion that Martha will use it against him to engineer a calamitous betrayal of trust.
An exploration of marriage’s false public image can now take place against the voyeuristic vision of George and Martha’s private world. Moreover, the roller-coaster opening scene – a mere eight and a half pages – foreshadows the unfathomable depth and changeability of long-term relationships, the complexity of love and its versions of reality, and the many faces of those who remain within the married state.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Symbolic Foreshadowing – Summary:
Albee, E. (1979) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019