Greetings, my dear strangers! 🙂
The way I feel now, Edward Albee’s play seems like a perfect piece of literature. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently, change my mind or spot some plot holes or slight imperfections that will make me question my earlier claim. But, that is the future. No one knows what it brings. I may be dead tomorrow. All I have now is the way I currently feel and that emotion isn’t easy to define and put into words. Let’s call it a cocktail of elation, misery, sorrow, awe, relief and acceptance.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was written, in my opinion, to debunk a seemingly perfect world. The America of early sixties presented for many a place and time of innocence, peace and prosperity. However, trouble was brewing both from within and without. A stressed, bolded accent was put on family values that encompassed the American dream: a nice house with a porch surrounded by a white picket fence, a perfect couple with the man being the breadwinner and the woman being a reliable housewife and their two and a half kids, accompanied by two dogs. However, Albee, acutely aware of all the dissatisfaction and unease boiling under the surface, gave us a representative piece of literature that embodied the general discontent, one teeming with imperfections that still managed to reach pure perfection and impeccability and that remains an ideal revered by both cult and mainstream audiences to this very day.
Let’s talk a bit about the plot, shall we? On the surface, George and Martha, a couple married for over two decades, seem like any other couple that’s been in each other’s presence for far too long. They constantly bicker over trivialities, “exercising what is left of their wits”, dwelling in an ugly stretch of time in a man’s life when one feels young enough to desire certain things, yet too old to actually achieve them. However, there is a deeper and more complex dimension to their relationship, one that simultaneously binds them together and draws them apart. Spoiler alert! If you’ve not read/seen the play/movie, now is the time to turn away. Go check out what’s new on 9gag and don’t return, since the rest of my review is riddled with key plot points.
Anyway, late one night they are joined in their home by a younger couple, Nick and Honey. Nick and George teach at the same university whose president happens to be Martha’s father. The young couple gets caught in the crossfire that is verbal abuse between the older couple. A while later, George finds out that Martha has mentioned to Honey a taboo topic, one that he had warned her about not spilling out even before their guests arrived. The forbidden topic is their son. To a random reader, this may seem puzzling. Why would they want to keep their child a secret? What lies behind the shiny veneer? George gets upset about this, but isn’t given much time to think about it, as there are other subjects concerning him, such as the growing sexual tension between his wife and Nick, as well as the fact that Nick teaches biology, a branch George considers amoral and a direct threat to his own lifestyle and his profession as a history teacher. Martha proceeds to goad George about his failures, including his modest professional success, his less than impressive physique and his general passivity and lack of ambition. Humiliated, George succumbs to rage and smashes a glass, prompting the first of Honey’s many vomiting sessions and thus ending act I.
Act II opens with George telling Nick an interesting story about a boy he knew in his youth, a boy who had accidentally killed his parents and had been confined to an asylum for three decades since the traumatic events. Nick, in turn, reveals to George that he had married Honey during her hysterical pregnancy that turned out to be a false alarm and because she was well-off. Once they all gather back into the living room, Martha goes on to humiliate her husband some more, telling the young couple how George had tried to publish a book about the experiences he’d earlier described to Nick, the crucial part being George’s claims that the novel was autobiographical. Infuriated, George tries to strangle Martha and then decides to get even with his young guests by revealing to Honey that Nick had told him all about their early lives, including her pregnancy. Honey gets upset and runs to the bathroom with Nick following her, enraged not so much about her state, but about the damage done to himself. Disgusted by George’s actions, Martha initiates another quarrel which ends with the two of them declaring “total war” on each other. Martha seduces Nick and takes him upstairs. George, distraught, thinks of the perfect way to get back at her: he decides to tell her that their son has died.
In Act III, Martha and Nick return to the living room. Nick, the seemingly perfect hunk whose plan it’d been to sleep with important faculty wives in order to advance his career, has proved to be “a flop” in the bedroom and makes excuses for his poor performance. Martha, on the other hand, is completely disillusioned and reveals that George is the only man who’d ever made her happy. George returns and assembles them all together again for one final game. This time, he is the one that begins talking about their son, prompting Martha to make a beautiful speech about their child, a speech so touching that, at one point, Honey shouts out that she wants a child as well, even though it had previously been established that she is afraid of having children, a statement George assumes means that she had been using birth control behind Nick’s back. After Martha’s monologue of an idealised child ends, she and George proceed to blame each other for the destruction of their son’s innocence and perfection, with Martha accusing George of being too passive and George condemning Martha’s vices, even implying child-molestation. In the end, George tells her that a telegram had arrived and that their son is dead. Martha breaks down and through a carefully written dialogue between the two, we realise that their son had never existed and was only a figment of their imagination. Dawn breaks and Nick and Honey leave. George begins softly singing “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf”, a parody of “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf” they’d heard at the faculty party earlier that night, to which Martha replies: “I am, George.”
So, what to make of this mess? Let’s start from the obvious and most prominent theme – George and Martha’s imaginary child. Imagine wanting a child so bad and not being able to have one. Being 23, I have no experience in this area, but I think I can at least imagine what it must be like for many couples out there. Now, imagine wanting a child so desperately that you integrate a fantasy of it into your day-to-day life. You feed that fantasy, nurse it for years, let it grow and develop in unpredictable ways, much like a real child would grow and develop. Before long, you become dependent on this fantasy. It seeps into every aspect of your life, until it becomes a crutch necessary for your very existence. That is the story of George and Martha, in the simplest of terms. Over the years (or, should I say – decades), this fantasy turns destructive though, turning the spouses against each other in an endless cycle of bitterness and maybe even hatred. I believe that, at least on some minimal levels, they loathe each other, simply because they are allowed to live and be, whilst their child never even got the opportunity to be born. I imagine that it all started off innocently enough.
“What if we really had a kid? Would it be a boy or a girl? What would he be like? Would he be keen on sports or a couch-potato? Would he like the sun, books, animals? Would he hate anything? Would he hate us?”
Little by little, Martha and George created a reality within the reality, a separate form of existence they shared privately, at least until Martha spilled the beans to Honey. There are clues in the play that suggest that she didn’t do it on purpose, in order to spite George or deliberately disobey his rules, but because her need was so great that she just had to share it. That’s where the line between truth and illusion begins to fade. This couple, Martha especially, are no longer able to discern what’s real and what isn’t. I can imagine that, in some of the more euphoric moments, Martha actually believes that she is a mother and that somewhere out there, there is a son who “belongs” to her. Just imagine how desperate you must be to nurse a destructive fantasy like that for an extended period of time, breathing new life into it every chance you get and you’ll realise how utterly devastating the son’s “death” was not only for Martha, but for George as well, the one who “killed” him, thus ending the fantasy that had gone too far for both of them.
Next in the line-up are Nick and Honey. On the surface, they seem like an even more perfect couple than our exhausted protagonists. They’re young, ambitious, well-behaved and they seem to be adjusting well in the new town they’ve moved to. They’re everything society expects and wants them to be. However, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. As I’ve already mentioned, it was during a hysterical pregnancy of Honey’s that she and Nick got married. Perhaps she even feigned a pregnancy to get him to marry her? George suspects she has been using birth control behind Nick’s back as well. Nick, on his part, plots infidelities with pertinent faculty wives in order to climb the professional ladder. Furthermore, by Nick’s own admission, there was never much passion between them. They grew up together and it has always been expected of them to end up together. But, the worst aspect of their marriage is the complete and utter absence of communication. However violently and savagely, George and Martha still communicate with one another. They seek each other’s company, they crave it on a deeper level. Nick and Honey make no such attempts. Their relationship is empty and devoid of any genuine understanding and compassion.
Sex is a powerful theme and plays a huge role throughout the play. However, sex is here neither a source of refuge nor a place of tenderness. Martha frequently partakes in sexual escapades with men, though they bring her no true satisfaction. Neither couple has kids and, moreover, Nick, who was first introduced to us as an exemplary pillar of manhood and youthful sexual energy, isn’t up to scratch when he goes to bed with Martha. The very name of the town where the play takes place, New Carthage, bears a deeper meaning of this theme. Carthage was an ancient civilisation the Romans have conquered and then, as was their custom, sown with salt so that nothing could grow there for years to come. The characters are confined within this town whose very name seems to represent barrenness and infertility.
Family relationships also play a huge role in the story. Honey is an emotionally unstable daughter of a preacher who can’t cope with growing up. An attack on religion on Albee’s part, perhaps? Martha has some daddy issues as well. The father she worships doesn’t seem to care much about her. Throughout the play, she keeps referring to him as ‘daddy’. Not an entirely healthy way for a woman in her fifties to approach the subject. George’s inability to fill her father’s shoes may be a source for her disgust for him and her constant need to belittle him. Another reason may be, I suspect, the fact that the play in set in early 60s, a time when little was expected from women on a professional scale. Even though Martha is a highly educated woman, she never got to spread her wings and pursue a career. Maybe that left a hole in her, a hole she’d hoped she could fill with George’s success, at least until he proved not to be as ambitious and go-getting as he seemed. George, on the other hand, is a different story. His relationship with his parents is never clearly explained. The tale of a boy who killed his parents which he offers to Nick may or may not be his own. In any case, I believe that George hadn’t killed them, but simply making up a story like that, one that he returns to time and again, seems to suggest some deep-seated resentment of his parents, coupled with guilt and grief.
Still, as much as Martha and George’s relationship may seem dysfunctional, which indeed it is, they remain by each other’s side at the end of the play. Don’t get me wrong now. Naturally, I don’t think that all couples who choose to stay together do it out of love or respect. Some do it because they’ve grown used to the bickering and the company, some because it will enable them to prolong the other’s suffering, others simply because they know of no other way to live. However, it seems to me that George and Martha stay together because of entirely different reasons. Once the dust settles and they stop mourning the death of their son, maybe they’ll be able to spot a brighter future on the horizon, one within realms of reality, in which they’ll be able to function better as a couple. There is nothing romantic about their marriage, yet I still think they’ll pull through. Call me too idealistic if you must, but I believe that no one has ever loved anyone as much as George loves Martha. And vice versa.
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