? Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - Essay by Bill Johnson
A Story is a Promise

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A YouTube video about Virginia Woolf that I created.

Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Power of Ambiguity

A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.
by Bill Johnson
A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling is now available from Amazon Kindle for $2.99 and on Smashwords for other ebook formats.

For an audience to get involved with a play and how and why its characters act to shape its course and outcome, what a play is about generally needs to be accessible. Even in a play like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which revolves around ambiguity. This review explores how the ambiguity of the story happens within the context of some very concrete plot questions that allow viewers to track the course and outcome of the story.

The title of the play suggests an academic setting; the question, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, applies to academics who've made a career out of teasing new meaning from Woolf's work, and, conversely, those in academia who have failed to find new meaning and faced a grave loss of face and stature.

While from the outside academia can be viewed as genteel, for those who've been involved in the politics of being a tenured professor, academia can be a brutal life of publish or perish, with collecting students in large classes taught by TA's a necessary evil to justify a budget, space, control, authority, stature, etc. In an environment where people have to establish their credentials through intellectual or pseudo-intellectual means or accomplishments, even holding one's ground can require great effort. When people have to fight to establish themselves, or maintain their rank and status, or advance in status, there can be great drama and tension.

One goal of a storyteller is to understand the tensions and conflicts and desires that can bubble beneath the surface in characters, and then create the environments and situations where these public persona are stripped aside to reveal what is true. This process is what makes a story different than life, where events and people are diffuse, or situations have outcomes but they aren't what someone wanted or expected.

This dynamic appears in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as the persona of the characters are stripped away. While the ‘game' the main characters play is ambiguous, the process of creating a situation that gets to a deeper truth about the characters in the play is not.

The three acts of the play are titles Fun and Games, Walpurgisnacht (a European holiday on a night when witches gathered to celebrate), and The Exorcism. These act titles give a road map to the path the play takes.

The play opens with George and Martha returning home from a college party at 2 a.m. He wants her to be quiet, but she insists he name the title of a movie based on a line of dialog. This sets out a central feature of the relationship between this couple, game-playing that becomes biting when Martha says of George, "Don't you know anything?" Status in this relationship is conferred by 'winning' these challenges. But Martha's taunt does raise the question, why does George subject himself to this wife? What status does he get from being with Martha?

George, who is younger than Martha, does get in a cutting return to her taunt, "Well, that [movie] was probably before my time."

These characters know how to hurt each other and aren't afraid to lash out punishment. If this is fun and games, one can only imagine what real cruelty would be. And the play answers that question.

When George refuses to play because he's tired, Martha retaliates that since he's not really doing anything (in his life or at the college), he has no reason to be tired. George fires back about Martha's father, president of the college, and his Saturday night parties, with Martha "braying" at everyone, which zings Martha. This brisk dialog is working in the background details of these two people. This exchange sets out why George is with Martha, his status as a college professor is due, in part, to being married to the college president's daughter, which makes George dependent on Martha for his status.

Martha reveals to the surprised George that they have guests arriving shortly. The guests will turn up at 2 a.m. because of Martha's status as the daughter of the college President. Their arrival will turn what would have been a typical Saturday night of low-key quarreling between Martha and George into something more explosive. There will be an audience for the games George and Martha play, and thus more at stake in terms of who George and Martha are. They'll both want to win this new game.

When George protests guests coming over at 2 a.m, Martha wins this argument by saying that her father asked her to be nice to the new math professor. Martha wins this round, and it reveals something about Martha's hold over George, that keeps his job because of her. When one person is dependent on another for a job of livelihood, there can be tremendous feelings of anger over the dependency. This raises the question, will Martha be able to use this power to win any game she and George play this night? What would George have to do to win? The set up for this plot question for the story is clear and unambiguous.

As the bickering continues, Martha says, "I swear...if you existed, I'd divorce you..." This comment about whether George exists or not foreshadows the game coming up. It's also a way to undercut the status of another person. For example, the way servants can be treated as if they don't exist; or the way African-Americans were often treated in the United States before the Civil Rights movement; or the lack of status held by women in many places in the world. Clashes around status are powerful tools in storytelling.

When the doorbell finally rings announcing the impending arrival of the guests, who will answer the door turns into another verbal brawl. There can be drama about the outcome of any moment in a story. Plays fail when the moments of a story lack dramatic shape.

George is forced to open the door, which is a reflection of his status, but he does so in a way that reveals something unpleasant about Martha to the guests. Score one for George.

One of the new guests is named Honey, and she giggles a lot and says inane things. In a few words, Albee gets across her dramatic truth and her status in life. Nick, her husband, comes across as guarded. As the new professor on campus with Martha's father the president of the college, he has the most to lose if anything goes wrong at this private party and the most to gain in terms of status if he plays his cards right.

George and Martha use their dialog with their guests to continue jousting.

When Martha and Honey leave the room, George starts in with the verbal games with Nick, who turns out to be no fun at all; he's fussy and literal. Nick is a contrast to George, or perhaps a younger version of George before marriage to Martha and a life of servitude.

To keep Nick from fleeing, George turns down the verbal jousting and reveals more about himself, that he's in the history department, but not the history department (a distinction in status). Marriage to Martha has not gotten him to the top of his particular academic heap.

When Nick asks if George and Martha have children, George responds, "That's for me to know and you to find out," foreshadowing the duel at the heart of the play.

When Honey returns and lets it out that Martha is upstairs changing into something more ‘comfortable,' George's reaction suggests her action is taking the evening into an ominous place. Honey confirms that with the announcement to George that she didn't know that he and Martha have a son, which cues George to what a deadly evening this will be.

This is where the ambiguity of the place is fully in place. Do George and Martha have a son, or an imaginary son they've created to use in their verbal jousting? I found the meaning comes down on the side of the son being imaginary, but the play could be played as if the son really existed. But the real issue between George and Martha is over who's the dominant one in this relationship. Martha has, up to this night, won that issue with the trump card of her father being the president of a college. The verbal jousting up until now has been pointed and barbed, but it's soon to go deeper and begin to strip away the facades the characters maintain.

Then Martha returns more...comfortable, Nick is obviously aroused. This raises the question, who will seduce who tonight?

Within a few pages, Nick and Martha are doing a seduction dance within the sub text of their dialog.

Martha then relates a story about hitting George while he was supposed to be training at boxing, and somehow that bollixed his life. As Martha says, "I think it's what colored our whole life. Really I do! It's an excuse, anyway."

As Martha finishes, George appears with a shotgun that he aims at her head. As Nick and Honey verge on hysteria, it turns out to be a toy shotgun, but it gets across the underlying point about George's feelings.

As Honey continues to drink, she keeps bringing the conversation back to George and Martha's son. Martha escalates to relating her expectation that George would become head of the history department, but he didn't make it beyond being a lowly professor, a loss in status for both of them.

The act ends with everyone drunkenly singing, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Martha has opened George's wound in public.

What will he do about it?

To get that answer, the audience has to attend Act Two.

Act Two – Walpurgisnacht

This act opens with Nick and George, with Nick unhappy about the previous scene, and, according to him, George and Martha going at it like "animals."

This act brings the play back to a quiet intensity as George relates a story about a friend who accidentally killed his mother, than his father, then ended up in an asylum. Is this a story? A commentary on George's life? It's ambiguous.

What comes out is that Nick's marriage happened under false pretenses (a hysterical pregnancy) and he's struggling to stay non-involved with George's and Marsha's style of fighting.

Then after a jibe by George it comes out that Nick married Honey for her father's money. Nick's facade is being stripped away, partly by alcohol, partly by the corrosive environment, partly because it was never that far from the surface.

This is what a good story does; it gets to the truth of its characters.

George now considers whether Nick is starting to tell him stories about his life as an attempt to play George's and Martha's game, and whether the stories are true. How would George know? How would the audience know? This idea of ambiguity is seeping into things other than George's and Martha's marriage.

Nick sets out how he'll insinuate himself into the college, bed a few wives and groom the right contacts. He seems to be playing along with George, unaware that there's some real truth about himself here as George suggests Martha could be one of the wives he mounts like a dog.

When Martha and Honey return, George and Martha get into another escalating fight about their ‘son,' this time with George accusing Martha of drunkenly coming on to the boy.

It comes out that George wrote a book about a young man who killed his father and mother and Martha's father wouldn't allow it to be published. Is this a story? George reacts strongly to the story, but what does that mean? Is it a true story, as Martha alleges?

Goaded by Martha, George tries to strangle her. But, again, is his anger real? Or just another game?

Then George suggests it was all a game, and for Nick, another game could be Hump the Hostess. But instead the new game is Get the Guests, and to start it out, George says he wrote a second novel, and the characters are clearly Nick and Honey.

George's novel exposes Nick as vain, weak and nasty. Nick tells George he's going to get him for this. What this 'getting' will be, the audience must wait for the answer.

When Martha protests that George has gone too far, it comes out that from Martha's point of view, she's been whipping George for 23 years to get him to acknowledge that he married Martha exactly because she would emasculate him and give him an excuse to be a failure in life. Martha's answer to George's game, "I'm going to finish you." The tension in the story has just gone up another notch, not because of the ambiguity of the game playing, but because of how straight-forward and on-stage this battle is between George and Martha.

George, "I warned you not to go too far."

Martha, "I'm just beginning."

George accuses Martha of living in a fantasy world, and George intends to have her committed. True? Another feint in their battle for supremacy?

Then, George, "Total war?"

Martha, "Total."

The final gauntlet has been thrown.

At that moment, Nick re-enters the room.

When Martha taunts George that she's entertaining a guest by necking with Nick, George encourages her to continue while he reads a book. It's clear that Martha isn't quite sure what to make of this. That by his own reaction George has changed the rules of the game. Some of the insults about George being a failure aren't having the usual effect.

Martha goes off to join Nick in the kitchen and George is joined by a dreaming Honey. Speaking to Honey, George comes to the realization that Honey is taking birth control pills to ensure she won't get pregnant.

Honey keeps talking about hearing bells in lieu of hearing her husband having sex with Martha in the kitchen, and that triggers a thought in George. That it was a call telling him that his imaginary son is dead, a new wrinkle in the game.

The act ends with George, laughing and crying, rehearsing how he'll tell Martha their son is dead.

How will Martha react?

Will this be the end of the George and Martha as a couple if George's gambit means he's beaten Martha at her own game? That he's finally achieved a higher status?

To find out, the audience needs to return for the final act.


Act Three – Exorcism

Act Three begins with Martha making her appearance in the deserted living room.

When Nick shows up, Martha is sure to let him know he has dandy potential, but at the necessary moment he's been a flop, which sets off the masculine Nick.

Martha reveals to Nick that George does make her happy with his ability to keep up with her games. But the audience knows this lull cannot last. One aspect of good storytelling is the audience knowing more than a character about what's going to happen next. The audience knows what George intends to spring on Martha.

As George banters with Nick and Martha he says, "Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference?" This line restates what's been going on all night.

Sending Nick out to get Honey, George announces, "One more game."

George goads a tired Martha into playing the final game. S she joins him in reciting the details of the son's birth.

Martha wants to end the game with the son going off to college, but George will not stop. He begins to speak the truth about the relationship between Martha and her father, that her father can't stand her, that she needed a son to use as a weapon against her father. This is cutting Martha to the quick in the same way she's been cutting at George all their married life. He is stripping away the facade of her life, that she has power because of her father, but it's only an illusion of power because her father hates her, just as Honey and Nick have the illusion of a marriage more frail then George and Martha because they've both accepted their artificial persona as a means to stay together in some kind of peace.

Martha wants to stop, but George continues on to relate the telegram about the death of their son that afternoon. George continues to goad Martha about this until she spits in his face.

Then, as Martha realizes that George has won the game, "It will be dawn soon. I think the party's over."

Nick and Honey finally leave.

Martha realizes it will be just her and George now, without a son.

The play ends with George chanting, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

And Martha's reply, "I...am...George. I...am...."

Final Thoughts

This play demonstrates the power and intensity and drama that can be unleashed when the persona people have created are exposed. While ambiguity drives the action in the second half of the play, the set up for the story began with the question, on this night who would win the games played by George and Martha? Setting up a simple question and moving dramatically toward an answer gives a story meaning and purpose while deeper issues can be explored, the life of academia, the rise of science as a means to understand the future of culture and society, marriage in the early 60's stripped of niceties.

While Nick and Honey will probably slip back behind their facades and nurse their grudges and irritations and fantasies, something happened between George and Martha, something shifted in their relationship. Will they continue together as a couple, or was this just another night of fun and games?.

Great storytelling is about getting to the deeper truths of a story's characters, and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf shows how it can be done.

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