At two o'clock in the morning, George and Martha return from a faculty party at Martha's father's house. Martha seems drunk and George teases her about being loud and old. As George suggests a nightcap, however, Martha reveals that they are expecting company: the new man in the math department and his wife are coming over. Though George does not remember, Martha insists that George met them; she describes them as the good-looking blonde man and his mousy wife without any hips. George is not pleased that they are receiving company, but Martha's father requested that the two of them entertain this new couple, so Martha agreed. As George is moping, Martha reminds him of a joke that apparently occurred earlier in the evening. She sings, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" instead of "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" George insists that he did not find the joke particularly amusing. Martha gets annoyed at George, but as they tease each other, she also asks him to kiss her, which he refuses. Martha asks for another drink.
The doorbell rings and neither George nor Martha wants to answer the door. Finally, George agrees to do it, but he warns Martha not to "start in on the bit about the kid." It is unclear, here, what he means, but Martha, understanding, does not agree to do what he asks. George insults Martha one more time, to which she replies, "SCREW YOU," just as George opens the door to reveal Nick and Honey. As the two come in, Nick tells Honey that they should not have come, which George insincerely denies. Nick comments on a modern art painting, and George makes fun of his efforts to understand it. George then pours the first of many drinks for Nick and Honey. George implies that Martha is an alcoholic. She, then, starts everyone singing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and announces that her father had thrown a wonderful party. George begins to insult her father and declare that it is difficult to be married to the daughter of his boss. Martha, having heard enough, tells Honey that she wants to show her the house. George warns Martha again not to bring up the child.
When the women leave, George begins to grill Nick about why he came to the University. But, George does not really want to know about Nick. Instead, he is enjoying giving Nick a hard time, teasing him and interrupting him. Nick expresses that he would like to go home because George and Martha's meanness to each other bothers him. George tells Nick that he is not going anywhere and tells him to get used to being personal with other faculty members. George asks about Nick's field, believing it to be math. But, Nick corrects him and tells George that he is a biologist, one concerned with chromosomes. George, who is in the history department, tells Nick that he thinks that the work being done on genes is terrible. He doesn't think that anyone should be able to genetically engineer other people. Nick protests that he is not exactly doing that, but George does not want to listen. In the middle of this, George also lets slip that Martha would like him to be the head of the history department, not merely a member of the history faculty. George says that he did run the history department during the war, but that the job was taken away from him when everyone returned.
George comments that Honey is slim-hipped and asks if they have any children. Nick says they do not. When Nick asks George the same question, George does not answer. George begins to call for Martha, but only Honey returns. Martha, she reports, is changing her dress. Honey also reveals that Martha told her that George and Martha have a son. George is very upset with Martha. And, when Nick and Honey talk about leaving, George tells them that they cannot. The fun has just begun.
From the very beginning, George and Martha are a surprising and disturbing couple. They explode all fantasies about the bliss of marital life. Not only are they cruel to each other, but they cannot even be civil around their company. Through their horrifying behavior, Edward Albee seems to indicate that love can quickly transform into hatred. In addition, since George and Martha connect to each other best when trading insults, he also reveals that a marriage can fall into being a series of games that the couple plays with each other.
This play also toys with the idea of privacy in marriage. In this theme, the audience is crucial. After all, not only is Albee opening up George and Martha's marriage to Nick and Honey, but he is revealing their mode of interaction to an entire audience of theater-goers. After a long stretch of time where families were pictured as perfect and happy (think about the 1950s television shows Leave it to Beaver, Lassie, and I Love Lucy), George and Martha were especially shocking. In the simple fact that George and Martha share the name of America's founding and most famous couple, George and Martha Washington, Albee also implicitly extends his portrayal of this one faulty marriage to all of America. The illusions and tensions under which they hide and snipe at each other are paradigmatic of a larger phenomenon in the nation itself.
Part of the reason that George and Martha relate to each other by trading insults is that they are afraid to communicate in a sincere way. It is easier to be mean and hide their true feelings. Therefore, as they drink heavily, the alcohol becomes a symbol of their desire to mask their true emotions from each other and themselves. At the same time, George does not want to be so phony. He attacks Nick's profession and genetic engineering because he is afraid of artificially changing the way that people are supposed to turn out.
Of course, one could read his distaste for genetic engineering as a result of his own career path. In the 1950s and early 1960s, many social scientists argued that the professional competitiveness that men felt was very destructive. Albee seems to be picking up on this idea. George clearly feels like a bit of a failure, having lost the position of head of the history department. George felt people pushing him to be a success but did not want to involve himself in such a rat race. Therefore, the genetic engineering scares George because it seems like the ultimate form of personal competition. He hates the way that people only want to succeed now, and genetic engineering just seems to be the next step.
The meaning of the title, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, becomes clearer as the play progresses, but so far we know that it comes from a joke at a cocktail party. The song usually goes, "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?" Virginia Woolf was an English writer during the first half of the twentieth century. She wrote in the style of stream-of-consciousness, which tried to mimic the thought patterns of her characters. One might be afraid of Virginia Woolf because she tries to understand the intricacies of the human mind and heart. She is so honest that she might frighten characters like George and Martha, who hide behind their insults. At the same time, her writing is also very complex and intellectual. Therefore, one might be afraid of not understanding her. In the competitive world of a University, no one would want to admit to being afraid to read something by her. The title, then, could also refer to the competition that George feels at his job, and the need that all people within that academic environment have to puff up their own intelligence.
Much of this first section simply sets up the climax of the play. All of the discussion of George and Martha's child, then, is foreshadowing for the revelation at the end of the play.