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.