Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a sensation in its own time because of the powerful themes that it touched on. By writing a play, with its inherent tension between actors and audience, rather than a novel or a short story, Edward Albee uses his genre to illustrate one of these themes. He brings up the idea of private and public images in marriage. Inherent in this idea of public and private faces is the theme of phoniness. Many couples, Albee seems to say, project false images of themselves in public situations. In fact, that phoniness is generally preferred to exposing all of one's problems and indiscretions to the world.
Yet, Albee also shows that people not only make up images of themselves for their friends and neighbors, they create illusions for their husbands and wives as well. Both of the couples in this play make up fantasies about their lives together in a somewhat unconscious attempt to ease the pains that they have had to face along the way. Over the course of the play, both kinds of masks are torn off, exposing Martha, George, Nick, and Honey to themselves and to each other. Perhaps, though, this exposure frees them as well.
One of the difficulties that Martha and George experience in their marriage is his apparent lack of success at his job. Albee shows the power of this failure through George's cynical disgust with young, ambitious Nick. Through George, Albee questions the reason for this desire for success, and demonstrates how the desire can destroy one's self-esteem and individuality.
From the relationship between Martha and George, it seems that women can be more caught up with the idea of success than men. Martha is disappointed in George's professional failure, perhaps more than he is. One of the reasons for this expectation and hope for her husband could be the fact that she wants to live through his experience. Women had careers much less frequently in the 1950s and 60s than they do today, so Martha might have felt limited.
Part of the ideal of familial success is children. Albee explores how children and parents affect each other. Neither couple in this play has a child, a fact that seems to come between both sets of parents. For Martha and George, their lack of a child is another failure. For Honey and Nick, it is another ground upon which they are not communicating. Both couples furthermore, are deeply influenced by the wife's father; the play forwards the thought that none of the characters is ready to have children in part because they are all living like children themselves.
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