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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee

Study Questions

Analysis

Review Quiz

Explain the significance of the title, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

The title comes from rewriting the words to the children's song, "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?" It comes up as a joke at Martha's father's party. The song is significant because it ties together the themes of childhood and parenthood, reality versus fantasy, and career success. The couples in this play do not have any children and remain tied to their parents. Martha and George rely on Martha's father for his position and his paycheck. Honey and Nick rely upon Honey's father for the money that he left them. This song, bastardized from a children's ditty, shows how all four characters in the play still function more as children than they do as adults. The fact that the name is changed to "Virginia Woolf" is also significant. In her writing, Virginia Woolf attempted to reveal the truth of human experience, emotion, and thought: all of the things that the couples in this play try to cover up. When the couples sing the song together, then, they are making fun of their own fear of the truth. George, who seems to want to get back to some truthful interaction with Martha, only sings the song when he tries to overpower Martha's disparagement of him, when Martha is necking with Nick, and when he tries to comfort Martha in the end. If one looks closely at these three different moments, it is clear that George uses the song to stop Martha from revealing truth about himself, to tease Martha for hiding from the truth behind an affair, and to give her courage to live without the phoniness they are used to. The song is consistently tied to moments in which the characters are projecting, or attempting to project, a false image. Finally, the song also ties into the theme of academic competition at the unnamed college where George and Nick work. Virginia Woolf is known to be a complex, difficult writer. Because she is an intellectual challenge, no one competing to demonstrate intellectual power would want to admit to being afraid of not understanding her writing. The song is a witty joke, but it also represents the very real, though also very petty, fear so common in intellectual circles.

What is the significance of sexuality in the play?

Because part of the established notion of success in this play and era is having children, sexuality is immensely powerful. As George tells Nick, the way to control a man is through the belly of his wife. Switching the old aphorism, "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," George makes the point that impregnating someone else's wife is an immense show of power and strength. And, since Nick is a young, up-and-comer, he has an interest in gaining such power. Indeed, he even begins to sleep with powerful wives of the University the same night, by having an affair with George's wife, Martha. Sexuality is also crucial for female power in the play. Martha decided that she wanted to marry someone who might continue her father's legacy at the University because she, because she was a woman, could not. Therefore, she can only gain power in the University through her sexuality. Honey, too, gains power through her sexuality. She and Nick had known each other their whole lives, but he did not marry her until they had intercourse, and she seemed to have gotten pregnant. Therefore, although men hold much power in this society, women can exert some through sex.

Why do Martha and George decide to tear each other apart in front of Honey and Nick?

Martha and George, partly, need an audience for their tormenting of each other. After all, their insults and revelations about each other are much more powerful in a social situation. But, beyond that, Honey and Nick are a significant couple. They operate as a younger image of Martha and George. Honey and Nick are just beginning to develop their lies and fantasies, whereas Martha and George have lived with theirs for years. Therefore, this night is a warning to them to cast aside these illusions early. At the same time, Albee is also showing how Martha and George might have gotten to where they are now. Finally, because Nick and Honey seem like a perfect, young couple bound for success in life, their secrets and problems are even more shocking. Through them, Albee makes the point that all couples, no matter how ideal they appear, have problems, fantasies, and lack of communication.

How does religion, pagan and Christian, function in the play?

Why do you think George tells the story about his childhood friend who accidentally killed both of his parents? What implications could it have thematically?

What is the significance of everyone drinking so much?

Why is it important that George is a history professor, whereas Nick is a biologist? How do these two disciplines relate to their characters?

Why would Edward Albee set this play at a cocktail party (rather than at a family dinner or on a vacation or at an amusement park, etc.)?

A great deal of what goes into a play is visual rather than simply literary. How would you set up the stage if you were directing this play? What costumes would you use for the characters? What actors would you cast in the parts?

What significance does Honey's weakness and vomiting have? Why would Albee create her to be so often sick?

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