Keeping Up With the American Family; Analyzing the Superficial Pursuit of the American Dream in Edward Albee’s Work

Our founding fathers were committed to creating a perfect society, free from the “corruption and oppression of the west they left behind” (Holtan). As America aged, this idea of American perfection developed into an image, The American Dream. By the 1950s the “perfect” American family needed a happy wife, a good looking man with a bright career, and most importantly 2.5 children. American’s felt pressure to rise to the image of perfection depicted in shows like “Leave it to Beaver”. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” was used to describe American’s that bought unnecessary material items such as fancy cars, houses and clothing to appear richer and higher class than they really were. In this trend people were afraid of being below the status quo. In trying to measure up to their neighbors, they often just brought about more unhappiness. Their lives felt more meaningless and hollow when wrapped in a thin vail of success. While the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” is usually used to describe consumerism, the same principle is demonstrated in Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In the play, George and Martha, are an unhappily married couple who have invited two supposedly happy young newly weds, Nick and Honey, over for drinks. Throughout the play George and Martha ridicule each other, as well their guests, with elaborate games that make the characters divulge the grotesque details of their supposedly perfect lives. Albee’s characters reveal that in their attempts to appear like the perfect American family they actually only bring about more unhappiness and a greater feeling of inferiority. Albee continues this idea in his play The Sandbox where the characters Mommy and Daddy ignore their dying Grandmother until her death. They then briefly pretend to morn for her because they want to appear normal. Throughout his work, Edward Albee’s characters create illusions to mask their lives and thus uphold the status quo.

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, George is “an old bog in the History Department” (Albee 71). Throughout the play George is made to feel inferior compared to Nick by his wife Martha who constantly ridicules him. Whereas Nick is the young and ambitious new biology professor who is “good looking and well built” (Albee 18), George is the old and jaded history professor who is struggling to become the head of the history department. Martha constantly disparages George, emasculating him by calling him “Georgie boy” (Albee 70) and deliberately highlighting to their guests that George does not “run the history department” (Albee 54) When George complains that it is not easy being married to the “daughter of the president of the university” (Albee 70) she ridicules him saying “for some men it would be the chance of a life time.” (Albee 51) Implying that compared to men like Nick, George has inadequate drive and ambition. Martha criticizes George for his inadequacies making him feel like a failure, when in fact he is just average. Instead of allowing him to be content with himself, he is made to dwell on his inferiority.

Martha causes George to dwell on his inferiority because she is also trying to “keep up with the Joneses”. Martha wants to be the wife of a successful man. At the time women didn’t really have careers so the only way for her to be part of a successful, rich, and high class household was to marry a successful man. She blames George for not being that man and thus trapping her in her boring life. Though Martha blames George for depriving her of having the American Family, she is equally to blame. Martha is unable to bear children, this is particularly diminishing at a time when fertility was such a core part of femininity. Because of Martha, the couple will never be able to be the American family with 2.5 kids. Just as George feels he is inadequate compared to Nick, Martha feels inferior compared to Nick’s wife Honey. Whereas Martha can’t have children, Honey is able to. While Martha has to endure the pain of having an inadequate husband, Honey gets to enjoy a successful one. While Honey gets to be the attractive young housewife with “Slim hips” (Albee 58) Martha is getting older.

If in patriarchal societies women are supposed to be a “mirror” (Hoorvash) of their husband then Martha has been let down by her gender role. In response to this unfortunate reality, Martha gets even by sleeping around with other men. From the moment Nick and Honey arrive, Martha openly starts to flirt with Nick. George, disgruntled by his wife’s behavior, reveals that “Musical beds is the faculty sport” (Albee 50). Martha compensates for her sense of inferiority by seducing men and sleeping around. For her it reassures her of her success as a woman, if she can seduce Nick than she is just as attractive as Honey.In an equally grotesque and desperate attempt to measure up to the status quo, George and Martha create a fictional child that to them is very real. Their reasoning for creating the child is highlighted when George describes him as their “blond-eyed, blue-haired son.” (Albee 229) Here George is implying the boy should have blond hair and blue eyes, traits typically associated with being an all American boy. By choosing to give their son “all American” traits we can see that the child exists so that the couple can fulfill the perfect American family. Unable to be the perfect American family in reality, the couple substitutes an illusion.

Whereas most illusions are intended to mislead other people, George and Martha’s son is intended to mislead themselves. The extent to which George and Martha care for their imaginary son reveals how empty they feel without a child and ultimately not measuring up to the American dream. This is highlighted by their sorrow at the end of the play. After enduring an entire night of brutal ridicule and disrespect from Martha, George decides he is done humoring the false image of their happy marriage. He adds to the narrative of their son, explaining to Martha that late in the afternoon “[their son] swerved… and drove straight into a … large tree.” (Albee 245) and died. Mortified by the realization that George killed their son, Martha becomes hysterical. As she comes to terms with her fictional son’s death she becomes very quiet and speaks slowly. George says, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (Albee 256) and she replies ” I…. am George…. I…. am…” (Albee 257) The death of their son is the only thing that has humbled Martha throughout the entire night. Supposedly fearless, Martha is afraid of Virginia Woolf, meaning she is afraid of embracing her reality. She becomes quiet as she realizes that the death of her son has removed the guise over her marriage, revealing just how sad and meaningless their lives are. Now that their fictional son is dead the couple may finally give up their hopes of being like “The Joneses”. In pursuing the American Dream, George and Martha have become incredibly unhappy, being forced to dwell on their inferiorities. Hopefully they can now learn to accept each other for who they truly are. Ironically as George and Martha are made incredibly unhappy trying to measure up to Nick and Honey, in reality “The Joneses” are just as imperfect as they are. As George is talking to Honey he realizes that she has been secretly aborting her children. Honey confesses to Nick that “I don’t want any children” (Albee 162) and George asks “how do you make your secret little murders? Pills?” (Albee 163). Christianity, a key part of the image of the American dream, opposes abortions. When Honey reveals that she has been aborting her children it completely shatters the image that Honey and Nick embody the American Dream. It is ridiculous that George and Martha feel they are failures compared to Nick and Honey, when under the surface they are in fact very similar. It is absurd that Martha feels she has to create a fictional child to fulfill the American family when Honey, who is supposed to embody the American family, is aborting her children.

In trying to measure up to the American family George and Martha ultimately destroy their marriage. Edward Albee uses Virginia Woolf to argue that in practice the American dream actually hurts people and marriages by giving people an overwhelming sense of failure because they can’t live up to perfection. George and Martha are unable to have a healthy marriage because they are constantly comparing themselves and each other to the “the Joneses”. Instead of being content with their realities and loving each other for who they are, they fixate on what they don’t have, making them forever unhappy. George and Martha’s marriage is intended to be a revealing and harsh light on the actual American family. George and Martha are named after George and Martha Washington, two all American figures, implying that all American families have elements of George and Martha at their core. Throughout his work Albee has continued this theme. He has been notably “preoccupied” (Kingsley) with the “Disparity” between the “fantasy world and the world in which his characters must live” (Kingsley), particularly in his plays “Tiny Alice”, “The American Dream”, and “The Sandbox” (Kingsley).

This disparity between his characters actual emotions and the emotions they present is echoed in Albee’s play The Sandbox. In the one-act play the middle aged couple named Mommy and Daddy are like George and Martha intended to represent the actual American Family. The play begins with the characters arriving at the beach, shortly after they carry in Grandma by “her armpits” (Albee 1297) and then “more or less dump her in” (Albee 1297). Throughout the play the characters are completely oblivious to Grandma, never speaking to her directly or interacting with her. Toward the end of the play Grandma dies in the place where Mommy and Daddy dumped her like a piece of garbage. After completely ignoring the Grandma throughout the play Mommy and Daddy for a split second become mockingly emotional, “Ohhhh… poor Grandma… poor Grandma” (Albee 1298). After this brief and insincere mourning, Mommy insincerely says “We must put away our tears, take off our mourning and face the future.” (Albee 1299). The hollow way that the characters pretend to mourn Grandma’s passing gives insight into to the way American’s pretend to do the right thing so to uphold the status quo. It would look awful if the parents ignored their elder at the end of her life and didn’t care when she died. The play sheds light on the phony way American’s briefly pretend to mourn their elders merely because that is what is perceived to be the moral right thing to do.

Albee’s devotion to idea of phoniness and American culture is understandable considering his experience with adoptive parents. In an interview for CBS news Edward Albee shared that he thought his parents, “didn’t like me very much and I don’t think they approved of me very much” (Smith) but nevertheless “they were stuck with me” (Smith). This interview is an insightful look at the reason why Albee is so attached to the idea of illusion in his play. Just like the characters in some of his plays, Albee’s parents never directly embraced their ugly feelings and instead masked them and “stuck” with him.

With plays like The Sandbox and Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee exposes American’s for covering up the negative aspect in their life so to appear to have the American dream. On the surface, the American family was thought to be any easily obtainable fantasy that anybody could have. In reality, Albee believes that the “perfect” American family is just a facade put on by self conscious people desperately trying to uphold the status quo. In the 1950s and 60s the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality ultimately damaged many American’s, plunging them into severe debt brought about by several unnecessary purchases. By the same principle, in trying to appear to have the “perfect” American family, Americans ultimately just emotionally hurt themselves. Neither a fancy new car, nor a supposedly perfect marriage, nor a fictional child can ever fulfill the hole one feels when their not perfect, that hole can only be plugged from within.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. “The Sandbox” Literature: The Human Experience. Richard Abcarian, Marvin Klotz and Samuel Cohen, eds. 12 ed. Boston: Bedford. 2012.953. Print.

Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: A Play. New York: New American Library 2006. Print.

Hoorvash, Mona, and Farideh Pourgiv. “Martha The Mimos: Femininity, Mimesis And Theatricality In Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.” Atlantis (0210-6124) 33.2 (2011): 11-25. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Holtan, Orley I.. “”who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the Patterns of History”. Educational Theatre Journal 25.1 (1973): 46–52. Web…

Kingsley, Lawrence. “Reality and Illusion: Continuity of a Theme in Albee”. Educational Theatre Journal 25.1 (1973): 71–79. Web.

“Q&A: Playwright Edward Albee.” Interview by Tracy Smith. CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 27 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 May 2016.