The Hidden Wish of Words: Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Three Tall Women

A reader reading Albee will not fail to notice tricks of language in operation; a more interesting analysis is to consider how the characters themselves are aware of language, of reading and being read, as a text, by other characters. Albee’s plays, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Three Tall Women, show the obsession with language and its functions, both good and terrifying. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is as much about censorship, the attempts to limit speech, as it is about playacting and generating through language. Three Tall Women, as a memory play, exposes language as the primary form of discovery. In both works, the characters engage language in ways that may begin lightly though never without meaning.Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to begin with, takes its title from a pun, seemingly not a very meaningful one, unless we read it as a reversal of the traditional children’s tale and acknowledge that a female has substituted for the male monster. But if we accept the idea of the pun as betraying “the hidden wish of words,â€? then we are thrown into a world where every verbal choice matters whether we understand it or not. Indeed, by entering the house with George and Martha, we enter exactly this world, and the word play begins instantaneously and relentlessly. A faintly remembered, unanchored phrase enters Martha’s mind — “What a dump!â€? — and she will not rest, or let George rest, until she locates it in time and place (3). A conflict immediately opens based on how each perceives the other’s mode of communication at the party from which they are returning. Martha accuses George of passivity, of sitting around and talking rather than mixing, and George counters, “Do you want me to go around all night braying at everybody, the way you do?â€? (7). After a few more pages of verbal back-and-forth, the guests arrive, thrown into the world of George and Martha in much the same way we are. The banter continues without reprieve, and when George attempts to ease Nick, Honey, and the audience into the exchange with the aside, “Martha’s a devil with language; she really is,â€? we begin to realize what the theme of the night will be (21).The exhausting Act I of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, entitled “Fun and Games,â€? gives us a peak at the range of language. There are common, unspectacular but utilitarian aphorisms and phrases, such as Honey’s “Never mix — never worryâ€? (23) and Martha’s “bust a gutâ€? (25), as well as disorienting utterances that perhaps sound familiar because of rhythm but are in fact the character’s sheer invention, such as George’s “For the mind’s blind eye, the heart’s ease, and the liver’s crawâ€? (24). The characters are always searching for the right phrase, testing possibilities out loud in an attempt to make language match meaning. Thus, we have George’s image of Martha chewing ice cubes “like a cocker spanielâ€? (14) and Martha’s more damaging non-image of George as “a blank, a cipher … a zeroâ€? (17). Linked to this desire for successful representation is a distaste for those who treat language slackly. George ridicules Nick for his attempt to characterize an abstract painting by offering him various empty interchangeables, a “certain noisy relaxed qualityâ€? or a “quietly noisy relaxed intensityâ€? (22), as later he mocks Honey for reducing the toilet to a “euphemismâ€? (29). Conventional values as expressed in polite speech have no place in the order of this night, which will end with the characters getting down not just to the bone, but beyond the bone to the marrow (213).In Act I, George tries to assure Nick that nothing out of the ordinary is taking place. “We’re merely walking what’s left of our wits,â€? he tells him (34). But once it is revealed that Martha has told Honey about the couple’s son, the games quickly turn ugly, extending into the second act. As each character exposes secrets known only to him or herself, or shared only with one’s spouse, and as the characters move in and out of the rooms on the stage so that the setup is constantly changing, the audience becomes confused as to who knows what at each point in the play. For example, the stories of George and Martha’s boxing match and Martha’s first lover are told to all four characters, but the stories of George at prep school and Nick’s marriage to Honey are exchanged only by George and Nick. This sets the stage for the final and climatic asymmetry of knowledge — that George has killed off the son — shared by George and Honey, to Honey’s great terror.This, the consummate achievement of the play with language in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, gloriously closes an unsatisfactory evening of word games. The uses of language so far discussed, to injure or to reveal or to relate, are unsatisfactory for two reasons. In Act I, George tells Nick, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening … or thinking … whichever one appliesâ€? (46). This is similar to Nick in Act II when he tells George, “I heard you … I didn’t say I was deaf … I said I didn’t understandâ€? (98). As Albee makes clear throughout the play, listening is not thinking, and hearing is not understanding. The characters’ dissatisfaction with language takes form as repeated instances of corrected speech throughout the play. Was there ever a play in which the characters corrected each other’s speech so persistently and for so little functional purpose? There is George and Martha arguing about abstruse and abstract (63), the bunch of geese corrected as “gangleâ€? and finally as “gaggleâ€? (113), and Honey’s correction of George when he says that the doorbell “rang,â€? not “chimed,â€? which maddeningly prolongs the tension before the watershed (229). The characters, I think, attempt to assert this small measure of control over speech because they fail in the greater ways, in their attempts to censor the speech of others when it matters.In Act III, Martha tells George, “Truth and illusion … you don’t know the difference,â€? to which George responds, “No; but we must carry on as though we didâ€? (202). The failure of language could be the play’s final message, but it isn’t, as George has prepared a final game to end all games. He tells Martha:Now, you listen to me …We are going on, and I’m going to have at you, and it’s going to make your performance tonight look like an Easter pageant. Now I want you to get yourself a little alert. (Slaps her lightly with his free hand) I want a little life in you, baby. (208)This seems a rather gentle and almost humane leading of Martha into the ring, coming after what we have seen before. George is telling Martha, Please be at the top of your game, because I’m going to need you.What George has imagined will follow is an entirely new and powerful use of language. This comes alongside his turn from a man of contemplation, a historian, to a man of action, a biologist, in keeping with the human organization of the play. As George earlier says, when people “can’t abide the present, they do one of two things … either they turn to a contemplation of the past, as I have done, or they set about to … alter the futureâ€? (178). By the end of the play, both George and Martha have come to realize that their relentless play with language keeps them trapped in a claustrophobic, unbearable present. Thus, when George kills off the son to close the play, he is activating the original scriptural function of language, the logos, in reverse. Rather than creating through word, George’s act is an act of dismantling. So when he tells Martha, “I’m not a god. I don’t have the power over life and death,â€? he is being slightly coy (233). George removes the basic untruth in their relationship with others and each other through another untruth, and thus creates the space for a new world in which the two of them will no longer have to carry on as if they knew the difference between truth and illusion. Either they will know the difference — the most hopeful reading — or they will recognize their human limits, and not add to the murkiness. Throughout the play, the characters take language through a whole range of functions but it is only this last that is purposeful and therefore satisfying.Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee’s later play, Three Tall Women, betrays an obsession with language as exchanged between people. The play divides, although not tidily, into two acts, each with its primary function achieved through language. In Act I, Albee aims to individualize or differentiate the three women A, B, and C, sorting them into roles that are largely economic but also dependent in a biological way, in which each character’s existence feeds off another’s (A as the old lady in need, B as the caretaker, and C as the lawyer’s representative). In Act II, by contrast, the three women undergo a form of condensation or compression into one, and the basic asymmetry of knowledge (C does not know that she is the same woman as B and A), as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, gradually falls away.However, the boundaries between the acts are not entirely strict. Verbal clues begin to penetrate the reader’s consciousness from the very beginning, at the same time as C begins to realize what she has gotten herself into. When C says in Act I, “There’s nothing the matter with me,â€? B responds, with sour smile, “Well … you just waitâ€? (18). This is the first warning in the play, and while it could be understood with its straight meaning — that with age the complacent C will no longer be so — it also sets the scene for more ambiguous statements, as when A says to B, “She’ll learn. (To C; ominous.) Won’t youâ€? (24). This suggests that there is something that C will have to uncover, through careful listening, careful recollection, and a synthesis of the two.Albee clues us in to the secret early on in the play, though at this point we are insufficiently schooled in the patterns of language operating in the play and are therefore unable to grasp the nature of the riddle. This is, as in Oedipus Rex, a riddle of identity. In an exchange that shows Albee in full control of his talents, A shuffles into the room after being abandoned in the bathroom and complains, “A person could die in there and nobody’d care,â€? transferring the emotion to a disembodied third person in order to generate feelings of guilt without seeming to ask for it (14). C has caught on to A’s intent, and so she mocks her for her circumlocution:C(To herself, but to be overheard.) Who is this … person? A person could do this, a person could do …B It’s a figure of speech.C(Mildly sarcastic.) No. Really?B(Not rising to it.) So they tell me. (15)The joke works on many levels. C not only gets in a joke on A, but one on B. In the end, however, the joke is on C, because she is, as much as the any other character, the answer to her question, Who is this person?In Act II of Three Tall Women, the carefully scripted roles begin to fall apart. The dummy of A — the disembodied third person A has presaged in Act I — lies on the bed, and B and C enter the stage “opposite their exits at the end of Act One,â€? a simple visual trick that reverses the audience’s intuitive cognitive expectation, the expectation to see a mouse exit the same hole in the wall he has entered (66). Albee’s visual play with the question of identity, suggesting the interchangeability and unity of roles, prepares the audience for the heightened verbal play that will follow. In B’s discussion of how her death will come, she imagines herself having her throat slit while seated in an upstairs sitting room. “I hear them … you hear them turn around, see them — how many? Two? Three?â€? (66). B betrays an obsession with number (at the point of your death would you be counting the perpetrators?) as related to the crisis of identity within the play, as well as a confusion over how to address herself — and C — at this imagined death scene, knowing A, B, and C to be expressions of the same person. She alternates between first and second person (I hear, you hear, your throat, my throat) before her mind focuses on an image: “All that blood on the Chinese rugâ€? (66). C asks, pausing, “Chinese rug?â€? to which B responds, quite naturally, “Yes, beige, with rose embroidery all around the edges. We get it at auctionâ€? (67). At this moment, the collective we enters the play’s vocabulary, and it will persist, though meeting against resistance, until the end.C’s monologue in Act II repeats certain themes and phrases of speech that have surfaced in A’s monologue in Act I, such as “I had my eye out,â€? the idea of the right man, and the city life with “Sisâ€? that involves going out and dancing every night but also pleasant, ladylike work during the day as a caution against being spoiled (70). These notions are slightly out of date though not completely anachronistic, and C does not hear the patterns, or else she fights against them. She continues, describing her work as a mannequin, walking the department stores and stopping to let shoppers admire her dress, perhaps flirting with the men. This sends B and A into hysterics. B looks at A in mock astonishment, saying “Flirt?! You?!â€? and A answers, shadowing her, “Me?! Flirt?!â€? (71). B begins to sashay and twirl, aping a mannequin, while A turns to C and corrects her narrative, “I remember it differently, little one. I remember more …design. I remember a little calculation,â€? and B concurs (72). C turns to the audience and protests, “Don’t listen to them. Design? What are they talking about?â€? (72). But it is two against one, and so the audience must take its cue from A and B and believe that calculation and design fit the single “characterâ€? of A, B, and C.Albee’s play is, after all, about design: the patterns within the life of human beings that can be given form, and made known, through speech. In other words, the patterns of verbal play and repetition in Three Tall Women are helpful to Albee as a metaphor for how a human being develops into a whole, though a fragmented whole, through her experiences. Thus the play achieves its task through language, though it is only one method of achievement in the play and only one method of reading it. But, to end with, I’d like to look at what I believe is the single word given the most weight in the play, particularly in Act II: “yes.â€? Obviously, the word will come up quite often in any conversation involving three people, in which things are misheard and must be repeated, and in which individuals are directly addressed as they bicker and give consent. But looking, for example, at pages 73 and following, we can count its occurrences under multiple meanings (“Well, yes; I suppose so.â€? “Oh, yes he was.â€? “Yes? Was he?â€? “Oh yes, I remember him. He was …â€? “He was; yes.â€? “Yes!â€?). This peaks at the end of C’s monologue, in which she recalls her attempt to reject her first lover’s proposition. “I heard myself saying (incredulous), I’m not that kind of girl?,â€? to which he responds, “Yes, you are … you’re that kind of girlâ€? (76).Throughout the play, Albee shows language as used to deny and fight, to deny and fight people and to deny and fight what they are saying. But in the end he upholds its capacity for affirmation. A, B, and C’s first lover correctly identifies the kind of person she is, and in the same way C comes to understand who she is in relationship to A and B. Both identifications are the play’s answer to the Sphinx-like riddle proposed at the beginning. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Three Tall Women show Albee’s delight in the flexibility of language to perform just about anything a human being can think to make it do.