Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Truth and Illusion Themes
As an Absurdist, Albee believed that a life of illusion was wrong as in consideration it created a false content for life, it is therefore not surprising that the theme of ‘truth and illusion’ throughout Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf plays a significant role. Using critical language through stage directions and direct speech, Albee creates the lives of two couples whom over the course of one evening change dramatically. It is evident to the audience, even in the first scene that tension will play a large part of the eventual confessions and climax of the play, and through the break-down of characters truth and illusion will be determined.
Albee presents the hosts of the evening George and Martha as an unconventional, abusive married couple who seem to detest one another, which immediately raises an atmosphere of uncertainty and ambiguity to the play. Martha and George constantly bicker and intentionally frustrate one-another; however there is a steep contrast that Albee creates between their two personalities; George is passive towards Martha, intelligent and witty, but also very sad, on the other hand Martha is vicious, assaulting both mentally and physically, and is also an alcoholic which adds to her abusive nature. The couple’s relationship is difficult to comprehend as one minute George is calling Martha a ‘sub-human monster’ who ‘yowls’, but the other Martha is defending her husband’s great qualities, as he ‘keeps learning the games we play as quickly as I can change the rules;’, which greatly increases the illusion which surrounds the pair, as the audience never quite grasp who is telling the truth. Albee suggests through the couples interactions that they both agree that there is no such thing as an objective reality; ‘Martha; Truth and illusion, George; you don’t know the difference. George: No, but we must carry on as though we did. Martha: Amen.’ It is difficult for the audience to infer whether Martha and George understand each other’s emotions, and if at any one moment they are merely pretending to love or hate one another; which instantly adds delusion and illusion to the scenes.
Similarly Albee creates an illusion of gameplay between the two couples; and through their interactions over the course of the play, many unwanted truths are revealed. The over-consumption of alcohol throughout the ‘evening’ increases both the tension between the characters, but also makes the divulgence of truth much more effortless; ‘I’m numbed enough… and I don’t mean by the liquor, though maybe that’s been part of the process’. George’s ‘numbness’ is portrayed through his often apathetic and calm persona, it is difficult to decipher whether this is what George is truly like in reality, or if the illusions of the evening give the audience a false pretence. Throughout the play George and Martha insist that Honey and Nick play several games which are very exposing; ‘Hump the Hostess’, ‘Get the Guests’ and to finish the ‘Final Game’. The title of the first Act ‘Fun and Games’ is in itself an illusion as the games the guests are forced into playing are certainly not ‘fun’ on many occasions most people’s idea of ‘fun’. Albee proposes that Martha and George often play games, however it seems strange to the audience that the couple’s idea of ‘fun’ is to mock both their guests and one-another, though at any one time it appears that only one person from their marriage wishes to play; George for example at one moment in the play wishes to ‘sit down over there and read a book’, whereas Martha taunts him with the suggestion that she and Nick really will play ‘Hump the Hostess’, or upon George mentioning the ‘Final Game’ Martha pleads for no more gameplay in a ‘tenderly’ movement, which expresses both her sultry yet vulnerable personality. The overall dubiousness and uncertainty of the play induces a fear of the characters withholding information, which potentially could alter the entire meaning of the play, and leaves necessary questions unanswered, which adds tension and reveals truth about the characters personalities, although eludes from explanation of the illusions.
Albee creates an illusion of George and Martha’s ‘son’ which essentially becomes a metaphor that sustains the couple’s turbulent marriage; and ultimately George believes he has the authority to ‘kill’ off their son in an imaginary car accident, through the game of ‘bringing up baby’, which also relates to the theme, as Martha brings the entire fantasy too far into reality which the audience infer as madness. George and Martha add to the illusion of their ‘son’ by exposing minute details about the child, for example about his birth, and the color of his eyes and hair, ‘blond-eyed and blue-haired’ as George says, which emphasizes the influence of alcohol in both the illusion and how the illusions are presented. Nick and Honey, the two other main characters, are introduced to the hosts imaginary son early into the play, and doubt immediately arises as to whether George and Martha are telling the truth, although the deliberate intention to try to confuse and intimidate their guests with insidious gameplay, shows how George and Martha have traded a sane reality for an illusory one.
Nick and Honey, the guests Albee creates to attend the after-party at George and Martha’s home, have a marriage concentrated around false pretenses and illusions. The couple appear to be an ‘all-American’, conventional family, virtually perfect on the surface, however throughout the evening their truths are revealed much to the same extent as George and Martha’s secrets are. The recurring theme of fertility, or the absence of, continues within their relationship; the reasoning for the couple to marry was portrayed as natural love between childhood friends, and a hysterical pregnancy, though in the latter scenes Nick reveals he wished really only to marry plain Honey in an attempt to inherit her wealth. Throughout the play as each of the characters become more intoxicated, Martha and Nick’s flirtatious behavior particularly develops; at the close of Act Two the pair kiss whilst Honey is obliviously passed out in the bathroom, portraying the fact that their marriage certainly lacks truth and communication. In addition, Honey is portrayed as being the ‘perfect housewife’, however from her actions the audience deduce she has in fact an abnormally juvenile personality; for example sucking her thumb, and sleeping in a fetal position alongside other tendencies point to her unwillingness to accept herself as an adult. There are continuous references to Honey being ‘slim-hipped’ however the truth is revealed that in fact she is terrified of becoming a parent, and as a result takes preventative medication, or ‘apple jelly’, in order to ensure she does not fall pregnant. At the close though there is a significant change in her character, she is moved by George and Martha’s account of their son and announces her decision to have a baby. The misconception of Honey and Nick’s marriage is an evident example of how Albee explores the theme of truth and illusion, which links to both the false identities of the relationships in the play, but also how the exposure of their secrets allows the characters to feel liberated.
The presence of the name Virginia Woolf in the title of the play brings to mind the famous novelist, and raises the overwhelmingly recurring theme of learning to live without illusion. Albee creates these illusions within his play from one perspective so as only to shatter them; the characters battle one another and themselves to protect their own versions of reality. Albee raises the idea of private and public images within marriage, and within this theme the suggestion of artificiality and deception. The projection of false images questions Woolf’s theory of humanity being afraid to challenge reality, which is strongly portrayed through the title of the play; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The title could be interpreted as ‘Who’s afraid of questioning existence?’ and Albee suggests Martha is terrified of this convention of reality in the final moments of the play, as she expresses that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf; ‘I…am…George…I…am’, the overuse of ellipses slows the pace of the speech dramatically, giving the audience a sense of closure.
Edward Albee presents the theme of truth and illusion through the dissection of the four main characters; George, Martha, Nick and Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The audience infers the increase of tension between the roles which little by little exposes their deepest truths, which is strongly influenced by the consumption of alcohol throughout the play. The false content for life in George and Martha’s devoid marriage revolves around an imaginary son, which depicts the view that reality lacks any deeper meaning, and George and Martha must come to face that by abandoning their illusions and exposing themselves to one-another.
The Character Who Wasn’t There: Daddy in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In the drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee meticulously constructs Daddy as a character who is both ever present and tied to the representation of major themes in the play. Albee uses the looming yet absent presence of Daddy to bring out traits in other characters and also depict their relationships in an especially stark light. Daddy is almost life-like in the relationship of George and Martha, while simultaneously serving as the supernatural, fictional presence that draws attention to the rituals, cycles, conflict and escapism, thus bringing about the ideology behind Albee’s theatre of the absurd.
On a superficial level, primarily, Daddy is revealed as a major factor in Martha’s life, supported by her talking of her “rapport” with him. The audience also sees his importance to her in Martha wanting her son’s eyes to be green, as “Daddy’s eyes were green, too.” Simultaneously, Daddy is Martha’s trump card, the final word in any given argument with George. When trying to sort a thing out between them, George is cut off with “Daddy said…” this signifies that Daddy stands as a third person in their relationship. In addition, Martha admits that George is the only one to make her happy, but in the contrary, because of George not living up to Daddy’s expectations, by being a “flop” and not being capable to take over, Martha’s I eternally dissatisfied with their relationship and disappointed by George. Thus Daddy hinders their relationship and looms large on them and also signifies the inability to love completely. This lack of satisfaction and inability to find happiness and untainted love links to the absurdity of the human condition.
Consequently, through the unquestioned authority and influence of Daddy, Albee portrays him an almost divine being. Daddy seems to have the last word. “Daddy wouldn’t let him” publish the book and “Daddy said we should be nice”: Daddy dictates what happens. The fact that Daddy is never seen in the play and yet has the highest authoritative status and can puppeteer the characters, further emphasizes absurdity. An unseen, unreasoned force controls the actions and condition of the characters, and of people everyday in life. This theme Albee explores is intriguing because of its universal nature and its relevance even in our society today.
What is also significant is the description of Daddy being a big, white mouse with red eyes. This gives him a fable character like quality and adds to the effect of the rituals in the second act. The ritual and curse is supported by the fact that he is ever present and being the mouse, carries the evil through the play. It must also be noted that there is no mention of him leading to, during or after the exorcism proceedings.
The sense of everything being cyclic, representing the futile state of mankind, is explored through Daddy. There is mention that he has a “sense of continuity” which is important because through the play, Albee brings up repetition, continuity and cycles. Furthermore, the cycle of sadness is brought about in that “you (Daddy) cry all the time” and Martha, the offspring, cries “allllll the time”. This emphasizes the continuity, sadness is passed on from generation to generation, unending and is extended to George and, further, in them freezing their tears to consume the later. Also along the lines of nothing being human choice, futility and foreign control of characters, is that Martha and George are never alone, besides the end of the play. They require their audience Nick, Honey and Daddy in order to carry out their game. When they are alone, moreover, they can barely carry a conversation. Martha cannot fully love George until Daddy is gone, after the exorcism. This suggests that the exorcism was not just for the child, but for Daddy. There are connected too with the same green eyes.
There is more absurdity in Martha, a 50 year old woman, referring to her father as “Daddy.” But since the audience sees through the play Martha’s tendency to play a child when the situation grows too serious and she is unable to handle something. It is striking as her reference to Daddy indicates her wish to escape the permanent daunting reality. She is then in a permanent child-state with respect to her father. This coupled with his white mouse appearance and her idealistic childhood, in reality quite darkly tainted by the death of her mother and her affair; she seems not to dwell on detail. Martha worshipped her father and the audience isn’t given substantial reason, which suggests that Daddy is merely another manner of escapism to Martha, as unreal as her child.
Albee creates a very significant persona in Daddy and through the play, effectively uses him, or rather the concept of him, to bring out absurdity of Martha and George’s relationship. This unseen character is also employed to explain Martha’s mind and explore the cyclic situations, the futility of relationship and the concept of choice. Through all this manipulation, the audience grasps the looming theme of escapism.
The War of the Women
Many of Edward Albee’s plays are “overrun with devouring mothers, castrating wives, and remote husbands. . .” (Hirsch 18). As a result, a typical Albee marriage is one of domestic warfare. The women endlessly battle with their men in order to maintain control and the upper hand in the leadership of their family. In such plays as The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and A Delicate Balance, Albee sees the American wife as the real driving force behind the household. Albee’s housewife honestly believes that her family would collapse without her strict and overbearing rule. Albee views these women as dominant and assertive. Women who will use any tactic necessary in order to keep their husbands powerless and unimportant. “In these female-dominated houses, husbands are remote and inadequate figures of distinctly secondary importance” (Hirsch 35). As hateful, and vengeful these women act though, they really do have a strange kind of “love” for their men. Albee portrays this love not so much as intense feelings of sexual desire or fondness, but more so of an underlying need for their companions. Albee’s women genuinely believe that they must be in complete control in order to maintain their families. As these American wives try to sustain their dominance and power, the men do sometimes retaliate which leads to domestic warfare. This is where Albee seems to switch the traditional ideals behind the husband and wife. They seemingly reverse sexual roles. The men berating the women for their brash “masculine” qualities, and the women attacking the men for their quiet “womanly” ways (Hirsch 27). There is evidence of such in The American Dream when Daddy is unsure of whether or not he should answer the front door. Mommy responds to him by saying; “Oh look at you! You’re turning into jelly; you’re indecisive; you’re a woman” (75). And the wives know that they are portraying masculine qualities. Martha, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? tells George; “I’m loud and vulgar, and I wear the pants in this house because somebody’s got to. . .” (157.2). The authoritative demeanor that the Albee wife carries can be seen as quite cruel. The men are destroyed in order for the women to keep their power. The cruelty is so strong and overwhelming that in a few cases the husbands talk or joke about killing their wives. There are examples of such in A Delicate Balance where Tobias jokes with Claire about killing not only his wife but her sister and his daughter as well. It is also evident in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when George draws a fake shotgun on Martha. He later asks her if she really thought that he would have killed her. She replies; “You? . . .Kill me?. . .That’s a laugh” (60.1). Martha maintains her dominance by shrugging it off. Albee lets his women justify their cruelty by claiming that their husbands enjoy it. Therefore not only do the women act so ruthlessly to meet their own needs, to be the singular drive behind the household, but they try to convince the men that they ask for such harsh treatment. During a dialog between Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Martha tells George that he really wants to be humiliated; GEORGE: . . .you can sit there. . .and you can humiliate me, you can tear me apart. . .and that’s perfectly alright. . .I CANNOT STAND IT!MARTHA: YOU CAN STAND IT!! YOU MARRIED ME FOR IT!! . . . My arm has gotten tired whipping you. . . . For twenty-three years! . . . IT’S NOT WHAT I’VE WANTED! (152-153) And so Martha instantly justifies her cruelty because she deemed it necessary and tells George that he was aware of it even before they were married. “Martha rationalizes her cruelty to George on the ground that he masochistically enjoys her beatings” (Bigsby 77). Albee’s women are able to drive the household by taking on the role of the decision maker. They keep this role by extending humiliations and cruelties to their partners. They really believe that they are doing the right thing, and that the men, enjoy it. In order to retain power and dominance in the household Albee’s women use various tactics such as embarrassment, encouragement, and threats to systematically destroy their husbands. The goal of embarrassment is to make the men feel insecure and unsure of themselves. Martha tries to achieve this in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by telling the guests about George’s pathetic and failed venture at writing a novel. He is left feeling nervous which is exactly the state Martha wishes to have him in. Now, for most of the Albee men, this would have been complete annihilation but George, the strongest of the husbands, just fights back harder (134-139). George was becoming a threat to Martha’s rule so she tried to quell it by embarrassing him in order to weaken him. After being throughly embarrassed had George been as weak as Tobias in A Delicate Balance, or Daddy in The American Dream, Martha could have then manipulated him to act however she wished by use of encouragement and threats. Encouragement is used to make the men do something that the women would rather not have to do themselves. It also gives the men a false sense of control, it makes them believe that they really are the ones in charge of the house, that they are the true decision makers. The wives like to pretend that they are merely on the sidelines and just supporting their mens’ decisions. A fantastic example of such occurs in The American Dream where Daddy expresses his uneasiness with a decision made to adopt another child. Mommy reassures him and reminds him that it was his decision that he made and she goes on to say that he was masculine and decisive about making it. Mommy lets Daddy feel that he is really in control, while she gets him to do exactly what she desires. The same thing happens in A Delicate Balance, when Tobias needs to be reassured of his masculinity after basically kicking Edna and Harry out. Albee shows us that as long as the women let the men believe that they are in control, it is very easy to manipulate their actions. It is the women whom are really making the decisions on the mens’ behalf. Threats are then used to make sure that the men stay in line. Whenever one of the Albee husbands seems to make a decision of his own, the wives are quick to threaten them with a certain kind of retaliation. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? this is the declaration of total war by Martha after she realizes that George is going to keep fighting back. Now, it doesn’t scare George off by any means, he welcomes it. But Martha has to do it in order to try and regain complete control. She believes that it is she whom can make the decisions that will be the best for the two of them. In the three plays that have been touched upon here the wives in each come off as hateful and manipulative. While they are manipulative in order to remain the key decision makers in their households, they are not hateful. In fact there is a strange kind of love that Albee creates between the married couples. It’s definitely not a sexual passion, or even a fondness that the wives feel for the husbands. But it is more of a dependancy, a need for them. The wives truly believe that they are doing the right thing by taking control of the house. The families would fall apart if they didn’t take control, even if it meant hurting their husbands. These women would have nothing to control, nothing to maintain without their men. Mommy would be at a loss without Daddy in The American Dream not only because he supports her financially, but because she would be alone, and wouldn’t have anyone to agree with her ideas. She wouldn’t have the comfort of knowing that she could make Daddy support her ideas. Agnes from A Delicate Balance would be left alone to the wrath of her sister and daughter without Tobias. Without Tobias she wouldn’t be able to defend herself against “the plague” of loneliness. The strongest example of this underlying need for the husbands occurs in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In fact it’s much closer to real love here than in either of the other plays. Martha talks about George in a certain fondness because he is able to make her laugh and most importantly, because he can learn the rules of the games as quickly as she can keep changing them (191). Although the women in Albee’s plays act so aggressively and cruelly they only do so because they truly believe that they are the only one holding their families together. They don’t treat their husbands like children in order to mock them, but so that they may always maintain the upper hand as the key decision maker in the relationship so that they can make sure that choices are made that are the best for both of them. In A Delicate Balance Agnes explains to her family why she acts tough; AGNES: . . . Maintenance. When we keep something in shape, we maintain its shape-whether we are proud of that shape or not, is another matter-we keep it from falling apart. . . .We maintain. We hold . . . I shall . . . keep this family in shape. I shall maintain it; hold it. . . . If I am a drill sergeant . . . so be it. . . . And, if I shout it’s merely to be heard . . .I am not an ogre, am I? . . .If I am a stickler on certain points . . . it is simply that I am the one member of this . . . reasonably happy family blessed and burdened with the ability to view a situation objectively while I am in it. (80-81) Agnes is aware of the controlling nature she has, but believes that it is justified because it holds her family together. Agnes wants what is best for everyone, including Tobias. There is a form of love, or necessity between the couple, as there is between Mommy and Daddy, and George and Martha. Albee’s women may be the drive behind their households but they wouldn’t be able to do so without their husbands. Edward Albee’s women are the drive behind their families and homes. These women are portrayed as powerful, aggressive, and manipulative. They must be in order to try and rule unchallenged. They believe that they are the only ones who can steer their family in the right direction. These wives will use whatever means necessary to keep their men from interfering, even if it means fighting with them. Albee’s characters such as Agnes, Mommy, and Martha are examples of the ultimate, assertive female but they are not nice people. “Women in Albee’s plays can’t be strong without also being arch. Female assertiveness is not presented positively; when a woman stands up for herself, she almost inevitably is a shrew, an emasculator, a deceiver” (Hirsch 39). But they do not set out to be such people. The women are merely power-hungry. They have a need to be in control. Regardless of how they appear, they really do still have a strange form of love for their husbands. The wives need them, they depend on the men for support, companionship and to be someone they can direct their energy towards. They would be left with little without their men. Albee’s women use and need their men, so that they may be the singular, driving force behind their families. Works Cited Albee, Edward. The American Dream. Toronto: Plume, 1997 Albee, Edward. A Delicate Balance. 1966. New York: Atheneum, 1967. Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1962. New York: Atheneum, 1963. Clurman, Harold. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. C.W.E. Bigsby. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall 1975. 76-79 Hirsch, Foster. Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee? Berkeley: Creative Arts, 1978.
Skilled with Words, for Better or Worse: An Assessment of George’s Character
“Of the four characters in the play, George is the character most adept at ‘doing things with words’” How far do you agree with this statement?
The phrase, ‘doing things with words,’ can be interpreted in different ways; one effective way to interpret it would be as these of language to manipulate people and changing the flow of dialogue or action. In this sense, George is clearly very skilled linguistically as we see him achieve this at different points in the play. This does not mean however, that George is more adept at this skill than the other characters of the play, with Martha and Nick being his key rivals in this competition. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s characters frequently show that they are capable of manipulating each other and the mood or tone of the room by the use of their language. As all three acts of the play taken together effectively demonstrate, George is the most capable in this respect.
In the first Act, ‘Fun and Games,’ we are initially introduced to George and Martha, with Martha doing the majority of the talking and shouting, seemingly to no avail in terms of a response from George. This shows that while Martha may use words frequently, she is not necessarily always skilled in the art of ‘doing things’ with them. She speaks very quickly and her tone is aggressive for the majority of the opening scene, before Nick and Honey’s arrival. This aggressive tone is not returned by George, as he realises that to turn aggressive would be to fall into the trap which Martha is setting for him. An example of this arises when Martha says, ‘AWWWWWWWW! [No reaction] Hey! [No reaction] Hey! [No reaction]’ Martha is clearly clambering for attention in this moment of the play, incapable of using her language to influence George. On the other hand, George is capable of changing the tone and the direction of the dialogue without getting angry, such as when Martha asks George to put ice in her drink and they continue to have a conversation about the amount of teeth they each possess. Martha becomes heated, saying that she has more teeth than George, ‘Well, two more’s a lot more,’ indicating an aggressive and defensive tone, whilst George responds with, ‘I suppose it is. I suppose it’s pretty remarkable… considering how old you are.’ This shows how George is able to manipulate the emotions of Martha and the flow of the scene with the use of his words.
Martha and George become locked in this conflict throughout the play, which acted as a mirror image for the Cold War which was unfolding in the same time period as the play was written, showing the play to be relevant and politically aware of the time. George also shows that he is adept at using words when he is talking to Nick, slightly later on in the first Act of the play, such as when he suggests that Nick is in the maths department at the university, then after he is corrected he continues to make references to Nick being in the maths department. This is to undermine Nick and suggest that he himself holds more power, which is furthered when he says, ‘I am a doctor. A.B… M.A…PH.D…’ George has shown in Act One that he is more than capable of influencing people’s emotions, the flow of a conversation and the tone or mood of an atmosphere by using his words, rather than turning to emotional extremes, like Martha. Nick and Honey also show that they are capable of doing things with words, possibly in a more subtle manner. I say this because of the fact that their manipulation is subtle, as they are trying to convince Martha and George that they are having a good time and feel welcomed into their home, with the use of their words, ‘Oh, isn’t this lovely!’ Whilst this is technically manipulation of the tone of the scene by the use of words, I would argue that it is too minor a manipulation to be compared with George or Martha, who attempt to completely manipulate and change a conversation. This relates to Speech Act Theory, as the intention of the illocutionary force which Nick and Honey employ is not as significant as the illocutionary force which Martha or George use throughout the first Act and indeed the rest of the play.
The name of the second Act, ‘Walpurgisnacht,’ means the night of the Walpurgis: the German equivalent of Halloween. This means that the monsters will come out, as is shown in all of the characters of the play, influencing George and his vocal capabilities. The Act opens with George and Nick talking together, both of whom are inebriated at this point of the play as they have been drinking strong alcoholic drinks for a while. As they talk, we see George is still capable of using his words to manipulate the scene, such as when he tells the long story about the boy who shot his mother. They had previously been talking about why Nick had married Honey, then George wanted the attention back on himself, evidenced by the long and dense story which he tells Nick. He gives background to the story, ‘When I was sixteen and going to prep school, during the Punic Wars,’ and he talks about how they laughed, drank for free and had a great time, in contrast with the severity of the fact that the boy killed his own mother. It is this contrast which acts as a vocal tool which George shows he is capable of using to draw the interest towards himself, evidenced by Nick’s response to the story, ‘What… what happened to the boy… the boy who shot his mother?’ What is especially interesting about this section is George’s response to this question, ‘I won’t tell you,’ to which Nick simply replies, ‘All right.’ This shows how George has used the story and just his words to achieve power over Nick in this scene, capable of putting Nick’s question down without any issues at all.
When taken from another perspective however, the scene and Nick’s response to the story could be different interpreted; perhaps his response could be one of disinterest, which would explain why he gave up on his question with such ease. This places the topic of George’s vocal capability under question, however I would argue that the first interpretation makes more sense and still shows therefore, that George is adept at doing things with words. As the second Act continues, the four characters begin to drive towards Nick and Honey’s home, when they pass a small bar which they enter for some more drinks. Dramatic events unfold in the bar, including a moment where George shows that he is capable of weakness in terms of his linguistic capabilities. He snaps at Martha and grabs her by the throat, showing that he is not always capable of controlling people through the use of his words. In this section, Martha uses the story of how George was never able to get his book published because of her father as a weapon against George, making him feel inadequate about his career. These feelings of inadequacy are covered up by George and Martha, as says Akhil Bansal on the Academia website, ‘George and Martha create an illusionary barrier to repress feelings such as self-inadequacy, fear and self-contempt, but this illusion simply exacerbates their self-loathing.’ Martha reveals that the plot of the story was the story which George told Nick earlier in the second Act, which supports Bansal’s theory about George creating this illusionary barrier. This shows that he is in fact adept with words, as he is capable of using something which is clearly a weakness or shortcoming of his life as a tool to control the emotions of external people.
In the third and final Act of the play, ‘The Exorcism,’ we see George employ a host of linguistic tools to undermine and seek vengeance on Martha, in front of Nick and Honey. When he comes to the house, he knocks and holds out a bouquet of flowers for Martha. The bouquet of flowers are made very sinister however, as he says, ‘Flores; flores para los muertos,’ which in Spanish means, ‘Flowers; flowers for the dead.’ This shows that George is so adept at using his words that he can manipulate the atmosphere of the scene in different languages. When he enters, he appears to get along with Martha very well as they finish each others sentences and sing together, ‘I’m nobody’s houseboy now…’ Things then begin to descend, as George holds Martha by the hair and slaps her cheeks, telling her that he wants to fight her when she’s angry to make it a fair fight. George then proceeds to tell Martha that their imaginary son has died, another illusion which Martha has created to hide her own feelings of self-inadequacy, as Bansal would say. When George tells her this, Martha gets angry and cries hysterically, collapsing to the floor and clutching the coffee table. Martha is rendered incapable of using her words to form a retort towards George, showing George’s linguistic prowess at this point in the play. He has used his words in a manner which have broken Martha and left her with nothing to hold onto, as the imaginary son had been the crutch for Martha to fall back on throughout the first and second acts. This shows how George was is more than capable of manipulating Martha, his main opponent throughout the play, along with Nick and Honey, who believe that the son is a real person until just moments before they leave, with there being no evidence to suggest that Honey realises at all. In shattering the illusion which Martha has created, George has shows that he is in fact the most adept at doing things with words, not just in that moment, but throughout the play.
Each of the characters within the play shows some skill in manipulating the emotions which they each feel towards each other and the tone or atmosphere of each scene. Nick and Honey show that they are capable of this; however, they are clearly not as well adapted to the games of speech which Martha and George have clearly been playing for a long time. Whilst Martha is clearly capable, she seems to let her emotions overcome her, subduing the potential for eloquent speech, with an effective illocutionary force applied to the intended person. This is not a problem that is seen within the character of George, at least of the majority of the play. George shows that he is capable of manipulation of people and atmosphere, without succumbing to the dramatic emotions which Martha does. For this reason, George is the character most adept at doing things with words.
Now You See Me
David Kotkin, more commonly known as David Copperfield, was the world’s highest-paid magician in 2017; his net worth is over $850 million (Cuccinello). It is impossible to become as successful as him without providing a good or service that is in high demand. In his case, he provides illusions. People enjoy and will pay in order to be deceived, and that is why magicians are in business. However, it does not require a magician to become enthralled by illusions. Illusions are a common coping device used by the masses in order to divert attention from the toils of reality and ease the pain of imperfection. All four characters of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf use illusions in differing ways in an attempt to suppress the agony they experience in their lives whether it be regretfulness, powerlessness, or lovelessness; however, they all come to realize that a life full of illusions is not necessarily a life worth living.
This aspect of the coordination between games and living with illusions is a major characteristic of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and is introduced by the game that George calls Humiliate The Host. Although taking the role of game designer throughout a majority of the novel, Martha leads the charge in the first game. However, George is the one that turns it into a game. Following the vicious attack, George announces “we’re done with Humiliate the Host” (Albee, 140). George had just endured a slew of degrading comments from his wife which obviously struck him to the core. Rather than addressing what had just occurred, George downgrades it as simply a game. This is a major sign that he is not viewing the events of that night as anything more than a dream-like illusion. He sees his very real failures as nothing more than just a part of a game, for he suppresses, ignores, and pretends they are just part of a story that Martha tells. By softening his humiliations so severely, he is refusing to face reality and in turn refusing to do something about it. George goes on to tell Martha that “I’m numbed enough . . . and I don’t mean by liquor” (155). In the future, based off how the game is viewed throughout the novel, George will continue to live his illusioned version of life in which he completely content with being an unpublished, associate professor at a small college and has no regrets about his previous choices in life.
Feeling picked on and humiliated, George rises to the role of game master with what he introduces as Get the Guests. In an attempt to focus on others’ rather than facing his own demons, George exposes the illusions in Nick and Honey’s relationship (142-147). George acts completely oblivious to the feelings of others, especially Honey who appears to be non-threatening and innocent in the horrific acts of the night thus far. The reality, however, that George was oblivious to was that real-world actions have real world consequences. In a game, almost anything can be said or done without any repercussions, for everything is simply an act within an illusioned state. George demonstrates this clearly by casually mentioning their secret without consideration of who it will hurt and how it will possibly come back to him in the future. Although Nick and Honey’s pain is clearly expressed, George is completely apathetic and ignorant towards real people’s pain almost as if it was just a game. “She’ll get over it” is what George says when Honey becomes so emotionally distraught she becomes ill. He acts astoundingly nonchalant as if she had simply lost a round in a game and it would have no real effect. George’s illusioned view on how he treats others causes him to disregard the effects of his actions on himself and others.
In the next game, Nick and Martha are ones captivated by the thrill of a game that they are unable to discern their illusions from reality. In the lewdly named game Hump the Hostess, George also further displays his illusion though by once again downplaying an incredibly traumatic event. Nick and Martha have been helplessly flirting all night, and in this game, it escalates to a whole new level. It is revealed that Martha and Nick, oblivious to the true feeling of their spouses, they do commit adultery. To many, cheating is a very serious offense in a marriage and is treated as such. Nick is completely oblivious to the feelings of his ill wife and even somehow believes that he “will go back to his little wife all refreshed” (164). In Nick’s world of illusion, he believes his actions, like George in the previous game, will have no consequences. On the other hand, Martha is thinking only about how George feels. Martha, throughout her and Nick’s endeavor, is constantly concerned about what George is doing, for example reading a book. In her illusioned way of looking at her marriage, this is her way of getting his attention. In an attempt to get George to notice her and pay attention to her, she angrily tells him “Now, you pay attention to me . . . or I swear to God I’ll do it” (173). Martha, like every married woman, wants her husband to notice and cherish her. However in Martha’s mind, rather than talking to him straightforward, she will accomplish this by cheating on him. This clearly presents Martha’s very illusioned perspective of her marriage and how to solve its problems.
No game more directly addresses the illusion of George and Martha’s marriage quite like the final installment: Bringing up Baby. Martha and George’s ‘son’ is later revealed to be part of a larger, more intricate game of which Martha broke the rule. In an attempt to fulfill the illusion in Martha’s mind of what their marriage should have looked like, they created a fantasy life which included a child. In an attempt to appear normal or to fit in, Martha was desperate to tell Nick and Honey of their child although she knew the one rule to her game. Likely feeling overwhelmed by the ‘perfect families’ around her, the illusion became so strong it actually overtook her, and she believed it to be a reality. When George revealed that her son was dead, she asked to see the telegram (234) despite the fact that there could be no telegram, for there was no child. It was the final round, and ultimately a return to their life of disillusionment. Concludingly, Martha ultimately relates that her life of illusions has brought so much pain, sorrow, and confusion that she is unsure if her return to reality will be better or worse (240). The illusion had been so deeply ingrained in their lives that when George said “Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference?” (201) he was commenting on the blurred lines in his marriage between an illusion and reality.
Nick and Honey, although not harboring a pretend child, are not innocent of living their lives full of illusions. Similar to George and Martha, they are burdened by being unlike the society around them. Honey and Nick do not have kids (39), and in order to fit in and be a part of the world around them, children were a large part. Honey lives an illusion similar to Martha in a way by secretly taking contraceptives (177) while publicly exclaiming “I want kids” (222). Desperate to not appear different from the wives of the professors if she did not have a child, she at least wanted to put up the front that she wanted one. Nick reveals a secret to George that in turn reveals a deeper illusion about his marriage. Although his marriage was based off a pregnancy scare (94), the darker intentions of Nick’s do not stop there. He explicitly states that there was not any “particular passion between us, even at the beginning… of our marriage” (105). The lack of love in a marriage is to be expected when it was a marriage based on money and financial benefits (102). The illusion in Nick and Honey’s marriage stems from both the deception from Honey about their future and the make-believe happy couple that both pretend to be although their marriage is severely lacking love.
There is no doubt that life and reality are difficult to face. George, Martha, Honey, and Nick are all living their lives soaked in illusions and falsities. As demonstrated multiple times in this drama, the abrupt crashing of the illusions and lies make for a much more agonizing reality. Therefore as idealistic and carefree as living a life of illusions may seem, no amount of temporary bliss is worth the severe withdrawal when those illusions are ultimately stripped from one’s life, and they are left to pick up the broken pieces of their version of obscured reality.
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