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.
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“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 […]