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The very title of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? ‘ has immediate connotations as to the relationship between the two main characters of the play, George and Martha. The well known nursery rhyme in fact goes, ‘Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? ‘ As we find out in further reading of the play, the ‘big bad wolf’ is obviously supposed to be seen as Martha, and the victim is George, her long suffering husband. However, in hindsight, both characters suffer just as much as each other. The title of Act one is ‘Fun and Games.
‘ This proves to be slightly ironic as the games Martha and George play, mind and verbal matches, do not seem at all fun, but appear as more of a power struggle. Apparent simple requests from Martha become games for both her and Martha to play. Martha says, ‘Why don’t you want to kiss me? ‘ whereupon George replies, ‘Well, dear, if I kissed you I’d get all excited… ‘ As one critic of the play wrote, ‘They (George and Martha) club each other on the head with gleeful scorn and leave huge patches of scorched earth.
‘ Emotions from both George and Martha become integrated into an ongoing power struggle, and Martha dwells in George’s anger as she likes to see the stirred up effect she has on him. As the night wears on, more alcohol is consumed and the clearer it becomes that it is not blood running through Martha and Georges’ veins, but booze, spite, nicotine and fear. When Martha first rants about a Bette Davis film that she quotes from, ‘Hey, where’s that from? ‘What a dump,” it seems that George almost ignores her.
Marthat ahs already appeared as the stronger character in the play, but in retrospect, she relies an George for a great many things, such as the name of the film that Bette Davis was in, and the name of the professor coming to have drinks. Both characters appear to totally confront one another. Martha, according to George, ‘brays,’ and George shows a passive display of apathy. However, this is not merely strength versus weakness due to Martha’s obvious reliance on George.
In Martha and George’s relationship, Martha firstly behaves like a mother towards George, saying, ‘ C’mon over here and give Mommy a big sloppy kiss. ‘ She then acts more childlike, with (imitating a child), ‘I’m firsty. ‘ It is as though Martha cannot decide as to whether she is the controlling mother or the child who needs protecting in their relationship. The action of this Act takes place in George and Martha’s cosy yet cluttered home. In an outline, Martha is furious that George, an academic, hasn’t advanced at the college where her father is President, that is, George hasn’t become President himself.
The fact that George didn’t even fight during the War, but stayed in the History Department at the college, makes George and Martha doubt his manhood all the more. In a sense, George almost feels below Martha’s father. Understandably so, as Martha calls him a ‘flop’ and continues to praise her father. George and Nicks (the slightly self contained younger guest) chosen departments in the college are again an example of total contrast in the play. George appears to be bogged down in his department and not going anywhere academically or in his career. He is almost a relic of the past himself.
Nick, however, is at the forefront of new discoveries and is also young, handsome and extremely successful. This is the type of man whom Martha initially wanted to marry, yet the type of man to whom George could not fit the bill. George is therefore understandable threatened by Nick and his young, ‘liberal’ way of thinking. George pretends to shoot Martha in another of their ‘games’, but this is almost the opposite to the restrained George we are used to seeing. Laughter and arguments between the characters of Martha and George demonstrate to us the dialectic of love and hate in Act one.
When Martha demands a kiss from George, a display of affection to his own wife, George knocks it back and rejects her. The fluctuation in their relationship demonstrates that hating each other hasn’t precluded form simultaneously loving and needing one another. Illusion appears to be a very important part of the play. George and Martha both had an illusion of what life would be like when they got married; they saw George becoming president of the college and living a happy married life under its roof.
Clearly this did not happen, and both feel somewhat bitter for it. Honey and Nick also appear almost as an illusion of a happy marriage, so it seems. They seem to slip into the background in that they both pretend not to notice George and Martha’s arguments and laugh at things that they don’t particularly find funny. Another example of an illusion is that of Martha’s and George’s apparent son. Martha is always very keen to talk of him whereas George is not so, almost closing down the subject.
We never actually see the son in Act One and there is even confusion between the two as to when his birthday is. The supposed perfection of the boy, blonde hair and blue eyes, and the fact that George refers states, ‘Don’t bring up the bit about the boy,’ depersonalises and deludes his actual existence. This is obviously a particularly sore point of conversation between George and Martha, as it results in a number of heated arguments. Martha and George constantly hurl abusive and hurtful words at each other, as though throwing knives.
In striking out at those closest to them, that is each other, they represent the typical dysfunctional couple. However, in doing so the romantic notion of love keeps their relationship almost together. Both saw each other as the way to a new, ‘perfect’ way of life yet the fantasy was not fulfilled, and in verbally abusing each other, they take the blame from themselves and place it on each other. Albee has captured perfectly the way two completely different people can come together and the dramatic consequences it can have on each other, not always in bringing out the negative.