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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Edward Albee
The production first ran on Broadway in 1962 and won the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. It was selected by the Pulitzer Prize's jury to win as well, but the main board from Columbia University refused the award to Albee because of its profanity and controversial nature (CBS News).

This clip features Uta Hagen as Martha and Arthur Hill as George in an audio recording of the Original Broadway Cast. This soundbite highlights the dysfunctional marital relationship between Martha and Arthur and even features the repeatedly sung extended metaphor of their rendition of "All Around the Mulberry Bush." Martha popping into her pretend child-voice also occurs repeatedly throughout the play, reinforcing the couple's illusion of reality and wish to escape. Overall, the plot surrounds the encounter between George and Martha, a professor and the daughter of the university, and Honey and Nick, a couple new to the college (Nick taking a teaching role in the biology department)...all between 1 a.m. and near-dawn (Albee).

Edward Albee, playwright
Edward Albee, playwright

In a CBS News Sunday Morning Special, Albee was asked: "What is Virginia Woolf about?"
His response: "It's about two and a half-three hours long...any play that can be described in one sentence should be one sentence long."
Albee was adopted at infancy into a financially wealthy family in Washington D.C; but, he reports that he didn't like his parents very much and that his small share of animosity was mutual. He believes they weren't "the right people for each other" and cut off contact from them once he was 18 (CBS News). This strained relationship may have provided some of the bases or inspiration for his later works. Albee also tends to refrain from describing his own work--they are about the characters and what happen to them, not the delicate rhetorical devices he may weave into them, he believes. But, common themes (which he believes make his plays more than just mere decoration) include ideas about democracy, politics, living life to the fullest, reacting to others and having responsibility towards oneself and others. He feels strongly about facing reality and its ensuing obstacles for what they are, including his own struggles for being openly gay throughout most of his life, a problem especially difficult in the 20th century (Gregory).
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Albee advised young playwrights to "always be specific--"to try to make it a struggle for directors to sway from one's original intentions and visions. This is clear when some of his stage directions include "(With a handsweep taking in not only the room, the house, but the whole countryside)" and adverbs like "aggressively," "coy," and "seriously, if sadly" preceding nearly every other line (Albee, Emami). Albee clearly feels very deeply about his work and his role as a playwright; he especially opposes commercialism sweeping over the industry that is now Broadway (Broadwayworld.com). He intends to preserve the artistic element and basis of plays and literature--not to make the most money that he can.


Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? epitomizes the dilemma that is posing for public pictures. When relatives visit and Mom begins nagging at how -College X- is far superior to -College Y- or how one's morning showers are far too long, one will typically exchange a look (varying in death-stare degree depending on the circumstance) and then reinstate the facade of a happy household; George and Martha, however, have no intentions in retaining this positive image. The short-lived boxing match that ensued between the couple when George first met Martha's father symbolizes their waning, strained relationship. Both characters know each other's weak points and take any shot they can get to try to break the other down. Martha exposes George's dark past in which he allegedly killed both of his parents and proved to be a failure novel writer to her dad. George, of course, retaliates by (as Martha brings their handsome guest, Nick, upstairs to the bedroom) stepping out of the house and returning to declare that their son is dead. It is unsure, however, if their son truly ever existed--one of the key elements in the play's overall theme of illusion. This theme has been referenced in popular movies like Pleasantville which exposes the imperfect human being for who he/she really is.
Original 1962 Broadway Production
Original 1962 Broadway Production

One main way that the couple tries to escape reality is by regressing into childlike characters, creating dialogues such as:
George: ...But why in God's name are they coming over here now?
Martha: (in a so-there voice) Because Daddy said we should be nice to them, that's why (Albee 10).
George: Here we go round the mulberry bush!
Martha: Yeah, yeah; we know; snap go the dragons.
George: SNAP (Albee 203)!
As an actor, I can sympathize with George and Martha's wish to free themselves from their current circumstances and take life on from a different approach--and although amusing, comical, or even a tad relieving in the moment, I realize that it is much better to face the truth--to go straight to the mulberry bush rather than "go round" it. In fact, this circling motion seems to be what Martha and George have been pacing in, facing in towards each other in a Western-style showdown, for much of their lives, as shown by petty remarks about not remembering if Nick is a history or biology teacher or if one's life has turned useless. Instead of driving the stake into the heart and ending the relationship, both characters continue to jab into each other's pressure points without truly bringing the other one down.
In terms of the the play's overall structure, although the first act is quite comedic in the quick, witty (and often too relatable) dialogue between the dysfunctional couple, as the alcohol from the portable bar continues to distort each of the four characters' realities, the play takes quite a dark turn. This is quite ironic because as the sun begins to rise and the truth is revealed, the hours bring much more dark matter to the living room than light. Honey, quite intoxicated, reveals her conflicting feelings with Nick on having a baby or not, George's murderous past is revealed, and Martha's inner vulnerability finally bursts through. At this point, I felt confused if I should laugh or not, for what once were petty fights turned out to be long-lasting grudges weighing down the relationship. Finally, considering this play was produced in the early 1960s, this theme of covering up reality with a glistening layer of fantasy seems quite appropriate for the times as the perfect 50s began to melt into the revolutionary 60s. What started off as an era and act of humor and comedy turned into a more realistic depiction of the true issues in relationships and life.


In his original 1962 review, Howard Taubman of the New York Times wrote that "a pillar of the plot is too flimsy to support the climax," referencing how the animosity shared between George and Martha and their entire relationship practically carries the entire play (one would think they would get a divorce). He goes on further to address the "savage irony" in the relationships that are "punctuated with comedy" (Taubman). Martha Lavey, artistic director of the 2012 Broadway production says that Albee has a "musical ear" and "mastery of rhythm" in his dialogue that creates an inviting and realistic flow to his characters' conversations . Carrie Coon, who played Honey in this recent production, describes the work as "a deeply compassionate play about real love between people" (Carl).
I believe that the gradual breakdown of the plot into its more darker depths (hence a transition from Act 1: "Fun and Games" down to Act 3: "The Exorcism") was a properly gradual and realistic decline. The increasing weariness and intoxication of the characters also added to this believability factor--altogether creating a strong resonating theme of reality vs. illusion further supported by the made-up stories and childlike dialogue between George and Martha. The characters themselves are well-defined but not two-dimensional. George, for example, tends to take the inferior role in the relationship as suggested by his ease at bowing out of a fight with Martha and always being the character to serve the others drinks; but, he does have a lonely and darker history further revealed throughout the play. The conceit of being afraid of "Virginia Woolf," or reality, is also appropriately reinforced throughout the play through a repeated tune and dialogue and echoes George and Martha's tendency to sink back into illusion to escape their unhappy lives. Albee's clear attention to detail in his stage directions for line delivery and movement also provide a detailed and rich reading of the scenes, not too hindered from lacking a physical visual performance. Finally, the parallels drawn between the two couples as the play continues gives the audience a sense that perhaps there's a little bit of George and Martha in all of us. Honey and Nick first enter as a seemingly perfectly happy couple, but by the end of the play, after Nick tries to "comingle" with Martha instead of aiding his sick wife lying on the bathroom floor, this juxtaposition of the couples let us realize that these issues may resonate in our own households as well. We usually go to the theatre to escape the troubles of middle-class reality; but, this play truly challenges our own relationships and feelings surrounding love and illusion.

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If I were to design a set for this play, I would want to focus on a theme of worn elegance. Old New England-style wallpaper and furniture that clearly shows good tender love (or not) and care. I want this almost decaying feeling to really parallel the decaying relationship between Martha and George. An especially important feature of the set would be the bar set--this helps to not only reinforce George and Martha's wish to escape reality, but intoxicates each character more and more throughout the play, allowing more secrets and revealing actions occur throughout the play (remember how conservatively Nick and Honey first acted when entering the house?). It is fine if the furniture styles clash a bit--this can represent the clashing personalities of Martha and George. I would also love George's armchair to really clash with the rest of the house, representing his isolation and distant relationship with Martha.

Albee, Edward. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Atheneum, 1962. Print.

Carl, Polly. "Speaking with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" Playwright Edward Albee." Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Steppenwolf Theatre Company, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.

"Edward Albee." Kennedy-center.org. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.

"Edward Albee Talks WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and More on CBS SUNDAY MORNING." BroadwayWorld.com. BroadwayWorld.com, 27 Jan. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.

Emami, Gazelle. "Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?" The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 09 Oct. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.

Gregory, Tom. "Edward Albee Interview." YouTube. OVGuide.com, 03 Jan. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.

"Q&A: Playwright Edward Albee." YouTube. CBS News, 27 Jan. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.

Taubman, Howard. "Original Review: ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.