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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee

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Course Hero. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed May 29, 2017. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Whos-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf/.

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Course Hero, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Study Guide," July 28, 2016, accessed May 29, 2017, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Whos-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf/.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Act 2, Walpurgisnacht (Section 1) | Summary

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Summary

George is alone on the stage as Act 2 begins. Nick comes back into the living room after checking on Honey, who is in the bathroom vomiting. Nick says that, once she starts vomiting, it is difficult for her to stop. George complains to Nick about Martha tearing him down. Unsympathetic, Nick says that he doesn't understand why George and Martha need to have an audience for their fights. Nick is impressed by the skill with which George and Martha go at each other.

Nick tells George that he married Honey because they thought she was pregnant. Later they learned she had a "hysterical pregnancy," a false pregnancy. George and Nick both laugh and, to their surprise, bond over Honey's false pregnancy.

George explains that, when he was in prep school, he and some classmates went to a bar in New York City. All bars were illegal then, as it was during Prohibition. Among the boys was a 15-year-old who had accidentally shot and killed his mother with a shotgun some years before. The boy ordered "bergin" (instead of "bourbon") to drink, which amused everyone. The father of one of the boys, a gangster, picked up their tab. George says that it was the "grandest day of his youth." The following summer the same boy, driving with a learner's permit, swerved to avoid a porcupine, went into a tree, and killed his father. The boy couldn't stop laughing until they sedated him and he was put into an asylum. This took place 30 years ago.

Analysis

This act is called "Walpurgisnacht." Walpurgis Night, which takes place on April 30, is a feast day for Saint Walpurga, an ancient German nun. The term literally means "Witches' Night" and refers to an orgy of witches and warlocks. Traditionally, on Walpurgis Night, the boundary between the rational and the irrational world dissolves; therefore, it is a terrifying time. Walpurgis Night is generally celebrated with feasting, dancing, and much merriment, but Albee is using the term here to convey a terrifying time of wild sexual abandon.

The concept of a terrifying night extends to the "games" that George and Martha continue to play in this act, building to their climax. The game in Act 1 was "Humiliate the Host." The game in Act 2 is "Get the Guests." To George and Martha, calling their emotional battle a "game" makes their strife more exciting because it is random and unpredictable. Ironically, George and Martha are sustained by their continual fighting, which Nick realizes. Nick recognizes the sickness in George and Martha's relationship but has a grudging admiration for it, especially the skill with which each partner attacks the other, knowing just how to wound.

That George attended a prep school signifies that he came from a well-to-do family that traveled in upper-class or upper-middle-class social circles and that he was being prepared for a high-prestige career in a field such as banking, medicine, law, or higher education. Although Martha suggests that George is not well paid as a professor, it is a respected position. As a prep school graduate and college professor, George—at least at first glance—is a fitting husband for Martha, because her father is the college president.

At the time when George and his friends went drinking, George was underage and Prohibition was in effect. Prohibition was the period of time (1920–1933) when there was a nationwide ban against the production, sale, consumption, and transportation of alcohol. The inclusion of this detail in the play reveals several things about George. First, he broke the law. Second, George had a taste for alcohol and drank from a young age. Third, the fact that George believed this was the greatest evening of his youth shows that he seeks thrills and lacks the usual pleasures of family gatherings, job satisfaction, and vacations.

The disturbing story George tells about the young boy who killed both his parents is another strand of the violence that runs through the play. Added to the double murder is the boy's madness afterward. This murder recurs in the play, twined with the theme of reality and illusion. Martha hints that the boy was George and the story forms the basis of George's novel, which George admits in the first act of the play.

The theme of reality and illusion is central to the Theatre of the Absurd. This is shown in George and Martha's discussion. Their talk goes around in a circle, the same arguments over and over again. They get pleasure from their literary references and flashes of wit, but the basis of their arguments does not change. Nor do they ever reach any resolution. Therefore, by definition, George and Martha's arguments are absurd because they have no meaning and lead nowhere. They speak to hear themselves speak and, occasionally, score a point or two off the other. They are trapped.

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