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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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What is the significance of George's inability to identify the quote "What a dump!" in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Martha opens the play by quoting "What a dump" from the 1949 movie Beyond the Forest. George cannot identify the source of the quote, which bothers Martha very much because playing off each other's witty quotes is one of their games. However, her wit is lost on George if he doesn't get the joke. This incident is the audience's introduction to the "games" that George and Martha play with each other. This particular game is harmless (unlike their other games), but it quickly turns nasty as Martha calls George names ("dumbbell!") and demeans and belittles him when he can't recall the reference. This incident also serves as the introduction to the theme of image; in this case, the subject of private versus public image. We can assume that George and Martha were moderately well behaved in front of her father (the college president) and George's colleagues at the party that her father gave. However, when George and Martha are home, their true natures emerge as they attack each other. The audience sees the balance of power shift between the two as they jockey to see who can get the upper hand.

Why does Albee mention Bette Davis in the beginning of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

An American actress noted for her wide range of movie roles, Bette Davis (1908–1989) often played unsympathetic women, even horror roles. In some ways Martha is like Davis, capable of playing many roles—being kind as well as monstrous. The allusion to Davis also relates to the play's theme of public versus private image, as Martha, like the woman Davis plays in the movie Beyond the Forest, is a complex character. In the film Davis portrays a woman named Rosa, who, like Martha, is bored and discontent with the suburban life prescribed to her by the patriarchy. Rosa attempts to leave her husband, Lewis, by running off to find and marry Neil Latimer, a young, successful industrialist in Chicago. At first Neil rejects Rosa, who returns home to her husband, but, after a series of plot turns, Neil comes to propose to Rosa, who is by then pregnant with Lewis's child. Rosa jumps off a highway embankment in a successful effort to induce a miscarriage. Soon thereafter Rosa contracts peritonitis and dies. Critic Carlos Campo has suggested that the experience of being forced into gender roles literally leads to the death of Rosa (not to mention Virginia Woolf), much in the same way it contributes to the metaphorical death of Martha's true self.

Who has more power in George and Martha's marriage in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Martha and George continuously battle over who has the greater power in their marriage. At first it appears that Martha has greater power because her father controls George's career. In the 1960s traditional gender roles mandated that, in a marriage, the husband be the breadwinner and the wife be the homemaker. Because George's position depends on staying in his father-in-law's favor, George is, in effect, dependent on Martha for his living. Further, Martha has emasculated George by continuously putting him down, mocking him, and attacking him. If that wasn't bad enough, Martha's affairs with George's coworkers have caused them to lose respect for George and make him an object of pity and scorn at the college. However, George holds significant power over Martha because she loves him. Indeed, Martha tells Nick that George is the only man she has ever loved. She says George is the only man who understands her games and plays along with them. This gives George a great deal of power over Martha, perhaps more power than Martha has over him.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? why is it important that Nick is young and handsome?

It is important that Nick be young and handsome because he functions as a threat to George. Nick represents the future, the generation that will take over for George's generation; he also represents the past, a reflection of a younger George who was not yet tied up in this battle with Martha. George is beginning to look middle-aged. In the section called "The Players," which precedes Act 1, the stage directions note that George is "thin; hair going gray." Although George is still working as a professor, his career is essentially over, because he will never be promoted to a higher position (he has not yet achieved the highest rank, full professor). He will never become college president, as his father-in-law and Martha had initially planned. Further, Martha tries to seduce Nick to humiliate George, so Nick must be attractive enough for Martha to pursue.

Why does Albee bring up Martha's teeth in Act 1 of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

One of the defining characteristics of the "big bad wolf" is its large teeth. In "Little Red Riding Hood," Little Red Riding Hood says to the wolf, "What big teeth you have!" The wolf replies, "The better to eat you with, my dear," right before the wolf pounces and consumes her. The teeth, then, represent the threat of attack, of being consumed. Additionally, because the George character was named after George Washington and Washington suffered with dental issues throughout his adult life, the tooth conversation adds another layer of sly amusement for the reader. Martha has two more teeth than George, which symbolizes that Martha is a predator, a wild animal, out of control. She will attack George and try to destroy him.

What is the significance of "the bit" that George warns Martha not to bring up in Act 1 of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In Act 1 George warns Martha not to bring up "the bit" about their son. George and Martha do not have a son; they never had a son. The story about their son is fictional, one of the games they play. The fact that George says the story is a "bit" suggests that it is a set piece, like a comic's reliable routine, that gets brought out to entertain someone. In this case the story of their make-believe son gets used as part of the attack George and Martha unleash on each other. George feels that the story of their son should be off-limits with guests, because it is part of their private "game." The fact that Martha brings it up suggests that this evening's "fun and games" will go beyond their usual fierce battle, with nothing held back. Albee also has Martha bring up the story of their son here to foreshadow the action that comes later in the play.

In light of the plot and themes in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? why does George accuse Martha of being a "subhuman monster"?

George calls Martha a "subhuman monster" in Act 1, right before Nick and Honey arrive, no doubt to rile her up to make their fighting in front of their guests more exciting. George's technique works, as Martha screams "SCREW YOU!" at him just as Nick and Honey enter. Predictably, Nick and Honey are embarrassed at walking into such a violent fight. George refers to Martha as a monster again in Act 2 and threatens to have her committed to a mental institution. Martha denies the label, admitting only to being "loud and vulgar." Her behavior in the play can be seen as monstrous, especially when she tries to seduce Nick. Yet George's behavior is no less so, and Martha reveals her human side when she admits to her love for her husband. The real "monster" of the play is the "big bad wolf," the fear of living without false illusions.

How is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? an example of Theatre of the Absurd?

Theatre of the Absurd, which flourished in the 1950s to 1960s, is a style of drama that explores the lack of meaning in the modern world. Theatre of the Absurd is also concerned with the collapse of reality into illusion; calling into question the very notion of reality and meaning. According to absurdist playwrights, when life has no meaning or purpose, all communication breaks down. Playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd try to capture this process with illogical and often confusing dialogue. The characters may say a great deal, but their talk makes little sense. It may be empty, redundant, or baffling. The characters may talk over each other and drown each other out too. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? George and Martha's dialogue goes around in circles, bringing up the same ideas over and over. At the end of Act 2, they talk over each other, with Martha attacking George by saying he "can't make anything out of himself" and George trying to drown her out by singing "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf." These are just two examples of how communication between the characters has broken down because, according to absurdist playwrights, these characters feel their lives are empty and have no meaning. After all, with no children to raise and being stuck in a job that offers no upward mobility, what have these two got to live for?

Why are George and Martha willing to entertain Nick and Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and why do they agree to visit at such an hour?

Martha's father, the college president, wanted George and Martha to get to know Nick and Honey better. Further, George and Martha need an audience for their attacks on each other. Without an audience, they soon run out of things to say to each other and their "games" lose much of their pleasure. Further, having an audience excites George and Martha because they get to suck others into their conflict and perhaps even score points off each other in doing so. George and Martha gain allies, which they use as pawns in their mind games. The notion of an audience playing witness to George and Martha's actions is central to the idea that gender roles are performed that Albee weaves throughout the play. Critics Mona Hoorvash and Farideh Pourgiv have maintained that Martha is a "self-conscious actor, deliberately indulging in the task of subversive mimicry of the feminine gender role to shock the audience." Martha adopts the persona of a professor's wife and president's daughter, an act that is central to her conflict and the conflict of the drama. Similarly, George struggles against the prescribed notions of masculinity and success with which he contends and against which Martha seems to measure him. Likewise, Nick and Honey give in to societal prescriptions and "play" roles that are disingenuous. As a new hire dependent on the president for his livelihood, Nick must be nice to the president's daughter. If Martha invites Nick and Honey over at 2:00 in the morning, they know this is more of a summons than an invitation. On the other hand, Nick and Honey would be eager to visit George and Martha because they are new to the campus and the area and would naturally want to make friends. Because George is older and a long-time professor at the college, he would be in a position to offer Nick advice as well as friendship.

Why is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set in New Carthage?

Albee's choice to name the small New England town New Carthage points to ancient Carthage in northern Africa, a place of high dysfunction in modern terms. When St. Augustine visited Carthage and wrote of his travels in The Confessions, he decried the repugnant ways of the scholars and the unholy nature of interpersonal relationships. In parallel to these descriptions of Carthage, Albee establishes the dysfunction of the university in New Carthage through his characters, who demonstrate nontraditional interpersonal relationships. Additionally, the Phoenicians of ancient Carthage practiced child sacrifice because they believed it would bring them victory in the Punic Wars, a series of power struggles between Carthage and Rome. (This allusion is echoed when George tells the story of going into the city to get drunk when he was in prep school "during the Punic Wars.") In the play George sacrifices the child at the end of Act 2 to secure victory over Martha. With this simple allusion, Albee infuses his plot with history and context, layering meaning for the reader to discover.

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