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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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What is the significance of the title of Act 3 in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The title of Act 3 is "The Exorcism." An exorcism is a religious ritual designed to rid a person or place of evil spirits. Rituals vary by religion and occasion, from relatively mild to quite extreme and even violent. Albee uses the title to show how George rids his marriage of its illusions. When the act begins, Martha is begging George to put an end to their "fun and games," which have become too much for her to handle, but he insists on continuing. George then introduces the game "Bringing up Baby," which climaxes in the game "Kill the Kid." George is peeling away all the layers in their marriage, all the illusions, to get at the truth. Because George and Martha have not faced the reality of their lives for at least two decades, confronting the truth will be brutally difficult. George and Martha are so caught up in the game of pretending to have a son that it has become reality for them, but George feels the only way to save their marriage is to be completely honest. Martha refuses to accept this. Further, Martha feels that, because she and George have built their illusion together, they should both have a say in destroying it. Considering that the illusion has become reality, killing their make-believe son is the same as killing a real child. This is the climax of the play. Literary critic Thomas P. Adler has explained the "murder" of George and Martha's imaginary child as deliverance from the illusion and into reality, promising a new way forward. This desire on George's part is made clear when he says to Martha, "It will be better" tomorrow.

Why is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? considered a classic of American theater?

Drama critic Toby Zinman has noted about the play, "The plot stands as one of the great theatrical treatments of the dysfunctional family ... the domestic battlefield where truth and illusion are locked in mortal combat." There is much discussion of the difference between truth and illusion in Act 3. Martha and George challenge one another to say whether or not they even know the difference. George ultimately concedes that he doesn't know the difference but states that "we must carry on as though we did." Here, Albee is hashing out one of the central problems of the Theatre of the Absurd: that life is inherently devoid of meaning and truth; if there is such a thing, it cannot be known. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has become a classic because it addresses the questions each generation must face: Who are we? What do we represent? and What will our futures hold?

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? what is the importance of the story George tells about going drinking with his friends in New York City?

George recalls drinking with his prep school friends as the high point of his youth, the best night of his young life. The story he tells reveals how drinking alcohol was and continues to be a large a part of American life. This incident, where the young boys drink and find laughter in their folly (ordering "bergin") and their intoxication, heralds a new era in George's life, one where he will come to escape reality in drink and come to know "a grown-up's hangover." This event signals his coming of age and foreshadows his later alcoholism. Finally, the law is involved here. When this incident took place, George and his friends were around 15, which is too young to be drinking. Further, the night took place during Prohibition (1920–1933), when the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages were illegal in the United States. His willingness to go against the law, as well as his association with prep school kids who have gangster fathers, suggests that George is of questionable moral character.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? why does Albee include George's story about the boy who killed both his parents?

As part of his story about drinking with his prep school friends, George tells of a classmate along for the evening, a boy who embarrassed himself by ordering "bergin" instead of "bourbon." Later this boy accidentally killed both his parents. As a result the boy went mad and was locked in an asylum, where he has been for more than 30 years. George writes a novel about the incident, which his father-in law blocks because it could embarrass the college. The questions arise in the play: Is George the boy who killed his parents, and is his "novel" really an autobiography? Once more the audience does not know what is true and what is not, what is illusion and what is reality. Does George's marriage represent the asylum? Does he feel that he has been locked up for decades? Albee makes these suggestions for the audience to consider.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? how are contemporary attitudes toward pregnancy explored through the character of Honey?

In the 1960s and even in the early 21st century, femininity is partly defined by a woman's ability to bear children. Honey's false pregnancy and subsequent failure to become pregnant lead Nick to believe that Honey is infertile; however, George offers the suggestion that Honey has been aborting her pregnancies when he asks Honey, "How do you make your secret little murders? Pills?" In the initial version of the play, Albee included information about Honey taking birth control pills. However, in the 2005 Broadway revival, he took out this information. Its inclusion, along with Honey's sudden declaration that she wants a child, points to Honey's ambivalence about motherhood, perhaps suggesting that most women are unsure about whether or not they want to have children. Finally, Honey's hysterical pregnancy is another example of Albee's interest in illusion and reality. Honey appeared to be pregnant (as she had "puffed up"), but her pregnancy was not real. Early in the play, Honey says she does not want children, but at the climax in Act 3 she suddenly announces, "I want a child. I want a baby." This proclamation offers hope for the young couple and the future of humanity now that Honey has decided to stop aborting her pregnancies and raise a child with the history of George and Martha (and, by extension, humankind) in clear view as a guide.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? why does George call Martha a "pagan"?

A pagan is a heathen, someone whose beliefs are other than those of the world's main religions. In Act 1 George says, "Martha is the only true pagan on the Eastern Seaboard" and that she "paints blue circles around her things." In many pagan traditions, the circle represents the feminine force. Albee brings up the theme again in Act 2, which is titled "Walpurgisnacht," a pagan ritual in which the feminine force rules through the night. Indeed, in Act 2, right up until the end, the action centers on Martha's force. Martha's conspicuous failure to adhere to any religious tradition recognized by the West also supports George's assessment that Martha is a pagan. Still, some would argue that Martha, as the "revirginized" mother figure to the mythical son, is consistent with Christian mythology.

What does George mean when he talks about quicksand in Act 2 of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

When George talks about quicksand, he is suggesting that he lacks a firm foundation. Addressing Nick, George says, "There's quicksand here, and you'll be dragged down, just as. ..." George is suggesting that the bottom can fall out at any time and suck him down to his emotional death. The line also suggests that Nick and Honey will be sucked into George and Martha's dirty fighting that night, both literally and figuratively, in their own marriage. Symbolically, Albee is suggesting that American society in the 1960s, particularly the academic landscape represented by New Carthage, was being sucked into moral decline, where ego, power lust, and materialism rule. Perhaps Albee is also referring to the moral grounds on which the United States stood in a post-Nagasaki and Hiroshima world. By dropping the bomb on Japan, the United States opened up a new realm of immorality.

What is the climax in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? How does the audience know it's the climax?

The climax is the point of highest interest. It occurs in Act 3 when George "kills off" his and Martha's child. Of course, he cannot actually kill the child, because it is imaginary and so never existed. What George is killing is the illusion that has sustained his marriage all these years: the illusion that he and Martha are happy and living a conventional, mid-20th-century American life. The illusions that George and Martha share are in stark contrast to their actual life, which is filled with anger over George's failure to fulfill his potential, Martha's failure to have children, and their combined failure to make each other happy.

In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? how is Martha's monologue in Act 3 crucial to the resolution of the conflict between illusion and reality?

Subsequent to her infidelity with Nick, Martha becomes vulnerable and delivers a broken monologue on her love for George. In contrast to the many insults she hurled his way in earlier acts, she confesses that it is George who makes her happy, despite their failure to conceive a child. Here the audience sees that George allows Martha to be both things: monster and devastated mother. This monologue signals that Martha has shed her illusions. She has confronted her need for the games and the illusions and, in the process, has faced some complex truths about the nature of her relationship with George. It is only from this exposed state, a state precipitated by the death of their mythical son, that Martha and George can move forward. According to critics Saeed Yazdani and Zahra Farivar, the imaginary son becomes the sacrificial scapegoat, the death of whom helps the characters overcome their own destructive forces. His sacrifice is their deliverance into a life untethered from destructive illusion.

What is the meaning of the snapdragons George gives Martha in Who's Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?

First, Albee uses the name of the flower, snapdragon,symbolically. Martha repeatedly snaps at George, attacking him verbally. Of course, a dragon is a type of monster. Recall that George had earlier called Martha both a "monster" and "Cyclops" (another type of monster). Thus, the name of the flower suggests the couple's fighting and reinforces the image of Martha as a monstrous beast. Contrast snapdragon to the gentle, romantic, loving imagery of roses, for instance. Second, when George gives Martha the snapdragons, he says, "Flores; flores para los muertos. Flores." This means "Flowers; flowers for the dead. Flowers." Albee is making an allusion to A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams (1911–1983) , another play about a fierce marriage. In both plays flowers symbolize desire (they are given to lovers) and death (they are used in funerals and on graves). Finally, in his 18th-century essay on manners, Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729) explains a game he played with his college roommate called "Snap-dragon," where the players would try to dig a raisin out of flaming brandy. The point, Steele explains, was "to see each other look like a demon as we burned ourselves and snatched out the fruit." This allusion points squarely to Martha and George's game of drawing out the worst in one another by employing the best of their intellect.

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