Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | Study Guide

Edward Albee

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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a shocking and realistic look inside a troubled marriage, filled with resentment, despair, anger—and even love. Written by Edward Albee, the play received many awards, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Tony Award for Best Play.

The early critics tended to be passionate in their reviews, either negative or positive. John Chapman of The Daily News claimed it was "For Dirty-Minded Females Only." The New York Times raved that it "brims over with howling furies that do not drown out a fierce compassion." The play, whose main characters share the same names as America's first president and his wife, has been interpreted as a dissection of American society. However, the play's richness invites various interpretations, such as an expression of Cold War politics and as a battle between truth and illusion.

1. Albee discovered his title in...a men's restroom.

The title Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? originally came from a line of graffiti that playwright Albee saw in the men's room of a Greenwich Village bar. It also refers to the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from the Disney film The Three Little Pigs. Albee thought the title sounded like a "typical university, intellectual joke," fitting because the male characters are university professors.

2. The original script was even more profane and violent.

Albee made several changes to his script before the play opened. He modified some of the more explicitly harsh language, and he deleted some of his stage directions, which included violent encounters between George and Martha.

3. Famous actors were too fearful to accept parts in the play.

Many well-known actors were too afraid to appear in the original production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, considering it too risky for their careers. Henry Fonda's agent received the script but didn't even show it to his famous client. The award-winning stage and screen actress Katherine Hepburn was offered the part of Martha in the original production. However, she turned it down, saying she was not good enough for the part.

4. Albee named the character Nick after the premier of the Soviet Union.

In Albee's first draft of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the character Nick had no name. He was referred to only as "Dear." In later drafts, written during the Cold War, Albee named him after the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. But the dialogue didn't change, as George and Martha never use his name and his wife only calls him "Dear."

5. The setting of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is named after a real place.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is set in the fictional college town of New Carthage. Albee named the town after the city-state of Carthage, in Tunisia. Once a city of great power and wealth, Carthage was eventually destroyed during the Third Punic War, which lasted three years.

6. Albee's play won the Pulitzer Prize—and then lost it.

In 1963 the Pulitzer Prize committee voted to award the Drama prize to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? However, because of the play's profane language and controversial subject matter, the Pulitzer advisory board overrode the decision, choosing instead not to award a Drama prize that year. Playwright Albee, when asked how many Pulitzer Prizes he has, replies "three and a half."

7. Act 2 of the play is named after a satanic witches' celebration.

The title of Act 2, "Walpurgisnacht," refers to a holiday festival that takes place throughout Northern Europe and Scandinavia that celebrates the coming of spring. The holiday takes place on the night of April 30 and is named after St. Walpurga, a 9th-century German nun. In German folklore, Walpurgisnacht is the time when witches come together for satanic rituals. The act's title captures the dark, unrestrained mood that begins when George and Martha start playing games with their guests.

8. Albee became a playwright almost by accident.

Albee began writing poetry as a child but gave it up when he was 26. He tried writing novels but claimed his attempts were "incredibly bad." At 29 he said, since "I wasn't a very good poet and I wasn't a very good novelist, I thought I would try writing a play, which seems to have worked out a little better."

9. The play was made into an award-winning movie.

In 1966 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was made into a film, starring real-life husband and wife Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. In a case of art imitating life, their marriage was known to be an emotional roller coaster: in fact, they divorced and remarried each other!

The film was nominated for an Academy Award in every category for which it was eligible—13 in all. The film won for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design.

10. Elizabeth Taylor had to "tailor" herself to fit the part of Martha.

The character Martha in the play is supposed to be 52 years old. However, Elizabeth Taylor was only in her 30s at the time of filming. To make her character convincing, Taylor gained 20 pounds and wore a gray wig, padding, and dowdy clothing, which she called her "Martha suit."

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