Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play by Edward Albee that opened on Broadway on October 13, 1962. In the play, a Martha and George, a bitter erudite couple, invite a new professor and his wife to their house after a party and then continue drinking and engage in relentless, scathing verbal and sometimes physical abuse in front of them. Martha is the daughter of the president of the university where George works as a history professor; Nick is the biology professor whom Martha insists teaches math, and his brandy-abusing wife Honey.

Nick and his wife are fascinated and embarrassed, and stay even when the abuse turns periodically towards them as well.

Table of contents
1 Plot summary
2 Film
3 Memorable dialogue

Plot summary

Warning: Spoilers follow

Throughout the play, there are many darker veins running through the dialogue, with recurring themes suggesting the border between created fiction and reality is continually challenged.

The play involves the two couples playing "games", which are not exactly games in the conventional sense but are, in a sense, savage verbal acts against one or two of the others at the party. These games are referred to with sarcastically alliterative names, "Humiliate the Host", "Get the Guests", and so on.

Martha, in the first act, Fun and Games, taunts George in stressing his failures, in an almost brutal fashion, even after George exhibits violence:

Martha: ...In fact, he was sort of a ... a FLOP! A great...big...FLOP!
[CRASH! Immediately after FLOP! George breaks a bottle against the portable bar...]
George [almost crying]: I said stop, Martha
Martha: I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You don't want to waste good liquor...not on your salary

In Walpurgisnacht, the next act, Nick and George are alone, talking. Nick talks about his wife Honey and her hysterical pregnancy - and:
George: (To Nick) While she was up, you married her.
Nick: And then she went down.

Later, George tells a story about a boy who shot his mother (by accident), who was driving in the countryside, who "swerved the car, to avoid a porcupine, and drove straight into a large tree...when they told him that his father was dead...he was put in an asylum" This theme is important, as it recurs later in the play.

Martha begins to describe a novel that George wrote recently: "a novel about a naughty boychild...who killed his mother and his father dead." Martha continues: "Georgie said...but Sir, it isn't a novel at all...this really happened...TO ME!". George and Martha physically fight: George grabs Martha by the throat. But Nick is the only one who has a spark of realization to the matter. Albee only suggests

Nick [remembering something related]: Hey...wait a minute...
Is the "boy who shot his mother" in fact George and he was lying to Nick about the asylum, is the asylum something metaphoric, or is Martha lying about the book, or is something else afoot? The immediate truth is not in fact clearly evident. This brutal event consists of the game "Humiliate the Host".

George is quick off the mark in an indirect retort, however (the next game, "Get the Guests"). While Nick and George were talking, Nick described the story about how they ended up in New Carthage and their marriage. Honey, thoroughly drunk, does not realize that George's story about the "Mousie's father" and Honey, who "tooted brandy immodestly and spent half of her time in the upchuck", with her hysterical pregnancy is in fact about her. She feels as she is about to be sick and runs to the bathroom.

At the end of this act, Martha starts to seduce Nick blatantly in front of George. George however, sits calmly, quietly, even reading a book:

Martha: ...I said I was necking with one of the guests...
George: Yes, good...good for you.
Martha: Oh, I see what you're up to, you lousy little...
George: I'm up to page a hundred and...

At the end of the play, Honey comes out, hearing Martha and Nick brush against the doorchimes, wondering who rang. This gives George an idea, and leads into the next, crucial act of the play.

In the third act, Martha comes out, with no one on stage, in an almost-soliloquoy like speech. Nick joins her after a while, recalling Honey in the bathroom winking at him. The doorbell rings: It is George, with a bunch of snapdragons in his hand, saying "Flores par los muertes" (flowers for the dead). Martha and George argue about whether the moon is up or down: George insists it is up while Martha says she saw no moon from the bedroom. George then continues to say how he was in the Mediterranean when the moon went down and came up again: Nick asks whether it was after George killed his parents:

George [defiantly]: Maybe.
Martha: Yeah; maybe not, too.
George [to Nick]: Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference...?

George calls Nick to bring back his wife for the final game, "bringing up baby". George and Martha supposedly have a son, which George has instructed Martha to keep quiet about to which she failed. George starts to talk about this son, how "Martha...climbing all over the poor bastard, trying to break the bathroom door down to wash him in the tub when he's sixteen," then George prompting Martha for her "recitation", in which they describe their son's upbringing in an almost duet-like fashion:
Martha: It was an easy birth...
George: Oh, Martha; no. You you laboured.
Martha: It was an easy birth...onece it had been...accepted, relaxed into

As this progresses, George begins to recite sections of the
Dies Irae (the Latin mass for the dead), and in the end:
George: Martha...our son is...dead.
He was...killed...late in the afternoon...
[A tiny chuckle] on a country road, with his learner's permit in his pocket, he swerved, to avoid a porcupine, and drove straight into a ...
Martha [rigid fury]: YOU...CAN'T...DO...THAT!
But - if their son was real, what has George supposed to have done? The circumstances of their son's death was touched on before, though in a different context. "Truth and illusion...Who knows the difference?"

George and Martha in fact have created their son; he does not exist as George and Martha could not have children. George says that he "killed" their son because Martha broke their rule that she could not speak of their son to others - but George also says that "it was...time". The play ends on a slightly less dark note, with George singing "Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf" to Martha.


The play features only the four characters listed above; in the film, there are two other characters: the host of an inn who appears briefly and says a few lines, and his wife, who serves a tray of drinks and leaves silently. In the play, each scene takes place in Martha and George's house; in the film, a few scenes take place at the inn and outside the house.

A film version was directed by Mike Nichols, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Each of the four main actors were nominated for an Oscar; Taylor and Sandy Dennis (playing the mousy wife) won for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. The film also won for Black and White Cinematography and is consistently on the top 250 films list at the Internet Movie Database.

Memorable dialogue

George: Martha, in my mind you are embedded in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose, it's much quieter.


Martha: (talking about her husband) I actually fell for him--it--that there.
George: Martha's a romantic at heart.

Martha: Pansies! Rosemary! Violence! My wedding bouquet!