Exploring Tension in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf 1
Exploring Tension in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
The play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1963) is a dark comedy about the domestic lives of a few characters, yet deals with the innate psychology of people and was especially novel in the time it was published. In this essay, I will attempt an exploration of the full depth of the tension that is pervasive throughout the play and also on how this tension was successfully sustained and propagated by the text in detail.
In American literary history, the 60s saw the rise of postmodernism and was reeling from the stress and the shock that the war wrought upon the public, it was a time of experimentation, of exploration and of breaking free from the established traditions. And even in those times, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was a literary piece that stands out due to its novel approach to the psychological genre and succeeds in deconstructing the traditional norms of theatre, literature and society.
The events of the play revolve around the happenings of a (very) late night party hosted by the middle-aged couple Martha and George in their house. The guests they “entertain” are the young couple Nick and Honey. Martha is the daughter of the president of the University in which George and Nick work, and this was meant to be a welcoming party for the new couple, but things devolve into unpleasantness almost right from the get go. Fueled by an unchecked amount of alcohol and deep-rooted insecurities and frustrations, the events in the party keep pushing the envelope and try to one up the previous event at a terribly rapid pace. From unpleasant name-callings within a couple aired out to the onlookers, and lewd insinuations and worse between the two couples, to airing deeply damaging secrets that shouldn’t be known to any uninvolved party being shoved out into public scrutiny without so much as a how do you do; the events that unfold in the party are nerve racking, to say the least; and yet one cannot tear their eyes away from all the psychological (and at one point, almost physical) carnage that occurs.
Like I mentioned before, this play will forever be considered an intellectual marvel that tackles issues that till then were carefully guarded secrets by society with commendable cleverness; and doesn’t even span a great deal of time and space to achieve all this either. The non-conformal structure and language and plot also contribute to the sheer revolutionary quality of this play.
3. The theme of Tension
Like I had previously mentioned, the play is chock full of tension. Apart from the all the pauses that denote the text with a strained quality, all the characters have heavy baggage that they end up having to unload to their company (which becomes all the more awkward as the party didn’t consist of people who really knew each other) and this in turn leads to even more conditions conducive to build up more tension. The fact that George and Martha felt resentful and frustrated at each other before the party began is most probably what kicked off the whole spiral into this series of very unfortunate events.
Being a psychological play, not many events actually occur- or to be more exact, not many momentous (by normal theatrical standards) events occur in this play- but because of the amount of subtextual implications the text unpacks, the play leaves the audience feeling like they watched a lot more than a lot of people just drinking alcohol and interacting with each other in different permutations over the course of the play
Now, from the moment the play starts, we get to know that George and Martha are in a somewhat precarious relationship with each other, and that Martha’s father was a sore point of contention for the two of them. We further learn that Martha is the dominant partner while George is the browbeaten one in the relationship, and that there are some unresolved issues simmering between the two of them with no means of escape, which made them act out in different ways – Martha acts more domineering, perhaps to give herself a feeling of being in control of the situation, while George takes a more resigned and passive aggressive stance- before Nick and Honey arrive at their door right as Martha yells “SCREW YOU!” at George quite loudly.
Despite attempts being made to get over the rather unfortunate first impression that Martha ended up making, George wasn’t really helping her get back on track with his less than welcoming demeanor; and this is further exacerbated by Martha’s ungainly attempts at being a gracious hostess while also countering George’s comments towards her. The stage is properly set, the dramatis personae are fully introduced and the awkwardness abound is unmistakable.
Nick and Honey seem to be an average young couple, but it soon becomes very apparent that George was not content with letting them be. I assume this stems from his unwillingness to suffer in an unhappy marriage all by himself and so he seeks to drag others down into the same pit. So, when Honey takes a restroom break (and Martha offers to show her around the house), the two men are left together and George probes Nick with a rather uncomfortable level of scrutiny. Nick initially tries be polite but also not give in to George’s subtle jibes, but soon rises to the challenge and starts aggressively defending his circumstances as time went on. Soon after, George makes Nick reveal the circumstances behind his marriage to Honey, which is not only awkward but rather invasive too, given that George is a practical stranger to Nick. It is not clear whether Honey suspects her father’s wealth being a factor that cemented the relationship between Nick and Honey. Then, when out of nowhere, George recounts the tale of a child murderer who had zero remorse about the fact that he most probably brought about his parents’ deaths, the audience (and Nick) are confused, horrified and piqued, and are then met with a cliffhanger (which only furthers the tense atmosphere).
Things hit a new low when Martha and Honey return to the scene, with Martha in more comfortable clothes that accentuate her voluptuousness, which irritates George and plays into his insecurity about their marriage (this is helped by the fact that Martha and Nick were basically flirting with each other in the presence of their partners). George also finds out rather quickly that Martha mentioned about their son to Honey, and the way this old married couple decided to air their dirty laundry in public as they both hurl increasingly alarming allegations of misconduct toward their son really lends a strained quality to the atmosphere that quickly escalates when she proceeds to torment George by exposing all of his vulnerabilities (his inability to exercise autonomy under Martha’s father’s watchful presence, his relationship with Martha, his physical appearance and finally, his dark past). The tension becomes tantamount when we finally understand that George was that sinister child he mentioned casually in the anecdote earlier, especially when George retaliates with physical violence as he strangles Martha, and has to be pried away by Nick.
Th way George then decides to take punish everyone who goaded Martha into unlocking his secrets (Nick and Honey) by making good on his words to Nick and hitting him where it hurts the most and reveals that he knew the tale of Nick’s marriage to Honey and Martha, and all the circumstances that influenced it. The whole ordeal is intense, especially when George drags it out to discomfit everyone even further.
Martha then decides to up the ante by heavily insinuating that she was going to act on her flirtations directed at Nick, and Nick seems only too happy to comply, while Honey refused to acknowledge this. Curiously, George goads her on and when he found Nick “Humping the Hostess”, calmly goes to read because it was ‘part of his daily schedule’ to do so, which throws off the audience and makes the watching experience even more strained. The indiscreet sex Martha then proceeds to have with Nick, which wakes Honey up because she “heard the bells” chime, George insinuating what was really going between Nick and Honey, him going off the tangent and violently abusing her for using birth control because she didn’t want to deal witht he pain that comes with pregnancy and the overall circumstances really add to the dramatic effect and leaves the audience more confused and tense than ever. When the revelation that the son “is dead” finally happens, it somehow escalates the mood and yet gives the audience a slight catharsis.
The whole affair between Martha and Nick is uncomfortable to witness, and the heart-to-heart talk Martha has with Nick about her relationship with George adds a new spanner to the works. Finally, things come to a grinding halt with the final revelation that Martha and George’s son never actually existed in the first place, and was merely the figment of their imagination made to soothe their longing to have a child, and ends with the weary couples leaving sadder but wiser, and the audience reeling and more confused than ever.
3.1 How the Strain is propagated through the Play
The plot’s events themselves are pretty tension inducing, but the full effect is achieved through the combination of the characters and their circumstances and also by the way the play itself is structured.
George is a man who is at the end of his rope, having to struggle to meet the expectations of Martha’s father despite being the diametric opposite of what his father in law would have preferred, and is thus unable to have a free reign over his career and his relationship with his wife. He is also a man of intelligence, who uses his cards at right the moments; and in his own way he is stubborn and refuses to give in to the flow of fate, and would rather endure a Pyrrhic victory than deal with a defeat (and this is supplemented by the baggage of his past). Meanwhile Martha is a vociferous woman who is domineering but has a soft side to her that George had once been allowed access to, but not anymore. She is conscious of the fact that her father’s domineering presence in her marriage is not healthy, but is unable to sort out the issues between these two men in her life. She is a woman who deeply longs to have a child of her own, but strikes out at the genetic lottery, and ends up making up a child to soothe herself and perhaps George too. She is a deeply unhappy woman who does not know how to make all the emotional pain go away and retaliates in a self-destructive fashion.
Nick is a young man of considerable intelligence combined with stereotypical good-looks. He doesn’t seem to be in love with his wife, but puts up with her because they were brought up believing that they would end up together, and this is combined with Honey’s father’s wealth, and Honey’s “hysterical pregnancy”. He is a man who tries to build a veneer of civility but is easily angered once his threshold is crossed, and is a deeply logical man who isn’t much given to emotional swayings. Honey is a woman who appears to be rather timid, but in fact does know how to hold her own quite well, and will do what it takes to live the life she thinks is ideal. She may have suspected that her father’s wealth plays into her relationship with Nick, but that is is purely conjecture.
These characters have their own merits and flaws and they all come into play in this play where they deal with each other throughout the whole ordeal and shape the events of the course; this becomes all the more nerve-racking for the audience because of how real these characters are: they are not larger-than-life over-embellishments of the common person, they are very common people who resonate with the audience and face many issues that the audience may face. They definitely have their own struggles, but it becomes even more of a tangle when they work out their problems by entangling others in the mires and then are forced to face the reality and probably do end up trying to do better justice to themselves and to each other (this is also purely conjecture).
The dialogues are realistic and pregnant with meaningful pauses and allusions that further intensify the experience. Furthermore, they play is open ended and begins abruptly, thus not giving the audience a chance to root themselves and find themselves getting swept along as the play progresses; and not getting a feeling of closure and distance from the characters.
The theme of tension that is found in almost every line of this play is a factor that truly heightens one’s experience and involvement when witnessing this play, and methods used (many being unconventional) to bring this about is perhaps one of the reasons why the play was as impactful as it was, and lends to the mysterious quality that is intensified by the open-endedness of the play.