What would you do if you were Nick and Honey, and were invited over to after-party drinks with Martha and George? Mind you, the first words you hear as George opens the front door are a resounding “FUCK YOU!” (Act One, 20).
These words, after we hear the odd chuckle from the audience, should cause consternation, if not terror, for you, the guest-cum-hostage of the house. Thus chained to Nick and Honey’s perspective, Albee’s audience is made to experience George and Martha’s menace, which is as divorced from “Fun and Games” as can be.
As Ms Yeo analysed in her introduction lecture, the title of Act One is primarily ironic in effect and serves notice of the “dangerous”, “shocking”, “almost unbearable” truths (New American Library) the entire play communicates to its prisoners — the audience.
Yet, I would argue that the title “Fun and Games” carries more honesty than it does irony. The characters play a total of seven formally-titled “games”, which indeed function as games for the hosts: Humiliate the Host (148), Hump the Hostess (154), Get the Guests (160-165), Bringing Up Baby (217), Snap the Dragon, and Peel the Label (225). The answer to the question, “What is wrong with these people?” is the same as that to “Why do Martha and George play these games?” There must be some function to “seeing a couple of middle-aged types hacking away at each other, all red in the face and winded, missing half the time” (Act 2, 103). This post aims to gain a better understanding of:
- The concept of games in relation to the mind and self;
- Martha and George’s psyche – their language and motives; and
- The purpose of presenting these games, or the play’s “message”.
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The Games They Play
Woman in Mind showed us the autonomy and capriciousness of the human mind. To compensate for Susan’s craving for colour in her life, her mind engages in its own rampant creations. These imaginary characters, by playing along to her needs for affirmation, fulfil Susan’s sense of self.
George and Martha arguably play games of their own in order to live out their social identity as husband and wife. Simultaneously, these games enable them to interact as a couple, and escape from the boredom within it, a boredom which extends towards discontentment (towards sterility, impotence, childlessness). If we were to draw a parallel between Woman and Woolf, the human mind designs and enacts games to support the self in conscious and unconscious ways.
But what is a game? In the seminal Games People Play, Eric Berne defines a game as “an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome… with a concealed motivation… or gimmick.” In this definition, a game is a social exchange that requires more than one party and is played for one or more of the following intentions:
- Meet mutual needs (e.g. pass the time)
- Gain attention of the other party
- Affirm life or social positions
– “I’m OK, you’re OK” (contented position)
– “I’m OK, you’re not OK” (superior position)
– “I’m not OK, you’re OK” (victimised position)
– “I’m not OK, you’re not OK” (futile position)
Source: Transactional Analysis 2: Games
Martha and George play games for shared and divergent reasons. Together they expend time, occupy awkward silences and seek refuge from loneliness. Yet, nearly all of their seven “formal” games are premised on power play or “competition” — to establish their superiority over the other or to play the victim of the character’s actions. Martha and George’s games are in essence “mind games” where the surface-level interaction often hides a rather different motivation.
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Deconstructing Their Gimmicks
To understand these games and their often sinister intentions behind them, we can apply transactional analysis to drama. We can ask about Martha and George:
- What are they really after in the game?
– Are they after the same goal?
– Are they after different goals?
- What is the imagined ideal outcome?
– Seeking to gain something?
– Seeking to avoid something?
– Seeking to confirm status or image?
- How is the game played out, in terms of language?
– What sentence types or structures are used? How would you describe the rhythm or pace of their lines?
– What key words, images or metaphors are used in their speech?
– If repetition is used, what are the effects of the repeated words or lines? How does each line differ from the previous one?
Let’s apply this simple framework to the opening exchange between Albee’s “caustic couple” on a curious Bette Davis film:
MARTHA (Looks about the room. Imitates Bette Davis) What a dump. Hey, what’s that from?
GEORGE How would I know what…
MARTHA Aw, come on! What’s it from? You know…
MARTHA WHAT’S IT FROM, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE?
GEORGE (Wearily) What’s what from?
MARTHA I just told you; I just did it. “What a dump!” Hunh? What’s that from?
GEORGE I haven’t the faintest idea what…
MARTHA Dumbbell! It’s from some goddam Bette Davis picture… some goddam Warner Brothers epic… (Act One, 4)
This exchange is initiated by Martha, and then extended by the same question, “What’s that from?”, repeated multiple times. From the preceding line, we know that Martha and George have different goals. George reminds Martha that it is “late”. Martha on the other hand seems to want to strike a conversation through the use of questions. George chooses not to participate in this, relying on reverse questions (“How would I know…”, “What’s what from?”), concessions (“I haven’t the faintest idea…”, “I can’t remember…”) and a one-time plea (“Martha…”). These non-replies only aggravate Martha, whose frustration escalates in various ways, including short repeated sentences (“I just told you; I just did it.”), profanity (“for Christ’s sake”, “goddam”) and invective (“Dumbbell!”). Most importantly, Martha insists that “You know” with an italicised “you” for emphasis and that it is “just one” picture that George should know.
The dialogue itself suggests that Martha’s “imagined ideal outcome” is to gain knowledge as in her words: “I want to know what the name of the picture is” (Act One, 5). On closer study of the conversation, this “game” is purposed towards establishing that George does not “know anything” (6), is a “dumbbell” and “cluck” and hasn’t “done anything all day”. In Martha’s eyes, George is part of that “dump” of a house she comes back to. She may not actually know the name of the picture, but by asking George the question again and again, she presents her own superiority in the relationship, which by allusion is one marked by much “discontent”.
This contest of power is a running theme in the games that follow, whether in the mode of insults, taunts, narrativising, physical aggression or ignoring the other party. Martha goes so far as to claim that George married her for their mutual “whipping” (170) as a perverse source of entertainment. George denies this, but it is clear to the audience that both seek dominance over the other precisely to shift the blame to the other for the state of the marriage. George is the flop, Martha insists. Martha is a monster, George decrees. Together, they are at once (loud) fury and (impotent) smoke.
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What’s It All About, Albee?
Like Susan’s imaginary family, Martha and George’s games conceal the ugliness of their history and distract from the bleakness of their present childlessness. The title of the play contains one of their games, and speaks about the common fear that binds both of them. The big, bad wolf — the real monster — is their marriage, and their inability to bear a child exacerbates their inability to live as husband and wife, father and mother.
Ironically, the playing of these games allows them to get to the “marrow” of truth, gnawing and finally devouring the son-myth. By engaging as children in not-so-innocent competition, George and Martha free themselves from their fiction and come to embrace reality — it is apt that the death of their son is enacted in a twisted rehearsal of a “requiem”. Where Martha once initiated games for her own amusement, she becomes an unwilling participant in George’s final game:
MARTHA (a sleepy child) No more games… please. It’s games I don’t want. No more games.
GEORGE Aw, sure you do, Martha… original game girl and all, ‘course you do.
MARTHA Ugly games… ugly. And now this new one?
GEORGE (stroking her hair) You’ll love it, baby.
MARTHA No, George. (Act Three, 220)
This game, to a greater degree than the preceding ones, force Martha to encounter her own fragile mental state (her need to be loved, and to have a “son” to love), until she confronts her own illusion. While games entertain, the play suggests that they can destroy both self and other.
In Digby Diehl’s view, Woolf warns its audience against against being too comfortable, or “asleep” in our social lives. Instead of inventing and resorting to games, it directs us to “stay alert and respond naturally… to ever-present twists in human relationships” (Diehl). Life, it seems, is better without foolish games.
GEORGE (long silence) It will be better.
MARTHA (long silence) I don’t… know.
GEORGE It will be… maybe […]
MARTHA Just… us?
GEORGE Yes. […]
GEORGE Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf…
MARTHA I… am… George… I… am… (Act Three, 255-257)