Having started on the significance of Albee’s title in our introductory lecture ‘The Wolves Amongst Us’, a return to the title – or more precisely Martha and George’s song – would help us consolidate what we have learned about the protagonists’ relationship, as well as their internal struggles. Some confusion about the the song has also arisen, partly because ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’ (not to be confused with the title Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) is variously sung by Martha and George in different contexts for different purposes. These intentions stand alongside the song’s overall signification of a life without false illusions (‘Virginia Woolf’).
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MARTHA [She sings.] Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf … Ha, ha, ha, HA! [No reaction.] What’s the matter …didn’t you think that was funny? Hunh? [Defiantly.] I thought it was a scream …a real scream. You didn’t like it, hunh? (Act 1, p5)
The opening reference to the play’s title is rendered early in the play in Martha’s attempt to cheer up a ‘sulking’ and ‘exasperated‘ George. The verbalised laughter of ‘Ha, ha, ha, HA!’ simultaneously performs Martha’s own amusement at the song and her desire to amuse George. The silences, indicated by the stage directions ‘No reaction‘ and implied by the shift in tone to ‘Defiantly‘, underscore the non-reciprocity of her attempt to engage with her husband. The defensive insistence (‘I thought…’) and questioning (‘You didn’t like it, hunh?’) that follow the song seem to only reinforce the disconnect between them, as George’s immediate replies reflect disengaged compliance (‘It was all right’).
As with subsequent iterations, Martha’s singing of the song draws the audience’s attention to the isolation of both characters’ selves, even as one character tries (with a hint of desperation) to find connection between them. From this point in the play on, neither George nor Martha treat or perceive the song as an entertainment.
GEORGE [under her, then covering, to drown her]: I said, don’t. All right… alright: [Sings] Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, early in the morning. (Act 1, p46)
What entertains Honey – and maybe the audience – at the end of Act One fails to amuse Martha in the slightest. George employs her song as a seeming weapon against her, to ‘cover’ and then to ‘drown’ her vicious tirade. The audience could likewise read George’s singing from a more sympathetic angle. His pleas to “don’t go on”, “don’t, Martha, don’t” prior to the quotation have been ignored and his singing too is a desperate measure, to defend himself against Martha’s attacks and to preserve his own dignity: the audience grants that he does not hear that he is “nobody”, that “he can’t make anything out of himself” and that he does not have “the guts to make anybody proud of him” (46). George too is afraid of the reality of being “nobody”, and that the song ironically communicates his fear of a life without false illusions.
The inclusion of “early in the morning” at the tail of George’s rendition prepares the audience for the action that follows. George and Martha will indeed confront their various illusions early in the morning, starting with George’s bergin boy story and the possibly startling truth beneath it in Act Two and ramping up on Martha’s melancholic ramblings at the start of Act Three.
[They come together… GEORGE enters… stops… watches a moment… smiles… laughs silently, nods his head, turns, exits, without being noticed. NICK, who has already had his hand on MARTHA’s breast, now puts his hand inside her dress.]
[GEORGE is heard off-stage, singing ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ MARTHA and NICK go apart, NICK wiping his mouth, MARTHA checking her clothes. Safely later, GEORGE re-enters with the ice bucket.] GEORGE: ….of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Virginia… (Act 2, p87)
The song occupies the background of this carnal scene between Martha and Nick. Albee’s text stretches George’s attention to these going-ons in a series of action, as he “watches a moment” and “laughs silently, nods his head, turns, exits” in implied resignation.
The singing “heard off-stage” while Martha and Nick ready themselves echoes the previous iteration in effect. It demarcates in front of Martha and Nick a lack of awareness or attention (he has not been “noticed”), the nonchalance of which will be taken to the next level when George reads his book (89-92). On a psychological level, the audience might infer that George is trying to distract himself (he “laughs silently“) from the threat to his masculinity posed by Nick’s dalliance with Martha. Like at the end of Act One, the song sets up an illusion of carefree joy.
The acceleration towards truth, for George, will begin on another aural cue, the ringing of the chimes later in the scene.
Consolation / Reality
GEORGE [puts his hand gently on her shoulder; she puts her head back and he sings to her, very softly]: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf,
MARTHA: I… am… George…
GEORGE: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf….
MARTHA: I…. am… George… I… am… (Act 3, p128)
With the ultimate illusion of the son shattered, the song symbolises George and Martha’s confrontation of a “life without false illusion”. This is confirmed by Martha’s response, “I… am…”, which changes the song from a monologic / one-way rhetorical question to a dialogic question. More importantly, George’s “very soft” singing, coupled with his gentle “hand… on her shoulder” expresses his desire to comfort her, and essentially empathise with her grief.
Where ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’ in the opening scene is Martha’s childish means of seeking connection with her husband, George’s turn here is his spousal, maybe paternal, means of reconnecting with his wife. Only after they have been stripped down to their essential selves can it become their song.