Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play by Edward Albee that opened on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theater on October 13, 1962. The original cast featured Uta Hagen as Martha, Arthur Hill as George, Melinda Dillon as Honey and George Grizzard as Nick. It was directed by Alan Schneider. Subsequent cast members included Henderson Forsythe, Eileen Fulton, and Mercedes McCambridge, and Elaine Stritch.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won both the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play and the 1962-63 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. It was also selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama by that award's drama jury. However, the award's advisory board — the trustees of Columbia University— objected to the play's then-controversial use of profanity and sexual themes, and overruled the award's advisory committee, awarding no Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1963.
The play's title, which alludes to the novelist Virginia Woolf, is a parody of the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from Walt Disney's animated version of The Three Little Pigs. However, since obtaining the rights to use the music of this song would have been astronomically expensive, most stage versions, and the film, have Martha sing it to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush," which fits the meter fairly well and is in the public domain. It is revealed in the first few moments of the play that this little song occurred earlier in the evening, at a party, although who first sang it (Martha or some other anonymous party guest) remains unclear. Martha and George repeatedly needle each other over whether either one of them found it funny.
The idea for the play's title came to Albee from a line of graffiti he saw scrawled on a mirror in a bar.
I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.
- — Edward Albee
In interviews, Albee has said that he asked Woolf's widower Leonard Woolf for permission to use her name in the title of the play. In another interview, Albee acknowledged that he based the characters of Martha and George on his good friends, New York socialites Willard Maas and Marie Menken—although they are obviously named after George Washington and his wife Martha Custis Dandridge Washington, America's first First Couple. Maas was a professor of literature at Wagner College (one similarity between the character George and Willard) and his wife Marie was an experimental filmmaker and painter. Maas and Menken were known for their infamous salons, where drinking would "commence at 4pm on Friday and end in the wee hours of night on Monday" (according to Warhol associate and friend to Maas, Gerard Malanga). The primary conflict of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? derives from Maas and Menken's tempestuous and volatile relationship.
Because of the dark, unflattering glimpse of heterosexual married life, many critics at the time suggested the play was a thinly veiled portrait of two gay couples. Albee (who himself is openly gay) has adamantly denied this, stating to a number of interviewers over the years, "If I'd wanted to write a play about two gay couples, I would have done so." Albee has refused permission to theater companies to cast all four roles with men, saying this would distort the play's meaning.
There are many darker veins running through the play's dialogue which suggest that the border between fiction and reality is continually challenged. The play ends with Martha answering the titular question of who is afraid to live their life free of illusions with, "I am, George, I am." Implicitly, exposure is something everyone fears; facade (be it social or psychological), although damaging, provides a comfort.
The play involves the two couples playing "games," which are savage verbal attacks 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", "Hump the Hostess", and "Bringing Up Baby".
Nick and George are then alone. Nick talks about his wife and her hysterical pregnancy:
George tells Nick a story about a boy who shot and killed his mother accidentally, and who while learning to drive kills his father: "with his learner's permit in his pocket...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." George tells this story early in the second act, but its echo reverberates throughout the play.
Once the wives rejoin the men, Martha begins to describe (in the face of a persistent protest from George) her husband's only novel, buried by her powerful and controlling father: "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!" The culmination of George's violent reaction to Martha's refusal to stop telling this story is to grab Martha by the throat and very nearly to strangle her. In his stage direction, Albee suggests that Nick may be making a connection between the "novel" and the story George had told him earlier.
Is George the boy who "killed his mother and his father"? If so, was he lying to Nick about the asylum, or is the "asylum" instead a metaphor? Is the asylum in his mind in the home in which he and Martha subsist? Is Martha lying about the novel, or is something else afoot? What is true is not clear. This emotionally and sometimes physically violent scene concludes the game of "Humiliate the Host."
In this act, George is quick to retort Martha's prior actions, in the next game, which he calls "Get the Guests." While Nick and George were talking earlier, Nick related the story of his and Honey's marriage. His now thoroughly drunken wife Honey realizes that George's story about "the Mousie" who "tooted brandy immodestly and spent half of her time in the upchuck", is about her and her hysterical pregnancy. She feels as if she is about to be sick and runs to the bathroom.
At the end of this scene, Martha starts to seduce Nick blatantly in the face of George. George reacts calmly, simply sitting and reading a book:
At the end of the act, George throws his book against the door chimes in anguish; Honey returns, wondering who rang the doorbell. This gives George an idea, and leads into the next, crucial act of the play.
George asks Nick to bring his wife back out for the final game, "Bringing Up Baby." George and Martha supposedly have a son, about whom George has repeatedly instructed Martha to keep quiet. George now begins to talk about this son - "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 prompts Martha for her "recitation", in which they describe their son's upbringing in a duet:
Supposing their son had been real, what had George done to prompt this response from Martha? - Note that if they had a son it may have completed their lives, there may have been no reason to fight or no bottled up emotions. Therefore changing their whole characters, but this is not the case. The circumstances of their son's death were touched on earlier in the play in a different context.'
George and Martha 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. The play ends with George singing, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to Martha, whereupon she replies, "I am, George... I am".
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? went on tour in the US and played in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Theater from April 11 to May 12, 2007. This production excluded key moments in the original production, including the moment of recognition on the part of Honey that the child at the center of the battle between George and Martha is imaginary. These exclusions arguably diminished the cathartic impact of the original text and production and the film.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the inaugural production for Theatre Downtown in November 2006 for Theatre Downtown. The production was directed by Billy Ray Brewton, performed at PLAYHOUSE and featured Ellise Mayor as Martha, Terry Hermes as George, Jonathan Goldstein as Nick and Melissa Bush as Honey.
The play is performed in three acts, and is a little under three hours long (1 hour, 1 hour, 40 minutes, with two 10 minute intermissions).
Jack Valenti identifies the film as the first controversial movie he had to deal with as President of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The movie was the first to use the word "screw" and the phrase "hump the hostess" on screen. As he says, "In company with the MPAA's general counsel, Louis Nizer, I met with Jack Warner, the legendary chieftain of Warner Bros., and his top aide, Ben Kalmenson. We talked for three hours, and the result was deletion of "screw" and retention of "hump the hostess," but I was uneasy over the meeting.