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, Mercedes McCambridge and Arthur Hill.
In the play, Martha and George, a bitter erudite couple, invite a new professor and his wife to their house after a party. There they 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 a biology professor (who Martha insists teaches math) and Honey is his mousy, brandy-abusing wife.
The title is a parody of the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from Disney's animated version of The Three Little Pigs; it is revealed in the first few moments of the play that Martha coined the phrase earlier on in the evening at a party. Martha and George repeatedly needle each other over whether either one of them found it funny. The reference to Virginia Woolf as nothing more than a meaningless pun may reflect something of the tone of the play, combining a reference to high culture with banal, immature schoolyard cruelty. The childish nature of this phrase reflects George and Martha's repeated game playing throughout the play. 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.
Nick and Honey are simultaneously fascinated and embarrassed, and stay even though the abuse turns periodically towards them as well.
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 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", and so on.
"Humiliate the Host"
Martha, in the first act, "Fun and Games", taunts George. She stresses his failures in an almost brutal fashion, even after George reacts violently:
At the end of the act, 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.
"Bringing Up Baby"
In the third act, Martha appears alone on the stage, speaking in soliloquy. 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, calling out, "Flores para los muertos" (flowers for the dead, in a reference to A Streetcar Named Desire). 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 goes on to say how once, when he was in the Mediterranean, the moon went down and came up again. Nick asks whether this incident occurred after George killed his parents:
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 an almost duet-like fashion:
As this tale progresses, George begins to recite sections of the Dies Irae (part of the Requiem, the Latin mass for the dead), and in the end:
Supposing their son had been real, what had George done to prompt this response from Martha? 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".
Starting in 2004, and continuing into 2005, there was a new Broadway production of the play. The production was directed by Anthony Page and starred Kathleen Turner as Martha and Bill Irwin as George. Irwin won the 2005 Tony award for Best Actor for his role. The production was transferred to London's West End with the entire original cast, and as of March 2006 is playing at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.
A film adaptation of the play was released in 1966. It was directed by Mike Nichols which starred Elizabeth Taylor as Martha and Richard Burton as George. The film version differs slightly from the play. The play features only the four characters listed above, while in the film there were two other minor characters - the host of a roadhouse who appears briefly and says a few lines, and his wife, who serves a tray of drinks and leaves silently. (They were played by the film's gaffer, Frank Flanagan, and his wife.)
In the play, each scene takes place entirely in Martha and George's house. In the film, one scene takes place at the roadhouse, one in George and Martha's yard, and one in their car. Despite these minor variatons, however, the film is extremely faithful to the play. The filmmakers used the original play as the screenplay and, aside from toning down some of the profanity a slight bit -- Martha's "screw you!" becomes "damn you!" -- virtually all of the original dialogue remains intact.
Each of the four main actors was nominated for an Oscar but only Taylor and Sandy Dennis (Honey) won for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. The film also won for Black and White Cinematography for Haskell Wexler's stark, black and white camera work (it was the last film to win before the category was eliminated). It has usually been listed on the top 250 films list at the Internet Movie Database.
The film was considered groundbreaking for having a level of profanity and sexual implication unheard of at that time. Jack Valenti, who had taken office as president of the MPAA in 1966, had just abolished the old Breen Office Code. In order for the film to be released with the MPAA approval, Warner Brothers agreed to minor deletions of certain profanities and to have a special warning placed on all advertisement indicating adult content in the film. It was this film and another groundbreaking film, Blowup (1966), that led Jack Valenti to begin work on the MPAA film rating system that went into effect on November 1, 1968.
The choice of Taylor – at the time regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world – to play the frumpy, fifty-ish Martha surprised many, but the actress gained thirty pounds for the role, and her performance (along with those of Burton, Segal and Dennis) was ultimately praised. According to Edward Albee, he had been told that Bette Davis and James Mason were going to play "Martha" and "George" — in the script, Martha references Davis and quotes her famous "What a dump!" line from the film Beyond the Forest (1949) — and was surprised by the Burton/Taylor casting, but stated that Taylor was quite good, and Burton was incredible.