Act 1: Fun and Games
(pages 1-19 in the edition published by Atheneum in 1962. There are no formal scene divisions within the acts.)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? takes place in the living room of a house on the campus of a small New England college. It is two o’clock on a Sunday morning, and George and his wife Martha are returning from a college faculty party. They are clearly not on good terms with each other. Martha refers to her husband as a “cluck,” and gets irritated when he cannot remember the title of a Bette Davis movie which includes the line, “What a dump!” She describes what she remembers of the plot, and George ventures to suggest she is talking about the film Chicago. Martha scornfully replies that Chicago was a 1930s musical starring another actress. She describes more of the plot of the movie she is recalling, in which Bette Davis plays a discontented housewife. George still has no idea what the title might be, and he complains of being tired. Martha scornfully comments that he cannot be tired because he had not done anything all day; he just sits around and talks. (The title of the movie Martha remembers was in fact Beyond the Forest, made in 1949.)
Martha asks George to make her a drink and tells him that they have guests coming. George is surprised and not pleased. His wife reminds him that they met a young couple that night; the man is a new professor in the math department, and Martha’s father, who is president of the college, told her that she and George should “be nice to them.” George protests but is resigned to the fact that visitors are coming, although this does not stop him from complaining that Martha is always springing things on him. Martha responds by trying to goad him, but when she does not get the reaction she wants she starts singing “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” This is a parody of the song “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, from Disney’s animated version of The Three Little Pigs. (In the play, this line is sung to the tune of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.”) Martha and George heard someone sing this at the party. George is not amused, but Martha claims he found it very funny when he heard it earlier.
They continue to snipe at each other, and George mentions the fact that she is six years older than he, which Martha does not like to hear about. There appears at this point to be some underlying affection in their sparring, and Martha asks George to give her a “big sloppy kiss.” George, however, says he does not want to kiss her. She calls him a pig, and he tells her to be careful about how much she drinks when the guests arrive.
The doorbell chimes, and they argue about who is going to open the door. George asks her not to talk to the guests about “the kid,” by which he appears to mean their son. Martha says she will talk about him as much as she wants to, since he is as much hers as George’s. George goes towards the door and insults Martha. She replies “SCREW YOU!” just as he opens the door to Honey and Nick, who must have heard Martha’s shouted words.
Martha and George are clearly not a happily married couple. In this “war of the sexes,” they take pot shots at each other at every available opportunity. Martha appears to have a contempt for her husband, and George has a weariness about him that suggests he is used to her complaints. He also shows that he can hit back and wound her just as well as she can wound him. Note his early dig at the fact that she is six years older than he is. It comes when he comments that the musical Chicago, made in the 1930s, was “before my time.” Martha’s reaction (“Can it! Just cut that out!”) suggests that he has hit a raw nerve.
It may be, however, and this is for the actors to suggest if they so choose, that Martha and George have something of a love-hate relationship; they may well enjoy their rather cruel banter as a way of relieving the tensions in their relationship.
Two elements introduced in this first scene will become more significant as the play unfolds. First, the cryptic reference Martha and George make to their son. For some reason he does not explain, George does not want Martha to mention the son to the guests. The audience may wonder why, but no explanation will be forthcoming for some while. The second important element is the need Martha and George have to please Martha’s father, the college president. Although he never appears in person in the play, Martha’s father is an important figure because he has helped to shape the relationship between Martha and George, as will later become apparent.
Who's Afraid of Virgina Wolf: Act 1 Part 1
Act 1: Fun and Games