A classic 1963 play by Edward Albee, which in turn spawned a classic 1966 film directed by Mike Nichols and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.This character study follows George, a "boring" middle-aged history professor at a small New England college, and his caustic, abusive wife Martha. They invite another, younger professor, Nick, and his meek and mousy wife, Honey, into their home one very drunken very early morning. The older couple verbally spars in front of their guests, and then gradually turns their abuse — and lust — onto them.
Absurdism: A notable American entry in the Theatre of the Absurd.
Content Warnings: An example that predates the American film rating system. The poster's Tag Line ("You are cordially invited to George and Martha's for an evening of fun and games*") was followed by this footnote: "*Important Exception: No one under 18 will be admitted unless accompanied by his parent." According to IMDb, the film has a rating equivalent to PG-13 or R in most countries.
Drunk Driver: In the film adaptation. First Georgenote Given Richard Burton's history with alcohol, that's a hell of a Reality Subtext. and later Martha, who nearly ends up parking the car inside their house.
George: Not my fault, the road should've been straight.
Foreshadowing: George drops plenty of hints to Nick that their child doesn't exist but he's too drunk to notice.
Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Subverted. It is implied that the sweet, fragile Honey secretly aborts any children she and her husband have conceived because she doesn't want children.
Happy Marriage Charade: Jury's still out on which of the two couples has the shakier marriage. However, while George and Martha may be unable to communicate using anything other than insults and verbal abuse, they make no pretence to having a happy marriage (and yet are probably too dependent on each other emotionally to seriously consider divorcing); it is Nick and Honey who have the happy marriage charade, Nick having married Honey mostly for her father's money (her pregnancy was a convenient excuse) and Honey being implied to have aborted the baby after marrying Nick.
Hypocritical Humor: When George and Martha try to find out where the "What a dump" line comes from, George suggests Chicago. Martha responds: "Don't you know anything? Chicago was a '30s musical starring little Miss Alice Faye. Don't you know anything?" The film she's talking about is actually called In Old Chicago.
Lucky Translation: The German version still has the boy in George's story asking for "whiskey"... only in German, it sounds exactly the same as the word for "wanky". It makes the story George tells just a little bit funnier.
Mediation Backfire: There are hints that George and Martha deliberately invoke this trope in order to have something to bond over (i.e., abusing others instead of one another).
Mind Screw: How on Earth did two whack-jobs ever produce a son who is the embodiment of perfection? He didn't exist. He was totally fake, a story made-up for Martha and George so that they could feel like they had something. Lucky for him.
Minimalism: The play has one location, four characters and is in Real Time. The movie added a few outside locations and two bit parts.
George: Well that's one game. What shall we do now? Come on, I mean, let's think of something else. We've played Humiliate the Host - we can't do that one. What should we do now?...Let's see, there are other games, how about uh, how about Hump the Hostess huh?...OK, I know what we do. Now that we're through with Humiliate the Host...and we don't want to play Hump the Hostess yet...how about a little round of Get the Guests?
Pun-Based Title: An obvious play on "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" Albee put "Virginia Woolf" in the title in place of "Big Bad Wolf" because he was afraid of copyright infringement. It also adds to the concept of absurdism throughout the play.
Martha quotes a line ("What a dump!") from the Bette Davis movie Beyond The Forest (but she can't remember the title) which is mainly remembered for this reference. Made funnier by the fact that the in the initial casting for the film, Bette Davis herself was slated to play Martha.
The work itself also receives some shout outs in random, unexpected places, including a children's book series about a pair of hippos, and George and Martha being the name of of Little Lulu's parents. (And, of course, George & Martha Washington, the Father & Mother of the country.)
George: Now that's it! You can take over a few classes from the older men, but until you start plowing pertinent wives, you really aren't working. The broad, inviting avenue to man's job is through his wife, and don't you forget it.
Nick: And I'll bet your wife has the broadest, most inviting avenue of the whole damn campus! (Beat) Her father president and all.
Title Drop: During a round of drunken singing (to the tune of "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?"). Somewhat invoked at other parts, particularly at the end. In the film version, due to legal conflict with Disney, the song is sung to the tune of "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush."
George: Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?
Your Cheating Heart: George tells Nick that "musical beds" is a popular sport, with the implication that Martha has cheated on him a number of times. Nick decides to ride that train himself later that night.