Follow TV Tropes


Theatre / Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Go To

"I swear, if you existed, I'd divorce you."

A classic 1962 play by Edward Albee, this character study follows George, a "boring" middle-aged history professor at a small New England college, and his caustic, abusive wife Martha. Martha invites another, younger professor, Nick, and his meek and mousy wife, Honey, into their home one very drunken night into early morning. The older couple verbally spar in front of their guests, then gradually turn their abuse—and lust—onto them.

The original Broadway production starred Arthur Hill as George, Uta Hagen as Martha, George Grizzard as Nick, and Melinda Dillon as Honey. It won several important dramatic awards, including Tonys for Best Play, Best Actor, and Best Actress. The play was also selected for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama by that year’s drama jury, but the jury was overruled by the advisory board, which objected to its profanity and sexual content; correspondingly, no prize for drama was awarded that year.

The play was adapted into a 1966 film directed by Mike Nichols, starring Richard Burton as George, Elizabeth Taylor as Martha, George Segal as Nick, and Sandy Dennis as Honey. The film received Academy Award nominations in every category for which it was eligible—thirteen in all—and won five, including Best Actress for Taylor (in what is generally considered her greatest performance) and Best Supporting Actress for Dennis.

Featuring a screenplay adaptation by Ernest Lehman, the film was also a major step in the unraveling of The Hays Code, as it featured dialogue that was profane and extremely sexually explicit by 1960s standards and was released with almost no changes (to the point where it was the first film to ever be rated R by the MPAA, even before its rating system was formally established). Later in 1966, MGM released Blowup without Hays Code approval, which effectively marked the end of the Code.


  • Absurdism: A notable American entry in the Theatre of the Absurd. At first the characters come off as odd, but grounded enough. But as things unfold, they act more and more mad, and the story and their history just gets stranger.
  • The Alcoholic: Everyone. The play starts after a dinner party where all of the characters have presumably been drinking, and they all keep drinking for 10 hours.
  • Ambiguously Gay: George. It would explain why he wasn't able to have a child with Martha: he married her to get ahead in the university, but was unable to bring himself to have sex with her - even though they were good friends. It also would explain why he never got promoted, as Martha's father possibly became disillusioned with George's ability to give him a grandson and he knew George was gay. It also explains the Ho Yay between Nick and himself, if one-sided. Albee himself (who the part is also based on) was gay.
    • Goes hand in hand with Ambiguously Bi, since he also refers to Honey as sexy and calls her "angel-tits" once.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Nick and Honey tells George they really ought to go home, causing George to snap, "For what? You keeping the babysitter up or something?"note 
  • Author Avatar. According to the Word of God, George is more or less based on Edward Albee's life.
  • Awful Wedded Life:
    • A particularly dark example. Though George and Martha do share a strong bond, they also can't stand each other and live a lonely, miserable life.
    • Nick and Honey are a more subtle example. While they don't actually abuse each other like George and Martha, they're an awkward pair, having seemingly no spark, and they only got married because Nick was essentially trapped into it.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Or possibly don't, depending on which aspects of the characters' personae you believe. However, when Nick accidentally (?) insults Martha by calling her the "widest avenue" on campus, George takes offense and verbally but subtly skewers him, prompting Martha's "pygmy hunting" comment.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Honey loses her fear of getting pregnant, and during Martha's soliloquy about her (fake) son, she states firmly she wants to get pregnant and have a baby with Nick after all. However, she's drunk as a skunk, so God knows if this actually sticks after she has time to sober up and clear her head.
  • The Baby Trap: How Honey got Nick to marry her. It was a Fake Pregnancy, however. This is eventually defied by the end of the play, as what transpires between both couples gives her the idea to actually have a child with Nick.
  • Blatant Lies: The film's tagline, "You are cordially invited to George and Martha's for an evening of fun and games". The exact opposite comes out of it.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: George may seem more weak-willed than Martha, but he's the most vicious of the two, and when The Gloves Come Off, he undresses Nick, Honey and Martha devastatingly.
  • Beta Couple: Majorly deconstructed with Nick and Honey.
  • Big "NO!":
    George: Our son is dead, just like that! How does that make you feel?
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing:
    • The start of the show makes George look much more preferable to compared to Martha. But once he learns of her inviting guests, his claws start to come out.
    • When first introduced, Nick and Honey look to be a much more normal and healthy couple in comparison with George and Martha. But as the show goes on it becomes clear they're both very flawed people in their own right.
  • Bittersweet Ending: George destroys the fictional son that he and Martha invented, but this may be just the thing for the couple to move forward with no illusions to cling to. Nick and Honey resolve their marital issues, and bond with George and Martha just before leaving.
  • Black Comedy: The whole film/play, really.
  • Broken Masquerade: George's verbal takedown of Martha results in this.
  • But Liquor Is Quicker: Although it turns out Nick doesn't need a great deal of encouragement.
  • Canon Foreigner: The minor characters of the roadhouse owner, who has only a few lines of dialogue, and his wife, who serves a tray of drinks and leaves silently, were added to the film and played by the gaffer, Frank Flanagan, and his wife, Agnes.
  • Cat Scare: George's umbrella.
    George: Bang! You're dead.
  • Central Theme: The lies couples tell each other to cope (illusions), and the painful necessity to have truth.
  • Character Development: Honey, along with Hidden Depths. She figures out long before Nick that George and Martha's son is imaginary, and goes from being frightened of pregnancy and motherhood to insisting, "I want a baby. I want a child."
  • Chick Magnet: Nick is two for two with the only women featured in this play, already being married to Honey and catching Martha's eye, which then leads to them getting more intimate. Going further than that, Nick also seems to be three for three with the whole cast, as George also gets flirtatious with him and and notes what a fine specimen he is.
  • 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.
  • Coupled Couples: George and Martha, and Nick and Honey.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: George killing off his and Martha's fictional son all but breaks her, but there's the implication that removing this delusion will help their abysmal marriage. Of course, George was still very much trying to hurt Martha through this, even if he ultimately thought it was for their own good.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Nick and Honey are easily dominated in George and Martha's battle of wits. Nick tries putting up a fight while Honey seems to realize right away she's better off trying to keep peace. Eventually, Nick also seems to figure there's not much point in continuing to bicker with two people who have been verbally whipping him for hours on end.
  • Deadpan Snarker: George, frequently.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: The play takes a hatchet to the idea of the perfect American family in a way that was arguably completely unprecedented at the time. It also fits in the canon of deconstructions of The American Dream, along with other plays like Death of a Salesman.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The film. Not only does it serve to create a stark Chiaroscuro setting, but it also allows Martha to talk about having green eyes when Elizabeth Taylor has famously purple eyes.
  • Did They or Didn't They?: Martha seems to be disappointed when she comes back down from the bedroom. The conversation she has with George later implies that Nick was ultimately unable to "perform".
  • Domestic Abuse: Take a guess. Both George and Martha can't help making their spouse suffer. When Martha starts pushing George too far he actually physically attacks her.
  • Drunk Driver: In the film adaptation. First Georgenote  and later Martha, who nearly ends up parking the car inside their house.
    George: Not my fault, the road should've been straight.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Nick finally understands what Honey figured out earlier, bordering on Madness Mantra.
    Nick: Oh my God. I think I understand this.
    George: Do you?
    Nick: Oh my God. I think I understand this.
    George: (mildly approving) Good for you.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: According to George and Martha, “musical beds” is a popular pastime among the campus faculty. Unreliable Expositor may apply here, however. It’s implied that Martha and Nick attempt to sleep together, but it’s also implied that he couldn’t perform because he was too intoxicated.
  • Everybody Has Standards: When Martha asks George to light her a cigarette, he refuses. Saying he has his limits. Though it may have been due to her calling him "swampy" moments earlier. George tells Martha that he is willing to hold her hand when it is dark and she's afraid of the boogeyman, and he will tote her gin bottles out after midnight so that no one can see, but he will not light her a cigarette. Finishing off by telling her "and that is that".
  • Fake Weakness: George. He seems wimpy and over-matched compared to his loud, shrewish wife, but he proves that she's no match for him, let alone Nick and Honey, whom he dominates almost effortlessly; Martha amusedly calls it "pygmy hunting."
  • Fanservice: Elizabeth Taylor seems dowdy, but when she changes into her "Sunday best", she shows just how sexy a middle-aged woman can be.
  • First Law of Tragicomedies: Averted, since the humor is biting and sarcastic. There are several hilariously sick burns even in the more tense moments, not to mention the nervous laughter the tension can jar from you.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Hoo boy. George and Martha practice on each other so much that Nick and Honey don't stand a chance when they turn their barbs towards them.
  • Flowery Insults: George and Martha throw these at each other non-stop, particularly George, e.g.
    George: Martha, in my mind you're buried up to your neck to cement. No...up to your nose, it's quieter.
    George: [Our son] is the apple of our three eyes, Martha being a cyclops.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Honey tells George she didn't know he had a son and his birthday was tomorrow, George reacts in shock, asking "She told you about him?" then glares upstairs and mutters, "OK, Martha, OK... Damn destructive."
    • George drops plenty of hints to Nick that their child doesn't exist but he's too drunk to notice.
  • Genre Savvy: George and Martha, but George especially, and he weaponizes it. See Parlor Games below.
  • The Gloves Come Off: At the midpoint, George and Martha take their bickering to all-new levels.
    George: Total war?
    Martha: Total.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Martha broke the most solemn rule — never speak of their son to others. This allows George to do a verbal No Holds Beatdown of her, and gave him permission to kill their fictional son.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Subverted. It is implied that the sweet, fragile Honey has given herself a series of chemical miscarriages (possibly resulting in her frail constitution) because she doesn't want to have 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 pretense 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 faked being pregnant (having taken birth control pills secretly).
  • Henpecked Husband: At first George appears to be this in relation to Martha. Events show that while Martha can be vicious, George is lethal.
  • Hot Guy, Ugly Wife: Nick is repeatedly noted as being quite good looking while Honey is first described as "a mousey little type, without any hips, or anything".
  • Hunk: Nick's handsome, well built appearance is frequently noted.
  • 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.
  • Imagine Spot: The idea of George and Martha's child exists as nothing more than a means to put up the illusion of them being a happy couple, which the both of them prove that, of course, they are decidedly not.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: Double subverted. Played with in that Martha is affected by the Broken Masquerade as much as if it would've actually happened.
  • Incompatible Orientation:
    • George and Martha possibly married despite it. She explicitly notes that she loves him, but her attempts to get physical are shut down, and while clearly quite strong, his exact feelings for her are more vague.
    • It's also easy to read George as coming on to Nick at a few points but neglecting to go further when the latter doesn't seem to be playing along.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: An Averted Trope. Characters in the film adaptation frequently cough, but it doesn't portend anything.
  • Insistent Terminology: Nick, are you a houseboy or a stud?
  • Ironic Echo: "I am, George. I am."
  • Jerkass:
    • Martha is loud, vulgar, rude, judgmental, adulterous, and all too happy to start drama.
    • George is able to hide his mean spirited tendencies more than Martha, but he's all too happy to verbally assault all the other characters.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Nick tries standing up for himself and putting up a fight, but he eventually realizes he can't keep up with their craziness.
  • Lady Drunk: Martha. Heavily implied to be Honey's future.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: After drinking for "ten hours," Nick turns out to be "a flop."
  • Lonely Together: Basically the whole plot: miserable couple invites younger couple over for "an evening of fun and games" that mostly involves inflicting their miseries on each other. As the play progresses, we see that the younger couple was, in a quieter way, already miserable as well.
  • Lousy Lovers Are Losers: Martha throws this accusation at her husband George during one of her many, many The Reason You Suck Speeches to him, calling him a "big, fat FLOP."
    • She later does the same to Nick when he has trouble performing in bed while drunk.
  • Malaproper: One of George's embarrassing moments is when he ordered "bergin" (burgundy) as a drink during a dinner party (where he was trying to impress Martha and her parents.)
  • The Masochism Tango: George and Martha are arguably the Trope Codifiers in modern pop culture. Nick and Honey's marriage looks happier on the surface, but as we ultimately see, they're not that different.
  • 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.
    • The whole play qualifies to some extent, given how thoroughly it uses Unreliable Expositor. It’s considered a central work of the Theatre of the Absurd for a reason, after all.
  • Minimalism: The play has one location, four characters and is in Real Time. The movie added a few outside locations and two bit parts.
  • Minimalist Cast: Only four characters in the play. The film adds two bit parts, but they have only a few lines each and the actors portraying the characters aren't even credited.
  • Mistaken for Pregnant: Honey, charitably interpreted.
  • Moral Guardians: The film version helped weaken film censorship after MPAA president Jack Valenti ordered minimal dialogue cuts to the already-profane script.
  • Mrs. Robinson: After a few verbal and physical spats with her husband George, a drunken Martha blatantly flirts with the married young professor Nick, asks him about his physique, dances rather suggestively with him in front of George and Honey, and then later attempts to sleep with him. Unfortunately for her, it fails because he is too intoxicated to perform sexually and she mocks him for it.
  • No Ending: Dawn breaks, Nick learns something about his marriage and George and Martha's, and leaves. This is also one of the rare modern films with no end credits, just a placard saying "EXIT MUSIC" as a mandolin plays.
  • No Name Given:
    • "Honey" is just Nick's pet name for his wife, she's never given an actual name in-story. George refers to her as "Missy" at one point in the film version, but this is probably just a nickname as well.
    • The last names of George, Martha and Nick are not given. And Nick's first name is never spoken on stage (though obviously it's in the program and can be deduced by whittling down the Minimalist Cast).
    • George and Martha's son is never referred to by name either. This is probably the biggest clue that he doesn't actually exist.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Honey. She initially seems like a ditz, but she's far more conniving than Nick, and figures out George and Martha's secret long before her husband.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Martha will never let George forget he ordered "bergin and water" (he meant bourbon). It leads a pissed George to perform a Cat Scare with a shotgun-umbrella.
  • Only Sane Man: Though he's got his own issues, Nick is at least able to act like a normal human being. George and Martha don't even bother with it, while Honey quickly descends into drunken, loony behavior.
  • Parlor Games: Used metaphorically by George to express how awful the night has been going.
    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 about a little round of Get the Guests?
  • Pet the Dog: At the end, after all secrets have been revealed, Nick and Honey sympathize with George and Martha, and vice versa. Nick appears to ask or say something conciliatory to George, but George gently escorts them both out.
  • Pick on Someone Your Own Size: Martha's initial reaction to George turning on Nick is to accuse him of "pygmy hunting." It turns out to be a Be Careful What You Wish For, since George turns on her.
  • Precision F-Strike: In the revival starring Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner, Martha screams, "FUCK YOU!" at George instead of "Goddamn you!" (The line in the original play was "Screw you!"—which still got censored in the film adaptation.)
  • Pun-Based Title: An obvious play on "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" (which naturally makes it a Questioning Title? as well). Albee decided to substitute "Virginia Woolf" for "Big Bad Wolf" for fear of possible copyright infringement. (He'd also seen it as a graffito on a bathroom mirror and found it amusing.) It also adds to the concept of absurdism throughout the play.
  • The Reveal: It's not explicitly stated until near the end of the play that George and Martha made up the existence of their son, though there are hints dropped to this extent as early as the first act. It may arguably qualify as an Internal Reveal when Nick figures it out, as Honey gives hints of having figured it out much earlier.
  • Rewatch Bonus: The film gets better the more the viewer knows about both couple's secrets in advance.
  • Riddle for the Ages: What was Nick going to say to George before he left?
  • Sad Clown: All four characters hide their miserableness through humor to an extent, but Honey fits this best. The most explicitly comic of them all, she's also the most in denial of her unhappiness.
  • Sadist Show: The characters spend most of the play being absolutely vicious to one another, which is ultimately revealed to be a result of their underlying miseries and insecurities... which, in turn, mostly stem from how much their lives suck. This ultimately ties in with the play's central theme: on paper, these characters look like people who have achieved the American Dream, but every signifier of status proves ultimately empty and meaningless, and despite their positions in society, most of the characters' ambitions are unfulfilled.
  • Self-Made Orphan: George, though not intentionally. Thanks to Unreliable Narrator, he is probably lying since his fictional son is killed in the same way.
  • Sexless Marriage: George is averse to kissing Martha, with her having to force one on him. And while The Reveal that they couldn't have children could be due to biological reasons, this along with George's possible homosexuality hints that he just couldn't bring himself to sleep with Martha, or at least not enough to ever conceive.
  • Shadow Archetype: George and Martha put on vivid display the conflicts that Honey and Nick try to keep submerged.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Flores! Flores por los muertos! Flores!" is one to A Streetcar Named Desire.
    • 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. George thinks she's referencing the original non-musical version of Chicago.
    • Plus the obvious reference to Virginia Woolf in the title.
    • The names George and Martha are a reference to George and Martha Washington, the father and mother of the country. This pair of names is used in other places, including a children's book series about a pair of hippos, and the comic strip series Little Lulu, where George and Martha are the names of the parents of the protagonist.
  • Speech-Centric Work: It's a very talky play overall, which makes the moments with less dialogue stand out even more.
  • That Came Out Wrong: Nick and George talking about the campus pastime of "musical beds". Miraculously, given the conversation preceding it and the drunkenness of the participants, it doesn't come across as quite so hilariously offensive.
    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."
    (the final lines)
    George: Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?
    Martha: I am George, I am.
  • Trivial Title: Named after an Orphaned Punchline in the play.
  • Troll: George just can't help but demean everyone else, and he seems to enjoy it quite a bit.
  • Unreliable Expositor/Unreliable Narrator: In-universe. Almost everything George and Martha say to the guests is at best a distortion of the truth, if not an outright lie.
    Nick: Hell, I don't know when you people are lying or what.
    Martha: You're damned right.
    George: You're not supposed to.
    Martha: Right.
    • A little later:
      Martha: Truth and illusion, George. You don't know the difference.
      George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.
      Martha: Amen.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Parodied when Honey asks coyly about using the bathroom;
    George: Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?
  • Wham Line: When Nick and George drink from a bottle of bourbon and hang out by the rope swing and share secrets, George has this to say about Martha regarding the topic of "hysterical pregnancies":
    George: Martha doesn't have hysterical pregnancies. Martha doesn't have pregnancies at all.
  • Word-Salad Horror: George likes to confuse and irritate Nick and Honey with obscure references, odd phrasing, and non-sequiturs that sometimes border on gibberish, e.g.
    George: Well yes, [our son] is a comfort. He's a beanbag.
    Nick: A what?
    George: A beanbag! Beanbag! You wouldn't understand.
  • Word Salad Title: The play (and the film) is not a biography on Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf doesn't appear in the play, except by name, nor is there a character coincidentally named Virginia Woolf. For that matter, the play is not about a support group for people with an irrational fear of the early 20th century feminist and modernist writer. See Pun-Based Title for the actual reason.
  • Worf Had the Flu: The very beginning of the show tricks the audience into thinking George is some kind of Henpecked Husband. Later on, after he's made it clear just how utterly ferocious he can be, he tells Martha that he's managed to drown her out and accept her behavior, but her actions through the night brought out the fight in him, thus explaining the contrast between his attitude at the very beginning with the rest of the play.
  • Younger Than They Look: George is in his forties, but believes he looks more like he's in his fifties. Of course given he says this to Nick, and the amount of times that he tries baiting him into responses he can mock, maybe he doesn't think that. For his part, Nick neither agrees nor disagrees, just distractedly saying George looks fine.

Alternative Title(s): Whos Afraid Of Virginia Woolf