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, with George Segal and Sandy Dennis co-starring.
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 very early morning. The older couple verbally spars in front of their guests, and then gradually turns their abuse — and lust — onto them.
The play won several important dramatic awards, including the Tony Award for Best Play (its cast and crew also won several other major Tonys, including Best Direction, Best Production, Best Actor, and Best Actress). It was also selected for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama by that years drama jury, but the jury was overruled by the advisory board, who objected to its profanity and sexual content; correspondingly, no prize for drama was awarded that year.
The film was nominated for every single Academy Award it was eligible for, winning five, including Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for Taylor and Dennis respectively; it is generally considered Taylors best performance. (Dennis had also won a Tony Award in 1963, the same year the play won its Tonys, but hers was for A Thousand Clowns.) It was also a major step in the unravelling of The Hays Code, as it featured dialogue that was profane and extremely sexually explicit by contemporary standards and was released with almost no changes. 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.
- 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 was gay.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?Martha: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Its implied that Martha and Nick attempt to sleep together, but its also implied that he couldnt perform because he was too intoxicated.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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 is secretly using birth control pills 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.
- 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.
- Incurable Cough of Death: An Averted Trope. Characters in the film adaptation frequently cough, but it doesn't portend anything.
- Infant Immortality: Double subverted. Played with in that Martha is affected by the Broken Masquerade as much as if it would've actually happened.
- Insistent Terminology: Nick, are you a houseboy or a stud?
- Ironic Echo: "I am, George. I am."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 So Different.
- Meaningful Name: George and Martha are named after the first US president and his wife - and the circumstances of that marriage are similar.
- 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. Its 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.
- Never Live It Down: In-Universe, 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.
- 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).
- Non-Indicative Name: 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 below.
- Not So Different: At first the two couples seem very dissimilar, but as the evening wears on we see the same traits emerging from both.
- 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.
- Parlor GamesGeorge: 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?
- 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?" Albee put "Virginia Woolf" in the title in place of "Big Bad Wolf" because he was afraid of 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: Its 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?
- 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.
- Shadow Archetype: George and Martha put on vivid display the conflicts that Honey and Nick try to keep submerged.
- Shout-Out: 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 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A little later:
- Unusual Euphemism: Parodied when Honey asks coyly about using the bathroom;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.