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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – the play

We were at the Manchester Royal Exchange yesterday to watch George and Martha strip each other of the individual and collective illusions embedded in the long night of their twenty-three-year-old marriage.

Barbara Marten as MarthaWe knew it was a good play, but this production also has a great cast. Barbara Marten is wonderful as Martha, swinging wildly, like a prize-fighter, at her targets. Philip Bretherton’s browbeaten George is no less violent, though often appears to bring a kind of reason into the fray. They are supported by Michael Begley as Nick, the bewildered biologist and Joanne Froggatt, an actress who brings an unexpected sense of comic timing to the role of Honey.

In the final act of the play, George asks: “Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference?”

He then proceeds to ‘kill off’ the imaginary son they have constructed to support their relationship and their individual lives.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a play from the Theatre of the Absurd and is packed with metaphor and literary allusion. Ultimately, it is a play about the death of God. The constructed ‘son’ of George and Martha’s marriage being analogous with the Son of God. This sacrificial figure, once disposed of, gives rise to one of the the central questions of the modern condition: Can we live without illusion?

If you’re anywhere near Manchester during the next couple of days, the last of the run of this wonderful production, do go see it. There are some seats left.

7 Responses to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – the play”

  1. anne says:

    Isn’t Bretherton the guy who played Alistair in As Time Goes By, all those years?? He’d be a wonderful George. I wish I were anywhere near Manchester!

    jb says: Yes, the same actor.

  2. anne says:

    How come the Brits are so consistently and unerringly wonderful actors? Huh? I’m SO jealous of your seeing that production. Alistair as George would be just plain brilliant.

    Also, is there any way to find out about these kinds of performances 4-6 months in advance? I travel to the UK and would time it for events like this, if I knew about them.

    Thanks, John, as always.

    jb says
    : Hi Anne. You know places like the National Theatre, RSC, and most provincial theatres have email newsletters you can subscribe to, and you often get priority booking if you do that. Might bump into you one of these days.

  3. chrystal says:

    I don’t think this play/book had anything to do with Jesus, at least not as described.

    My views, after having seen the play tonight in San Diego.

    There are two central themes.

    Commentary on the Eurocentric tradition of lies, illusion, suppression of true emotion, and resort to other ways to express them, and about the creative process of giving birth through art. Both an imitation of the Creator, and man’s attempt at immortality and inborn desire to leave something of himself behind.

    George is a writer. The entire meeting with the younger couple is a game, part fact and part fiction, which always makes for the most convincing lies. Most writer’s use real life combined with embelishment and fantasy. Developing and expanding on something they know.

    George and Martha, are the all American Couple “first couple,” who like many, have failed to realize their dreams and been deeply hurt and disappointed in life. They actually love each other deeply, as expressed on a couple of occasions, however their greatest heartbreak is their inability to produce a child. Having failed to accomplish this, George lacks ambition for any other pursuits, such as the competitive rat race of University professorship and its pressure to advance, which is literally offered to him on a platter, since his father in law is president of the university, or to “publish or perish.” George was denied ability to publish his first novel by Martha’s father.

    Having failed at the greatest pursuit of all, God’s first command and the compelling purpose of all living creatures, to reproduce, George sees all other pursuits as vain and ultimately dangerous, hence his contempt for biology and genetic engineering and the destruction of art and diversity for the sake of science leading to an artless, homogenous, raceless, society.

    George and Martha express the deep hurt of barrenness through bitterness toward each other and making up a fantasy child. Martha said “we cannot have a child”, both an individual and corporate failure. Although each secretly blames the other for the failure, to reproduce, but in the 1960’s, they lack the modern convenience of fertility testing. In actuality they both feel like failures. George a failure in academia, Martha a failure at motherhood. They are also very much alike and similar in response to their failures. Martha rejects attempting to be a good wife. The only hope for both of them at redeeming what they perceive to be wasted lives is George’s one remaining love, which is art, and hence this game to generate a novel.

    They invite the young couple over as a way of getting material for George’s next novel. George and Martha use caustic hostility to mask deep love and heartbreak, while the younger couple pretends to be in love while secretly it is merely a marriage of convenience and disappointment for both. Nick sees himself as a genetic masterpiece destined for world domination, who through subterfuge or circumstance finds himself stuck in a marriae to this weak, sickly women he does not love and who has failed to give him offspring. Honey, having tricked Nick into marrying her, also seems not genuinely happy with her accomplishment, hence her frequent histerical illnesses and vomiting.

    The older couple uses ugliness, games, and insults to draw out the ugliness of the other couple, stripping them of illusion to get to the truth. They express deep tenderness toward each other on occasion, Martha admitting that George is the only man who ever made her happy but that she does not want to be happy. She is punishing herself for her failure and George for loving her in spite of failure.

    This game gets Nick to admit, without saying it, that he does not love his wife, but married her because he thought she was pregnant and for the money, and geta Honey to admit without saying it, that she, after having played pregnant and got the prize, prefers (regularly) to escape to a cold tile floor curled up in the fetal position, a place of warmth, comfort, and blissful solitude, than being in the company of her husband without benefit of illusion, she always becomes ill when truth is revealed.

    Both couples are flawed. Neither able to cope in a healthy way with the tragic human realities or stark human emotion. Nick and Honey, like many people, only tell the truth when they are angry, uncomfortable, or threatened. Illusion dissolves in the face of true emotion. Illusion requires conscious suppression, which cannot be maintained under stressful conditions.

    Through banter, alcohol, and psychological manipulation, the older and moderately more honest but disfunctional couple gets the younger and completely fake couple to reveal dark truths of their phony marriage and selfish ambition. Perhaps the older couple is a more but not fully developed version of the younger couple. Honey, of course, cannot handle any of this and resorts to vomiting, drunkenness, and childlike regression to avoid dealing with anything real. Nick, who thinks himself stronger, responds with anger, violence, attempted adultery, and visciousness, but shows weakness in the form of impotence and his willingness to humiliate himself acting as “house boy” for the sake of advancement.

    The final game of “get the guest” reveals the true purpose of the evening. The young couple was invited over and manipulated for the purpose of developing material for Georges next novel. This is a game the two have played before. This is revealed in lines like “Did you have to kill him”, and the “I ate the telegram” Yes, it is better”, It is a stream of consciousness, like Virginia Woolf, but more importantly, it is part of plot development for the book. This is the game they play. They cannot create life, but maybe they can create art and they will go to extremes to do so.

    Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf. May be marginally about the writer Virginia Woolf and about the central character of the book, Martha a female monster. But in reality the fairy tail monster or Wolf that everyone is afraid of in this play is the truth. They are all afraid of truth and vulnerability. The truth is a double edged sword, but the truth will set you free.

    jb says: Hi Chrystal.
    A different reading to mine, but obviously a different production as well. I can’t agree with your contention that Illusion requires conscious suppression, on the contrary I believe, along with Albee, that illusion is something we do very well without any conscious effort being involved.
    I also found the play deeply moving. Was your production the same?
    “And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who’s afraid of living life without false illusions.” Edward Albee

  4. Cristian says:

    I saw this marvelous play and it is truly making you wonder if what we see around us is truth or illusion. Just ask yourself: “What happend before God existed?”… “What does nothing really mean?”… “Where is God now?”…

  5. merima says:

    I am performing her monologue when she talks about lost cases and how dzordz only made her happy..Can you tell me more about martha’s character,HOW TO ACT IT?

  6. Sait says:

    Sounds like a good play. Hope it comes in some version to my town too.

  7. Archana says:

    this play displays the reflection of Amercian Society. George and Martha is a symbolic representative in this play,which have truely been related to the Amaerican Dream.