Sexuality in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"

Seminar Paper, 2009

12 Pages, Grade: 2



1. Introduction

2. The Language Style

3. The sexual context of the Setting

4. Analysis
4.1. Acts
4.2. The characters’ attitude towards Sexuality
4.3. Selected Scenes with sexual connotations

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

''I don't want to kiss you, Martha.''

George in Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf

This turns out to be quite a significant statement by George in Edward Albee’s drama Who´s Afraid of Virginia Woolf , giving an idea of the unemotional and passionless relationship between him and his wife Martha. By investigating the play, many scenes and indication to hidden sexuality can be encountered. In addition to that the lack of communication within the two couples, originating from two different generations, result in a complete incapability of managing their relationships.

Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf was published in 1962 and turned out to be one of Edward Albee’s most popular works and even one of the key works in American dramatic History, winning several awards (cf. Roudané: 42). Even though the play was recommended for the Pulitzer price, the publicity resigned and the price was denied since some Pulitzer trustees had objected simply because of the play's frank sexual references (Popkin:11). Nevertheless the outcome was that many performances were staged, as lately seen at the Schauspielhaus in Graz, as well as the famous and very lucrative film was produced by Mike Nichols starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the star roles.

This paper examines how Edward Albee, by highlighting themes of sexuality, reveals general frustrations in life. Frustrated, unsatisfied marriage is a central theme in Albee’s Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf and will be investigated by means of dissecting scenes and certain passage of importance.

2. The Language Style

One of the linguistic key devices in Albee’s play is irony and sarcasm. Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf is popular for its very cynical type of writing and for its usage of a lot, if not too much of black humour.

Harsh aggressive language with sexual connotations, e.g.: ''hump'', ''angel- tits'', ''you should try me..'' is constantly used by the characters involved in order to shock and irritate the reader and the audience. This kind of language use can be especially noticed in Martha's relation with George. The dialogue between the two can even be described as most extravagantly absurd (Dozier: 432). This way of brutalizing each other belongs to ''the game'' they are playing. George and Martha know that they are at times entertaining, acting and even using their guests for their own theatrical purpose (Roudané: 49). Without any doubt also the hour and the amount of liquor consumed needs to be considered when we investigate the dialogue (Dozier:433).

3. The sexual context of the Setting

The Drama Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf was written in the post-war era in 1962, in a time of unrest caused by the Vietnam Protest Movement, Afro-American Protest Writing as well as consumerism. Generally speaking one could define this time as fertile for rebellion against the present way of thinking. In his work Albee heavily criticizes the idealized American way of life and declares the pretended happy family with successful fathers, perfect housewives and their children as an illusion. The anger of the play reflects Albee’s rebellion against a culture whose identity greatly transformed during his youth; he was disenchanted with the rapidly shifting of the industrial, social and historical climate of America (Roudané: 42).

Albee’s aim was to shake up the rich and elite society, and therefore he carefully chose the setting of the drama in a social protest background, namely the campus of a small New England college. Martha, George, Nick and Honey starring the college community provide a realistic backdrop (Dozier:433). As New England was one of the first British colonies in the United States, this setting is strongly associated with the Puritans who immigrated in the 17th century. These religious groups were advocating for more “purity” of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety (Wikipedia: 2009). Their lifestyle was strict, opposing all kinds of pleasures especially alcohol and sex. Harsh rules constituted their anti- sex philosophy and marriage was the pre-condition for free sexuality. Both aspects, alcohol and sexuality, are strongly exhausted in Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf. According to Edward Albee, America is not that prudish as the US always pretends.

4. Analysis

4.1. Acts

Albee divides his drama Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf into three acts: ''Fun and Games'', ''Walpurgisnacht'' and ''The Exorcism''. Sexual allusions can be found throughout all the three acts, but especially interesting in relation to sexuality is ''Walpurgisnacht' ', literally "Witches' Night,".''Walpurgisnacht'' is a legendary rite taking place when witches gather for the purposes of evil and sexual wantonness. By naming Act Two after this rite Albee wanted to suggest the wickedness engaged in by the characters. Act two is the act where sexuality reaches its high point, when Nick yields Martha's seduction. After these two acts all the ground rules have been abandoned and the lines are drawn: Martha will commit adultery and George will commit ''murder'' (Dozier: 436). In ''The Exorcism'' the mood and tone of the brutal game sustained through the first two acts is abandoned in favor for a sentimental reconciliation (Dozier:432).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Sexuality in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"
University of Graz  (Anglistik)
Literary Studies II
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
523 KB
Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee, sexuality
Quote paper
Mag. Katharina Kirchmayer (Author), 2009, Sexuality in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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