Truth, Illusion and the American Dream in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"

Seminar Paper, 2009

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The American Dream

3. Illusion
3.1 The Imaginary Son
3.2 Nick and Honey’s Marriage

4. Truth
4.1 Killing the Imaginary Son
4.2 Nick and Honey’s Confession

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” has become one of the major works in American dramatic history (Roundane 42) and a huge career boost for Albee himself. This is not surprising as this masterpiece is considered to be revolutionary and ambitious as well as scandalous and highly controversial at the same time.

The play, which has been discussed so passionately, “gives us four almost unrelievably nasty people who for something like three-and-a-half hours […] take part in a drunken orgy of backbiting, bitchery, humiliation, verbal castration, exposure and physical mauling” (Hilfer 121).

Not only wanting to entertain the audience but also including social criticism, Albee makes use of essential themes which help to make people understand their situation and to make them realize the necessity to act in order to modify society.

In the course of this paper, I am going to attempt to illustrate the importance of the American Dream and to establish a connection to the topic of truth and illusion which can be understood as the basis of Albee’s concept.

To start with, I will exemplify different aspects of the American Dream and point out selected features of the characters that can be linked to the American Dream. In order to appreciate most of the professional criticism, it is of the utmost importance to look at the issue of truth and illusion that is predominant in many parts of the play.

Examining the subject matter of illusion, I will concentrate on the imaginary son as well as the relationship between the guests Nick and Honey.

In a last step, I am going to explain the issue of truth in the play by examining the killing of the imaginary son and the confession of Nick and his wife. Examining selected scenes, I will try to clarify the aspects Albee criticizes and explain the requests the author has.

2. The American Dream

For many people the ‘American Dream’ is an ethos that grants everybody the opportunity to achieve “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (Declaration of Independence). The myths of success and virtue seem to be a goal Americans have been striving to achieve for a long time. Dreams can be fulfilled by anybody, no matter the social background, through hard work and determination.

Writing the play during the Cold War in 1962, when the world was close to a nuclear war, Albee responded to the questioning of the patriotic beliefs which was an ongoing problem in the USA. It is therefore not surprising that Albee chose the names George and Martha, after President George Washington and his wife, and Nick, after Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This symbolizes the imperfect state of the USA and shows the people the conflict right in front of their faces.

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf the object of success becomes one major topic. Albee creates a parody and it becomes obvious that he brings in an accusation stating that the American Dream is based on a falsity of values (Eisenmann 116).

Taking a closer look at the characters in the play, it becomes apparent that they either represent a certain aspect of the American Dream or that they are opposed to it.

On the one hand, this can be seen with the male characters like Nick who represents the incarnation of the American Dream (Konkle 49), meaning a person who fulfills the expectations of society and who has many characteristics that Americans perceive as definite ingredients of success.

Having completed his Master’s degree in his teens and being a central part of the Math Department, he is academically very successful. Now, he is a promising teacher as well as a gifted researcher. Furthermore, he used to be an All-American athlete and has remained physically in shape, which makes him attractive to women. Nick married Honey not as a result of love but because of a hysterical pregnancy (Albee 85) and because he was convinced that she was

going to bear a child. However, he is now certain that his wife is unable to give birth and for this reason he doubts his own ability to reproduce.

George appears to be the complete opposite: a rebellious outsider (Eisenmann 216) who looks on cultural, political and social changes very skeptically. He is not career-minded and does therefore not act in accordance with the expectations of society. George mentions

George. I shall probably tell you several more times. Martha tells me often, that I am in the History Department…as opposed to being the History Department… in the sense of running the History Department. I do not run the History Department. (Albee 32)

However, he is a teacher and throughout the play he tries to lecture others, which confirms that his character and his profession match. He tries to appeal to the younger generation, in this case to Nick and Honey, to recommit themselves to the principles of the American ideals, namely to the revolutionary values stated in the Declaration of Independence. By doing this, Albee makes the attempt to examine the success or failure of American revolutionary principles. (Konkle 48) Furthermore, George does not meet the expectations of Martha or her father and consequently has not been promoted. George is clearly opposed to the American Dream since he is against the ideals of advancement and does not want to live in conformity.

Martha’s father, the President of the college, serves as a role model to Martha and is an allegory of the husband she wishes to have. His focus is on materialist success and therefore separates himself from George clearly. This can without a doubt be related to the aspect of success in the American Dream: Martha’s father has performed the conversion from rags to riches[1] and has become the standard that George has to meet.

According to this, a ‘real’ man has to be a good husband and a financially successful individual at the same time.

On the other hand, this ambition can also be observed with the female characters Martha and Honey.

Martha’s behavior is very aggressive as she does most of the talking and seems to be a very self-confident and dominant person. Mostly due to her failed

marriage she has become a frustrated and angry woman, but at the same time a strong personality. She loves to play games for which she creates the rules. By calling her husband a “cluck” (Albee 5) and a failure she states that she plays the leading role in their marriage.

She is full of resentment and hostility which explains that her normal way of communicating is by making insulting remarks.

For her, living the American Dream means being in an intact family with a loving husband and child. This has not become reality and she is therefore living the “American Nightmare”.

Honey is a timid person who at first glance has no greater role than simply that of Nick’s wife. She is on the one hand a humorous person, but on the other hand she is a person expressing frustration and terror (Roundane 40). She is afraid of having children and therefore uses birth control in order to prevent herself from getting pregnant. Honey is not living the American Dream since she is only Nick’s ‘better-half” and is psychologically insecure due to the fear of bearing children. Honey and Nick do not live in an honest relationship, since they lie to each other and to themselves. As a result she acts accordingly and operates in the background.

Another very interesting aspect is the existence or non-existence of children and its effect on the relationship.

In the play one can find very diverse situations: Due to Honey’s enormous fear of giving birth to a child and consequently swallowing pills that eventually cause abortions, she and Nick have not started a family. In the end, this changes and Honey wishes to have a child.[2]

From the point of view of most Americans a good relationship is one important ideal, but having a child and therefore living a joyful family life is even preferable. Martha wants this dream to become true for her but as she and George have not been able to beget a child, both have created the illusion of an imaginary son[3] that solves their predicament for the time being. In this case, the imaginary son can be understood as an allegorical incarnation of the American Dream (Eisenmann 119).


[1] Someone who starts life very poor and makes a fortune goes from rags to riches.

[2] For a detailed analysis of the reasons for Honey’s shift of position refer to chapter 3 “Truth”

[3] For a detailed analysis of the ‚imaginary son’ refer to chapter 2 ‘Illusion’

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Truth, Illusion and the American Dream in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"
University of Kassel
20th Century British and American Drama
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Truth, Illusion, American, Dream, Edward, Albee, Afraid, Virginia, Woolf
Quote paper
Jannis Rudzki-Weise (Author), 2009, Truth, Illusion and the American Dream in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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