A Postmodern Supersession of Modernistic Typology in
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Albee’s 1962 play,
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
, is a catalyst of the transition of modernism into postmodernism that utilizes the absurdist paradigm in order to break therules of modernism and found a new era. The typology of Freud that became prevalent inthe 1910’s contributed considerably to modernism’s infrastructure. This play is partly aconfrontation of one of Freud’s theories—the psychoanalytical model of the Oedipuscomplex—in which Albee triumphantly garbles any meaningfulness of the theory.This play reads differently the second time through because it contains a secretrevealed only at the end. As in any mystery, the author presents a number of clues thatostensibly point toward one end, but then he reveals the reader’s conclusion to be completely wrong when the mystery is solved and the truth becomes clear. The purpose is to misleadthe reader,
or rather, lead the reader down a tangential path in order to accentuate thesignificance of backtracking when the author reveals the truth.The mystery of this play is the identity of the son. The vague terms that George andMartha use even though they are alone—“the bit about the kid”—piques the reader’scuriosity (18). Other clues follow: Martha remarks, “He’s mine as much as he is yours,”implying he is a prodigal, estranged son—a sore subject, perhaps because Martha habitually brings him up to blame his shortcomings on George, and vice-versa (19). When Nick asksGeorge if he has children, George evasively riddles back, “That’s for me to know and you tofind out,” inviting a game of inquiry to discover the truth (39). The ambiguities force thereader to make conclusions based on a few pieces of evidence: the son’s identity is unknownbut ostensibly real; George and Nick despise each other; Nick and Martha love each other;and murder takes front-stage. The Oedipal model seems inevitable: the son is Nick.
Martha first reveals the son to Honey off-stage, as a real person who is shortly toturn twenty-one. As the guests inquire further, the son materializes with grievous problemsand Martha states that George fears he’s been cuckolded (71). Contrarily, George af f irms heis definitely the father, “of our… blond-eyed, blue-haired… son”; if we perform theintuitive correction, this seems to fit Nick (72). The first act closes without identifying theson, and the reader is left to jump to wildly speculative conclusions about his identity.The tension between George and the guests is blatant even before they arrive, but asthe night develops, George and Nick quickly become outright hostile to each other. George’sdeprecation of eugenics shows his fear of Nick—the representative of history-obsoleting biological improvements and forced emasculation through sterilization. The murderous,supplanting intentions between George and Nick are unmistakeable.The attraction between Nick and Martha starts early, when Martha changes into anicer dress to impress Nick (47). Martha turns the talk to Nick’s physique, and their tactlessrepartee shows the attraction is mutual. Their relationship becomes bawdy when Martha tellsNick, the biologist, that he’s “right at the meat of things,” and outright explicit when Nick expands on George’s previous notion that “Musical beds is the faculty sport around here,”resolving that he ought to “plow a few pertinent wives,” including Martha, in order to takeover the history department (34, 63, 112).George and Martha are both fantastic game-players, but George ends up the onedirecting. Martha, George says, moved “bag and baggage into your own fantasy world now,and you’ve started playing variations on your own distortions” (155). George calls the shotsChristopher Brown – 20c Lit, 11Paper 3, 11/24
Although the work in question is a play, and meant to be viewed, the audience will be referred to as the“reader” because my experience of the work is as a written, not playacted, work of literature.
At least two classmates—and first-time readers of the play—arrived at this speculation. My own firstencounter with the play happened too long ago for me to remember my guess at the identity of the son.