Author: Edward Albee
First published: 1962
Locale: New Carthage, a small New England college town
Time: Mid-twentieth century
Martha, a middle-aged faculty wife and daughter of the president of a small New England college. Martha is loud, aggressive, and vulgar, secure that her father's position at the college will insulate her from censure. She has a volatile relationship with her husband, George. A crass joke may turn into a vicious insult, followed by a moment of happy intimacy, all smoothed over by constant consumption of liquor. Martha is particularly cruel about George's lack of academic success. She had envisioned him taking over the history department and eventually the college, but because he is only an associate professor at the age of forty-six, she considers him a failure. Martha and George's marriage revolves around a series of games, none more central than the myth that they have a teenage son, a fiction Martha in some strange way has convinced herself to believe despite the fact that they cannot have children. When Martha's continuous attacks on George's professional status and masculinity prove too much for him to bear, he retaliates by revealing before their guests Nick and Honey that his and Martha's son is “dead,” effectively shattering Martha's carefully maintained fantasy world and forcing both him and Martha to face the future without the comfort of fantasy and game-playing.
George, Martha's husband, an associate professor in the history department. George is more subdued than Martha, but he participates in Martha's games, becoming especially uninhibited when drinking. George is intelligent and quick-witted, with a gift for wordplay, which he uses against both Martha and Nick. At first, George seems to have an advantage over Nick by virtue of his position at the college, but he soon finds himself threatened by Nick's youth, attractiveness, and professional ambition. As he drinks, he reveals a streak of cruelty by humiliating Honey with the story of her false pregnancy, which Nick had confided to him earlier. Although at first he seems somewhat reticent, even browbeaten by Martha, when the conversation turns to his and Martha's supposed son, he accuses Martha of making incestuous advances toward the boy. He then destroys his wife's illusions in the cruelest way possible, traumatizing Martha and mortifying Nick and Honey at the same time.
Nick, a new faculty member in the biology department. Nick is young, handsome, and ambitious. He is initially willing to play along with Martha and George's strange games because he wants to ingratiate himself with the older faculty member and particularly with the president's daughter. His eagerness to please even extends to going to bed with Martha, practically right in front of George. Nick's inability to satisfy Martha's sexual demands, coupled with his insecure status at the college, leads Martha to humiliate Nick. He acquiesces until George shatters Martha's power by revealing the truth about their imaginary son.
Honey, Nick's young wife. Honey is very timid, especially in contrast to George and Martha. She has neurotic and psychophysiological problems. Nick married her because he thought she was pregnant, but it turned out to be a false pregnancy. Now Honey becomes ill frequently, particularly when drinking or under stress. Honey is cautious and relatively reserved, careful not to mix her drinks and reluctant to become involved with George and Martha's games, yet fearful of offending them. Under the influence of liquor, Honey loses many of her inhibitions. Her actions are mostly childlike, in contrast to the viciousness of the others. Honey is humiliated when George reveals that Nick has confided the story of Honey's hysterical pregnancy to him.