Places: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1962

First produced: 1962

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Absurdist

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Places DiscussedNew Carthage

New Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Carthage. Fictional town named after a city from the ancient world. Carthage was destroyed forever when the Romans added salt to the soil, ensuring that nothing would grow there and that the place would become a wasteland. George and Martha’s marriage is sterile–the only child they produce is an imaginary one–and nothing positive seems to come from their union. The play is a black comedy of vitriolic abuse and tart sleaziness, as it highlights licentious drink and sex, with the two couples descending into sadomasochistic games and behavior.

New Carthage has a symbolic significance in the play. Because it is a place dedicated to higher learning and hence to the progress of civilization, the name of New Carthage is particularly significant. The ancient city called Carthage, founded by the Phoenicians and later destroyed by the Romans, conjoins history and destruction ironically. George is a history professor, but according to Martha, he lacks ambition and so is stuck in a rut. Nick, who has been invited over for drinks with his mousey wife Honey, teaches biology, which implies that he belongs to a class of scientists who would reorder the world even at the price of rendering it mechanized and dehumanized. Therefore, there is an intellectual clash between the man of history and the man of science, along with other lacerating conflicts of a more personal nature. All outward signs of respectability and decorum disintegrate in a searing exposé of corruption.

George and Martha’s home

George and Martha’s home. Private residence on a campus in New Carthage, New England. Martha drunkenly calls the house “a dump” as she and George fumble in the dark after returning at 2 a.m. from a faculty party. However, the setting expresses the anarchic state of her marriage to George, as well as pointing to a larger failure. The set design of the original Broadway production showed a wrought-iron American eagle, an American flag turned upside down, and antique American furniture, along with bookshelves, a stereo set, and a bar. These props and furnishings fortify the symbolism of the names of Martha and George, the names of the first U.S. president and his wife. Albee seems to suggest that the foibles and flaws of the characters are signs of larger flaws in American society.

BibliographyBigsby, C. W. E., ed. Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Five challenging essays on the play give this general survey shape.Bottoms, Stephen J. Albee: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A thorough study of Albee’s best-known play.Cohn, Ruby. Edward Albee. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. An invaluable introduction to the playwright that offers sensitive scholarship and understanding. Includes a bibliography.Kolin, Philip C., ed. Conversations with Edward Albee. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. Valuable interviews containing Albee’s assessments of the creative process, critics, theater, drama, and life.Paolucci, Anne. From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. A thoughtful assessment of Albee’s genius and use of language in relation to European absurdist and existentialist traditions.Roudane, Matthew Charles. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Necessary Fictions, Terrifying Realities. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A book-length historical and critical study of the play. Useful and well written.
Categories: Places