Critical Essay The Significance or Implications of the Titles of the Acts


Most dramatists do not give titles to the individual acts within a drama. When we encounter a drama in which each act has an individual title, we must consider whether or not the dramatist is making a further statement about the nature of his drama. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the titles of each of the three acts seem to reinforce the content of each act and also to call attention to some of the central motifs in the play itself.

Act I of any drama introduces the characters, themes, subjects, and ideas that will be prominent both in the first act and throughout the drama. The title of Act I, "Fun and Games," suggests part of the theme of the entire drama — George and Martha's complex game of avoiding reality and creating illusions. Therefore, the title of the first act introduces the use of games as a controlling idea for not only the first act, but also for the entire drama with the last game, "Killing the Kid," being the game that also ends the drama.

Even though it is not the first use of a game, the first mention of the word "game" comes from Nick. In fact, perhaps Nick's most astute perception of the entire night occurs immediately after his and Honey's arrival. After being "joshed" about the oil painting, and after being trapped in a semantic exchange about why Nick entered the teaching profession, George asks Nick if he likes the verb declension "Good, better, best, bested." Nick perceptively responds: " . . . what do you want me to say? Do you want me to say it's funny, so you can contradict me and say it's sad? Or do you want me to say it's sad so you can turn around and say no, it's funny. You can play that damn little game any way you want to, you know!" The use of the word "game" calls our attention to the concept of games in the play. In the game of "Good, better, best, bested", Nick realizes that the game is one in which one person manipulates another person. However, teasing, criticizing, ridiculing and humiliating another person is a one-sided game, and after a point, there is a revolt. Nick revolted early against George's teasing and toying with him. George will also later revolt against his own humiliation at the hands of Martha. In a later scene, Nick, in a moment of confusion, tells George and Martha that he can't tell any more when they are playing games and when they are serious. Because of this, it is a long while before Nick "sees through the game" and realizes that George and Martha's child is imaginary. Thus in one way or another, most of the behavior of the evening can be classified as a game whether names and rules for the games are established or not.

Implicit also in the term "game" is the idea that a game must have a set of rules. When the rules are violated, then the game takes on other characteristics. George and Martha's life together has been one in which they have consistently played games, but the rules have often been changed. Martha's great reliance on George is that he "keeps learning the games we play as quickly as I can change the rules." Until this night, their game about their kid has been one in which there was only one rule — that is, that the entire game must remain completely private between them. Between themselves, they have often changed the rules (Was it an easy delivery or a difficult delivery? Were his eyes blue, grey, or green with brown specks?), but the rule of privacy has never been violated until now. Martha's violation of this rule, then, affects the remainder of the drama.

In addition to the above mentioned types of games, the following types of games illustrate how completely Albee has used the concept of "game-playing" as a controlling metaphor of his play.

The play opens with a guessing game in which Martha tries to get George to identify a line from a movie they have seen. Variations of guessing games or identification games are found in every echelon of American society from television to academic surroundings.

The early announcement of a party implies fun and games since a party is a type of game, especially since Martha screams with childish delight "party, party" with the doorbell chimes.

The use of the nursery rhyme or game of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" is first mentioned by George and Martha, mentioned again by Martha to Nick and Honey and then is used to close the act as a raucous duet by George and Honey amid crashing violence. The game is emphasized as a central motif throughout the first act and, of course, the drama itself closes with George softly crooning "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to Martha.

It is a type of game when George, who has been forced to play the role of houseboy, has so manipulated Martha that as he opens the door, she screams "Screw You" toward Nick and Honey. The many attempts to "screw" one another in one way or another become a type of a game.

Fun and games are again the subject of conversation when each recalls the party at Martha's father's house where Nick and Honey "certainly had fun."

The incessant interplay or demonstration of wit, whether between Nick and George or between George and Martha pervades the entire act. The game of guessing who painted Martha's picture, or the game of "good, better, best, bested" are word games that are basic to the human personality. In the declension game, as with other games, the game itself implies other things since George himself has been somewhat "bested" by life and certainly by Martha. The various uses of wit throughout the act and especially the unintentionally comic comments by Honey continue throughout the act.

Throughout the act, from George's first warning Martha not to "start on the bit about the kid," George and Martha's most intimate and private game — that of their imaginary son — is significantly hinted at and becomes the central idea of the play. For example, when Nick asks George if they have any children, George answers as would a child in fun and games: "That's for me to know and you to find out."

The faculty sport "Musical Beds" is a satiric take-off on the old parlor game "Musical Chairs" and, as the name implies, becomes an adult game by way of the sexual allusions.

There are also frequent references to various types of sporting games or sporting events such as handball or football, but more importantly, there is Martha's narration of the boxing contest between her and George and much of the entire act can be viewed as a verbal sparring match between George and Martha with Martha being the victor by the end of the first act.

George's trick with the toy pop gun which shoots out a Chinese parasol is a fun type of party game. It fits in with George's earlier comment when he finds out that Martha has invited someone over, in that Martha is always "springing things on me." The surprise of the pop gun, then, is George's "springing something" on Martha.

Act I also introduces the various imaginative, alliteratively named games that will be played — "Humiliate the Host," "Hump the Hostess," "Bringing up Baby," "Get the Guest," "The Bouncey Boy," and "Kill the Kid." Later on, other games such as "Snap the Dragon" and "Peel the Label" will also be played.

Early in the act when Nick threatens to leave because he fears that he has intruded upon a private family argument, George tells him it's all a game — that we are "merely . . . exercising . . . we're merely walking what's left of our wits."

When Martha changes her clothes, it is so that she can make a deliberate play for Nick. As George points out, Martha hasn't changed for him for years, so her actions must have significance in that she "plays" on Nick's ambitions.

The entire first act and the entire drama "plays" before an audience as though it was one gigantic game in which no one really knows the rules.

The titles of the second and third acts make a rather direct comment on the action of each act. The title of Act II, "Walpurgisnacht," refers to the night of April 30 which is the time of the annual gathering of the witches and other spirits at the top of Brocken in the Harz Mountains located in Southern Central Germany. It is sometimes referred to as the Witches' Sabbath. During this night, witches and other demons dance, sing, drink, and become involved in all sorts of orgies. This is a night where any type of behavior can be found among the participants, and in literature, or in general language, the term "Walpurgis Night" has come to refer to any situation which possesses a nightmarish quality or which becomes wild and orgiastic. Thus, in Act II, as Honey proceeds to get extremely drunk, the others, especially Martha and Nick, dance in an obvious sensual, semi-orgiastic manner. The scene ends in a bizarre manner — a fifty-two-year-old woman takes a twenty-eight-year-old man upstairs for a seduction while her husband quietly reads a book with full knowledge of what is happening upstairs.

In Act III, "The Exorcism," we see the meaning of the term "exorcism" being applied to Martha. During the course of the act George eerily recites the Kyrie Elieson and uses incantations, adjurations, and other necessary devices in order to free Martha of the illusion that their "child" exists and to bring her back to a world free of fantasy.

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