Summary and Analysis
Act 1: Fun and Games: Scene i
Since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a very long play with each act being rather lengthy, for the sake of critical discussion and explication, each act will be divided into scenes even though this was not done in the original play. The scenic division will follow the classic method of scene division; that is, there is a new scene with either the entrance or exit of a character from the stage. Thus, scene i comprises the entrance of George and Martha and ends with the entrance of Honey and Nick. While the language of the play might be acceptable today, in 1962 the opening language was startling, if not shocking, to the audience. The play opens with George and Martha returning home from a party at her father's house. There is a loud crash followed by Martha variously swearing, cursing, shouting ("braying" as George calls it) and insulting her husband, George. (She calls him a "cluck" and a "dumbbell" and insults him continually in other ways.) As she looks about her home, she is reminded of a line from a Bette Davis film, and the line, "What a dump," delivered in imitation of Bette Davis, has since become one of the most famous lines from the play. The movie character that Martha is quoting is "discontent," and the scene shows that Martha is also discontent with her house, with her husband who never does anything ("You never do anything; you never mix . . . " ), and most importantly with her own life.
Her discontentment is important because this will be one of the reasons that the couple has created the imaginary child.
Since it is 2 a.m. and neither of them is sober, George assumes that since they are home, one small nightcap would be alright, but suddenly Martha springs the news on him that company is coming. Martha's main justification for having invited guests over is that her "daddy," who is the President of the college where George teaches, told her to be "nice" to this new couple. Martha's repetition three times about her father's instructions suggests already that her "daddy" has an influence on George and Martha's lives that will figure significantly in later scenes.
After Martha informs him who the couple is, George tells Martha that he wishes "you'd stop springing things on me all the time . . . you're always springing things on me." Beginning with this statement, we see that part of the play will deal with the concept of who is running or managing their lifestyle. During the first part of the drama, Martha seems to be in almost complete control of their lives, but a change will later occur and it will be George who will spring things on Martha.
Martha reminds George of the nursery rhyme that apparently was sung at the party at her father's house. Someone had substituted the name of the famous British novelist Virginia Woolf for the Big Bad Wolf. The mention of this nursery rhyme with its intellectual variation characterizes much of the first act with its fun and games, with the shifting from intellectual conversation to baby talk and to talk of babies (see note on the title in the preceding section).
The rest of the scene shows the extreme variance in the relationship between the two. When George fails to respond to the song, Martha will first tell him "You make me puke" and then will follow this insult by their both laughing, and her requesting more ice in her drink and wanting a "great big sloppy kiss" from George. Thus, their relationship moves from one of grand insults to one of open sexuality. We are now prepared to see both react on a variety of levels. Martha's age is also emphasized in this scene since she is six years older than George. This implies that she is, as she later says, the earth mother capable of controlling both George and men much younger than she is.
When the doorbell rings, she orders George to answer it. She forces George into the role of "houseboy" as she will later force Nick to answer the bell after he has been a failure in bed. But before George answers the doorbell, he warns Martha three times not to start in "on the bit about the kid." This ominous note creates an anticipation about the nature of "the kid" which will be resolved only in the last part of the play, and lets us know that the subject of "the kid" is one with which George and Martha are quite familiar and that it is also quite private between them.
As George is about to open the door, he says things that arouse Martha's anger to the point that she screams "SCREW YOU!" just as the door is opened so that it appears that she screams this invective at the newly arrived guests, Nick and Honey. This comment becomes the central metaphor for the rest of the drama. It becomes obvious that Martha invited Nick and Honey because she is physically attracted to Nick and constant allusions will be made about Nick's body which he keeps in good shape. The fact that she yells the comment to Nick conforms with her later attempts to seduce the young man.
Other than the term having sexual meaning, "screw" also carries a connotation of getting to someone or getting even with someone or confusing someone. Each of these meanings also applies to the play. After George has later been humiliated by Martha, he then initiates the game "Getting the Guests" in which he gets even with the guests and also gets them thoroughly confused before Nick understands the final truth about "the kid." Another meaning of screw is to tighten, to twist, to apply pressure or to coerce. George constantly applies pressure to Honey and twists her tipsy memory around to make her corroborate his story about the telegram. Then, of course, the term "to screw up" means to make a mess of things. Martha certainly did this when she revealed the "bit about the kid." In fact, by normal standards, George and Martha's lives have been all screwed up for years. Also, to be "screwed out of" means that one has been taken advantage of or cheated in some way. At one point or another in the play each character is taken advantage of by some other character. And, finally, a screw or a screwball refers to a very eccentric person. George and Martha's behavior or life style and their imaginary child could certainly be classified as eccentric or unusual behavior. Consequently, the two words hurled at George but hitting Nick and Honey become central to the rest of the drama.