Summary and Analysis
Act 1: Fun and Games:
With the departure of Martha and Honey, we begin scene iii with George and Nick who talk of George's "dashed hopes," the "musical beds" among the faculty, of their relative ages and ambitions, and of the differences between history and biology.
The conflict in this scene is between two approaches to life, epitomized by the major difference between history and biology. George accuses Nick of trying to rearrange mankind's "chromozones" (which he mistakes for chromosomes, thus showing his little knowledge about biology) and therefore to adjust the future of mankind, while Nick constantly fails to understand George's classical allusions (he does not know that "Parnassus" is the mountain where the great Greek poets and philosophers were supposed to live after death) and thus reveals that he (Nick) is not concerned with human history, and prefers the scientific approach to a humanistic approach. Early in the scene George sets up intellectual traps for Nick who falls into them; but when George calls for a response to his declension "Good, better, best, bested," Nick refuses to participate any longer in George's game. Since the title of the act is "Fun and Games" we are thus exposed to one of the themes basic to the play. Ultimately, as we will see when we learn about the imaginary child, George and Martha's entire marriage has been a type of "fun and games," deception and illusion. Their bantering and hurling of insults throughout this first act is also a type of game. If one were to read Eric Berne's Games People Play (1964), one would discover that games can become various types of substitutes for real emotions. The titles of other games played later in the drama include "Humiliate the Host," "Hump the Hostess," "Get the Guest," "Bringing Up Baby," "Peel the Label," "Houseboy," and "Kill the Kid." Each game will be seen to function on its own level. And as with all games, there are certain rules that must be observed. When Martha violates the rules of their game, George must, at the end of the drama, bring the game to an end and in such a way that the guests will never reveal the existence of the game to anyone.
When Nick refuses to play the game and threatens to leave immediately, George refuses to let him go because, by this time, George is aware that maybe Nick does have some ability to play in the various games — that suddenly Nick exhibits some liveliness that wasn't apparent before. Thus by persuading Nick to stay, the games will continue for a while longer. George emphasizes that it is only a game by assuring Nick that Martha and he are not having an argument — instead, they are merely ". . . exercising . . . we're merely walking what's left of our wits." In actual life, this is another key to George and Martha's personal relationship: they enjoy witty repartee and a love/hate relationship that is expressed through their verbal violence. Ultimately it is amazing how much hostility and hatred they can throw at each other only to turn immediately to each other for emotional support.
This scene closes with the allusion to another game — or the same one. When Nick asks George if he has any children, George answers with a juvenile reply: "That's for me to know and you to find out" — a type of retort that is common among young children. The emphasis on childbearing is carried further when George inquires, in turn, about Nick's plans for a family, preparing us later for the revelation about Honey's alleged pregnancy.
When Nick implies that he might want to settle in this college town, George calls the place "Illyria . . . Penguin Island . . . Gomorrah. . . . You think you're going to be happy here in New Carthage, eh?" These allusions have varying significance. Illyria was the idealized seacoast in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night; Penguin Island is both an illusionary and realistic satire on civilization; Gomorrah was the most sinful city in the Old Testament and was completely destroyed by God because of the lustfulness of its people; and Carthage was the scene of the greatest of the "unholy love affairs" of ancient times — that of Dido and Aeneas. Thus each is, in some way, a reflection of various aspects of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?