Summary and Analysis
Act II: Walpurgisnacht:
This scene begins with the entrance of Martha and Honey, continues with the narration by Martha of George's attempts to publish a novel, and then shifts to George's narration which is a description of Honey and Nick's courtship and marriage, presented as though it were the subject of George's new novel. The scene ends when Honey runs off stage to throw up again.
The scene is one of the longest in the drama and is organized around two significant games. The first game is "Humiliate the Host," and the second is "Get the Guests." A third game, "Hump the Hostess," is mentioned but is postponed until a later time. The first game begins with a long discussion in which Martha attacks George and accuses him of causing Honey to throw up. Honey assures them that she has always had a tendency to throw up. Martha again violates her and George's private rules of the game by mentioning their "son." She maintains that "George makes everybody sick . . ." Then she carelessly mentions how George used to make their son sick. At first, George is again shocked that their son is so openly discussed, but then he plunges into the discussion, using their son as the subject of his wit as he begins to make up stories of how their son was terribly upset because Martha would come in to him with her "kimono flying" and would attempt to corner him with an implied intent to commit incest. Martha retaliates by screaming that she "NEVER CORNERED THE SON OF A BITCH IN MY LIFE!" Clearly, she could not have as he did not exist, but ironically, as she is portrayed, the imaginary child is the son of a verbal bitch.
The first game, "Humiliate the Host," certainly is precipitated by Honey's request for more brandy, followed by George's comment that he used to drink brandy. This comment prompts Martha to remind him that he also used to drink "bergin." The mention of "bergin" then prompts Martha to begin her story of George's unpublished novel.
From George's pleading attempts to get Martha to refrain from telling the story, we can conclude that she has told the story to other people before, especially since Martha twice repeats that George usually tells his side of the story also. At this point George decides that he has to find "some new way to fight" against Martha's destructive impulses.
After Honey suggests dancing, the two couples pair off in a sort of symbolic parody of "partner swapping," and while Martha and Nick are dancing, with all sorts of suggestive body movements, Martha completes her humiliation of her husband by revealing the most personal and intimate details of her husband's failure in life, that is, she ridicules his professional ineptitude and his cowardice in the manner in which he yielded to her father's demands that he not publish his book. Her father's ordering George not to publish is the worse type of intellectual censorship and for George to yield to this is extreme intellectual cowardice. George has, however, learned to live with it until this night when Martha violates another of the basic rules of their game — she reveals publicly not only one of their personal failures, but also reveals illusions that they have used to avoid facing their failures.
The humiliation for George is so intense because in his previous conversations with Nick, he has presented himself (or has posed as) a champion of truth and intellectual freedom. Now Martha has exposed her husband as a fraud before a vigorous, handsome young man. Thus, Martha's expose of all of George's weaknesses and of the lies he tells to cover up his failures so profoundly humiliates him that he physically attacks Martha violently, trying to choke her into silence. Whereas the attack against Martha with the toy popgun was comic, this attack is no longer comic; it carries with it the true seeds of violence and the possibility of great physical harm. This scene thus becomes a significant turning point in the drama as we see that George "is hurt, but it is more a profound humiliation than a physical injury." Martha perceptively recognizes this potential danger and after Nick has stopped the attack, she calls George a "murderer." Thematically, in the next act he will become a murderer as he kills his own son, and may have been a murderer in his past.
Even though George is now at his lowest depths, he quickly recovers and announces that they have successfully completed the game of "Humiliate the Host" and now they must find another game. Since it is not time yet for "Hump the Hostess," George suggests a game of "Get the Guests" in which he proceeds to tell the plot of his second novel — a surprise to Martha. In a thinly disguised allegory, George proceeds to tell the story of Nick and Honey's engagement and marriage with all the appropriate background about Honey's father. At the climax of the story, Honey realizes that this is her story, and she realizes that Nick has betrayed the most personal details of their past. This betrayal makes her physically sick and she rushes again from the room.
In narrating the story, George is able to show Nick how it feels to be humiliated by placing Nick in such a position. He also directly exposes Nick as a person who cannot be trusted with a secret, so that the events of this night might not be safe with someone so untrustworthy. By exposing Nick, he is also able to show Martha that her new infatuation is for a person of questionable integrity.