Summary and Analysis
Act III: The Exorcism:
This scene, the longest and also the climactic scene, begins with all four characters on stage and ends with the death of the imaginary son. The principal game is "Bringing up Baby" an ironic twist because after he has been brought up the scene will end with the next game — "Kill the Kid."
With the appearance of Nick and Honey, George re-introduces the concern of the first act (fun and games), and he announces that during the evening that they have gotten "to know each other, and have had fun and games . . . [such as] curl up on the floor . . . peel the label." Honey's game introduces a new metaphor, peeling the label. This is introduced because in peeling the label, we get down to the bone and even "when you get down to bone, you haven't got all the way, yet. There's something inside the bone . . . the marrow" [ellipsis Albee's]. This new metaphor (new game) suggests that once we get to the marrow, there can be no more deeper probing; that is, this game will be the game that will cut through all illusion and confront one face to face with reality. For George and Martha, who have not faced reality for about twenty years, this will be a supreme test. Whereas earlier Martha seemingly had the "upper hand," now George realizes the necessity of distinguishing between illusion and reality: the only possible solution to their lives and the only solution to their marriage ties in complete honesty. Consequently, whereas earlier George had tried to prevent Martha from bringing up the subject of their son, it is now George who insists that their son (the bouncy boy) be the subject of the next game, "Bringing Up Baby."
Since the audience knows that George is going to announce the death of their son, this "scene-a-faire" is necessary for the audience to see how complete George and Martha's illusion really is. That is, the illusion surrounding the birth is necessary so that the audience can see how completely this illusion has occupied George and Martha's lives. The illusion is not a small portion of their lives. Instead, it has occupied their lives to the minutest detail, as illustrated by whether it was an easy birth or whether Martha "labored to give birth." All of the details are carefully worked out between them — the toys, the child's furniture, the color of the eyes and hair, and other details.
Martha, who has never mentioned "the kid" before others, becomes almost transfigured into a Madonna as she becomes so completely immersed in her own illusion of their child. Martha's narration is both moving and convincing as she correlates her "son's" growth to the epitome of everything that is truth, beauty, wisdom, and earthly perfection. The effect of her narration is to evoke from Honey a desire to have a child of her own.
Dramatically speaking, the audience should be constantly aware that George knows that the child does not exist. Yet before he reveals the death of their son, he too becomes, for the last time, caught up in the illusion. In a shift typical of the play, Martha changes from the Madonna-type figure recalling idyllic episodes about her son to a bitter critic of their sordid home life. George argues violently with Martha about whom the child loved more. Then in the form of a duet, Martha continues the narration about the child while George recites Latin phrases from the Requiem and Kyrie Eleison.
Martha and Honey are ready to put an end to the games, but George has one more surprise for Martha: "It's about sunny-Jim." He then announces the death of their son:
George: Martha . . . (Long pause) . . . our son is (Silence) He was . . . killed . . . late in the afternoon . . . (Silence) (A tiny chuckle) on a country road, with his learner's permit in his pocket, he swerved, to avoid a porcupine, and drove straight into a . . . .
Martha (Rigid fury): YOU . . . CANNOT . . . DO . . . THAT!
George: . . . large tree.
To the astonishment and confusion of both the audience and Nick, Martha repeatedly insists that she will not allow George to "decide these things," and she attempts to physically attack George. Nick pins Martha's arms behind her because he thinks that she is hysterically overcome with grief. While Nick is holding her, George flippantly and triumphantly tells her: "Now listen, Martha; listen carefully. We got a telegram; there was a car accident, and he's dead. POUF! Just like that! Now, how do you like it?"
Martha's response, (A howl which weakens into a moan) "NOOOOOOoooooo," is one of the high dramatic points in the drama and has been likened "to that tragic and awful moment of Sophocles's Oedipus, when Oedipus discovers he has not only unwittingly killed his own father but has also married his own mother and fathered her children." (See Richard Amacher, Edward Albee, p.106.) Martha continues to attack George's presumption that he can make such a decision by himself. The building of the illusion had been a joint effort; thus, she feels betrayed that the illusion is suddenly destroyed. Since the illusion had been so completely a part of her life, its destruction is a death-blow as strong as real physical death.
As Martha demands proof of the death and as George becomes more flippant, Nick gradually begins to understand something that is almost too much for him. When George reminds Martha that she knew the rules and has broken them, Nick finally understands that the child has always been an imaginary one. Consequently, of all of the games that have been played during the course of the drama, this is the most involved and elaborate one. Upon further questioning, Nick realizes that George and Martha created this fantasy to compensate for the fact that they could not have any children, and to give themselves the illusion of a normal home life.
George and Martha's imaginary world was complete and resplendent with every detail necessary to the natural birth and growth of a real child, but one essential rule had to be followed. The game had to be completely private between the two — it could never be mentioned to an outsider. As long as it remained a private game, there could be all kinds of variations within the framework. Once, however, the child had been mentioned to other people, everything changed. There could be ridicule stemming from public exposure with all sorts of unknown results. But more importantly George recognizes that the illusion has gone on too long, especially now that Martha cannot distinguish illusion from reality, as indicated in her plea:
"I FORGET! Sometimes . . . sometimes when it's night, when it's late, and . . . and everybody else is . . . talking . . . I forget and I . . . want to mention him . . . but I . . . HOLD ON . . . I HOLD ON . . . I hold on . . . but I've wanted to . . . so often . . . oh, George, you've pushed it . . . there was no need . . . there was no need for this. I mentioned him . . . all right . . . but you didn't have to push it over the EDGE. You didn't have to . . . kill him."
Also, George wants revenge, and he knows that the only way he can regain the upper hand in their relationship is to destroy Martha's belief in her most precious illusion. However, it is too simple to dismiss his motive as revenge alone. He has recognized the danger in believing in one's lies and it becomes necessary for George to kill the illusion to prevent Martha from becoming completely enslaved by her own fantasies.
George has penetrated past the bone and into the marrow. He has performed the complete exorcism and we must remember that an exorcism is performed for the benefit of the bedeviled — in this case, Martha.