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Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a disturbing and powerful work. Ironically, it is disturbing and powerful for many of the same reasons. As the audience watches George and Martha tear savagely at each other with the knives of hurled words, sharpened on pain and aimed to draw blood, the way in which these two relentlessly go at each other is awful to see, yet strangely familiar. Like wounded animals, they strike out at those closest to them, and reminds one of scenes witnessed as a child between screaming parents from a cracked door when one is supposed to be in bed.
In this age of psychoanalytic jargon, George and Martha are the quintessentially dysfunctional couple. Yet, with all their problems, Albee reveals that there is a positive core of feeling that unites these two troubled people and that helps them look beyond their self-created hell. The truth of their relationship is exposed layer by layer as the play progresses, like the peeling of an onion, and though the pattern of this truth appears vague at first, with each cycle of revelation, the pattern becomes more distinct, and the picture is fully revealed in the final, cathartic scene. One of the most consistent themes of the play is the question of George and Martha's "child," and all that this child, and children in general, symbolizes for them. The "child" seems not only a desire for fecundity within their relationship, but also a projection through which they express many of their personal desires, needs, and problems, and, in this context, the child's subsequent "death" signifies a milestone in their understanding of their marriage and of themselves. By the end of play, after much suffering and flagellation, George and Martha appear ready to deal with their lives in a new way.
George and Martha have a history. They are also emotionally trapped by this history, especially that of their respective childhoods. As a consequence, both are plagued by low self-image and self-doubt. The audience learns of this history slowly, in bits and pieces. Martha tells Nick and Honey in Act 1 how she lost her mother early and grew up very close to her father. She was married briefly, but her father had the marriage annulled. She returned to live with her father after college, and met and fell in love with George.
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But Martha has not grown up because she has not left behind Daddy and the prospect of his unconditional love. To accept George as he is, though this is what she deeply wants to do, would be to give up the possibility of her father's love forever. Likewise, George is plagued by a troubled childhood. The story he tells Nick in Act 2 about a teenage boy who accidentally kills his mother, and later his father, the audience learns later is also the plot for George's failed novel. Martha claims George maintained the boy was himself. The audience doesn't know whether this is true, but one does feel that, true or not, the story reflects George's deep-seated feelings of guilt about his parents. The novel was a possible way for George to expiate these feelings but he is frustrated in his attempt by Martha's father. So George, like Martha, is trapped by feelings about his childhood that he cannot work through in a meaningful way. His resulting emotional impotence is actualized in sexual impotence, a fact that Martha alludes to several times.
As the play progresses, a picture emerges of two people who married each other for many other reasons than attraction and love and, more importantly, each has brought a great deal of unresolved emotional baggage and anger into the forum of their relationship. Neither is in a position to really aid the other in unloading this baggage. The result is that they savage each other in two ways: they each hate themselves and therefore cannot accept wholeheartedly the love the other has to give, and each person's flaws are magnified to be used to indict the other for not functioning as a savior. Therefore, George's "flaws" are the reason Martha is not happy, and vice versa. Thus, the "child" they invent is a symbol of many things for George and Martha. For both, the idea of their own child symbolizes maturity and adulthood. It represents their desire to grow up and leave behind the painful memories of their own childhoods' by becoming parents themselves. I believe it is also a projection of themselves, of the inner child of each, that is still alive, hurting and trapped.
In these ways, the child becomes the projection through which they work through their conflicting desires and feelings about themselves and each other. In a strange cathartic way, they use the child to point out each other's bad points, the things they've encountered in each other that disappoints and frustrates them, and, in the realm of fantasy, it represents their subconscious drives to try and make childhood dreams come true. Though one senses the show they give Nick and Honey is one they have replayed countless times, there is also the sense of a process at work, a process of catharsis, and it is Martha's and George's underlying love for each other that gives them the strength to take the garbage that they dump on each other, painful though it is.
The symbol of the child also connects George and Martha to Honey and Nick. The younger couple is likewise childless and we learn Honey is afraid of childbearing because she, too, does not want to grow up. Yet the link between the two couples can also be understood in the sense that Honey and Nick have also apparently come into their marriage with unresolved emotional baggage and the two don't fully know and understand each other. One can only assume that if they stay together their relationship might also become a battleground similar to Martha's and George's, if only as a messy way to work through their emotional problems as Martha and George have. Ironically, these two couples, who have such difficulties with the idea or actual manifestation of children, are precisely the kind of couples that should not have children, at least until they have worked many of their own problems out.
As revenge against Martha, George decides to kill their "son." He does not come to this decision lightly, but seems pushed to it after an evening of impotent rage and humiliation and he does it because he knows it will wound Martha deeply. It is significant that the boy is killed in a car accident on a country road while trying to avoid a porcupine, indicating how much of himself George has invested in their fantasy child. Yet George's identification with their child pales in comparison to Martha's level of involvement, as her devastated response to his death attests. Despite all the functions their son served as mentioned above, the child was also a comfort, some way for them to believe they could produce something of worth, something good that was untainted by their own painful experiences. But Martha carries the illusion too far, and she brings it out into the world where other people like Honey and Nick can comment on their pretend child and judge it and them, and I think George feels this formerly pure idea is now sullied. George kills the child to hurt Martha, but he also seems to recognize that their illusory existence has built up to a point beyond which it cannot go. To kill the child is to kill their fantasy life, but it may be the only way something new can be born between them, something real that they create themselves.
After Nick and Honey leave, and George and Martha are talking quietly together, Martha contemplates the idea of a life without the child. One senses that perhaps now it might be alright to let him die because they can at last go on without him, perhaps their fantasy child has served his purpose in helping them expel many of the poisons they were afflicted with. Perhaps, after so many years in which they have wrestled with their own and each other's demons, held together by something good that they nevertheless knew was there, now that the demons are slain they can explore what has kept them together instead what has stood between them.
It is easy to behave like like Martha and George, to prefer familiar pain to the unknown. Theirs is the tragedy of wasted life, not being able to grow up and transcend negative events from their childhood, trapped into being eternal victims. But the power of the love they share lies in its transforming quality. The romantic notion of love, that once two people find each other life becomes a kind of amorphous rainbow existence, is shattered by the reality that love is the beginning of a creative process which, God willing, may never end. A relationship is indeed something two people create together, an invisible child if you will, but it must be based on growth, not stagnation, honesty, and not deceit, if it is to survive. Martha and George killed their fantasy child so that a new one could be born that is reflective of their hopes and strengths, rather than their fears and weaknesses. After all they've survived, this birth should be an easy one.