Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which opened on Broadway on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis, was bound to be a success. Its mixture of the knowing and the naive reflects the attitudes of the liberal youth in the 1960s to all the political, social, and moral conventions from which they had liberated themselves. Now, after fifty years, something less public and more personal within the play has grown—like the tiny organism that sparked it off—into the biggest public issue of our times: the fate of the unborn child.
A middle-aged academic couple returning home after a university party at two o’clock in the morning begins a marital battle played out over the rest of the night. In a variety of vindictive and vituperative engagements, George and Martha exercise an inexhaustible capacity to inflict wounds on each other, fuelled by an equally inexhaustible capacity to consume strong drink.
Also present are Nick and Honey, newcomers to the university, whom Martha has invited over for a nightcap after the party. George and Martha drag this young couple into their personal war, now as allies against each other, now as a common victim; sometimes presenting themselves as a cautionary example, sometimes using the couple to justify their own failures and bitterness.
Above all, they seem to need the couple as both spectators and partners in a series of cruel games that form the substance of their marriage. These games are both the major weapons they employ against each other and the means by which they continue to need, know, and commune with each other—a contorted, desperate parody of how they once vowed to love, honor, and obey.
George seems to take a grim pleasure in referring to their marital animosities by glib, playful names such as Humiliate the Host, Hump the Hostess, and Get the Guests. The last is brought out with a flourish when George tells a kind of children’s bedtime story through which he reveals that Nick married Honey because she entrapped him with a false pregnancy.
George: Well, how they got married is this . . . . The Mouse got all puffed up one day, and she went over to Blondie’s house, and she stuck out her puff, and she said . . . look at me.
. . .
George: . . . and so they were married . . . .
Honey: . . . and then . . .
. . .
George: [as if to a baby]: . . . and then the puff went away . . . like magic . . . pouf!
As phantom pregnancies go, Honey’s must take second place to Martha’s, as is shown by the final game, Bringing Up Baby. In fact, this game continues throughout the play and, as we learn, has been going on for much of George and Martha’s married life. Unable to have any children—no reason is ever given, but there is a hint that it is the consequence of an abortion while Martha was still at school—they have invented an imaginary son, of whom they never speak to outsiders.
This is the basic rule of Bringing Up Baby. The fact that Martha discloses the existence of this son to Honey initiates the crisis to which the events of the long night lead and precipitates the play’s tragic peripeteia. George “kills” the son, telling the company that he has received a telegram that he was killed while driving on a country road. Martha, with “rigid fury,” says:
You cannot do that! . . . No! No! You cannot do that! You can’t decide that for yourself! . . . I will not let you decide these things!
At no point in the play is there any explicit acknowledgment that the son whose death George announces is an invention. Although his account of the event seems unnaturally callous, he appears to be the messenger of a tragic fatality, to which Martha responds with appropriate horror and Nick with clumsy efforts of consolation.
Shocked denial is not an unusual response to the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one, but there is something decidedly unusual about Martha’s way of expressing it. “You can’t decide these things”; “I won’t let you do this”; “You cannot. You may not decide these things.”
Nick finally realizes the truth—“I think I understand this”—but he needs a direct admission from the parents that this child’s death was no accident:
Martha: He is our child!
George: And I have killed him!
What poor Nick does not understand, however, is that his own childlessness is the result of a similar decision his wife has unilaterally made. Just as George has decided to end the life of his fictional son, Honey, fearing the pains of childbirth, has aborted all the pregnancies of her marriage, a fact that she has hidden from her husband but which she reveals to George in an unguarded moment of drunken confession.
George: [nodding his head . . . speaks with compassion] : I should have known . . . [ugly again]: Does he know that? Does that . . . stud you’re married to know about that, hunh? . . . How do you make your secret little murders stud-boy doesn’t know about, hunh? Pills? Pills? You got a secret supply of pills? Or what? Apple jelly? Will power?
Early in the play, Nick asks George whether he and Martha have any children. “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” replies George. As a counterpoint to the confrontation between George and Martha, Albee has set up a series of rivalries between the two couples: Nick is young, handsome, and professionally successful; George is middle-aged, gray, and a failure. Honey is pretty, prim, modest, and “slim-hipped”; Martha is sensuous, loud, and lewd. Nick teaches biology while George teaches history, a difference which is developed into a rivalry in order to support an ideological opposition between the dying old order and the new world of progress and prosperity.
The rival generations do, however, have something in common: childlessness. George and Martha cannot have children, Nick and Honey do not have children—yet: “We . . . want to wait . . . a little . . . until we’re settled,” explains Nick. In Who’s Afraid? , the distinction between choice and no choice is less clearly envisaged than in our times, when to be “pro-choice” is seen as an assertion of personal autonomy and freedom, even when in reality it allows for the destruction of a living human being.
George and Martha, faced with their no-choice situation—their inability to have children—have not let reality stand in the way of their making a choice. They have invented an imaginary son. Just as George and Martha have chosen by an act of the imagination to create a child, the abortionist uses “choice” as the instrument by which a real child becomes a thing of the imagination.
Invented by choice, destroyed by choice—how else can a fictional child exist or cease to be? But can we do the same with a real child? Are the words “choice” and “choose” not a callous and crazy denial that the victims of their policies and practices really exist? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? —this play haunted by hidden children—discloses the sleight of thought by which, with the flick of a linguistic switch, real human beings can be consigned to fiction.
There is nothing fictional, however, about Martha’s grief for the fictional son her husband has chosen to “kill”—grief, that is, for the child that no form of choice could have brought her. Having played out the illusion of motherhood so deeply and tenaciously, Martha feels and expresses the grief that Honey has avoided, having denied the human reality of her own aborted children. That Martha, mother by nothing but choice, should truly mourn for the death of an illusory child throws into relief Honey’s emotional suffocation. If destroying one’s children is seen as nothing but exercising one’s choice—without any reference to what one is choosing to do—what is there to grieve over?
It is fitting, then, that the two bereaved characters are united by an alternative rhetoric. In the play’s elegiac ending, Honey lays to rest the son Martha could not have, using words from the Requiem Mass:
George: Requiem aeternum dona eis, Domine,
Honey: Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Thus Honey joins George in making supplication for the nonexistent son who represents the actual deaths of her own aborted children.
The “child” that George destroys in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is nothing more than an imagined creation, a collection of choices, but the propaganda of the Right to Choose seeks to transform living human beings, such as those Honey has destroyed, into nothing more than creatures of the imagination. The rhetoric of “choice” is seductive and insidious not only because it suggests that abortion is a matter of legitimate personal rights, but also because it persuades people that nothing other than a mental act is involved. Don’t worry, goes the strain, this is not a piece of the real, living world, it has no real existence; it is simply a possibility to be considered.
In the final lines of the play, when George and Martha are once more alone together, Martha tentatively suggests that they might restore the fiction and bring back their “son” to life. No, says George gently, not a good idea. For those who can grieve for the loss of an illusory child, there is hope; for a generation that is cheated out of grief for the loss of real children, there are only illusions.
Michael Schutzer-Weissmann teaches English at Shrewsbury School in Shrewsbury, England.