George and Martha engage in dangerous emotional games. George is an associate professor of history and Martha is the daughter of the president of the college. After they return home, Martha reveals she has invited a young married couple, whom she met at the party, for a drink. The guests arrive – Nick, a biology professor (who Martha thinks teaches math), and his wife, Honey. As the four drink, Martha and George engage in scathing verbal abuse of each other in front of Nick and Honey. The younger couple is first embarrassed and later enmeshed. They stay.
Martha taunts George aggressively, and he retaliates with his usual passive aggression. Martha tells an embarrassing story about how she humiliated him with a sucker-punch in front of her father. During the telling, George appears with a gun and fires at Martha, but an umbrella pops out. After this scare, Martha's taunts continue, and George reacts violently by breaking a bottle. Nick and Honey become increasingly unsettled and, at the end of the act, Honey runs to the bathroom to vomit, because she had too much to drink.
Traditionally, "Walpurgisnacht" is the name of an annual witches' meeting (satiric in the context of the play). Nick and George are sitting outside. As they talk about their wives, Nick says that his wife had a "hysterical pregnancy". George tells Nick about a time that he went to a gin-mill with some boarding school classmates, one of whom had accidentally killed his mother by shooting her. This friend was laughed at for ordering "bergin". The following summer, the friend accidentally killed his father while driving, was committed to an asylum, and never spoke again. George and Nick discuss the possibility of having children and eventually argue and insult each other. After they rejoin the women in the house, Martha and Nick dance suggestively. Martha also reveals the truth about George's creative writing escapades: he had tried to publish a novel about a boy who accidentally killed both of his parents (with the implication that the deaths were actually murder), but Martha's father would not let it be published. George responds by attacking Martha, but Nick separates them.
George suggests a new game called "Get the Guests". George insults and mocks Honey with an extemporaneous tale of "the Mousie" who "tooted brandy immodestly and spent half her time in the upchuck". Honey realizes that the story is about her and her "hysterical pregnancy". The implication is that she trapped Nick into marrying her because of a false pregnancy. She feels sick and runs to the bathroom again.
At the end of this scene, Martha starts to act seductively towards Nick in George's presence. George pretends to react calmly, reading a book. As Martha and Nick walk upstairs, George throws his book against the door. In all productions until 2005, Honey returns, wondering who rang the doorbell (Martha and Nick had knocked into some bells). George comes up with a plan to tell Martha that their son has died, and the act ends with George eagerly preparing to tell her. In what is labeled the "Definitive Edition" of the script, however, the second act ends before Honey arrives.
Martha appears alone in the living room, shouting at the others to come out from hiding. Nick joins her. The doorbell rings: it is George, with a bunch of snapdragons in his hand, calling out, "Flores para los muertos" (flowers for the dead), a reference to the play and movie A Streetcar Named Desire, also about a marriage and outside influences. Martha and George argue about whether the moon is up or down: George insists it is up, while Martha says she saw no moon from the bedroom. This leads to a discussion in which Martha and George insult Nick in tandem, an argument revealing that Nick was too drunk to have sex with Martha upstairs.
George asks Nick to bring Honey back for the final game – "Bringing Up Baby". George and Martha have a son, about whom George has repeatedly told Martha to keep quiet. George talks about Martha's overbearing attitude toward their son. He then prompts her for her "recitation", in which they describe, in a bizarre duet, their son's upbringing. Martha describes their son's beauty and talents and then accuses George of ruining his life. As this segment progresses, George recites sections of the Libera me (part of the Requiem Mass, the Latin mass for the dead).
At the end of the play, George informs Martha that a messenger from Western Union arrived at the door earlier with a telegram saying their son was "killed late in the afternoon...on a country road, with his learner's permit in his pocket" and that he "swerved, to avoid a porcupine". The description matches that of the boy in the gin-mill story told earlier. Martha screams, "You can't do that!" and collapses.
It becomes clear to the guests that George and Martha's son is a mutually agreed-upon fiction. The fictional son is a final "game" the two have been playing since discovering early in their marriage that they are infertile. George has decided to "kill" him because Martha broke the game's single rule: never mention their son to others. Overcome with horror and pity, Nick and Honey leave. Martha suggests they could invent a new imaginary child, but George forbids the idea, saying it was time for the game to end. The play ends with George singing, "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to Martha, whereupon she replies, "I am, George...I am."
While other plays establish the difference between reality and illusion, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starts out with the latter but leans to the former. More specifically, "George and Martha have evaded the ugliness of their marriage by taking refuge in illusion." The disappointment that is their life together leads to the bitterness between them. Having no real bond, or at least none that either is willing to admit, they become dependent upon a fake child.
The fabrication of a child, as well as the impact its supposed demise has on Martha, questions the difference between deception and reality. As if to spite their efforts, the contempt that Martha and George have for one another causes the destruction of their illusion. This lack of illusion does not result in any apparent reality. "All truth", as George admits, "[becomes] relative".
Christopher Bigsby asserts that this play stands as an opponent of the idea of a perfect American family and societal expectations as it "attacks the false optimism and myopic confidence of modern society". Albee takes a heavy-handed approach to the display of this contrast, making examples out of every character and their own expectations for the people around them. Societal norms of the 1950s consisted of a nuclear family, two parents and two (or more) children. This conception was picturesque in the idea that the father was the breadwinner, the mother was a housewife, and the children were well-behaved.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? smashes these conventions and shows realistic families that are far from perfect and possibly ruined. The families of Honey and Martha were dominated by their fathers, there being no sign of a mother-figure in their lives. George and Martha's chance at a perfect family was ruined by infertility and George's failure at becoming a prominent figure at the university. Being just a few of many, these examples directly challenge social expectations both within and outside of a family setting.
The play's title, which alludes to the English novelist Virginia Woolf, is also a reference to the song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from Walt Disney's animated version of The Three Little Pigs. Because the rights to the Disney song are expensive, most stage versions, and the film, have Martha sing to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush", a melody that fits the meter fairly well and is in the public domain. In the first few moments of the play, it is revealed that someone sang the song earlier in the evening at a party, although who first sang it (Martha or some other anonymous party guest) remains unclear. Martha repeatedly needles George over whether he found it funny.
Albee described the inspiration for the title thus:
I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.
In an interview, Albee acknowledged that he based the characters of Martha and George on his good friends, New York socialites Willard Maas and Marie Menken. Maas was a professor of literature at Wagner College (one similarity between the character George and Willard) and his wife Marie was an experimental filmmaker and painter. Maas and Menken were known for their infamous salons, where drinking would "commence at 4pm on Friday and end in the wee hours of night on Monday" (according to Gerard Malanga, a Warhol associate and friend to Maas). The primary conflict between George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? derived from Maas and Menken's tempestuous and volatile relationship.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre on October 13, 1962. The original cast featured Uta Hagen as Martha, Arthur Hill as George, Melinda Dillon as Honey and George Grizzard as Nick. It was directed by Alan Schneider. Subsequent cast members included Henderson Forsythe, Eileen Fulton, Mercedes McCambridge, and Elaine Stritch.
Because of the unusual length of the play (over three hours), prior to the opening a matinee company was also hired that performed twice a week and featured Kate Reid as Martha, Shepperd Strudwick as George, Avra Petrides as Honey and Bill Berger as Nick. As with the evening company, these matinee performances also sold out.
The play closed May 16, 1964 after five previews and 664 performances.
Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara starred in a 1976 Broadway revival. Mike Nichols and Elaine May starred in a 1980 production in New Haven.
Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill starred in a new production of the play at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London during 2017.
In 1963, Columbia Masterworks released a four-LP (long-playing) boxed recording of the original Broadway cast performing the entire play under the direction of Alan Schneider.
The release contained a sixteen-page booklet with photos from the original production, critical essays by Harold Clurman and Walter Kerr, cast and crew biographies, and a short article by Goddard Lieberson on the task of recording the play. The introduction is by Edward Albee, in which he relates, "I cannot conceive of anyone wanting to buy [this] massive album; but...every playwright wants as much permanence for his work as he can get."
The recording was issued in both stereo (DOS 687) and monaural (DOL 287) formats. It was out-of-print for many years, was not released in other formats, and is highly prized among collectors, as a play with such adult themes had never been recorded for the general public before. It was finally re-released in 2014 by Broadway Masterworks.
The play was revived on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, opening on March 12, 2005 in previews and closing on September 4, 2005 after 177 performances and 8 previews. Directed by Anthony Page the cast starred Kathleen Turner as Martha and Bill Irwin as George, with Mireille Enos (Honey) and David Harbour (Nick). Irwin won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Actor for his role. The production transferred to London's West End at the Apollo Theatre with the entire original cast, running from January 31, 2006 to May 13, 2006. In January 2007 the Turner-Irwin production was performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., for a month-long run. On February 6, 2007, the production began a six-week run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
The play toured in the US and played in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Theater from April 11 to May 12, 2007.
On December 12, 2010, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, Illinois began performances of the play featuring Amy Morton as Martha, Tracy Letts (the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County) as George, Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks. The production was directed by Pam MacKinnon, who previously directed the premieres of Albee's Peter and Jerry, and Occupant.
This production opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre on September 27, 2012 (previews) with an opening of October 13, 2012 (which is 50 years after the original Broadway opening). Pam MacKinnon again is the director, with the Steppenwolf Theatre reprising their roles. Tracy Letts won the Tony award for his portrayal of George in this production, while McKinnon nabbed the award for Direction and the production itself was named Best Revival of a Play. Following opening weekend, the production and cast won high praise from New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood.
Meg Tilly returned to acting in 2011 playing Martha in a production by Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre. The show ran July 5, 2011 – July 17, 2011 in Victoria, B.C.
On February 21, 2017, a production of the play directed by James Macdonald began at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, featuring Imelda Staunton, Conleth Hill, Imogen Poots, and Luke Treadaway. The show will run until May 27, 2017.
In 1995 and '96 the Canadian One Yellow Rabbit troup mounted an homage in dance to playwright Edward Albee called Permission in the form of an hour long ballet inspired by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They performed it in their home city of Calgary, as well as in Toronto, Phoenix, Guadalajara, and Mexico City.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won both the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play and the 1962–63 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Its stars won the 1963 Tony Awards for Best Actor and Actress as well. It was also selected for the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Drama by that award's drama jury. However, the award's advisory board – the trustees of Columbia University – objected to the play's then-controversial use of profanity and sexual themes, and overruled the award's advisory committee, awarding no Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1963.
A film adaptation of the play was released in 1966. It was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Elizabeth Taylor as Martha, Richard Burton as George, George Segal as Nick and Sandy Dennis as Honey. All four major actors were nominated for Academy Awards: Taylor and Burton for Best Actress and Actor and Dennis and Segal for Supporting Oscars. Elizabeth Taylor won the Oscar for Best Actress but Richard Burton was passed over that year in favor of Paul Scofield in A Man For All Seasons. Sandy Dennis won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Jack Valenti identifies the film as the first controversial movie he had to deal with as president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The movie was the first to use the word "screw" and the phrase "hump the hostess" on screen. As he says, "In company with the MPAA's general counsel, Louis Nizer, I met with Jack Warner, the legendary chieftain of Warner Bros., and his top aide, Ben Kalmenson. We talked for three hours, and the result was deletion of 'screw' and retention of 'hump the hostess', but I was uneasy over the meeting."
The film was given a "Deluxe Edition Two-Record Set" soundtrack album release in 1967 by Warner Bros. Records, and was the first film to have its vocals be released in their entirety on an album, as the film (at that time) could never be shown in reruns on network television. It contains the vocals of the four actors performing in the film with the only piece of music heard throughout the entire album is a song titled "Virginia Woolf Rock" that plays while Martha and Nick are dancing (but plays a little differently than it does in the film).
In at least two instances alternate takes were used: Taylor's memorable "Goddamn you!" line is restored to "Screw you!", and some of the dialogue from the dancing sequence was lifted from another take. As Martha tells her story about punching George in the stomach in front of her father to Nick and Honey, it is heard very clearly while in the film it became distant and muffled as the camera followed George into another room to get a gun. The album also ran a half-hour shorter than the movie as most pauses and long silent moments were removed. However, virtually every line remains intact. The album's cover has the four main actors on the cover and the back cover has some background information about the four actors, information about the five-month shooting schedule, some information about Albee and a brief synopsis of the film. This album is also out-of-print, was never released in any other formats, and is also highly prized among collectors.On their album Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing, Murder by Death (band) had a song titled "I'm Afraid of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe."
On October 15, 2016, Saturday Night Live parodied the play and movie with a sketch about pet hamsters who talk and behave like the play's characters.