Folklore and Myth in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

Most critics have recognized the presence of mythic symbolism in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but few have done little more than to mention in passing that Martha is a self-confessed Earth Mother, and that George might be a comic Dionysus. Critics have not demonstrated how the mythic folklore levels of the play give coherent meaning and unification to it. The symbolism is usually seen as an absurdist counter to the action on stage rather than as an essential embodiment of that action, and some critics apparently feel, as does Daniel McDonald, that "the danger in reading Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is becoming too involved with the symbolism. The individual who is largely concerned with [the symbolism] will miss the point of a fine drama. Essentially, the play is not an allegory about Godot, or Good Deeds, or the American Dream; it is a story of real people and their illusions. . . . [Albee's] theme is the necessity of illusion to sustain one in such an environment [of futility]." (McDonald, "Truth and Illusion in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", Renascence, 17 (1964), 63.) I hope I have not missed the dramatic values of the play, even though I shall give little attention to them in this study, but I doubt that a consideration solely of the realistic level of the drama will sufficiently enable us to grasp its "point" or theme. I feel that McDonald, by undervaluing the symbolism, has in fact misinterpreted the theme of the drama. That which is illusory on the realistic level is often that which is more "real" on the symbolic level. As I shall show presently, the son's "real" but symbolic rather than actual existence is important in recognizing the positive and affirmative nature of Albee's drama; without any symbolic considerations we might too easily interpret the play only in negative terms. It is true that Albee has not written an absurdist allegory, as he did in The American Dream, but he has gone far beyond this, and has succeeded in uniting myth and realism. To make a primordial ritual appealing to the contemporary audience, he has hinted as basic ritual patterns by the use of jokes, allusions, and illusions.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? occurs within the framework of the concepts of Dies Irae, Easter, and The Birthday; Albee originally planned to entitle it The Exorcism, but relegated this as the title of the third act. (Allan Lewis, "The Fun and Games of Edward Albee", ETJ, 16 (1964), 34.) It is a ritual of purgation and purification, a Dionysian revel in New England, a "tragedy" in the original sense of the term – a "goat song". Martha is the Mother Goddess, in her particular manifestation as the Bitch Goddess, fought over by Nick, the God of the New Year, and George, the God of the Old Year. George allows Nick to possess Martha during an intercalary moment, but reasserts his divinity by devouring his son in the form of a eucharistic telegram, thus being reborn.

The primary level of the play consists of the conflict between Nick's Apollonian faith in the perfection of man by biological means, and George's Dionysian faith in the historical process of birth, life, death, and rebirth. This level is set in a New England college town which allows us to believe in the existence of such people as George and Martha. They are two ultra-sophisticates who make clever jokes, drink a great deal, and take out their frustrations upon each other and their guests. Such New England college towns, such professors, and such professors' wives are not actually "realistic"; but they are convincing because they fit certain traditions and stereotypes.

This setting provides the believability of the clever jokes, abundant drinking, and the mental and physical violence which occur in the play. This primary level justifies "absurd" references to nursery rhymes and ancient ritual, the secondary and tertiary levels of the play. The folklore level – the big bad wolf and the three little pigs – serves as a link between the first and third levels by being as foolish as the college town setting, and by pointing to the myth of the pig goddess Demeter. I shall try to elucidate these last two levels by an analysis of the title, the time and place of the setting, and the characters. My basic critical assumption is that nothing in the play is "absurd", arbitrary, fortuitous, or superfluous, but that everything is symbolically interrelated.

Critics have regarded the title as merely one more example of Albee's absurdist technique; or, they may go so far as to interpret it as "Who's afraid of the truth, or the stripping away of reality?" This may be partially correct, but as a meaning it does not organically inhere to the title per se; it is merely a substitute title. A more meaningful interpretation might be found by giving serious attention to its source in the nursery rhyme:

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf,
                    the big bad wolf,
                    the big bad wolf,
Who's afraid of the big bad wolf,
So early in the morning?

The folk tale which encloses this song concerns three little pigs who each built a house – one of straw, one of sticks, and one of brick. The two pigs who built their houses of straw and sticks sing this song in mockery of the third little pig who built his house of brick. They think that he is foolish to go to such trouble to protect himself from the big bad wolf, whom they fear not. But, alas, their houses are blown down – "I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house down" – and, in some version, they are eaten. The third little pig's house survives the onslaught, and the wolf dies when he sneaks in through the chimney and lands in the fireplace or pot of boiling water. Moral: If you do not fear the wolf sufficiently, you shall be destroyed. In the Egyptian, Roman, Gnostic, and Nordic mythologies, the wolf symbolizes the chaotic and destructive potential of the universe. The pigs symbolize different types of humans on their most animalistic level. The one who builds his house – that is, the strongest and truest, endures; he who most acknowledges the reality of the wolf's power is the most able to cope with it. Now what has this to do with the play?

I suggest that Honey is the first little pig. That she is a pig is evidenced by George's manner of calling her back to the party: "(Hog-calls toward the hall) Sooowwwiiieee! Sooowwwiiieee!" Honey is "a petit blond girl, rather plain" – that is, rather straw-complexioned, and her frail response to reality is a mere house of straw, one which was blown down: "The wind was . . . the wind was so cold." Martha is the second little pig. Or rather a big pig. Martha is an amalgam of a number of animals, but that she is a pig is evidenced by George's calling her a "Cochon", literally, "pig" or "swine" in French. Her house of stick, stronger than Honey's house of straw, is torn away and her inner being is left brutally exposed, enabling her insight into her illusion at the end of the play. George is the third little pig: Martha shouts "You pig!" and he replies "Oink! Oink!" George is fully aware of the wolf's power of destruction, but he survives it and uses it to destroy the illusions of the others and to make way for rebirth. Nick is the big bad wolf. He huffs and puffs, and he conceives a "puff" in Honey instead of a baby, and he is impotent with Martha. He may e impotent sexually, but he does succeed in destroying Honey's faith in his constancy and Martha's belief that she did not need ?George. As we shall see later, however, Nick does not succeed in destroying George's house of brick, but is in term defeated by George.

But this is only one aspect of the title; the other aspect concerns Virginia Woolf, the first successful user of the stream-of-consciousness technique, and in some ways the originator of modern prose fiction. Woolf characteristically favors the individual rather than authority or conformity, emotion rather than system or method, and the mystic's search for "cosmic identification" rather than the existentialist's acceptance of actuality. For her, reality is a harmonious relation with all things, achieved through a Blakean visionary insight In To The Lighthouse, her finest novel, this insight is symbolized by images of the sun, light, brilliance, and illumination. For Mrs Ramsay, her central character, the lighthouse and its beam of light symbolize the light of truth which reveals reality and integrates one's personality. It is simultaneously pitiless yet beautiful, remorseless yet revelatory.

Unifying the two aspects of the title, we might say that the Wo(o)lf means "that which has the power of destroying illusions and illuminating reality". The last line of the nursery rhyme – "So early in the morning" – unites the sun and light symbolism of Woolf's work, and the fact that Albee's play takes place very early on Sunday morning. Mike Nichols, the director of the movie version of the play, has appropriately seen fit to end the movie with the sun rising above the clasped hands of George and Martha. This sunrise is justified by a reference to the dawn in the play. Martha, by admitting her fear of the Wo(o)lf, in effect now has a vision of ultimate reality. The "blow your house down" aspect of the folktale parallels the "venturi ira" (the "wind of wrath") referred to in the Exorcism, and points up the exorcising structure of the play. One must destroy illusion, or exorcise the false demons, to make way for reality, to allow the reality of one's soul to regain control. This reality is hinted at in the Woolf-like light symbolism in the Exorcism: "Et lucis aeternae beatitudine perfrui"; "Et lux perpetua luceat eis."

The action of the play occurs from 2 a.m. to sunrise on Sunday. This may be viewed as a literal fact, but it may also be viewed as a symbolic fact. The play occurs between that which is old and will be destroyed – George says, "It's late, you know? Late" – and that which is new and will be reborn. In primitive calendars there always occurs a space of time which is set aside for rites of renewal. This period, termed the "intercalary days" by anthropologists, is essentially timeless, and connects the temporal world of the community with the eternal world of the gods. The primordiality of the play's time scheme is em0phasized by the fact that Martha is not merely "a hundred and eight . . . years old", but has "take a new tack . . . over the past couple of centuries", and is "archaic". George went "to prep school, during the Punic Wars"; and Martha's father "is over two hundred years old". The timelessness of the play is summed up when Nick asks "You've been here quite a long time, haven't you?" and George answers "Forever."

The renewal or regeneration aspect of the play is evidenced by the references to the Sacre du Printemps, "a rhythm Martha understands", and the Walpurgisnacht of the second act. The unbreakable link between death or destruction and rebirth is emphasized by references to the Twenty-First Birthday, at which time the child dies and the adult is born; the Easter pageant; and the Dies Irae of the Exorcism, at which time "veneris judicare saeculum per ignem", and as a result "lux perpetua luceat eis."

Although the setting of the play is New Carthage in New England, its "real" setting is a primordial Everywhere; George says, "And this . . . (With a handsweep taking in not only the room, the house, but the whole countryside) . . . this is your heart's content – Illyria . . . Penguin Island . . . Gomorrah . . . ." Places such as Parnassus, Carthage, Majorca, the Aegean, China, Manchuria, and Crete are mentioned in the play. Another place, not the least important, is the Paradisium in the Exorcism. New Carthage is the intermediate between that which went before – old Carthage; and, by its connoted destruction, that which will come after – Paradisium. Paradisium is given concrete representation by the dawn at the end of the play. George's belief that "We should live on Crete, or something" might allow us to discuss the symbolism of the Cretan labyrinth. Any labyrinth is basically an illusory Many, a Maze of Error, surrounding the concealing the One of absolute reality at its center. George and Martha reach this center and confront the Wo(o)lf-Minotaur. Just as Albee does not allow the Wo(o)lf to be killed because its destruction makes way for rebirth, so we may assume that neither will the Minotaur be merely overcome; instead, the Dionysian faith that destruction brings about rebirth will be affirmed.

Just as the title, the time, and the place of the play point up the positive nature of Albee's theme, so likewise do th4e characters' mythic qualities and their ritual actions. Martha's Daddy, for example, may be the Head of the University, but he may also be the Ruler of the Universe. He organizes "these goddamn Saturday night orgies", orgies which take place on Saturday, a day sacred to Saturn, and which are related to the fertility rites of the Saturnalia. He lives at Parnassus, and there are rumors that "the old man is not going to die." Martha says, "I worshipped him . . . I absolutely worshipped him. I still do." George resembles Martha's Daddy insofar as both are concerned with Dionysian history; Daddy had a sense of history . . . or . . . continuation", and George is Head of the History Department. George will later take over Daddy's role of Saturn when he, as in Goya's painting, devours his son, this time in the form of a telegram.

On the folklore, rather than mythic, level, Martha's Daddy is "a great big white mouse" with "tiny red eyes". In Chinese symbolism such a mouse is an evil deity of the plague, a reasonable analogy to a university president who entombs his staff in halls covered with creeping ivy. (I feel justified in mentioning Chinese symbolism because of its presence elsewhere in the play: the red and yellow Chinese parasol which pops out of George's gun. This is the Chinese yin–yang symbol, which signifies the unity of opposites, and supports the "destruction equals rebirth" theme of the play.) Since Martha will usurp most of the prerogatives of the Great Mother, there is no room for another mythic correlative of the Great Mother; therefore her mother is relegated to only the folklore level, and exists only as a relatively insignificant stepmother and a good witch with warts.

Martha's name comes from the Aramaic Martha, which means simply "lady". During the last part of the play, after Nick discovers what Martha really is, he appropriately refers to her only as "Lady". The two appellations are interchangeable, for Martha is the Archetypal Feminine in her many roles. She is "destructive", "Voluptuous", "wicked", a "monster", a "sub-human monster", a "Monstre!", a "Bête", a "Putain!" and a variety of repulsive or brutish animals and insects. She is "limitless" because she is the Earth Mother: "You're all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you're all flops. (More or less to herself) I disgust me. I pass my life in crummy, totally pointless infidelities . . . (Laughs ruefully) would-be infidelities." She is "the only true pagan on the eastern seaboard", "paints blue circles around her things" (i.e. her nipples), and understands the rhythm of Sacre du Printemps (i.e. sexuality). Like all Mother Goddesses, she is a perpetual Virgin although a Harlot: "Anyway, so I was revirginized."

Martha rules like a Circe over her hogs: "Martha thinks that unless . . . you carry on like a hyena you aren't having any fun." "Hyena" comes from the Greek hyaina, a "sow", from hys, a "hog". She is also the tri-headed Hecate: "There aren't many more sickening sights than you with a couple of drinks in you and your skirt up over your head, you know . . . your heads, I should say." However, Martha is essentially the Mother Goddess in her most negative aspect, that of the Bitch Goddess. George says that she chews her ice cubes, "like a cocker spaniel", and that when she was courting him she would "sit outside of my room, on the lawn, at night, and she'd howl and claw at the turf." At one point Nick says to George, "Well now, I'd just better get her off in a corner and mount her like a goddam dog, eh?" – such an act would of course literally make Martha a bitch. This aspect of Martha is summer up when George shouts at her, "YOU SATANIC BITCH!"

Martha is also a dragon. George, who in this context should be called Saint George, plucks a bunch of snapdragons in the moonlight, and hurls them "spear-like" at her, shouting "SNAP WENT THE DRAGONS!!" in his attempt to destroy her. By the end of the play, he has effectively succeeded in destroying her illusions, and has thereby destroyed the dragon, the Circe, the Bitch, the Satanic, the destructive aspects of Martha, thus making way for the positive, creative aspects of the Mother Goddess to manifest themselves. Martha's Dianic moon has set, but it will reappear, just as the moon in the play:

Martha: (With finality) There is no moon; the moon went down.
George: (With great logic) That may very well be, Chastity; the moon may very well have gone down . . . but it came back up.
Martha: The moon does not come back up; when the moon has gone down it stays down.
George: (Getting a little ugly) You don't know anything. If the moon went down, then it came back up.
Martha: BULL!
George: Ignorance! Such . . . ignorance.

Honey is the absolute antithesis of Martha. Since Martha encompasses so much, very little is left over for Honey. She possesses all the passive, unproductive aspects of the chaste Artemis. She is as effectual as a fetus curled up on the bathroom floor, and little more need be said.

Nick's name has several possible meanings. On the folklore level, he is perhaps Old Nick, the Devil. On the etymological level, his name is a diminutive form of "Nicholas", which means "victory over the people". Several critics implicitly accept this last interpretation by maintaining that Nick's biological evolution will eventually be victorious over George's historical process. I, however, believing that there is definite evidence in the play demonstrating that Nick will never be victorious, would emphasize that "Nick" is a diminutive form of "Nicholas", and would view his name as an ironic comment upon his success. Be this as it may, there is a third, more plausible, interpretation of his name: George caricatures Nick as one who will perform "tiny little slicing operations that will leave just the smallest scar" – or nick – "on the underside of the scrotum" in order to produce a race of genetic supermen.

Nick, who is going to counteract history by means of biological genetics, and who is going to create everyone in his own perfect image, is essentially the false Apollo type as caricatured by Robert Graves in The White Goddess and by Blake in the person of Urizen. But Nick will never succeed in his desires because he cannot create; his loins are "solid gold", he produces only a "puff" with his wife, and he is impotent in the bed of the Mother Goddess. Nick, instead of enabling humanity to ascend the evolutionary ladder, will not even be able to hold it at a standstill; he will descend this ladder for the following symbolic reason: When Martha asks George to light her cigarette, he says, "No . . . there are limits. I mean man can put up with only so much without he descends a rung or two on the old evolutionary ladder . . . (Now a quick aside to Nick) . . . which is up your line . . . (then back to Martha) . . . sinks, Martha, and it's a funny ladder . . . you can't reverse yourself . . . start back up once you're descending." By lighting Martha's cigarette later in the play, Nick begins his fall: "Hey . . . hand me a cigarette . . . lover (Nick fishes in his pocket). That's a good boy. (He gives her one) Unh . . . thanks. (He lights it for her)." Nick in fact is also "Narcissistic", and the fate of Narcissus is by no means victorious. In one version of the myth, Narcissus simply wastes away beside his own image in the pool; in another version he drowns in this pool. This second version of the myth may be alluded to when George says "We gotta play a game"; Martha quips "Portrait of a man drowning", and George says "(Affirmatively, but to none of them) I am not drowning." Nick, the only other man present, may the one who is drowning.

Nick is the God of the New Year attempted to usurp the rightful place of the George – the God of the Old Year – as the consort of the Mother Goddess. Just as Zeus castrated Cronos and took over his rule, so Nick wishes to castrate George. George explains how Nick's race of genetic supermen will be created:

Millions upon millions of them . . . millions of tiny little slicing operations that will leave just the smallest scar, on the underside of the scrotum but which will assure the sterility of the imperfect . . . of the ugly, the stupid . . . the . . . unfit. [. . . History] will lose its glorious variety and unpredictability. I, and with me . . . the surprise, the multiplexity, the sea-changing rhythm of . . . history, will be eliminated. there will be order and constancy . . . and I am unalterably opposed to it. [. . .] I will not give up things like that. No . . . I won't. I will fight you, young man . . . one hand on my scrotum, to be sure . . . but with my free hand I will battle you to the death.

As George says, he will not allow himself to be castrated by the up-and-coming God of the New Year. Instead, he allows Nick to possess Martha during an intercalary moment, and then reappears to regain his supremacy, his rightful kingship. In primitive ritual the king was annually sacrificed or castrated, and replaced by the new king. However, it is important to bear in mind that this was often only theoretical, for in practice the king might be ritually slain in the form of a tree, an animal, or a human substitute. This surrogate would be allowed to rule for a limited period of time before his deposition; such a rite was the origin of the Feast of Fools and its Lord of Misrule. After the sacrifice of this surrogate, the original king would reappear and proclaim himself reborn. Nick is such a surrogate, and after his brief rule Martha tells him, "There is only one man in my life who has ever . . . made me happy. Do you know that? One! [. . .] George; my husband."

Sometimes, however the surrogate would be the king's son. George not only allows Nick, as surrogate, to rule temporarily and then be deposed; he also sacrifices his illusory son his stead. After George tells Martha that their son is dead, a scene occurs which indicates George's god-like powers:

Martha: You cannot. You may not decide these things.
Nick: He hasn't decided anything, lady. It's not his doing. He doesn't have the power . . .
George: That's right, Martha; I'm not a God. I don't have the power over life and death, do I?
Martha: You can't kill him! You can't have him die!

This son, whom George does indeed have the power to kill, is a little Apollo: "He loved the sun! . . . He was tan before and after everyone . . . and in the sun his hair . . . became . . . fleece"; he is called "sunny-Jim", and he used to keep "the bow and arrow" under his bed. He is also "the Lamb", and George is "going to make [Martha's] performance tonight look like an Easter pageant", a ritual in which the sacrifice of the Son brings atonement for the living. By symbolically eating the eucharistic telegram containing the news of the death of his son on the day of that divine Son's Birthday, George is reborn, resurrected, and reunited with Martha the Mother Goddess at sunrise on Sunday. On the symbolic level, George and Martha are not really uncreative. The son in every archetypal family is always in a sense superfluous; he has no separate personality, but is simply a reincarnation of his father. His purpose is to be a renewed manifestation of his father, or to die so that his father may be reborn. George and Martha will no longer live a life of manifold illusions; they will live a life of eternal reality. They will play no more games, for they have reached the Center of the labyrinth. They have been purged by the exorcism. At the end of the play, George tells Martha that it is "time for bed", and that it will be "Sunday tomorrow; all day" – words which echo the "Requiescat in pace" and "Et lux perpetua luceat eis" in the Exorcism.

It may be, if Jungian psychology is correct in its assertion that myth is instinctive rather than traditional, that these underlying mythic patterns account for the intense dynamic effect of Albee's drama. Every time I read the play, or see it performed, or see the movie version, I am almost totally absorbed by it, and experience a wild demonic joy. The violence of the dialogue and action may also account for this response by appealing to what Edgar Allan Poe called the "innate imp of the perverse", but, as all great drama, Albee's play demonstrates the cathartic principle that destruction and violence are not ends in themselves, but purge both the actors and the spectators, and prepare the way for rebirth.

Copyright Rictor Norton

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Rictor Norton, "Folklore and Myth in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", Gay History and Literature, uploaded 8 December 2008 <>.

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