Outcry Against Conformity in Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? may be viewed as a criticism of American society in the 1960s. Edward Albee saw 'the responsibility of the writer...to be a sort of demonic social critic': thus the play became a reaction against the illusionary plays of its time. Two lines from the play are directly lifted from the works which Albee is mocking: 'Flores para los muertos' is from A Streetcar named Desire and Martha's speech - 'Awww, tis the refuge we take...' - is from a play by Eugene O'Neill. Both of these playwrights sanction illusion in the face of reality; Virginia Woolf is said to be an elaborate metaphor for the 'willing substitution of fantasy for reality, the destructive and dangerous infantilising of the imagination and the moral being by fear.' Albee saw society as too willing to conform and adjust itself morally in order to benefit and succeed. George's attempts to escape from such a society result in his hiding in history and thus him and Nick are no better than each other. George has to resist the totalitarian - 'defend Berlin' - in Nick but his attempts to defend Western civilisation 'against its sex- and success-orientated assailants...are too closely centred on his scrotum.'
The setting - New Carthage - of the alcohol-sodden gathering is significant in itself. The original Carthage was founded in the ninth century BC and it was razed to the ground in 146AD, when it collapsed under the weight of its own power. It is thus being likened to the America of the 1960s where, again, money and power provided the principal axels for behaviour and superseded the values of culture. As Nick and Martha attempt to commit adultery in the kitchen, George reads that 'the west must...eventually fall' while he himself likens New Carthage to other devastated cities: Gomorrah and Penguin Island (a mythic island destroyed by its own inhuman capitalism, created by Anatole France). The repeated apocalyptic references to sterility and destruction have immediate relevance, considering the time in which the play was written - during the Cold War.
Nick and Honey act as a sounding board and audience for Martha and George's elaborate games, but on a more sinister level, as a representation of the new robotic generation in society. Nick is confident of inevitable success and is willing to adapt his morality to the demands of expediency. The name is itself a symbol of totalitarianism in reference to Nikita Khrushchev, the president of the Soviet Union at the time of Virginia Woolf's first performance. While their presence is initially consoling (they represent the audience's shock and alienation in the face of George and Martha's relationship) they become increasingly more ominous once the extent of their characters is revealed. Nick admits that his...