NICK: I am not a houseboy.
GEORGE: Look! I know the game! You don't make it in the sack, you're a houseboy.
NICK: I AM NOT A HOUSEBOY!
GEORGE: No? Well then, you must have made it in the sack. Yes? (He is breathing a little heavy; behaving a little manic) Yes? Someone's lying around here; somebody isn't playing the game straight. Yes? Come on; come on; who's lying? Martha? Come on!
NICK: (After a pause; to MARTHA, quietly with intense pleading) Tell him I'm not a houseboy.
MARTHA: (After a pause, quietly, lowering her head) No; you're not a houseboy.
GEORGE (With great, sad relief): So be it.
MARTHA (Pleading): Truth and illusion, George; you don't know the difference.
GEORGE: No; but we must carry on as though we did.
There's only four characters in Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: George, a middle-aged college professor; his wife and the daughter of the college dean, Martha; and their two guests, the newly hired biology professor Nick and his wife Honey. If you read that sentence and can't help think of those two friendly hippopotami, well, you're not alone, because that's what I was imagining the whole time I was reading this play--two fat hippopotami slowly pulling a younger couple into the sadistic games of their deeply broken marriage. Somehow that made it even darker.
Throughout the night--the play takes place in the wee hours of the morning after a faculty party, and all involved are heavily besotted--George and Martha play a number of "games" with each other, some of which seem to be invented on the spur of the moment and some with which they are already deeply familiar. They have cute names like "Humiliate the Host" and "Get the Guests," and late in the play Nick is even invited to play "Hump the Hostess," which is what it sounds like. They call each other names, and prod at each other's most vulnerable places. And yet, there is a sense that, like ordinary games, they have rules: George and Martha's marriage, as much as their hatred each other, is propped up by a shared understanding that verges on madness, or fiction. As George says, "we must carry on as though" we knew the difference between truth and illusion.
The thing that finally punctures this unhappy relationship--spoiler alert here, since this is the play's "shocking reveal"--is when Martha lets slip that she and George have a son who's off in college. There is no son; merely a shared fiction born out of the grief and humiliation that the two were unable to conceive. That's against the rules, George declares, and in spite he "kills" their son by inventing a story about his death in a car accident--illusion of course, but it reduces Martha to ash.
George is a professor of history, and he makes much of the fact that Nick is a professor of biology. In what seems like a pretty ahead-of-its-time anxiety for 1962, he channels his emasculated resentment of Nick's youth and good looks into a harangue against genetic engineering:
MARTHA (To Nick): What's all this about chromosomes?
NICK: Well, chromosomes are...
MARTHA: I know what chromosomes are, sweetie, I love 'em.
NICK: Oh... Well, then.
GEORGE: Martha eats them.. for breakfast... she sprinkles them on her cereal. (To Martha, now) It's very simple, Martha, this young man is working on a system whereby chromosomes can be altered... well not all by himself--he probably has one or two co-conspirators--the genetic makeup of a sperm cell changed, reordered... to order, actually... for hair color and eye color, stature, potency... I imagine... hairiness, features, health... and mind. Most important... Mind. All imbalances will be correct, sifted out, propensity for various diseases will be gone, longevity assured. We will have a race of men... test-tube-bred... incubator-born... superb and sublime.
George contrasts biology with history, sameness versus variability, but ultimately the distinction collapses. Both biology and history are kinds of determinacy, or fatalism, and neither can account for why this marriage has become so poisonous. That defies any sort of scientific model, of course, because as Martha and George agree, there is no telling what even the basic facts are. And neither can account for the great act of imaginary creation in which George and Martha's son is born, or the great act of imaginary destruction by which he died. The play takes the question of nature vs. nurture and ultimately answers with a shrug; to the question of how human cruelty arises, it has no opinion except to observe that it is mostly inescapable.
Ultimately, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seems characteristic of a kind of mid-century suspicion of suburban life, and the atomic family, the kind you see in Rabbit Run and even more recently in Mad Men and Revolutionary Road, which are all set in the exodus to surburbia of the 50's and 60's. But none of those book have anthropomorphic, alcoholic hippopotami.