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Religious Ritual

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Pagan Rituals

Act 2 of the play is called "Walpurgisnacht." That's a big word and refers to a festival that occurs on April 30th in many European countries. Though the holiday is now named after the Catholic St. Walpurga, its rituals and meanings are of pagan origin and it is more closely associated with pagan ritual than Catholicism. Walpurgisnacht is a lot like Halloween, as it's an evening for witches, spirits, and ghosts. Kids even go out and play pranks. It's kind of a tease though, because there's "tricks" but apparently no "treats" in particular. Tsk, tsk, Europe.

It makes a lot of sense that Albee would name his second act after a holiday with such strong pagan origins. For starters, the act definitely begins to feel a bit like a wild, sexually liberated pagan festival when Nick and Martha begin dancing and making out. More importantly, it's in this act that the specters of the dead play an important role. When Martha reveals the sad story of George's novel, we realize that George is most likely responsible for the death of both of his parents. By telling this story, Martha becomes like a Walpurgisnacht witch summoning the dead to do her bidding. In this case, her bidding is to completely humiliate her husband. Perhaps, Albee is setting us up for this idea in Act 1 when George says, "Martha is the only true pagan on the Eastern Seaboard" and that she "paints blue circles around her things" (1.660, 1.663).

Christian Rituals

Throughout the play there are several Christian symbols as well. The chiming of doorbell is much like the chiming of bells at a Catholic mass. Also, the entire play takes place on a Sunday. George also shows off his Catholic chanting skills when he intones Kyrie Eleison and the Dies Irae, both part of the Requiem. Act 3 is called "The Exorcism," which is the Catholic practice that supposedly evicts demons or evil spirits from a person or home. The spirit in question in Act 3 is George and Martha's "son."

All this Christian imagery appears to be centered around the "death" of this imaginary son. One hint of this is when Martha refers to the boy as "Poor lamb" (3.343). This would seem to set the son up as a kind of Christ figure, as Jesus is sometimes called the Lamb of God. Christians believe that Jesus' crucifixion was a sacrifice deemed necessary by God. Jesus had to die to take away the sins of mankind.

In a way, George and Martha's son is sacrificed just like Jesus. It's as though the son's death is the only way that George and Martha can find salvation. It's probably no accident that George makes reference to an "Easter pageant" (3.220) as he's revving up for the sacrifice. Easter is the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. Of course, George is determined to never let his son be resurrected.

The fact that Albee uses Christian symbolism in an absurdist play is deeply ironic. After the son is sacrificed at the climax of the play, George and Martha certainly don't feel the love of a benevolent God flowing all around them. On the contrary, they've lost their last illusion and now must face the absurd meaninglessness of life. The play seems to view this loss of illusion as a tough but ultimately necessary thing. What do you think?

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