Study Guide

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Introduction

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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Introduction

Edward Albee was born in Washington, DC. At two weeks old, he was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee of New York. His name was changed from Edward Harvey to Edward Franklin Albee III. Little Edward's new name came from his adopted grandfather, E. F. Albee, who was a big time vaudeville producer. The family was very wealthy as a result of E. F. Albee's exploits. Edward was raised in Westchester, New York in the lap of luxury. His adopted mother, Frances, did her best to groom him into a respectable member of the upper class. Edward, however, had other plans. From a young age he resisted the upper class social circle he'd been brought up in. Eventually he dropped out of school and went to live the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. After working a bunch of odd jobs to stay afloat, he eventually scored big on Off Broadway with his first one act play The Zoo Story.

With the Broadway premiere of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962, Albee went from promising young playwright to great American dramatist, and was perceived by many as having joined the ranks of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? didn't go off without controversy, though. Some audience members were shocked by its strong language and taboo sexual references. If you put the play on HBO today, it would probably seem tame, but in the early '60s it was accused of being perverse and dirty minded. The script won the vote for the Pulitzer Prize, but some thought it was just too controversial to be given the prestigious award. It was said that the play didn't present a wholesome image of America. As a result of the controversy, no one received the Pulitzer for Drama that year. This struck half of the Pulitzer panel as being so wrong that they resigned in protest.

No need to feel sorry for Mr. Albee, however. The play was a gigantic commercial success. Even though the play didn't receive its well-deserved Pulitzer, it was awarded the NY Drama Critics Circle Award and the Tony Award for best play. In later years, Albee went on to win three Pulitzers: A Delicate Balance (1967), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1994). Thus, Edward Albee has the distinction of winning more Pulitzer Prizes than any other playwright besides Eugene O'Neill. In 1996 Albee received the Kennedy Center's National Medal of Arts, and is considered by many to be America's greatest living playwright.

What is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? About and Why Should I Care?

As the theme song to The Love Boat reminds us, love can be a very special emotion, full of soaring highs that make the world and everything in it a beautiful wonder to behold. Such splendor has been celebrated in literature since time immemorial, as writers everywhere have sought to capture this uniquely splendid sensation.

This ain't that kinda story. To quote another old song: "What goes up, must come down." As high as the highs of love can be, the lows can be downright brutal. And ugly. And petty. And cringe-inducing. Yup, this play has that territory covered—in full. So, why would anyone want to subject themselves to watching couples fight all night long?

Well, the first, saddest answer is that human beings love a good conflict, boy. How else do you explain the one-time success of Jerry Springer? There's a certain voyeuristic quality to this play, which allows us to peep in on the most intimate details of a marriage on the rocks. In part, this explains the play's huge commercial success.

But it's more than that. You should care about this play because it's a stark portrayal of just how bad things can get when love goes wrong. And by wrong, we mean corrupted—by bitterness, resentment, competition, and deceit. Albee's play is practically a blueprint for how to have an unhappy marriage. It's a detailed character study of how two people, formerly in love, can inflict irreparable emotional damage on one another. And what's the great prize for this ability? Why, it's just sadness and isolation of course.

So the next time your significant other leaves the toilet seat up, or tosses out your favorite t-shirt, pick up this play. You'll be reminded of where you absolutely don't want to end up in your relationship. Thanks to this worst-case scenario, you'll have a stark reminder that it's better to kiss and make-up, rather than cheat and tear down.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Resources


Albee Bio
Here's a good Albee biography.

NY Times Theatre Reviews
Click here to track what the critics have thought about Albee over the course of his career.

Movie or TV Productions

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966
The only film version was released 1966 and starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Historical Documents

NY Times Review (1962)
Check out what the NY Times had to say about the play's Broadway premiere.

NY Times Review (2005)
Compare what the NY Times had to say about the most recent revival.

Paris Review (1966)
A great interview with Albee by the Paris Review. This interview includes lots of great information on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Albee Interview
Mr. Albee talks about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? among other plays.


Recent Revival
A picture of Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin in the most recent Broadway revival.

Taylor and Burton
This is a picture of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the infamous Martha and George.

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