Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
SCENE SUMMARIES AND ANALYSIS
ACT I: FUN AND GAMES
The first act introduces the two couples involved in the play as well as brings to light information and Themes that will be developed in the next two acts. The older couple is mature and skillful in hiding their sterility. Their empty lives thrive on playing verbal as well as physical games. They merge illusion with reality and rely on escapism through game playing. They are performers, acting out their frustrations in a way that is entertaining. When George alludes to Martha's sexual appetite as well as her drinking, the audience understands that this is not the first time he has censured her. The younger couple is somewhat impervious to the games that are being performed for them yet they also go along with them. This is their initiation into adulthood and the politics of the university as Martha tells George that Daddy wanted them to be "nice to them." Martha and George have been performing these same witty exchanges for years.
George is an intelligent history professor, but he is pathetically entangled in a situation that has made his life meaningless. His father-in-law dominates his life and he resents living under his shadow. He lives in the past and is content with where he is. He has no desires to achieve anything more than what he has. Nick, the younger professor, represents the future, with his values and good looks that are conducive to "success" in life. He is ambitious and healthy, a good-looking high achiever who is willing to adapt to new moralities in order to further his career. George points out the artificiality of his achievements when he is referring to clones. They are nothing but "synthetic products of science" which cannot be true to nature.
The women also stand in opposition to each other. Martha is a domineering, vivacious, embittered woman who is discontent with her life as can be seen with the salvo of obscenities she releases at the beginning of the play. She is also very aware of herself as being attractive to younger men. She is a vixen. Honey, on the other hand, like her name is too sweet and naïve to be sexually appealing. She is more like an appendage to Nick. She supports her husband and rarely argues against him. She is meek and unassertive. She is the happy homemaker type of shows like "Father Knows Best," and acquiesces to her husband. She has little self-awareness and goes along with what everyone else thinks is right.
This acts centers on the world that George and Martha have constructed to desensitize themselves from reality. The mock battles and "games" that they play are what George describes as "walking what's left of our wits." They are a means to survive in a world that does not make sense. They can be seen as defense mechanisms. These games that they indulge in are important as is underscored by the title of this act - Fun and Games.
Usually acts are not named in drama but the dramatist has a purpose in introducing this strange concept as the title refers to the many games and hoaxes that the characters will engage in. First, George and Martha are involved in the dangerous game of taking and working with an illusion as reality. Next, George and Martha explain to their newly arrived guests how they are used to exercising the remainder of their wits. This can be looked upon as another kind of game, that of performance. In order to maintain their fantasy world, they must constantly act out their frustrations to an audience.
George will play the game of undermining Nick ("Good, better, best, bested") by revealing his knowledge of the humanities, a field that Nick is ignorant of. He does this to project his self-loathing onto him. Just as he has had to face humiliation from Martha, so George will degrade Nick. Not only is the whole play interspersed with games, their initial game (of avoiding reality under the cover of illusion) is itself destroyed by a game: "Kill the Kid." The constant verbal sparring in the form of witty exchanges is a form of aggression as well as pleasure.
Throughout the play, George and Martha play a number of games on their guests from singing nursery rhymes as the title suggests to more adult games that prey on feelings such as humiliating the host and seducing the guest. These games, like most, have certain rules that need to be followed. Yet in this act, Martha breaks two major rules. She discloses the secret of their son and she also pronounces George as a failure. Even though George has forewarned her not to mention "the kid" to their guests, she belligerently goes ahead and does it. Her indiscretion leads to exposing their pathetic lives and the secret that has been at the center of their constructed reality. This disclosure has serious repercussions as the way the games will be played on this night will differ from others and thus change the lives of this fantasy-bound intransigent couple. When Honey returns from her and Martha's trip to the "powder room," and tells the men that Martha is changing and then asks George about their son, George admits that his wife has never "changed" for him and if she is doing so, it should be taken as an honor. He knows that she is only preparing to hunt the guest (Nick), which is one of their games but that she has disclosed their secret about "the kid" changes the rules of the games. Martha has made a transgression that will bring an unpredictable edge to the evening's events, an unpredictability that George himself says is necessary for a humanistic world. Now George must find a way to discount this lie before his guests leave or their fantasy world will be revealed to the outside world.
Their relationship itself is a game they are playing. Both vie for power in this relationship and in the first act, it is Martha who comes out as the dominant force. Her intolerance for her husband surfaces in her caustic comments that challenge his masculinity and sense of self. Not only does she dwell on his professional failures but his physical ones as well. His presence is challenged and compared to Nick who is a paragon of beauty and achievement. She is unrelenting in her comments about his inadequacies. This leaves him bitter and mauled emotionally. He is called a "bog", a "flop" and "swampy." Her continuous comparison with his father-in-law shows him in a bad light as well and any of his responses about her father being a mouse with red eyes fall short. The audience can sense the adulation Martha has for her father as she describes their son as looking like him. She even goes so far as to say that George realizes that he may not be the father of their son.
Her attacks on his lack of ambition allude not only to his lack of progress in the History Department but his psychic inability to move forward. As Martha puts it, George truly belongs to the Department of History, because he refuses to move with the times. He is petrified to live and has shrouded himself in alcohol and pathetic verbal sparring to ward off changing himself or confronting his life. He is highly skeptical of new developments in genetic theory and refuses to believe that they are ultimately for the good of humanity. He challenges all that Nick stands for yet Nick is not only representative of the world of science and rational thinking, but in more primal terms he is seen as a threat to George's world because he is an ideal that many people in society revere. His sex appeal and good looks have threatened the sanctity of George's home. He wants a world with imperfections so that he can justify his own existence and also so that Martha will accept him, warts and all. His inability to defend himself in the boxing match is another indication of his timidity. He believes in surrender as the easiest route.
In this first act, George has become a pawn in the hands of Martha. She takes perverse pleasure in ridiculing him and tearing him to shreds. She clearly enjoys an upper hand in their relationship and manages to make him carry out her orders. This is seen in the way she invites guests at her own will, and George has to merely put up with it. Yet George will not be simply a passive victim of Martha's aggression. He has his own arsenal that he will deploy in the coming act. These power negotiations reveal the uneasy tension that is an integral part of the play and a source of the mutable and delicate circumstances that can change these games from being playful and harmless one minute to pernicious and inhumane the next.
Martha's aggressiveness is revealed throughout the act as being not only verbal but also sexual. It first comes to light when George jokes about her having attacked the artist of the painting in their living room. George's comments on her preying mentality as well as her own sexual innuendoes prepare the audience for her subsequent seduction of Nick. Double entendres are constantly employed by Martha as she slowly works her wiles on Nick. The gun can be seen as being an overtly sexual symbol. The insult that Martha hurls at George ("Screw you!"), but that the couple overhears, can be seen as either an allusion to sex or as getting even with someone as is the case with George. Martha suggests in a vulgar tone that Nick would not need any "props" for the games he would play. She does not shy away from pointing out that biology, which is Nick's subject, relates more closely to sex or as she mentions, it is closer "to the meat of things."
Many literary and historical allusions are referred to in this play. Mostly they are mentioned by George who has a trenchant humor that depends on knowledge of literature and history. Therefore, many of his references are not understood, as Nick is ignorant of these fields. Places like Illyria, an illusory island in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night; Penguin Island, an illusionary but satirical look at civilization, and Gomorrah, a biblical reference to a city destroyed by God because of its licentiousness as well as the town the college is in called New Carthage, Carthage being the site of Dido and Aeneas' destructive love in Vergil's classical epic The Aeneid all contribute to the fantastical as well as corrupting influences that mark many relationships.
The abstract painting in the room signifies the empty life George and Martha share. It is a painting of surfaces much like George and Martha's interactions that are all based on verbal exchange rather than deep feelings. The pointless arguments and the "sad games" they indulge in are a poor substitution for love and compassion. The genuine attachment and affection, which is the essence of any good relationship, is missing in theirs. Yet despite their antagonistic relationship must rely on each in order to maintain their fantasies. They have alienated themselves from real life and immunized themselves to the bitter fact that they are childless by creating a narrative of having born and raised a child. Whenever reality scares them, they expect their fictitious son to come to their rescue. The fantasy they cling to becomes essential for their survival, as they refuse to come out of their cocooned world. Consuming extensive liquor is also one of their many ways to shun reality. Theirs is an absurd society, highlighting the plight of humans in the modern age that alienates people from who they are. They cannot accept things as they are and need to set up illusions and deceptions in order to survive.