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In this play, Edward Albee presents a set of characters who are supposed to have received the best that modern education can offer. However, this very civilized and cultured lot behaves in an extremely uncivilized manner. This is an important irony in the play.
George's role in the play is at first seen to be passive and complacent. He is pushover compared to his wife Martha, who appears to rule the roost. Trapped in a marriage with a demanding and cold wife, who in turn is influenced by her powerful father, George appears effete and ineffectual. He has not lived up to any of the expectations that both Martha and her father had for him. He is a terrible disappointment.
He, like Martha, has had a traumatized past. His story about a school acquaintance killing his mother and father in an accident can be seen as possibly autobiographical. At one point Martha claims that it was George who killed his parents exactly the same way as the boy in the story did. Her caustic remarks about the book he wrote and her accusation that he is a "murderer" provide more evidence that George's story is indeed his own. If so, his actions and behaviors, as well as his fear of life would all make sense. George is in retreat from the world. George camouflages his feelings better than Martha, yet he is as equally vulnerable and confused as Martha, but unlike her, he has a firm belief in how to play by the rules of the games they set up.
In his marriage with Martha, George has compromised a great deal. He is strong-willed but weak at heart. As a safeguard to avoid confrontation he finds solace in books. He is almost a shadow of a self so withdrawn is he into the world of illusion he has created with Martha. She knows him well when she remarks that he has indeed married her for the behavior she inflicts on him. This way, she says, George would at least be able to blame somebody for his failures. This implies that he is so weak that he cannot take responsibility for the state he is in.
Though George is embarrassed at Martha's revelation of his failures and incompetence, he continues to bear the insults. He also knows that they help justify her own life. He does retaliates when his manliness is challenged by Martha and by Nick but it is more because of his sharp wit and intelligence that he can ward off attacks, not any intentional malice. Yet he eventually consents to the abuse that Martha dishes out. The father figure, which Martha had always been searching for in him, is not in him. George is different from other men. He has a strong dislike for hypocrisy, but lacks the courage to disown it. He also has a broad sense of history and a philosophical outlook to life. He tends to see his demise within the larger scope of society. He fails Martha as society has failed him.
Along with Martha, he is accountable for the fictional world that they have created and he wanted to maintain it as much as she. They both suffer the "collectively inability to accept reality." George, however, due to his fear that their illusion will end up destroying Martha as well as make a public scandal of their lives when the news that they have "created" a son becomes public, succeeds in detaching himself from their illusion. In fact, it is George who takes command of the task of divesting their illusion although he does it in a cruel manner. Still, he helps Martha rid herself of this imaginary world of self-deception. It is because of his efforts that the illusion ultimately is expelled from their lives. Therefore, despite his apparent weaknesses, George becomes a mighty force of change in this play, ushering in a new stage of their marriage that will hopefully be more honest and genuine than the previous one.
At the end of the play he triumphs despite how the pain that he and Martha undergo in confronting the horrible reality of their lives. Even though he still may be weak, unambitious and unsuccessful, he at least has salvaged their relationship. Although he lacks her father's shrewdness and success, he does have qualities that are devalued but just as important: understanding, thoughtfulness, sincerity, a moral stand and a very firm belief in "humanistic principles."
The play describes Martha as a "large, boisterous woman, 52, looking somewhat younger." She is perceived as a loud, vicious- tongued, domineering woman who is angry, frustrated and unfulfilled. George calls her destructive and satanic and treats her as a demonic and perverse woman. She is at once a vixen, who attempts to seduce younger men (and succeeds as is the case with Nick) and a shrew, bent on degrading her husband in public.
Psychologically, Martha is an estranged and distraught woman. Though superficially she is projected as malicious, she is in fact a profoundly troubled person. The minor details given in the script point to these characteristics of hers. Her mother died when she was just a child and her father married an extremely wealthy old lady, who never loved or cared for her. However, her father looked after her and she in turn adored him even though he managed to dissolve her first marriage because he did not approve of the boy's class. When George came into the picture, he saw him (George) as an ideal husband for Martha and a suitable heir to his position. As time passed he was proved wrong since George lacked the drive to achieve success. With this, his relationship with his daughter became a little cold and reserved. In George's words her father does not care "whether she lives or dies." With her feelings wounded by such an influential figure, she is left bitter and hurt and tries to drown her sorrow in alcohol. Gradually she becomes addicted to it. Her wailing under the spell of liquor, "I cry all the time too, Daddy. I cry all the time; but deep inside, so no one can see me," indicate her insurmountable grief.
Other than his position as college president, no information about Martha's father is given, not even his name. The audience only gets two differing portraits of him. One is the glorified version provided by Martha and other is the less kindly portrait that George creates. To George, he is a mouse with red eyes, invoking a laboratory experiment. He is one of many ambitious people on the rise in American society. He wants his piece of the pie and will do anything to get it. Regardless of his lack of values, he dominates Martha's life, denying her care and affection, and causing her to see life through his vulgar eyes.
In retaliation for her "abandonment," she lashes out at another male figure in her life who represents all that her father reviles. George thus becomes her victim. In rebuking and ridiculing him for his inadequacies, she appears as a "castrator of a defenseless and emasculated husband." Furthermore, her sterility is also a cause to aggravate her repressed feelings. She refuses to surrender herself to reality. The "son-myth" becomes her greatest distraction. She wallows in this disillusionment. It seems so colorful and real that she can talk endlessly on the subject of her son, from his birth to his metamorphoses as a twenty-one year old lad. She creates every moment of living with her imaginary son.
As the party comes towards an end, simultaneously, the harsh and terrifying realities mar the sustained illusions. In the end Martha tries to turn away from a life of fantasy, in order to lead a life, troubled with the ups and downs of reality. She is the character who had started off as being aggressive and powerful and is left as one totally dependent on her husband to face the glare of a life without illusions. Her descent into feebleness is seen in her response to being afraid of Virginia Woolf. At the beginning of the play, she was braying this nursery rhyme cum joke with all the bravado of her person, but now she is cowed by it and reveals her entrenched fear of life. In a sense, she and George have reversed roles.