"I am the Earth Mother":

Pagan Elements in Edward Albee's
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf


"I am preoccupied with history" George observes in Act I (p. 50) of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But his relationship with his wife, Martha, seems to lean almost towards anthropology. Perhaps I have read Frazer's The Golden Bough too recently, but pagan social and religious elements in Albee's work seem to clarify and enhance the basic themes of the play.

Pagan trappings adorn the whole structure of the play: the prevalence of alcohol, the "goddamn Saturday night orgies" (p. 7) Martha's father throws, Martha's identification as "the only true pagan on the eastern seaboard... [who] paints blue circles [of woad?] around her things" (p. 73) or "the Earth Mother" (p. 189), or George's injunction, in Old Testament language, to "just gird your blue-veined loins, girl" (p. 205). The stage seems set for religious ritual. Even the act titles have pagan religious significance. "Fun and Games" are of course the prelude to many a religious event, even in the Christian Easter and Christmas. "Walpurgisnacht" or "St. Walburga's Night" is the evening before May Day, when Christians claim witches and nightmares are on the roam. But May Day and the evening before is also the pagan Beltaine, a day of fertility rituals as the God and Goddess bring vitality and passion to Nature -- a maypole signifies masculine fertility; the flowers about it show feminine vitality ("flores para los muertos"? (p. 195)). And "The Exorcism" is a banishment of the spirit of evil, in the sacrifice of the imaginary child who has become a scapegoat bearing all George and Martha's sins.

Martha tries to wield her power like an old-style matriarch, saying "I wear the pants in this house" (p. 157) and controlling Nick as a "houseboy" (p. 194). She is the goddess-priestess-whore, "revirginized" (p. 78) after her dalliance with the gardener's boy, and still intact, in a way, after all her affairs with faculty husbands, for "finally they get their courage up... but that's all, baby!" (p. 189). She celebrates sexuality almost religiously -- George calls the "most voluptuous" outfit she changes into her "Sunday chapel dress!" (p. 47). Like countless ancient goddess figures, Martha is "ample," big-breasted ("melons bobbing" (p. 152)), probably with large hips to contrast with Honey's smaller frame. Cybele, the Great Mother goddess of Asia Minor, had priests who ritually castrated themselves -- and, as George says of Martha, "it works out that the sacrifice is usually of a somewhat more private portion of the anatomy" (p. 28). Martha has already defeated George in single combat (the old "boxing match" related on pp. 55-56) and still acts as some sort of Amazon warrior, "a hopped-up Arab, slashing away at everything in sight" (p. 152) whose "arm has gotten tired whipping [George]" (p. 153). More often, though, she controls George or her other men with language, with her choice of words or voice, baby-talk or hissing venom, and she takes special delight when her attacks can be rendered in rhyme (p. 133), as all good hexes should be.

But all is not well in Martha's matriarchy: inner demons ride both her and her husband. A common pagan practice is the transferral of a community's sins to a scapegoat, whether human, animal, or object, and the recipient in this case is the imaginary son that Martha and George create for themselves. The child is a weapon in their ceaseless war, and they project their own frustrations and sins, as well as their partner's, onto him. George claims the child threw up because of Martha's overly close, a lmost Oedipal, fixation with "mothering" him, (p. 120), even bathing him when he was sixteen years old (p. 215). Martha's drunkenness and indelicate sex drive become part of the family history -- part of a history which is to be destroyed and blown away by the end of the drama. Martha adds a quieter history, the story of a loving child who loved her and needed her, of the kind mothering she has blocked herself from with her rough lifestyle. Both "George's...weakness...and my...necessary greater strength" (p. 222), George's weak presence as "the shadow of a man flickering around the edges of a house" (p. 226), become sins enscribed in this fantasy life. And when George finally "kills" his son, he projects onto him his ancient guilt about killing his parents, for his son's way of dying exactly parallels the story of the car accident which, presumably, killed George's father. George has at last, in a way, atoned for his deed. In ancient Punic Carthage, in times of war or other social stress, the citizens of the city would sacrifice their children in a field outside the city called the Tophet. Here in New Carthage, thousands of years later, much the same goes on.

Paganism is, in the end, based on stories, illusions and mythical correspondences: fables and sympathetic magic. And George's arduous task is to rescue Martha from "playing variations on [her] own distortions" (p. 155) and move her into a more rational world-view -- not the cold, utilitarian, ambitious philosophy of Nick, but a happy medium between the two. Like Petruchio in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, George must re-educate his wife to use her energies constructively. Petruchio must teach Katherine to dream more, to find delight in the game of self-mockery and make-believe. Martha has gone too far in that direction, and George's tack is to plunge deep, deep into dream and illusion, flaunting its absurdity ("once, when I was sailing past Majorca... my Mommy and Daddy took me there as a college graduation present." (pp. 199-200)), only to shatter the basis of the dreams later with a cold dose of the real world. Indeed, George's exchange with Martha about the re-rising of the moon recalls Petruchio's sun-moon game with Katherine. In both plays, a woman is saved from her own behavior by changing its basis. And George changes Martha's behavior by sweeping away its very foundation, by changing her beloved son into the pagan scapegoat who bears away all the twisted, hateful history they have both constructed around him.

The pagan elements in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? strengthen the main themes and plot of Albee's play. Martha's boisterousness and sexuality make her a sort of pagan priestess, but one trapped by the myths and illusions she has constructed in her worship. But George's Latin burial service at last banishes the restless spirit who had so haunted his relationship with Martha, and it bears away much of their tortured past, making a fresh slate. Samhain has been fulfilled: the God and Goddess begin again, to build a new, more fertile relationship between themselves for the new year.


Page numbers for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are taken from the 1984 Atheneum edition.

Inspiration for this essay comes from a recent reading of Sir James George Frazer's book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1950 MacMillan), and several years of study in Latin and Greek.