Pagan Elements in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Essay

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Pagan Elements in 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. 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. 1...

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...avior 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.

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