Who's Afraid of Martha?
Updated: Jan 20
Martha, the self-loathing heroine of Edward Albee’s searing 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the embodiment of the gay icon run amok, a character who insists on our attention the moment she utters her first line of dialogue in the play. Returning home late one night from a faculty party with her husband George, an associate history professor at an unnamed New England college, Martha looks around her living room and, unimpressed with her surroundings, declares with the theatrics of a ringmaster, “What a dump!” It’s a reference to Beyond the Forest, a 1949 Warner Brother film starring Bette Davis, a gay icon that, like Martha, who refused to conform to the demands placed upon her by virtue of her gender. Martha’s defiance is her theatrical calling card in the play, one which acts as the source from which she rises as a gay icon, a figure unwilling to roll over and accept her sorry lot in life as handed to her by the patriarchy. Martha is, by her very actions, a symbolic reminder to her gay devotees that she’s willing to lead a full-scale insurrection on their behalf against the patriarchal powers trying to silence her gay sons.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play primarily concerned with the struggle to live life without illusions while simultaneously attacking the “false optimism and myopic confidence of modern society” in the post-World War II America. The play concerns itself with the blistering antics of George and Martha, a middle-aged couple who appear to be in a permanent state of war with one another during the height of the cold war. One night they invite a young couple, Nick and Honey, home after a university faculty party for a nightcap that slowly escalates into an onslaught of recrimination, binge drinking, infidelity, and the revelation that George and Martha have a son, a disclosure we later learn to be a coping mechanism for the imaginary child they never had, one who George later “kills” off in order to teach Martha that she must pay for the sin of wanting, but also to reaffirm the rightful order of George as the patriarch of the family and the arbiter of truth and illusion.
In post-Eisenhower America, women were a forgotten generation who lived in a shadow world of truth and illusion, imprisoned by a patriarchal order that demanded loyalty from its subjects all for the joyless task of serving men. Martha, as we come to find out in the play, is “discontent” joining a long line of women relegated to the role of wife, mother, and homemaker in 1950’s America. To seek a career, to demand equality, to expect to be heard was anathema to the time. To expect otherwise was to be deemed a threat to the natural order of all things American. “In this ideological climate, independent women threatened the social order,” Joanne Jay Meyerowitz reminds us in Not June Cleaver, her landmark study of gender in 1950’s America. “Under cultural pressure and with limited options for work outside the home, women, contained and constrained, donned their domestic harness.” But Martha doesn’t don her domestic harness willingly in the play. Instead, she dispenses with the formalities of men the way one dispenses with a pesky housefly that won’t go away. Throughout Edward Albee’s theatrical romp Martha uses her words like one uses a shotgun to bulldoze her way through a room. She screams, blusters, and howls for our attention the moment she enters the play to make it clear who’s in charge. It’s the type of female archetype drawn from the pages of Euripides’ Medea, the patron saint of all murderers, who kills her two sons offstage for blood sport out of unhappiness at her wretched lot in life as a wife and mother.
Martha’s refusal to don her domestic harness and conform to the gender roles of her time parallels the experience of gay men who refused to acquiesce to the social order of the closet at the time and, in turn, faced the prospect of public shaming, the diagnoses of mental illness, or even imprisonment. To be gay in 1950’s America was to be an enemy combatant. America had long had a collective repulsion for all things queer as Naoko Shibusawa reminds us in The Lavender Scare, “American’s expressed disdain for "fairies" or effeminate men and activity prior to the cold war.” After World War II this disdain became not only a “moral” one, but also a matter bound by national security and patriotism. “Like communism, homosexuality was seen as a threat to national security,” Shibusawa notes, “The lavender scare's logic was circular: homophobia supposedly made gays vulnerable and potential victims of blackmail, but the era's policies of increasing homophobia theoretically made gays even more vulnerable to blackmail.” A queer man’s vulnerability to blackmail served as a further reminder of emasculation and weakness. Not only were gay men deviants that threatened the heteronormative ideal, but they were also treasonous, eating away at the very social fabric of American patriotism and tradition.
But tradition is a slippery slope, one that is almost always subverted by the very denial of the other. From this pool of denial gay men see the reflection of Martha, our patron Gay Saint Emeritus, equal parts Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene, gazing back at us from across the hazy waters of time. It is from this reflecting pool that gay men see their plight reflected vividly in Martha’s eyes. Martha suffers from the prison of low expectations placed upon her by a patriarchal society that deems domesticity her calling card in life. Martha, like gay men of her time, lived in a shadow prison where they had been erased and sidelined to the outer regions of the straight and narrow, a place they were likely to be treated with a rigorous dose of electroshock therapy if they didn’t change their nonconforming ways.
In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? we discover Martha is equal parts martyr and monster, victim and perpetrator, entertainer and ringmaster, nothing less than a gay icon who doesn’t so much emulate male behavior as much as she refuses to conform to the feminine mystique of the time, one where good housekeeping, and motherhood represented the aspirational goals for women in America. Martha is not an “ideal woman” for her time, but rather she is what first wave feminist Betty Friedan termed, "the problem that has no name,” a term used to describe the unhappiness and malaise among American women in 1950’s America. Martha is arguably a feminist looking for a cause – not realizing the cause comes from within. Friedan unpacks this realization in her book The Feminine Mystique, a book that drew early recognition that women, particularly white middle class women in America, were not content with the framework placed upon them as wife and mother, a place in which “women could find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.” It was a place that denied women an identity that didn’t serve the male cause, tethering her to vacuum cleaner and a crib, making her a virtual prisoner of circumstance for no other reason than her DNA.
Martha is by all accounts an anarchist of her time, eschewing the formalities of gender to fight openly against hostile patriarchal forces that seek to quiet her. Martha reminds us more than once that “she wears the pants in the family,” not her husband George, an associate professor who should after many years be “running the history department, but is only in the history department,” something Martha more than reminds him of at every turn, her dig a reminder of his failure, and by extension, her own. Martha delights in her resistance to all things patriarchal and in doing so she takes her rightful place as a gay icon and performer to be adored and venerated by her gay court. Martha is a flawed yet surprisingly aspirational figure for gay men to gaze upon and aspire toward. Her audacious behavior is laudable and mercurial for precisely the fact she is unafraid to take up the cause of resistance against her patriarchal oppressors when called upon to do so. From this place Martha becomes the template for the gay icon obscura, a place from which she practices guerrilla warfare against hostile forces that dare to deny her the inalienable right to be herself. Martha becomes the gay maternal earth mother that we worship, but also secretly yearn to be. This yearning parallels the plight and position of gay men in post-Eisenhower America who were looking for a way out of the shadows, to free themselves from an identity that marked them as the other, or treated them as the vice of mental illness, the very essence of an abomination to the straight and narrow way of life. In Martha’s hands we find a gay icon and resistance fighter willing to fight the good fight, a symbolic reminder to gay men we’re more than the lens cast down upon us; we’re resistance fighters in a drawn-out war of identities; and to resist the identities placed upon us is to embrace an identity of what it means to be alive.
To be alive in Edward Albee’s play is to become a target in a war of truth and illusion. Albee traffics in truth and illusion as the cause of Martha’s despair throughout the play, but also as a cautionary tale about patriarchal sins run amok. In doing so he weaponizes Martha’s sexuality as a means to gain the illusion of power in a patriarchal world. We watch as Martha deploys coercive power to humiliate her husband George by openly and brazenly committing adultery with her house guest Nick, an ambitious young college professor willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead in his career, including sleeping with Martha, the daughter of the president of the college. Later, when Nick is unable to perform adequately to Martha’s liking in the bedroom, she cracks her whip reminding the “stallion” in question he might be an overachiever in every part of life but he’s “certainly a flop in some departments,” reasserting her power over him by emasculating his performance in the bedroom. It is the assertion of dominance and power by Martha over Nick that freezes us in a kind of gender reversal, but it is ultimately one without any lasting agency or consequence outside of the framework of infidelity, as Martha holds no real power outside of the home.
In the play’s final act, Martha serves as a stand in for truth and illusion, both in life and in the play, and by extension the audience. Unable to have a child – the gold standard by which women were defined in 1962 – Martha makes one up to the fill the void and emptiness of compulsorily motherhood in post-Eisenhower America. Truth and illusion for Martha becomes a sliding scale, one that her husband George enables out of a combination of love and self-pity as the family’s requisite peacemaker and patriarch. George not only helps Martha build the fiction of their imaginary child, but he also helps her invent its backstory, reminding her of its minute details including the birth itself, “You labored…how you labored.” But what exactly has Martha labored under, we must ask ourselves, the failure to fulfill her role as wife and mother in a patriarchal wet dream? Despite Martha’s participation in these fantasies, she occasionally recognizes the fiction she and George evoke, eventually asking a question that becomes an answer in reverse for them both, “Truth or illusion, George; you don’t know the difference?”
In 1962, illusion was a survival tool for gay men forced by the cultural standards of 1960’s America to live in the closet under the constant threat of exposure. It was a place where illusion acted as truth and desire was subsumed in order to project the illusion of the heteronormative ideal. To acknowledge this truth is to acknowledge true loneliness, “Not the conventional word of loneliness,” as Joseph Conrad reminds us in Under Western Eyes, “but the naked terror.” To live without illusions is to live with the terror of loneliness. In 1962, most gay men hid out in the loneliness of the closet, finding refuge in the back rooms of smoky bars owned by mobsters and in the squalor of public toilets hoping they wouldn’t be raided by the police, all in the hope of finding an illusive taste of happiness to quench their melancholic thirst. As Ed Sikov reminds us, “Issues of secrecy and concealment, exposure and revelation lie at the heart of gay men’s experience in the twentieth century.” It was a shadow world of truth and illusion where surveillance, isolation, and loneliness meant creating two faces to show the world, one public and one private, neither a reflection of the truth, but each a reflection of survival in a closed off world. Gay men married women as an act of conformity, performing the ritual act of the heteronormativity, or they sought out love from other men living on the margins of society, constantly under the threat of being exposed and publicly shamed for it, a shame that was in 1962 still a felony in every state in the union. To act on love was to be criminal.
Love for Martha might not be a crime, but it is a place of trauma. Martha is unable to accept love from George because to accept love from her husband is to accept the social order and confinement placed upon her by virtue of her gender. Thus, the confinement of gender for Martha becomes a loveless prison, one held together by a wall of melancholy and sadness that is revealed in the final act of the play when she speaks about her marriage to Nick, and discloses the tragic web of love and sadness that permeates her life,
“George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me - whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy. And yes, I do wish to be happy. George and Martha: Sad, sad, sad. Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: “Yes, this will do”. Who has made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving… me, and must be punished for it. George and Martha… Sad, sad, sad.”
The tragedy of Martha’s plight is the circumstance of the double standards placed upon woman in 1962 by an unforgiving culture where the option of housewife or mother wasn’t so much a choice for woman, but an ultimatum. By the end of the play Martha learns to manage life without illusion, not by choice, but rather by force, when George kills their imaginary son, detonating a nuclear bomb that obliterates illusion forever between the two. From this place of tragedy the mythology of Martha as a gay icon rises, one filled with all the necessary riddles and contradictions needed for us to pay penance to her effigy.
Gay icons must, by their very nature, possess the strength of super heroes, yet remain comfortably mortal, forever linked with us but always from a great distance where they can be wisely served. Thus, the gay icon is revealed to be a fantasy figure gay men project onto our icons to save us from our imaginary sins. Martha, as we come to realize by the end of the play, is a projection of us all, a victim and a perpetrator, a sinner and a saint, a martyr and a heretic, a resistance fighter and a Roman blood letter, all facets engaged in full-scale war against the patriarchy. In this sense Martha is the embodiment of the gay icon as pipe dream, unobtainable and forever elusive. Martha is the earth mother we yearn to fight along side in a battle against hostile forces that seek to drive us back into the closet, and yet she remains a figure we recoil from at the same time for fear she will drive us to ruin. Her contradictions as a gay icon and performer are ultimately her allure, her antics her downfall, and her essence the reflection of who we are, a quandary like an enigma never to be solved.
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Sikov, Ed. Don’t let’s ask for the moon – we have a star! Bette Davis as gay icon.
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