The War of the Women

August 3, 2022 by Essay Writer

Many of Edward Albee’s plays are “overrun with devouring mothers, castrating wives, and remote husbands. . .” (Hirsch 18). As a result, a typical Albee marriage is one of domestic warfare. The women endlessly battle with their men in order to maintain control and the upper hand in the leadership of their family. In such plays as The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and A Delicate Balance, Albee sees the American wife as the real driving force behind the household. Albee’s housewife honestly believes that her family would collapse without her strict and overbearing rule. Albee views these women as dominant and assertive. Women who will use any tactic necessary in order to keep their husbands powerless and unimportant. “In these female-dominated houses, husbands are remote and inadequate figures of distinctly secondary importance” (Hirsch 35). As hateful, and vengeful these women act though, they really do have a strange kind of “love” for their men. Albee portrays this love not so much as intense feelings of sexual desire or fondness, but more so of an underlying need for their companions. Albee’s women genuinely believe that they must be in complete control in order to maintain their families. As these American wives try to sustain their dominance and power, the men do sometimes retaliate which leads to domestic warfare. This is where Albee seems to switch the traditional ideals behind the husband and wife. They seemingly reverse sexual roles. The men berating the women for their brash “masculine” qualities, and the women attacking the men for their quiet “womanly” ways (Hirsch 27). There is evidence of such in The American Dream when Daddy is unsure of whether or not he should answer the front door. Mommy responds to him by saying; “Oh look at you! You’re turning into jelly; you’re indecisive; you’re a woman” (75). And the wives know that they are portraying masculine qualities. Martha, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? tells George; “I’m loud and vulgar, and I wear the pants in this house because somebody’s got to. . .” (157.2). The authoritative demeanor that the Albee wife carries can be seen as quite cruel. The men are destroyed in order for the women to keep their power. The cruelty is so strong and overwhelming that in a few cases the husbands talk or joke about killing their wives. There are examples of such in A Delicate Balance where Tobias jokes with Claire about killing not only his wife but her sister and his daughter as well. It is also evident in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when George draws a fake shotgun on Martha. He later asks her if she really thought that he would have killed her. She replies; “You? . . .Kill me?. . .That’s a laugh” (60.1). Martha maintains her dominance by shrugging it off. Albee lets his women justify their cruelty by claiming that their husbands enjoy it. Therefore not only do the women act so ruthlessly to meet their own needs, to be the singular drive behind the household, but they try to convince the men that they ask for such harsh treatment. During a dialog between Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Martha tells George that he really wants to be humiliated; GEORGE: . . .you can sit there. . .and you can humiliate me, you can tear me apart. . .and that’s perfectly alright. . .I CANNOT STAND IT!MARTHA: YOU CAN STAND IT!! YOU MARRIED ME FOR IT!! . . . My arm has gotten tired whipping you. . . . For twenty-three years! . . . IT’S NOT WHAT I’VE WANTED! (152-153) And so Martha instantly justifies her cruelty because she deemed it necessary and tells George that he was aware of it even before they were married. “Martha rationalizes her cruelty to George on the ground that he masochistically enjoys her beatings” (Bigsby 77). Albee’s women are able to drive the household by taking on the role of the decision maker. They keep this role by extending humiliations and cruelties to their partners. They really believe that they are doing the right thing, and that the men, enjoy it. In order to retain power and dominance in the household Albee’s women use various tactics such as embarrassment, encouragement, and threats to systematically destroy their husbands. The goal of embarrassment is to make the men feel insecure and unsure of themselves. Martha tries to achieve this in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by telling the guests about George’s pathetic and failed venture at writing a novel. He is left feeling nervous which is exactly the state Martha wishes to have him in. Now, for most of the Albee men, this would have been complete annihilation but George, the strongest of the husbands, just fights back harder (134-139). George was becoming a threat to Martha’s rule so she tried to quell it by embarrassing him in order to weaken him. After being throughly embarrassed had George been as weak as Tobias in A Delicate Balance, or Daddy in The American Dream, Martha could have then manipulated him to act however she wished by use of encouragement and threats. Encouragement is used to make the men do something that the women would rather not have to do themselves. It also gives the men a false sense of control, it makes them believe that they really are the ones in charge of the house, that they are the true decision makers. The wives like to pretend that they are merely on the sidelines and just supporting their mens’ decisions. A fantastic example of such occurs in The American Dream where Daddy expresses his uneasiness with a decision made to adopt another child. Mommy reassures him and reminds him that it was his decision that he made and she goes on to say that he was masculine and decisive about making it. Mommy lets Daddy feel that he is really in control, while she gets him to do exactly what she desires. The same thing happens in A Delicate Balance, when Tobias needs to be reassured of his masculinity after basically kicking Edna and Harry out. Albee shows us that as long as the women let the men believe that they are in control, it is very easy to manipulate their actions. It is the women whom are really making the decisions on the mens’ behalf. Threats are then used to make sure that the men stay in line. Whenever one of the Albee husbands seems to make a decision of his own, the wives are quick to threaten them with a certain kind of retaliation. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? this is the declaration of total war by Martha after she realizes that George is going to keep fighting back. Now, it doesn’t scare George off by any means, he welcomes it. But Martha has to do it in order to try and regain complete control. She believes that it is she whom can make the decisions that will be the best for the two of them. In the three plays that have been touched upon here the wives in each come off as hateful and manipulative. While they are manipulative in order to remain the key decision makers in their households, they are not hateful. In fact there is a strange kind of love that Albee creates between the married couples. It’s definitely not a sexual passion, or even a fondness that the wives feel for the husbands. But it is more of a dependancy, a need for them. The wives truly believe that they are doing the right thing by taking control of the house. The families would fall apart if they didn’t take control, even if it meant hurting their husbands. These women would have nothing to control, nothing to maintain without their men. Mommy would be at a loss without Daddy in The American Dream not only because he supports her financially, but because she would be alone, and wouldn’t have anyone to agree with her ideas. She wouldn’t have the comfort of knowing that she could make Daddy support her ideas. Agnes from A Delicate Balance would be left alone to the wrath of her sister and daughter without Tobias. Without Tobias she wouldn’t be able to defend herself against “the plague” of loneliness. The strongest example of this underlying need for the husbands occurs in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In fact it’s much closer to real love here than in either of the other plays. Martha talks about George in a certain fondness because he is able to make her laugh and most importantly, because he can learn the rules of the games as quickly as she can keep changing them (191). Although the women in Albee’s plays act so aggressively and cruelly they only do so because they truly believe that they are the only one holding their families together. They don’t treat their husbands like children in order to mock them, but so that they may always maintain the upper hand as the key decision maker in the relationship so that they can make sure that choices are made that are the best for both of them. In A Delicate Balance Agnes explains to her family why she acts tough; AGNES: . . . Maintenance. When we keep something in shape, we maintain its shape-whether we are proud of that shape or not, is another matter-we keep it from falling apart. . . .We maintain. We hold . . . I shall . . . keep this family in shape. I shall maintain it; hold it. . . . If I am a drill sergeant . . . so be it. . . . And, if I shout it’s merely to be heard . . .I am not an ogre, am I? . . .If I am a stickler on certain points . . . it is simply that I am the one member of this . . . reasonably happy family blessed and burdened with the ability to view a situation objectively while I am in it. (80-81) Agnes is aware of the controlling nature she has, but believes that it is justified because it holds her family together. Agnes wants what is best for everyone, including Tobias. There is a form of love, or necessity between the couple, as there is between Mommy and Daddy, and George and Martha. Albee’s women may be the drive behind their households but they wouldn’t be able to do so without their husbands. Edward Albee’s women are the drive behind their families and homes. These women are portrayed as powerful, aggressive, and manipulative. They must be in order to try and rule unchallenged. They believe that they are the only ones who can steer their family in the right direction. These wives will use whatever means necessary to keep their men from interfering, even if it means fighting with them. Albee’s characters such as Agnes, Mommy, and Martha are examples of the ultimate, assertive female but they are not nice people. “Women in Albee’s plays can’t be strong without also being arch. Female assertiveness is not presented positively; when a woman stands up for herself, she almost inevitably is a shrew, an emasculator, a deceiver” (Hirsch 39). But they do not set out to be such people. The women are merely power-hungry. They have a need to be in control. Regardless of how they appear, they really do still have a strange form of love for their husbands. The wives need them, they depend on the men for support, companionship and to be someone they can direct their energy towards. They would be left with little without their men. Albee’s women use and need their men, so that they may be the singular, driving force behind their families. Works Cited Albee, Edward. The American Dream. Toronto: Plume, 1997 Albee, Edward. A Delicate Balance. 1966. New York: Atheneum, 1967. Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1962. New York: Atheneum, 1963. Clurman, Harold. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Edward Albee: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. C.W.E. Bigsby. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall 1975. 76-79 Hirsch, Foster. Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee? Berkeley: Creative Arts, 1978.

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