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Jay Malarcher

The Metaphysics of Pronoun Confusion in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Metaphysics of Pronoun Confusion in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The lineage of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) may be drawn from several important bloodlines, the two strongest being the American Realism of Eugene O’Neill in his plays The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, and less realistic works of Europe from playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and especially Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party (1957) sets a similar tone of unconvincing and subversive backstory that Albee uses to great effect and thematic purpose in his own celebrated masterpiece. The classical traditions of stalwart categories like Metaphysics gave way in the twentieth century to a more linguistic-based philosophy, and Albee’s play replicates this shift in a meaningful way. The intellectual level of puns and allusions points to the elevated education level of the characters. The reality reflected in the stories told (out of school, so to speak) points to a fundamental question of the nature of reality itself, since any false story necessarily stands in for the truth of what actually happened. Thus, Albee calls into question metaphysical reality versus illusion or fiction at almost every twist in the plot. The concreteness of George and Martha’s invented son in their own minds merely emphasizes the extent to which truth has been supplanted by the conjured alternative reality they have shared for more than a score of years. The substitution of a weaker “reality” for the stark truth that they might suffer through calls to mind a parallel linguistic substitution: the pronoun as a stand-in for an established person. While absence is a theme explored to some degree throughout, the larger concept of standing in for an absent object, which task the pronoun performs, occurs more obliquely when George and the son are confused. Albee moves his drama of drunken academic games from the particulars of the two couples into the realm of metaphysical questioning of reality by imbuing the conversations with the motif of pronoun confusion. This confusion-and-correction cycle allows the characters to explore (willingly or otherwise) the nature of truth and illusion, where an invented reality stands in for the awful existential reality that pains them. Truth and illusion: we must know the difference, or at least carry on as though we did.

Key Words: Albee, miscommunication, pronouns, modernism, metaphysics, American drama 


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