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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in International Relations?


Written by Vanessa Pupavac.

Martha:            Truth or illusion, George; you don’t know the difference.
George:           No, but we must carry on as though we did.

                                                Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on 13 October 1962 under the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis and its literary interpretation has been shaped by the threat of nuclear war. I saw Albee’s play at the National Theatre in 1981, the start of the decade which witnessed the Cold War reignited politically and the threat of nuclear war renewed. The play had not been performed in London for a generation, but the film version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had maintained its appeal.

Postwar US academia developed a political science of international relations drawing on the behavioural sciences to address international problems. This international political science departed from earlier international political theories embedded in the humanities drawing on history and political philosophy, including the influence of classical tragedy. So while economics is described as the dismal science, international relations was traditionally the tragic discipline with its preoccupation with human conflict. The rise of the behavioural sciences in international relations did not entirely exclude the arts or literary references, although these might be incidental. Moreover the role of game theories in postwar international relations might be described as shifting from a tragic to a comic discipline.

Leading postwar theorist Kenneth Waltz was important in fostering a political science of international relations. His neorealist approach or structuralism realism emphasised the significance of how the structure of the international system influences the behaviour of states. While seeking a more scientific international relations, his Man, the State and War (1959) remains cautious about the extent science could resolve questions of world peace. He was sceptical towards the perfectibility of human nature and human institutions. Waltz’s own literary references, in keeping with his optimistic belief in social progress optimism, but scepticism towards the perfectibility of human nature and human institutions, are to comedies such as Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata or Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Waltz quotes Portia approvingly ‘If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces’.

Waltz’s  Theory of International Politics (1979) cites Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to illustrate his belief that individual actions are socially conditioned by the system’s norms or rules of the game. Albee’s play also invites us to question our ideological, cultural or scientific models of the world and our need to cultivate a certain ironic distance. For Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? satirizes the false games we play to hide us from reality.

Albee’s play, set on the fictional New Carthage college campus, mocks our social artifices and their veil over our messy human relationships (Bottoms, 2000; Roudané, 2005). Virginia Woolf as the novelist epitomising the stream of consciousness approach suggests the protagonists’ fear of serious emotional or intellectual engagement. Act I entitled ‘Fun and Games’ presents us with George and Martha, symbolically named after the first Washington couple, descending into warring parties with their guests Honey and Nick, an allusion to President Nikita Krushchev of the Soviet Union (Bottoms, 2000, p. 12). Serious fractures in their marriage become displayed as the public mask of harmony slips, and their verbal games become more aggressive and destructive, with titles such as ‘Humiliating the Host’ or ‘Hump the Hostess’ (English Theatre Frankfurt, 2012). As they war, their cry of ‘Get the Guests’ or ‘bringing up baby’ fantasy echoes the Macbeths’ demonic and futile ambitions. Act II, entitled Walspurgisnacht, alludes to the purging of witches, and the day of judgement (Roudané, 2005). The play’s ‘cleansing consciousness of death’, however, steps back from tragedy, and allows the characters a second chance to rediscover life and meaningful human relationships – its message underscored by the threat of nuclear war menacing outside the theatre (Albee in Roudané, 2005). Yet life still goes on even under the shadow of nuclear confrontation. Indeed Waltz later went on to argue that the spread of nuclear weapons made large scale international conflict less likely and the world less dangerous precisely because their devastating capacity was overwhelming and the human costs of war too high (Waltz, 1981).

Albee’s play averts tragedy, but also questions the extent that science can engineer society. George the historian initially appears weaker beside his younger fitter academic rival, the biologist Nick. But the play operates on ‘the principle the worm turns’. George ridicules Nick’s genetic endeavours to perfect humanity into ‘a race of men… test-tube bred… incubator-born… superb and sublime’. George’s history, critics concur, ultimately wins out over Nick’s scientific engineering endeavouring to perfect humanity into ‘a race of men…test-tube bred…incubator born…superb and sublime’. Behind Nick’s claims lie academic vanity and sterility (English Theatre Frankfurt, 2012). Act III, entitled Exorcism, associates itself with ancient religious rites, thereby suggesting the limits of modern scientific solutions.  Implicitly Albee’s play casts doubt on the game theories of postwar international relations and their predictive claims. As Martha exclaims, George ‘keeps learning the games… as quickly as I can change the rules’. Here we might recall also Waltz’s reference to The Merchant of Venice. Namely Portia rigs the casket test to ensure her favoured suitor wins, suggesting how our social models of the world have their fantasy dimension and wished outcomes.

Albee’s play demands we have a longer historical perspective. What is to prevent New Carthage from suffering the fate of ancient Carthage defeated in the Punic Wars by Rome? George is portrayed reading Oswald Spengler’s 1918 The Decline of the West and warning of ‘crippling alliances’ and ‘a morality too rigid to accommodate itself’. Waltz’s reference to Albee in turn demands that international relations should not be absolutist in its thinking and slavishly follow rigid models. Instead we could learn from Albee’s challenge Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, requiring us to keep real and keep trying to better understand the historical conditions in which we live and act, and might shape.

Vanessa Pupavac is an Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons.


Albee, Edward (1962) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Atheneum House.

Bottoms, Stephen (2000) Albee: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

English Theatre Frankfurt (2012) ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?’

Roudané, Matthew (2005) ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ in Stephen Bottoms (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 39-58.

Waltz, Kenneth (1959) Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.

Waltz, Kenneth (1979) Theory of International Politics. Boston, Mass: McGraw-Hill.

Waltz, Kenneth (1981) ‘The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better.’ Adelphi Papers, No. 171.

Edward Albee, Trenchant Playwright for a Desperate Era, Dies at 88

Weber, Bruce (2016) ‘Edward Albee, Trenchant Playwright for a Desperate Era, Dies at 88.’ New York Times, 16 September.

Published inBallots & BooksInternational PoliticsInternational Relations


  1. Pol Bargués-Pedreny Pol Bargués-Pedreny

    This is a great text, Vanessa.
    The text travels back to the beginning of the Anthropocene era (the Cold War at its height, on the verge of nuclear war) and brilliantly shows how a dramatist (Albee) and an IR scholar (Waltz) attacked human perfectability. Albee’s characters (as Waltz’s actors: states and humans) seem overwhelmed by a system they have created unwittingly and that they cannot control. A system that constraints, and that ultimately is the cause of marital discord or war.
    Is this a tragedy? Vanessa says no. I find it excellent how both Waltz and Albee find a ‘weird’ comfort in this world of over-powered humans: Albee’s characters rediscover their relationship after the crisis; Waltz argues that world may indeed be safer if states have nuclear weapons.
    However, I am not sure I understand the last conclusive paragraph: ‘Waltz’s reference to Albee in turn demands that international relations should not be absolutist in its thinking and slavishly follow rigid models’. I thought Waltz’ book had the opposite intention: finding a systemic theory for International Relations (finding a model that could explain war – the model being that the anarchical system explains the recurrence of war).

    • Vanessa Pupavac Vanessa Pupavac

      Thank you Pol for your comment. Yes Waltz has left us a puzzle. How conscious was Waltz of some intellectual questions invited by his reference to Albee’s play?

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