The battle of George and Martha
In the same way as one relishes analyzing the blow-by-blow of sport, there is a rich record to review in the to and fro of George and Martha’s epic battle. The central mesmeric challenge of the play is to decipher the underlying truth of their relationship through all of the nuance and ferocity of their struggle. As we agreed during our conversation on the podcast, their initial exchanges are fabulously funny, partly because of the dazzling sharpness of their repartee, but also because we feel that at some level they too are enjoying the fight as a game. As George reassures Nick: “Martha and I are merely…exercising…that’s all…we’re merely walking what’s left of our wits”. The conflict they incite together is performative – a means of simultaneously addressing and avoiding the truth, testing what is real or not, but without facing the consequences.They are picking at the scabs of their unhappiness, daring themselves to see if they could survive the open wounds.
There are shocking, exposed moments when it feels like the game has gone too far. As onlookers it is difficult to decide when they have crossed over the line. When Martha starts to tell Nick and Honey about George’s unpublished book, he pleads with her to stop, but the game continues:
Martha: What’s the matter George? You given up?
George: No…No. I’ve just got to figure out some new way to fight you, Martha.
And when Martha thinks George has gone too far in tormenting Nick, and he angrily points out that she has been relentlessly humiliating him, she declares:
Martha: YOU CAN STAND IT!
George: I CANNOT STAND IT!
Martha: YOU CAN STAND IT! YOU MARRIED ME FOR IT!
He has needed her provocation to push him, and the more he failed to succeed the harder she has had to press, even though she says “it’s not what I’ve wanted” , and she’s now “gotten tired whipping you.”
By the end of Act 2 they have reached a point where the “whole arrangement” has “snapped”, and they declare “total war”. One of the ways that Martha attacks is through her overt seduction of Nick. As we discussed in the podcast, there is a strong sense that Martha is sexually dissatisfied with George. She reacts angrily when he twice rejects her overtures to him in the first act. The second occasion follows George’s prank of shooting the parasol from the gun. She finds this arousing, but he rejects her advance. The gun becomes a sexual metaphor, Martha turning provocatively to Nick “I bet you don’t need props”. When she finally presses her suit with Nick, she is further frustrated and humiliated by George’s lack of response – he reads a book, pretending indifference, daring her to go through with her seduction. In the face of his failure, she is left with no option. Her sexuality is her only weapon, so she carries on hopelessly with her affairs. The fact that Nick is unable to consummate the sex is a fitting statement on the futility of Martha’s general strategy to find solace through sex elsewhere.
In the to and fro of George and Martha’s battle, the advantage swings back and forth. For most for the first half of the night Martha is on the attack, relentlessly humiliating George, He counter attacks through his persecuting Nick and Honey, before intensifying his assault in “bringing up baby”. Initially Martha seems beaten down, not willing to play this game, but she rises in anger and they slug it out on equal terms in a scene of ritualistic, poetic intensity and imagination. “We’re going to play this one to the death”. Finally she is beaten. At the end of the play she is exhausted and fragile. George must try to lift her off the canvas; she cannot walk unaided. Once rested will they start the fight again? Maybe. Maybe on different terms. As Albee said, who knows.