The play opens in the dark, and a crash is heard at the front door, followed by Martha’s laughter. Martha enters through the front door, George following behind her. Martha begins to curse, and George tries to silence her, reminding her that it’s two o’clock in the morning. She continues to provoke him, reciting a Bette Davis line—“What a dump”—and asking him what movie it’s from. He doesn’t remember but she persists on asking him the name of the Bette Davis movie. George suggests that the movie is Chicago, which Martha sharply rejects.
This opening exchange establishes the antagonistic character of Martha and George’s marriage. Note also that George and Martha share the names of the first "first couple" of the United States—George and Martha Washington—both highlighting how non-perfect their marriage is compared to the Washington's and implying a connection between the state of George and Martha's marriage and the state of the United States at the time in which the play is set.
Martha goes on to describe the movie, but George pleads that he’s tired from her father’s “Saturday night orgy.” Martha nags him for doing nothing but sitting around and talking; George accuses her of going around and “braying” at everybody.
Their bickering evolves, becoming more directly critical, and from George's not-so-nice reference to Martha's father it seems that her father plays a role in their bickering.
Martha orders George to make her a drink and informs him that they have guests coming over, but can’t remember their guests’ names. She describes that the male guest is from the math department, and that his wife is mousey. She explains that she’s invited them over because her father wants George and Martha to be nice to them.
Martha appears to be an obedient daughter and a demanding wife. The couple’s social lives are intertwined with their professional lives; they must have certain guests over because of Martha’s father’s preferences.
George and Martha continue to bicker—George accuses her of springing things on him like this, and Martha accuses George of sulking. She begins to sing, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf…,” and asks George if he didn’t think that was funny. He responds that he thought it was alright, and Martha tells him that he makes her puke.
Martha acts immaturely and clearly drunkenly, singing a children’s tune with changed lyrics. George does not indulge Martha’s childish antics.
They continue on in this vein, Martha calling George a “simp” and “phrasemaker”, and George comparing Martha to a cocker spaniel when she chews her ice cubes. George reminds Martha that he’s six years younger than her; she retorts that he’s balding. She asks him to kiss her but he denies her request out of fear of growing too sexually excited before their guests come over. Martha asks, in a childish voice, for another drink.
The couple’s arguing takes on a somewhat lighter tone, and it's clear that this mode of dispute is commonplace and, to a degree, comfortable between them. But that comfort seems one of long exposure; there is still deep bitterness that the bickering is expressing. There is also a degree of sexual excitement in the "battle" for them.
The front doorbell interrupts their antagonistic banter, George very reluctantly goes to answer it as he provokes Martha. At the very moment that he opens up the door, she yells at him, “Fuck you!,” such that their guests, Nick and Honey, hear it. Nick appears uncomfortable and proposes that he and his wife shouldn’t have come. George and Martha brush off their concern and invite them to come in and throw their stuff down anywhere. Honey giggles a little, and George mocks her.
Nick and Honey serve, initially, as external observers and a point of contrast for the marriage between Martha and George. Note also that Nick is named after the Soviet Premier of the time—Nikita Khruschev—and so the play, with its swings in power, its combination of destructive antagonism and seduction between the couples, comes to serve as a metaphor for the Cold War betwee the US and the USSR.
Nick notices an abstract painting and inquires about the artist. George begins to explain that it was made by a Greek man that Martha attacked one night, when Honey interrupts him, uncomfortable with the story. Nick starts off saying, “It’s got a…” and George pre-emptively mocks the pretentious language that people use to talk about art, and offers that Nick was going to say something about the painting’s “quiet intensity.”
The academic setting of the play and the intellectual careers of George and Nick set the stage for a high likelihood of pretentious conversation. George displays his familiarity with this pretentious milieu in pre-empting Nick’s potentially pompous contributions. Honey is established as somewhat nicer and less quick than the other characters.
George prepares drinks for the crew—brandy for Honey, bourbon for Nick, and (jokingly) rubbing alcohol for Martha. George recounts that when he was first dating Martha, she would order the “damnedest” things, like brandy Alexanders and flaming punch bowls. Martha facetiously praises George for his “Dylan Thomas-y quality,” and George accuses her of being vulgar.
This is the first round of many rounds of drinks that will be consumed throughout the night. As more alcohol is consumed, more secrets will be told. Martha is always mocking George for not being successful, here comparing him to the famous poet Dylan Thomas based on his drinking rather than his work.
Martha again begins singing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and this time Honey joins in. They begin to discuss the night’s party, and Honey praises Martha’s father as marvelous. George tries to condition Honey’s compliment, but Nick insists that he has found the parties very helpful in getting introduced to the college. George confides to Nick that there are easier things in the world than being married to the daughter of your university’s president. Martha retorts that it should rather be an extraordinary opportunity. Martha and Honey excuse themselves to go to the restroom. George tells Nick that he’s heard he’s in the math department, but Nick corrects him that he’s not, and then George continues to interrogate him about what motivated him to become a teacher.
Again professional and personal lives merge: George dislikes Martha’s father for certain personal and professional reasons that will be explained later. Nick finds her father helpful for professional reasons. Martha, meanwhile, is loyal to him because he is her father, but also because her position at the university (and therefore in the world) depends on her father's role and power.
Nick finally snaps back at George, tired of his antics. Nick explains that he doesn’t like to become involved in other people’s affairs, and is uncomfortable around George and Martha’s marital disputes. George comforts him by saying he’ll get over that squeamishness, because the college is so small and the “faculty sport” is “musical beds.”
Nick expresses discomfort at the level of openness and lack of privacy that has already begun to characterize the evening. George follows up Nick’s avowal of discomfort with a comment that is sure to make Nick even more uncomfortable, and which also suggests that the issues so evident in George and Martha's marriage are at play in most of the marriages at the college.
When George asks, Nick informs him that he is twenty-seven years old, and George responds that he himself is forty-something, and then expresses his pride in not having a paunch. He asks Nick how much he weighs, and then how much is wife weighs. Nick does not respond.
In asking after private details of Nick’s life, including his weight, George acts crudely and impolitely, not abiding by the common decorum and conventions of civil society. Nick's refusal to respond deepens the contrast between him and George.
After the second time that George insists that Nick is in Math, Nick corrects him that he is in the Biology department. It suddenly occurs to George that Nick is the professor who is working, in genetic biology, to make “everyone the same, rearranging the chromozones.” Nick tries to correct George’s mistaken notions about his work in genetics, but George continues to express his misgivings. George tells Nick that he used to run the History Department during the war, and then remarks to Nick that his wife doesn’t really have any hips. George asks Nick if he has any kids. Nick says no, then asks George the same question, to which George responds, “that’s for me to know and you to find out.”
George’s anxiety about Nick’s research in genetic biology might be seen as a reflection of other anxieties of the period in which the play was written, related to the Cold War and space travel, about the expansion of human control and the growing power of technology over nature. Again George speaks crudely to Nick about his wife and is suspiciously vague about his children or lack thereof.
George asks if Nick is going to be happy in New Carthage, given that the college isn’t MIT or Oxford. He tells Nick that Martha’s father expects his staff to grow old at the college. George calls to his wife. Honey tells the men that Martha is changing her dress, and then tells George that she’s just heard about his son who is turning twenty-one the next day. George seems surprised and upset by the news that Martha has told Honey about him.
George continues to provoke Nick and paint the college in an unflattering light. George’s surprise at the news that Honey has been told about their child is, as yet, unexplained but will become important later in the play.
George lets Honey and Nick know that Martha is according them an honor by changing her dress, and characterizes her as the “right ball” of her father. Nick requests that George not use such language around his wife. Martha enters looking more comfortable and more voluptuous. Martha praises Nick for his remarkable accomplishment, which she has just learned about, of having completed his Master’s degree at the age of nineteen. George is impressed, and expresses some jealousy.
Martha appears to be putting on a show for the guests—and presumably for Nick in particular—by changing into a more revealing dress. Nick is introduced as inordinately ambitious and accomplished, thus providing a point of contrast for George, who is comparatively unambitious.
Martha insults George, calling him an “old bog” in the History Department, but George coolly ignores her comments. Martha inquires if Nick used to play football, and he answers that he did but that he was more skilled at boxing, and was intercollegiate state light heavyweight champion. Martha congratulates him on his still “pretty good body.” George chastises Martha for being obscene.
Martha continues to appear, and increasingly so, to be flirting with Nick.
Martha encourages George to tell their guests about a boxing match they once had together, but he insists that she tell it instead. Martha explains that her father had become enthusiastic about the idea of exercise during the war and had invited George over to box with him, and Martha joined and put on some gloves herself and snuck up behind George and round housed him right in the jaw.
The story of George and Martha’s boxing match makes sense given the contention we have witnessed in their relationship to this point, but is more literal than the verbal sparring they have been engaged in since the play’s beginning. That Martha is the more aggressive and the victor also fits with their general dynamic.
George comes from behind Martha and aims a short-barreled shotgun at her head. Honey screams when George pulls the trigger, to the blossoming of a Chinese parasol from the gun’s barrel. They all laugh out of great relief.
George’s false shooting of Martha provides a great sense of relief from all of the tension that has so far built up. It also presses our expectations of what kind of action and surprise seems plausible in the context of this play.
Martha asks her husband for a kiss and he dismisses her but she insists and then places his hand on her breast. Nick retreats to the bathroom. Martha and George argue about whether Nick is in the biology or math department, and Honey shyly tells them it’s the former. Martha reasons that Biology is better for Nick, because it’s less “abstruse”; George corrects her, “abstract,” but she insists that she meant what she said. When Nick returns, Martha recommences a conversation about Nick’s experimentation in genetic biology. George explains that Nick is working on a system that could alter chromosomes, so as to make a race of men “superb and sublime.” Martha and Honey are impressed and excited, but George tries to get them to understand that everyone will be the same, and that millions of sperm tubes will have to be cut.
Martha, like her husband, insists on behaving inappropriately in front of their guests. The scene is characterized by only slightly muted conflict and competitiveness, stemming it seems from both men's desire to be more attractive to Martha. There is also at play a conflict between the humanities and science: both in George's contention that Nick's work will result in both sameness and death, and in Martha's contention that Nick needs a field that is less "abstruse" (i.e. hard to understand). When Nick tries to correct her, insisting that she means "abstract", he is arguing that his field is more practical than others. But Martha refuses his correction, which is both a refusal of his male authority and a seeming agreement with George that the humanities are more messy and complicated.
Nick tries to cut George off, displeased with his lecture, but George continues his harangue about the consequences of the chromosomal adjustments—loss of liberty, loss of music and painting, et cetera. Nick proudly asserts that he is going to be the wave of the future.
Nick and George divide along the lines of their academic disciplines: Nick cares solely about the importance of progress and invention, as informed by his work in biology, while George cares more about the cultural vigor of a society, as informed by his work in history.
Honey changes the subject by asking when George and Martha’s son is coming home. Martha says never mind, and George makes Martha answer for both of them, given that she was the one to “bring him up.” She yells that she doesn’t want to talk about it. George and Martha continue to bicker and become antagonistic with one another. Martha claims that George’s problem about their son is that he’s not sure it’s his own kid, and George becomes very serious and then insists that Martha is lying and that he is absolutely sure of his “chromosomological partnership” in the creation of their son.
Martha and George clearly have some secret conflict regarding their son—which will become clear over the course of the play—and they use their son to express their mutual antagonism.
Martha and George dispute the color of their son’s eyes. George adds that Martha’s father has tiny red eyes and is, in other ways as well, like a white mouse. He leaves to get some more alcohol. Martha begins to explain to Honey and Nick why her husband so hates her father, and details her adolescent life: she had gotten married at her academy to the man who mowed the lawn, but soon after left school and retired to the college with her father. Her father, she says, had anticipated grooming someone to take over after he retired from the presidency.
Again Martha and George use their son as a focus of disagreement. In her story, which may or may not be entirely true, Martha still reveals, though she does not focus on it, that she never really had a life of her own, and moved in with her father as soon as she left school. Further, it's clear that her father used her as a kind of "alliance building tool", offering her in marriage to the person he thought he could groom as his successor.
Martha is just beginning to describe George’s entrance onto the college scene, when George returns to the parlor. Martha narrates that she fell for George when he came into the History department, and that their relationship was practical, too. George tries to stop her from talking about the business side of their courtship. Martha continues on in spite of his resistance: George was expected to take over the History Dept. and then the college, but then Martha’s dad watched for a couple of years and began to doubt George’s capacity for aggressiveness and power.
The reason for George and Martha’s antagonistic relationship grows clearer as Martha details the practical circumstances for their marriage. At this point, the bickering that has been developed as customary for the couple throughout develops into a more serious marital conflict. George's lack of ambition is also revealed as a product of being discarded and stifled by Martha's father.
George breaks a bottle against the portable bar and nearly cries, but Martha does not relent, and tells George she hopes the bottle was empty because he wouldn’t want to waste good liquor on an Associate Professor’s salary. She criticizes him as “somebody without the guts to make anybody proud of him.” George loudly sings “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and then Honey joins in before announcing that she’s going to be sick and running offstage. Nick and Martha run after Honey, leaving George alone on the stage.
Martha is unrelentingly harsh with George, but her story of her and George's past reveals the source of her anger: her own power and position is dependent on George's success, and he's stopped having success. She was dependent on her father and now is dependent on George. His failure is her failure. George retreats into the nonsense children's song Martha made up.