It's all fun and games until…
A look at party games on stage
By Diana Fenves

Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf at Seattle Rep, 1969. Photo by Cameracraft.

This opens at a party where Jane’s friends are cajoling her into playing a game. The game, according to Tom, is simple: “You leave the room. We make up a story. You come back. You ask us questions to try to figure out the story.”

But before Jane knows it, her private thoughts are laid bare, and each character must face the consequences. The game—like the play—is witty, comedic, and poignant.

This is not alone in using a party game as a dramatic device to reveal a character’s hidden motivations. Plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee, The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter, and You Can’t Take it With You by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart use games to surprise the audience with character revelations that can shift the story from comedy to drama in an instant.

You Can’t Take it With You by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

In Kaufman’s You Can’t Take it With You, two lovers, Tony and Alice, come from two very different families. When Tony’s uptight parents meet Alice’s crazy relatives, they all play a game to ease tension (a recipe from the playwrights to actually increase tension, of course). The game in this case is “free association.” The party leader says a word, and each person must write another word that immediately comes to mind.

The associations reveal that Tony’s parents have a deeply fissured relationship. The game ends with the shocking public admission that Tony’s father talks constantly of Wall Street, even while having sex with his wife. In the world of dramatic party games, there is no such thing as “too much information.”

The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party features a much darker look at the power of a party game. The soiree in question starts off with heavy drinking, and the game—Blind Man’s Bluff—begins innocently enough between an old couple (Meg and Petey), a middle-aged lodger celebrating his birthday (Stanley), a young neighbor (Lulu) and two mysterious visitors (Goldberg and McCann).

Things take a turn for the worst, though, when the guests begin to taunt the blindfolded Stanley. Then the lights go out. Ambiguous sounds of distress haunt the audience until light is restored. Stanley is found attempting to rape Lulu. When he’s confronted by the menacing Goldberg and McCann, Stanley breaks down completely and can barely talk. The party grinds to a horrifying halt, and the act abruptly ends.

The Birthday Party’s Blind Man’s Bluff does not have the comedic wit found in You Can’t Take it With You, but both games end with a private desire exposed. The sexual tension that the characters have been repressing is released in a hilarious or dangerous burst of energy.

The party games in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are a mix of both styles. They are not as overtly violent or subtle as Pinter’s but less comedic than Kaufman’s look at marital tensions.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

The play centers on two unhappy couples. The older couple, Martha and George, invites the young Nick and Honey to their home after a party. The action is punctuated by a host of very sinister made-up party games, including “Humiliate the Host,” “Get the Guests,” and “Bringing up Baby.” In the play, to “win” a party game is not always a triumph, as there is usually more going on under the surface of the action. Winning could mean humiliation or even a betrayal.

The party games are not games at all, but opportunities for each couple to manipulate each other. The “Get the Guests” game is something that George invents after his wife Martha has humiliated him. The game has no clear rules. It begins with George setting out to describe the plot of his second novel. The other players don’t realize that George never wrote a second novel to begin with. The story begins innocuously enough but beings to match a story that Nick told George in confidence about Honey’s hysterical pregnancy. When Honey realizes the story is about her, she becomes increasing distressed until fleeing the room.

The most extreme of these games, “Bringing up Baby,” occurs towards the end of the play when Martha and George are describing their son. The twist is that they never had a child and George “wins” the game by killing Martha’s fictional child. 

It’s easy to understand why Jane in Melissa James Gibson’s This starts the play off by exclaiming, “Jane hates games.” Your prize is often a difficult truth.