Delicate Balance, A
A Delicate Balance
A Delicate Balance was first produced at the Martin Beck Theatre, New York, on 22 September 1966, in a staging directed by Alan Schneider. The play centers on Agnes and Tobias, a middle-aged suburban couple settled into an affluent but stultifying existence. The precarious balance of their accommodation to each other is upset by the arrival for extended stays of their daughter, Julia, who has left her third husband, and the couple's friends Harry and Edna, who are fleeing a vague but ominous dread of nothingness. The relationship of the domineering Agnes and the emasculated To-bias is further disrupted by the presence of Agnes's alcoholic sister, Claire, who attempts to seduce Tobias but is rebuffed. In the course of the play Agnes and Tobias come to an awareness of the emptiness of their life together, and both repudiate their habitual roles: Agnes refuses to be the decision-maker and Tobias rouses himself from his lethargy to take the decisive action of allowing Harry and Edna remain in the house, despite the objections of Julia, who views them as intruders. The second couple, however, decline to stay, realizing that the house offers them no refuge from their feelings of fear and alienation.
Initial reaction to A Delicate Balance was decidedly mixed. Harold Clurman considered it a brilliant play that "dramatizes discomfort": in the world depicted in the drama "one's soul finds no resting place, no spiritual security." Robert Brustein, however, condemned it as "a very bad play … boring and trivial," while John Gassner pronounced it "neither a very good play nor a very bad one." When it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, most regarded the decision as a belated attempt by the Pulitzer committee to atone for failing to give Albee the prize for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Subsequent commentators have sought to identify the unnamed fear that suffuses the play by investigating the issues of isolation, alienation, and individual identity. John J. von Szeliski has called A Delicate Balance "a brilliant and highly significant play" in which the characters "suddenly realize … that their lives represent no real solace against the pressure of their mortality." M. Patricia Fumerton, in her examination of the play's language, has argued that in A Delicate Balance "language appears not as a medium for communication, but as a necessary protective device; it forms an impenetrable blockage, a thick layer of skin within which each individual may rest secure: isolated and lonely and—tragically—invulnerable."And Virginia I. Perry has asserted that A Delicate Balance underscores "the fragile nature of [one's] illusion...
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Walter Kerr (review date 23 September 1966)
SOURCE: A review of A Delicate Balance, in The New York Times, 23 September 1966, p. 44.
[The following negative review judges A Delicate Balance to be an empty play about hollowness and nameless dread.]
T. S. Eliot once said, "I will show you fear in a handful of dust," and then he did it. In A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee talks about it and talks about it and talks about it, sometimes wittily, sometimes ruefully, sometimes truthfully. But showing might have done better.
A Delicate Balance is the sort of play that might be written if there were no theater. It exists outside itself, beside itself, aloof from itself, as detached from the hard floor of the Martin Beck, where it opened last night, as its alarmed characters are detached from themselves. The effect is deliberate—because it is precisely hollowness that is most on Mr. Albee's mind—and it is offered to us on an elegantly lacquered empty platter the moment the curtain goes up.
The curtain goes up on a setting that seems already to have floated away. There, in the background, are perfectly familiar bookshelves, probably solid chandeliers, all the potted palms of the world's onetime comfort. But everything that is solid is recessed, slipping off into shadow. Downstage, near us, is an amber void in...
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Michael E. Rutenberg (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "A Delicate Balance," in Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest, DBS Publications, Inc., 1969, pp. 137-64.
[In the essay below, Rutenberg maintains that A Delicate Balance is the "culmination" of the "mom and pop relationship, " a recurring theme in Albee's work.]
Notwithstanding the fact that Edward Albee received the Pulitzer Prize for A Delicate Balance, it still remains, aside from Tiny Alice, his most underrated play. Premiered on September 12, 1966, at the Martin Beck Theatre, its generally mild reception generated immediate controversy over Albee's continuing talent as a first-rate playwright. Martin Gottfried, reviewing for Women's Wear Daily, called the play "two hours of self-indulgence by a self-conscious and self-overrating writer."1 Robert Brustein, now Dean of the revitalized Yale School of Drama, said the writing was "as far from modern speech as the whistles of a dolphin."2 Conversely, John Chapman called it "a beautiful play—easily Albee's best and most mature."3 And Harold Clurman considered it "superior to the more sensational Virginia Woolf."4
While the critics could not agree on the play's merits, they seemed to be in general agreement on its theme, which they stated in various ways as man's...
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Clurman, Harold. "Albee on Balance. "The New York Times (13 November 1966): II 1, 3.
Contends that in A Delicate Balance and other plays Albee demonstrates that "we are uneasy, without comfort, unhinged."
McCarten, John. "Six on a Seesaw. "The New Yorker XLII, No. 32 (1 October 1966): 121-22.
Review of A Delicate Balance that argues that the play is "lacking in cohesion, and the motivations of its characters [are] rather hard to follow."
Paolucci, Anne. "Albee and the Restructuring of the Modern Stage. "Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 1 (1986): 3-23.
Analyzes Albee's innovative dramaturgy in A Delicate Balance, notably the "integration of language and musical effects—the arias, the large choral voices, the weaving of melodic strains "in the play.
Sheed, Wilfrid. "Liquor is Thicker. "Commonweal LXXXV, No. 2 (14 October 1966): 55-6.
Negative review that regards A Delicate Balance "no more than half a play, about a year's work from completion."
von Szeliski, John. "Between Optimism and Pessimism " In Tragedy and Fear: Why Modern Tragic Drama Fails, pp. 19-29. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1971.
Includes a consideration of A Delicate Balance, calling it "an excellent philosophical image of our...
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