A Delicate Balance Essay - Critical Essays

Delicate Balance, A

Introduction

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.

Critical Reception

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 of security by exploring the ill-defined boundaries which separate sanity from madness and by exposing just how delicate those boundaries can be."

Production Reviews

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 which the characters live and have their non-being. Hume Cronyn clenches his fingers and stares in worry and near-exasperation at Jessica Tandy. Miss Tandy, silver-haired queen of all that is absent, smooths down the gray serenity of her utterly unwrinkled dress, and speaks quickly. She speculates, lightly at first, on the desirability of going mad.

Madness would be an acceptable enough escape for the people of the play because, in middle life and moving steadily toward less life, they are without occupation or pre-occupation. What should they have on their minds, or in their house? Miss Tandy's sister is present, but present only to drink. A daughter is soon to come home, but only to take refuge from her latest detestable husband. Each adds negation to what is already lost. And there are friends on the threshold, shivering as the door is opened. The neighbors, Carmen Mathews and Henderson Forsythe, have dropped by because they have just had a fright. She was sitting doing her needlepoint, he brushing up his French, when something—or, rather, nothing—happened. Nothing at all happened. They just got scared. Perhaps friendship will be some sort of haven from anxiety, especially when the anxiety cannot be named or found hiding down the hall.

That Mr. Albee is prepared to do shadow-battle with a perfectly real phenomenon of our time is plain enough, and in the elusive feinting with the indefinable he has several successes. Mr. Cronyn, for instance, is given a first-act passage in which, at no one's request, he describes his desperately loving encounter with a cat. He had loved the cat and wanted the cat to love him. Insisted upon it, in fact. But cats and love cannot be insisted upon, and in the end there is clawing, slapping about, and coldly prearranged death.

Without warning, Mr. Cronyn seems to get his hands about the play's throat as he describes his fifth unsuccessful at-tempt to force a dearly loved pet to purr—there are echoes of The Zoo Story here, but they are good echoes—and the unbidden intensity that strains the muscles of his mouth until they seem ready to fray and snap is miraculous performing. Again, in the play's third and best act, the actor thrashes about the meaningless furniture in the early hours of the morning trying to find a good face to put on love and fidelity with the fire of a prophet whose message may be dragged by main force out of the heavens.

Miss Tandy's finest moment comes in a fierce assault on human withdrawal, on the evasive action each of us takes when he hears too much pain in the immediate neighborhood. Now the cool champagne-cocktail ice of her voice burns away and something nearer lava is served, neat. In and around these occasional yearnings to say what will never be said clearly enough, Rosemary Murphy scatters very dry alcoholic aphorisms, rather as though she were whipping the already exhausted contestants with a knotted towel of cheerful malice. Miss Murphy, at one time a green witch spilling orange juice on the rug, is a perfect vehicle for Mr. Albee's gratuitous, grinning barbs.

But in the end how do you get hold of hollowness, how do you flesh out what is drained of flesh and create suspense out of what isn't there? Harold Pinter has sometimes done it, and Harold Pinter is what comes to mind the moment the two terrified, baffled neighbors enter to lay claim to shelter in an upstairs room.

But Mr. Pinter does everything by suggestion, by playing on our own easily disturbed sensibilities. He never uses the word "fright," he simply frightens us. Mr. Albee, on the other hand, plays out his hand all too readily, revealing that there is so little in it. Miss Mathews and Mr. Forsythe keep telling us how rattled they are, and they do tremble—a bit too much, in fact. But we never inhabit their apprehensions, we only listen to them.

And, in an effort to find a stylized verbal technique that will convey the literally unspeakable, Mr. Albee has seemed to go directly back to the T. S. Eliot of, say, Family Reunion, and to use, much too abstractly and often too sonorously, the reiterations and the repeated rhythms of almost-but-not-quite poetry. The images seem to have hollows in them, like well-formed chocolate Easter bunnies that crack wide open at the very first bite. Words like "succor, comfort, warmth" recur as though they had no concrete referents, no tangible thread connecting them with days or nights or bodies or deeds, and when Mr. Cronyn announces that his daughter is having hysterics in a room above we come to expect the sort of reply we get: "That is a condition. I asked about an action." The play itself becomes a condition, standing still, though immaculately still.

Alan Schneider has staged it with infinite composure and considerable grace, William Ritman's setting is surely altogether right, and Marian Seldes, as the raven-haired Cas-sandra who is prey to hysterics, works hard at the passion of her utter distress. But it is an ungrounded distress, and Miss Seldes suffers most from having to flash so much anger over unseen, unknown wounds.

Henry Hewes (review date 8 October 1966)

SOURCE: "The Family that Stayed Separate," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 41, 8 October 1966, p. 90.

[The essay below presents a mixed review of A Delicate Balance, stating that "if what we see is convincing and sophisticated, it is not steadily compelling."]

Having more or less disposed of the university and the church in his last two plays, Edward Albee has now chosen to weave his intricate web around a more personal institution, American family life. A Delicate Balance commences at cocktail hour in the affluent suburban home of a sixtyish couple named Agnes and Tobias. All is cozy and comfortable, and even the presence of Agnes's alcoholic younger sister, Claire, fails seriously to disrupt their façcade of contentment. It is not smugness, but a contentment achieved through concern for what each thinks the other one wants. In doing this they have ceased to want anything themselves. They are not fools, however, and see the truth of their situation at the same time that they participate in its myth.

Two principal myths are examined in this play. The first is that people who are sufficiently happy together or enough in love to get married will forever remain happy and in love. Albee punctures this one early with the parable of Tobias and the cat. Here we see that a man who is unable to regain a love that has dissipated equates his inability with being judged—being betrayed—and reacts with hatred and viciousness. But married people often avoid such an outcome by pretending, by living up to a myth that they may privately recognize as untrue. Thus we resign ourselves and, as one character says, through "the gradual demise of intensity, the private preoccupations, the substitutions, we become allegorical.… The individuality we held so dearly sinks into crotchet; we see ourselves repeated by those we bring into it all, either by mirror or rejection.…"

The second myth is that best friends acquired through proximity and mutual activities can always depend upon each other's help no matter how great the sacrifice entailed. Albee suggests that if the latter myth can be shown to be absurd, so must the former also be.

To test the balance of "the regulated great gray life," Albee simply has Agnes's and Tobias's best friends, Harry and Edna, arrive unexpectedly at the door. They have experienced "the terror" (which, though never explained, is presumably that point at which awareness of the distance between myth and truth becomes unbearable), and demand to move in. Agnes recognizes that their terror could be contagious and calls upon Tobias to choose between letting them stay permanently or ordering them out. This eventually results in a remarkable mad eruption by Tobias in which his contradictory feelings are revealed. His position is at once hilariously ridiculous and touchingly pathetic. And though the play nominally ends on an anti-climatic note, we leave the theater feeling that we have seen a most important part of our way of life compassionately but accurately described.

We also feel, of course, that it has been challenged, though not as excoriatingly as we had anticipated. A remark by Claire that is almost a footnote is the play's strongest indictment. "We're not a communal nation, giving but not sharing, outgoing but not friendly. We submerge our truths and have our sunsets on untroubled waters. We live with our truths in the grassy bottom, and we examine all the interpretations of all the implications like we had a life for nothing else … We better develop gills."

The play is not easy to perform. In a way, Albee has tried to do in prose what T. S. Eliot did in verse in his later plays, and without the help of meter Albee's succession of paragraphed insights can seem talky. This is particularly true because of the lack of specific information that emerges from all the conversation. Fortunately, Albee sprinkles his script with his special humor—and theatricality—to keep us entertained when the plot does not.

Jessica Tandy plays the role of Agnes, "licensed wife," with so much composure that we tend to see her as an instrument of propriety. Hume Cronyn is excellent and versatile as To-bias, but he is so completely explicit that we sometimes miss the inner mystery and private grief, that might make him more protagonist and less demonstrator. Oddly enough, Henderson Forsythe and Carmen Mathews in the much smaller roles of Harry and Edna emerge with more human dimension. And most effective of all are Rosemary Murphy and Marian Seldes. As the alcoholic, outspoken Claire, Miss Murphy has the opportunity to speak nasty truths about everyone else and makes the mischievous most of it. Miss Seldes, as Julia, the daughter who keeps returning to the nursery dragging in broken marriages "like some Raggedy Ann doll by the foot," gives the fullest emotional performance of all. It is her rage and her frustration that most indict her elders' complaisance.

While Alan Schneider's direction is thorough, both it and William Ritman's large, handsome set make the people in this play seem remote. Perhaps this was the playwright's intention: for us to see ourselves from a distance in a space where elegant language seems natural and four-letter Anglo-Saxon words become seven-letter Latin ones.

If what we see is convincing and sophisticated, it is not steadily compelling. The audience keeps wanting to get closer to the characters. There is, for instance, the suggestion that Claire had been "upended" by Tobias one summer long ago, and that had he divorced Agnes to marry her things might have been better for everyone. Yet it is never explored. Obviously the playwright is concerned with the process of restoring delicate balances rather than what it takes to upset them.

However, steadily compelling plays are few these days, and, all things considered, A Delicate Balance will do. It will do because it manages to encompass a complex subject with such honesty and grace.

Robert Brustein (review date 8 October 1966)

SOURCE: "Albee Decorates an Old House," in New Republic, Vol. 155, No. 15, 8 October 1966, pp. 35-36.

[The scathing review below condemns A Delicate Balance as "a very bad play … boring and trivial."]

Edward Albee's recent work poses a number of problems for the reviewer, one of them being that it is virtually impossible to discuss it without falling into repetition. Looking over the anthology of pieces I have written about his annual procession of plays, I discover that I am continually returning to two related points: that his plays have no internal validity and that they are all heavily dependent upon the style of other dramatists. At the risk of boring the reader, I am forced to repeat these judgments about A Delicate Balance. The fourth in a series of disasters that Albee has been turning out since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this work, like its predecessors, suffers from a borrowed style and a hollow center. It also suggests that Albee's talent for reproduction has begun to fail him until the labels on his lendings are all but exposed to public view. Reviewers have already noted the stamp of T. S. Eliot on A Delicate Balance (a name tag that was somewhat more subtly imprinted on Tiny Alice as well), and it is quite true that Albee, like Eliot before him, is now trying to invest the conventional drawing room comedy with metaphysical significance. But where Eliot was usually impelled by a religious vision, Albee seems to be stimulated by mere artifice, and the result is emptiness, emptiness, emptiness.

A Delicate Balance is, to my mind, a very bad play—not as bad as Malcolm, which had a certain special awfulness all its own—but boring and trivial nevertheless. It is also the most remote of Albee's plays—so far removed from human experience, in fact, that one wonders if Albee is not letting his servants do his living for him. Although the action is supposed to take place in suburban America—in the living room and conservatory of an upper middle-class family—the environment is more that of the English landed gentry as represented on the West End before the Osborne revolution. Leather-bound books sit on library shelves, elbowing copies of Horizon; brandy and anisette and martinis are constantly being decanted between, over, and under bits of dialogue; the help problem becomes an object of concern, as well as problems of friendship, marriage, sex, and the proper attitude to take towards pets; and characters discuss their relationships in a lapidary style as far from modern speech as the whistles of a dolphin.

The failure of the language, actually, is the most surprising failure of the play, especially since Albee's control of idiom has usually been his most confident feature. Here, on the other hand, banal analogies are forced to pass for wisdom: "Friendship is something like a marriage, is it not Tobias, for better or for worse?" The plot is signalled with all the subtlety of a railroad brakeman rerouting a train: "Julia is coming home. She is leaving Douglas which is no surprise to me." A relaxed idiom is continually sacrificed to clumsy grammatical accuracy: "You are a guest," observes one character, to which the other replies, "As you." If colloquialisms are spoken, they are invariably accompanied by self-conscious apologies: One character drinks "like the famous fish," while another observes, "You're copping out, as they say." Empty chatter is passed off as profound observation with the aid of irrelevant portentous subordinate clauses: "Time happens, I suppose, to people. Everything becomes too late finally." And the play ends with one of those vibrato rising sun lines familiar from at least a dozen such evenings: "Come now, we can begin the day."

It is clear that Albee has never heard such people talk, he has only read plays about them, and he has not retained enough from his reading to give his characters life. More surprisingly, he has not even borrowed creatively from his own work, for although a number of Albee's usual strategies are present in A Delicate Balance, they do not function with much cogency. One character, for example, tells of his difficulties with a cat that no longer loved him—a tale that recalls a similar tale about a dog in The Zoo Story—but here the narrative is no more than a sentimental recollection. Similarly, a dead child figures in this work, as in so many Albee plays, but it has no organic relevance to the action and seems introduced only to reveal the sexual hangups of the protagonists and to fill up time.

Too much of the play, in fact, seems purely decorative: There simply isn't enough material here to make up a full evening. A Delicate Balance concerns a family of four—a passive husband, an imperious wife, an alcoholic sister-inlaw, and a much divorced daughter—whose problems are exacerbated when they are visited by some married friends. This couple has just experienced a nameless terror in their home, and when they move in on the family for comfort and security, a delicate balance is upset, all the characters learning that terror is infectious, like the plague. This plot has a nice touch of mystery about it, but its main consequence is to move various sexually estranged couples into each other's rooms after various impassioned dialogues. What finally puzzles the will is how very little Albee now thinks can make up a play: A few confessions, a few revelations, a little spookiness, and an emotional third act speech.

Alan Schneider's production is stiff and pedestrian. One senses discomfort in the staging as well as in the performances: These are not roles that actors fill with pleasure. Rosemary Murphy has some vigor as the alcoholic sister-in-law, coming on like one of those sardonic (male) drunks that used to appear in the plays of Philip Barry, but like the other performers, she has a difficult time recovering the portentous rhythms of the play when she stumbles over a line. Hume Cronyn, usually one of our most dependable actors, is dry and uninteresting as the father; Jessica Tandy is delicate but high-pitched as the mother; and Marian Seldes as the daughter is vocally and physically angular. The director occasionally tries for an effect, as when he arranges four ladies with their coffee cups in the attitude of an Eliot chorus, but most of the time we are spared such tableaux and the stage is left as empty as the play. It is an emptiness that no amount of activity can fill. A Delicate Balance is an old house which an interior decorator has tried to furnish with reproductions and pieces bought at auction. But the house has never been lived in and the wind murmurs drily through its corridors.

Harold Clurman (review date 10 October 1966)

SOURCE: A review of A Delicate Balance, in The Nation, Vol. 203, No. 11, 10 October 1966, pp. 361-63.

[The following favorable review maintains that A Delicate Balance is a brilliant play that conveys "the almost insuperable difficulty of loving one's neighbor, and the absolute necessity of behaving with love despite that difficulty."]

If someone should tell you that Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance is a brilliant play (which it is), ask: "What is its theme?" If another declares that it is very well written (also true),...

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Critical Commentary

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...

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Further Reading

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...

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