A Delicate Balance: A Play Essay - Essays and Criticism

Edward Albee

Essays and Criticism

Metaphors of Tobias and His Cat

In the book Conversations with Edward Albee (edited by Phillip C. Kolin), Albee articulates one of the motivating forces behind the actions of the characters in his play A Delicate Balance. He states, ‘‘The [delicate balance] is between what we should be doing and what we ultimately decide we need to do to protect ourselves.’’ Throughout A Delicate Balance, Albee demonstrates various ways in which his characters create barriers between themselves and others in order to avoid facing one another and their fears. These fears run a whole gamut of emotions and are displayed in idiosyncratic ways depending on which character is involved, what a character’s relationship is with the other characters, and, for some, what lessons they have learned from the past. In terms of lessons learned, Tobias’s story of his cat illuminates some of his fears and can be used to help understand the decisions he makes as he, like all the other characters, desperately tries to maintain that delicate balance.

In the first act of A Delicate Balance, in the middle of an awkward battle of insults between his wife, Agnes, and his sister-in-law, Claire, Tobias falls back into a reflection of his relationship with a cat that once lived with him. The fact that he remembers this cat while sitting in his parlor with two women fighting cues the reader that there is more than memory going on here. Thoughts are recalled by association, so there should be a connection between what Tobias is witnessing in the present and what he suddenly finds himself remembering.

Tobias’s relationship with his cat develops over several years. He’d had the cat since he was a child, so he was famialiar with the cat’s mannerisms. The cat didn’t like people, in general, but seemed only to tolerate them. However, Tobias believed that the cat liked him, or, as he says, ‘‘rather, when I was alone with her I could see she was content; she’d sit on my lap. I don’t know if she was happy, but she was content.’’ Relating this part of the cat story while listening to his wife argue might make the reader wonder if this is a comment about Tobias’s feelings for his wife. Throughout the play, there is little observable evidence of Tobias’s affections for his wife or, for that matter, of Agnes’s love for Tobias. They are not sleeping together, nor do they even share a bedroom. Their conversations with one another are cordial but demonstrate only surface emotional content unless they touch on subjects that are almost too painful to bear. So there remains the question of whether Tobias really loves his wife or, like the cat, merely tolerates her. Or, turning this statement in another direction, does the cat represent Agnes? Is Tobias looking at Agnes as he looked at his cat? Does Tobias feel that Agnes doesn’t really like people but that she feels, if not happy, at least content living with Tobias? It is interesting to note that at the end of this part of the cat story, Tobias pauses, allowing Agnes to reflect on the portion of the story that Tobias has related so far and to respond to his commentary, which she does. As soon as Tobias mouths the words ‘‘she was content,’’ Agnes replies: ‘‘Yes.’’

Tobias then continues with his cat story, stopping to correct himself when he states that he suddenly realized one day that the cat no longer loved him. Tobias says: ‘‘No, that’s not right; one day I realized she must have stopped liking me some time before.’’ The fascinating point that is being made here is that Agnes and Tobias’s relationship compares quite consistently with this observation. Whether Tobias is aware of this on a rational level or is bringing up the memory of the cat in reaction to a subconscious realization is not clear. However, it can be quite successfully argued that Albee is aware of the connection. Later in the play, Albee exposes two incidents that occurred much earlier in the marriage of Agnes and Tobias, either of which could have caused Agnes to have ‘‘stopped liking’’ Tobias ‘‘some time before.’’

It is unclear which incident happened first, but the one that is mentioned first in the play is Tobias’s alleged infidelity. The woman who was involved in this extramarital affair is never named, but some critics have analyzed the play and concluded that the woman was none other than Agnes’s sister Claire. There are a few clues provided by Albee that support this claim, such as the fact that Claire is aware of the affair to the point of complete certainty. Albee also suggests in his script directions that Claire ‘‘raises her two arms . . . [in a] casual invitation.’’ The tone of the conversations between Tobias and Claire are also much more relaxed and more openly honest than Tobias’s exchanges with Agnes. In addition, toward the end of the play when Tobias tells Agnes that he had trouble sleeping one night, she asks if he went to Claire.

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