A Delicate Balance: A Play

by Edward Albee

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854

Agnes and Tobias, an affluent elderly couple married for about forty years, sip after-dinner drinks in their living room one autumnal Friday evening. They chat pleasantly about Agnes’s persistent belief that she might one day easily go mad. Agnes’s younger sister Claire comes down from her room to apologize for an embarrassing incident she caused during dinner and is severely rebuked by Agnes for her drunkenness. Agnes then goes to telephone her daughter Julia, who lives some distance away. Left alone with Claire, Tobias inquires about her previous experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous. She explains that she felt alienated at those meetings and, after relating a bitter anecdote about herself, insisted that she was not an alcoholic because she drank willfully. Agnes returns, informing them that Julia is leaving her husband and will come home immediately. She reproaches Tobias for failing to admonish his daughter appropriately following her three previous divorces, and he responds by telling a story about a cat he once owned that stopped liking him for no apparent reason; when his efforts to regain his pet’s affection failed, he had it euthanized.

While Agnes and Claire comfort him, unexpected guests arrive. Harry and Edna, close friends for forty years, felt uneasy and distressed at home alone. Pressed to explain, they relate that after dinner they suddenly became strangely frightened, for no particular reason. They could no longer endure remaining alone in their house. Agnes offers them Julia’s room for the night, and they retire. Claire suggests that she knows exactly what happened.

Saturday evening before dinner, Agnes tries to calm Julia, who is angry about the intruders who remained locked in her former bedroom all day. Agnes casually describes a psychoanalytical study she is reading about the reversal of sex roles in American society. Feigning the attitude of a father when Tobias enters, Agnes leaves Julia to be counseled by Tobias. Father and daughter merely quibble and argue about her three previous marriages until Claire interrupts them to tell about her unsuccessful attempt to buy a topless bathing suit at a local department store. An antagonistic conversation ensues among the three. It continues until Agnes joins them for cocktails and reports that Harry and Edna earlier requested sandwiches to be brought to their room. Julia explains that she left her husband because of his insupportable negative attitudes. Harry and Edna come down, announcing that they are going home to get their things and will return after dinner.

Julia upbraids her mother for prohibiting any discussion of serious matters during dinner. Agnes claims merely to have been keeping the family “in shape” on uneven ground by maintaining a reasonable balance among all the elements. Claire comes in with an accordion but is persuaded not to play it. After the sisters exchange sarcastic remarks concerning their sexual histories, they all discuss whether to permit the unwelcome guests to remain any longer. While Agnes and Tobias greet their returning friends, Claire and Julia discuss this awkward situation. When Edna enters the room, Julia expresses her hostility quite openly, but Edna insists that she has some rights. Julia then blocks access to the sideboard, preventing Harry from mixing drinks. Growing hysterical at the persistence of their demands, she runs screaming from the room. Tobias returns and is giving an account of Julia’s continuing fit of hysteria upstairs when Julia enters with a pistol and orders her father to expel the unwanted guests immediately. Tobias disarms her, and, while Edna is explaining that long-term friendship gives them the right to live there, Agnes leads her daughter up to bed. Harry and Edna retire,...

(This entire section contains 854 words.)

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along with Claire, leaving Tobias alone in the living room.

Early Sunday morning, as Tobias sits awake, Agnes comes down. They discuss the changes their marriage has undergone over the years. Tobias explains that he thought through their present dilemma during the night but, when pressed by his wife for his decision, he begs her advice. She refuses, insisting that he, firmly supported by his family, should assert his authority. She reminds him of past occasions when he failed to do so. Claire and Julia serve coffee and orange juice, and Claire openly spikes her juice with vodka. They discuss their situation, Agnes pointing out that their guests brought a disease, a plague of sorts, with them. She leaves it to Tobias to decide whether to permit the guests to remain.

Harry and Edna come down. Left alone by the women, Tobias and Harry have drinks. Harry explains that, were their positions reversed, he would not let unwanted guests stay in his house. Tobias, becoming emotional and eventually hysterical, insists that Harry and Edna remain, though he confesses that he does not honestly want them to.

The women return. Overhearing Tobias imploring Harry to stay, Edna requests that their bags be brought down so that they might leave. Julia joins Claire in a drink as the couples say good-bye. After Harry and Edna’s departure, the three women praise Tobias for handling the situation effectively. Agnes pleasantly notes the possible danger of having three early-morning drinkers in the house.