A Delicate Balance

by Edward Albee

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Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452


Agnes, a handsome wife and mother in her late fifties. Haunted by the possibility of losing her mind, which she defines as a kind of “drifting,” whereby she would become a stranger in the world, she attempts to maintain order, a “delicate balance,” in her world. She deals with the emotional withdrawal of her husband and the “embarrassment” of her sister by taking the verbal initiative to judge and thereby control them. She comes to realize that her hold on reality depends more on them than she has been willing to admit, and that frightens her.


Tobias, her husband, a few years older. An emotionally repressed and withdrawn man, he covers his deepest fears with a mask of self-control and quiet, and he suppresses them with alcohol. Forced by Agnes to make a decision about whether Harry and Edna will stay, he breaks down under the weight of trying to be honest about how he really feels, not only about them but also about his own family. He has a hysterical fear of death and of being alone, and this allows him to tolerate demands of his family.


Claire, Agnes’ alcoholic younger sister. Called an ingrate and one of the walking wounded by Agnes, she is nevertheless the most honest person in the family. She does not hide her feelings or her dark side. She uses her drinking to annoy and embarrass Agnes; to amuse Tobias, with whom she might have had an affair; to prick Julia’s pretensions; and to thumb her nose at society. She is a weary, but tough, survivor.


Julia, Agnes and Tobias’ thirty-six-year-old daughter, recently separated from her fourth husband. Returning home with a sense of failure and with raw emotions, she is like a younger version of Claire, for whom she has much admiration and affection. She needs her childhood room, which symbolizes a measure of order in her chaotic emotional life; the fact that it is occupied by her godparents causes her to become hysterical. She realizes that her arrival will necessitate changes in the alliances that have held Agnes, Tobias, and Claire in their uncomfortable triangle.


Harry and


Edna, Agnes and Tobias’ best friends and godparents to Julia. Frightened by a “terror” that remains unnameable, they are “intruders” in the household. Like the plague, their fear is contagious; each character reads his or her own personal agony into it. The women of the house want them to go; Tobias begs them to stay. In leaving by their own choice, they force the family to confront and acknowledge their personal fears. The terror seems to be existential in nature, a glimpse into the passage of time, death, and alienation.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245

Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A fine overview of Albee’s plays and career. Considers the influence of the Theater of the Absurd on Albee’s work.

Bigsby, C. W. E. Albee. Edinburgh, Scotland: Oliver & Boyd, 1969. Identifies Albee’s liberal humanistic and existential concerns. An excellent analysis of Albee’s thought, with a perceptive discussion of A Delicate Balance.

Bigsby, C.W.E., ed. Edward Albee, 1975.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Edward Albee, 1987.

Hirsch, Foster. Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?, 1978.

Kolin, Philip C., ed. Conversations with Edward Albee, 1988.

Kolin, Philip C., and J. Madison Davis, eds. Critical Essays on Edward Albee, 1986.

McCarthy, Gerry. Edward Albee, 1987.

Paolucci, Anne. From Tension to Tonic: The Plays of Edward Albee. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. One of the most insightful studies available. Focuses on Albee’s use of language, especially metaphor and irony. Contains a chapter on A Delicate Balance.

Roudané, Matthew. Understanding Edward Albee. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. An excellent starting point for the study of Albee’s work. Traces the development of his affirmative existential vision.

Rutenberg, Michael E. Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest. New York: DBS, 1969. Written with Albee’s cooperation. Concentrates on political and social dimensions of Albee’s work. Contains two interviews and an interesting analysis of A Delicate Balance from a sociological point of view.

Stenz, Anita Maria. Edward Albee: The Poet of Loss, 1978.

Wasserman, Julian N., ed. Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, 1983.

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Critical Essays