Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493

Though A Delicate Balance received mixed reviews, the play earned for Edward Albee his first Pulitzer Prize and marked nearly a decade of his prominence on the American stage. Earlier plays may have used more compelling or passionate characters and ordeals, in contrast to A Delicate Balance’s propriety and superficiality. Its dramatic structure is easy to follow, and the characters are not overly complex. The play is uniform, consistently realistic, and well made in a way that no other Albee work is. The play insists on normalcy (as opposed to the raw tensions in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfei.?, pr., pb. 1962, or the bizarre mystery in Tiny Alice, pr. 1964), though the normalcy is forced and even fabricated.

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A Delicate Balance marks a change in the way that Albee used language. In preceding plays, language communicates meaning directly between characters. Beginning with A Delicate Balance, which launches a string of plays in which communication fails and love and life are empty (see especially Counting the Ways, pr., pb. 1977), Albee’s language conceals more than it reveals, becoming more mannered, more difficult, and even more abstract.

Albee uses a wide range of dramatic styles and devices in his plays, which range from sketches whose staging lasts less than a quarter of an hour (Fam and Yam, pr. 1960) to full-length Broadway productions (such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). He has written plays of grim social protest (The Death of Bessie Smith, pr., pb. 1960, and The American Dream, pr., pb. 1961) but more commonly portrays domestic relationships that are somewhat askew. Albee prefers conceiving of his audience as participant rather than as onlooker, and in later plays, such as The Man Who Had Three Arms (pr., pb. 1982), he has characters actually interact with audience members. He is an experimenter, exploring the boundaries of the theater. He has said that he would prefer to be labeled “diverse” rather than “eclectic,” because “diverse” connotes originality as opposed to mimicry.

Albee’s plays of the 1960’s (especially The Zoo Story, pr. 1959, The Sandbox, pr., pb. 1960, The American Dream, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tiny Alice, and A Delicate Balance) were brilliant early examples of the Theater of the Absurd in America. Like all absurdist drama, they have no heroes but portray the futility and senselessness of human existence and rationality. It is the consensus of critics that Albee’s plays of the 1970’s and 1980’s fall short of those earlier works, eclipsed by dramas of younger American playwrights who use more humor, more intriguing dialogue, or more compelling myths and symbols in their plays.

Albee gained almost instant international acclaim with the production of The Zoo Story in Berlin; his career has consistently been marked by experimentation, innovation, and sometimes shocking originality. In purging his plays of sentimentality, creating powerful emotional effects, and employing themes of confrontation of or withdrawal from reality, Albee has proved to be one of America’s most influential and controversial dramatists.

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Critical Evaluation