Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 932
The success of Edward Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story (1959), was followed by that of The American Dream (1961) and the controversial Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). A Delicate Balance (1966), a more restrained work, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1967, a distinction also bestowed upon Seascape (1975) in 1976 and Three Tall Women (1991) in 1994. Disliking literary labels, Albee reluctantly identifies himself as an eclectic, with dramatic roots extending as deeply into the plays of Anton Chekhov and Eugene O’Neill as into those of Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams. His plays generally deal with people’s attempts to make sense for themselves of their senseless positions in a senseless world. The plays work effectively, largely through their rich verbal texture. Albee possesses an extraordinary ear for the inflections and rhythms of speech and writes lines that are essentially musical in their flow: Voices echo and answer themselves and one another like instruments of different timbres playing a chamber composition. This highly complex counterpoint of convoluted sentences set against robust American colloquialisms is filled with black humor, comic irony, and tragic sarcasm.
A Delicate Balance concerns the failure of relationships among family members and their closest friends. Albee’s theme is that people often thoughtlessly espouse superficial values that later trap them into maintaining insincere relationships. Adjusting to appearances rather than to reality, they suffer through serious failures in communication and eventually lose any possibility of finding any gratifying emotional fulfillment. Evasions in the guise of “making do” and “making it work” enable the four principal characters in the play to pretend to themselves and to one another that their family is a happy one, or at least quite average, because their relationships appear similar to those prevailing in many other families around them. When forced eventually to examine their fantasy worlds honestly, they discover them to be empty and meaningless, and they are left alone, deprived of their illusions, with some new and difficult truths to face and ponder—or to reject.
Agnes establishes and controls a smooth surface of routine and habit in order to cover the web of interlocking illusions and self-deceptions that prevail in the minds of the other family members. This routine excludes honest self-awareness in the characters as well as sincere emotional responses in their interactions with others. Agnes tolerates the presence of her alcoholic sister in her home but never tries to understand her; Tobias gently chides his daughter for her failed marriages but ignores her unhappiness; and Agnes and Tobias live amicably together but lack deep emotional bonds. Julia tells her father that her indifference to him appeared during her adolescence, when she first perceived his withdrawal of affection from her. Claire, who alone sees reality clearly, drowns her perceptive insights in alcohol because she finds them too distressing to endure, but she sometimes blurts them out in lightning-quick flashes of sarcastic or sardonic wit. These humorous remarks provide comic relief while at the same time supply an outsider’s view of the activities of the other characters.
Harry and Edna, a couple “very much like Agnes and Tobias,” have similarly devised a workable routine to fill the spiritual void hidden at the heart of their existence. When, becoming old, they perceive the imminent approach of death, they are struck with terror by the emptiness of lives based on appearances alone, without any deeply rooted values or sincere feelings to sustain them. This is the “plague” they bring with them to their friends’ home—an awareness of their failure to become the persons they might have been, to have loved as they might have loved had they dared to commit themselves to the arduous quest for reality, accepting the pain and sorrow that truth brings with it as the price to be paid for spiritual progress.
The sudden awareness of emptiness that shatters the habitual, comfortable complacency prevailing in the lives of Harry and Edna could well prove contagious to the mirror couple with whom they seek refuge, because the same void fills the house of Agnes and Tobias, although they do not yet acknowledge its presence. When Tobias must decide whether to allow these friends to reside in his house, he confronts the dilemma of illusion versus reality in his own life: To reject them would be to admit that they wasted forty years in maintaining a pseudofriendship based primarily on proximity rather than on affection. Because he cannot bring himself to face this terrible reality, he implores them to stay. Harry, who already looked deeply into the void, now knows better and rejects Tobias’s insincere plea.
The play ends with no definitive resolution, though alternative possible endings are suggested. The pain of failure in a relationship is hard for Tobias to bear. It is something he always avoided; failing years before, for example, to regain the affection of his cat, he had her killed. He now endures an ordeal by fire and could emerge from it purified. He might yet advance to become a truly loving husband and father. Julia joins Claire for a drink, which suggests that she may adopt her aunt’s solution of seeking oblivion to escape her problems. Agnes greets the morning sun ambiguously: A new era may now begin for them all, or the sunlight may illuminate merely a repetition of the routine that governed them in the past. The outcome appears unfavorable. Agnes observes pessimistically near the end of the last act, “[Y]ou wait; and time happens. When you do go, sword . . . shield . . . finally . . . there’s nothing there . . . save rust; bones; and the wind.”
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