The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

A Delicate Balance takes place in the well-appointed living room of Tobias and Agnes and spans less than forty-eight hours. The function of act 1 is to introduce the cast of characters, including one (Julia) who does not appear in that act. Tobias, a successful businessman recently retired, is having an after-dinner drink with his wife. Agnes contemplates, not unpleasantly, what it would be like to go mad, and they discuss Agnes’ alcoholic younger sister, Claire, who lives with them and who soon appears on the scene. When Agnes leaves to phone her daughter, Julia, Tobias and Claire discuss Claire’s alcoholism, Tobias’ friendship with Harry, and the infidelity of both men with the same woman one past July. The discussion, especially Claire’s recounting of her experience at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, exposes a closeness between Claire and Tobias and, at the same time, an antagonism between Claire and Agnes.

Agnes’ return brings with it the announcement that Julia, her fourth marriage having failed, is coming home. Tobias recounts the story of a pet cat he once had that had become indifferent to him; out of frustration over that failed relationship, he had it taken to a veterinarian to be put to death. Both Claire and Agnes try to assuage Tobias’ guilt over the pet’s death, which still haunts him. They hear a car approach, and all are surprised at the sudden visit of Harry and Edna, who try to justify their arrival with halting pleasantries; however, through Edna’s sobs and Harry’s distractedness, the strange truth finally comes out. Sitting at home by themselves, they suddenly became horribly afraid about “nothing.” They appeal to Agnes and Tobias’ sense of friendship to take them in, and Agnes, somewhat quizzically, leads them offstage to rest in what had been Julia’s room. Claire’s final, almost smug, comment to Tobias is that she had wondered when “it” would start.

Act 2, the longest act, has two scenes—one taking place early Saturday evening before dinner, and the other later that night. Julia enters, a girl-woman looking to her parents for the nurture and comfort that she has failed to receive from her marriages. She complains about Harry and Edna having usurped “her” room and is incredulous that neither Agnes nor Tobias has been able to exact concrete information from Harry and Edna about their presence in the household. Julia is frustrated at not receiving the sympathy and condolence she expects from her parents and her aunt. Tobias is...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

A Delicate Balance is Edward Albee’s most conventional and realistic play. The setting of a single room for the duration of the play expresses the calmness and confinement of the characters’ lives. Other rooms are mentioned, and important action takes place in them. The usurpation by Harry and Edna of Julia’s room, for example, suggests rejection and control when Julia craves comfort. Meaningful contact occurs more often, in fact, in the offstage rooms than it does onstage. The audience is not privy, for example, to the conversation that leads to Harry and Edna’s determination to leave, or to the private comfort that Agnes—not for the first time—gives Julia, or to the physical closeness—after years apart—that Agnes and Tobias share.

Everything is quietly civilized in the living room/library of the large suburban home. Verbal sparrings, when they do occur, are mostly muted and dignified. The agenda seems to be to keep up appearances, because appearances are really all they are. Agnes promises Tobias early in the first act that she will think good thoughts “to ward off madness, should it come by . . . uninvited,” which exactly foreshadows the impending action. With the appearance of Harry and Edna, who are frightened by the nothingness they have discovered at the core of their existence, Tobias and Agnes are forced to look at the reality of their own lives and relationships. Claire alone seems impervious to such terror and...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Agnes and Tobias’s home

Agnes and Tobias’s home. Home of a married couple whose living room is the setting for the entire play. Edward Albee’s stage directions describe the set as the “living room of a large and well-appointed suburban house.” This room contains a library, chairs, a supply of liquor bottles, and an arched entryway. Albee provides remarkably few other details about the set, but the fact that the room is “well-appointed” indicates that it should reflect its residents’ affluence, class, and taste. However, their affluence provides no protection against a family implosion—the imminent psychological collapse that Agnes fears, the gray ineffectualness of Tobias, the failure of their daughter Julia’s four marriages, the alcoholism of Agnes’s sister Claire.

Outside the walls of the house looms an equally terrifying if less readily definable menace that draws Agnes and Tobias’s friends Edna and Harry into their home to seek haven as well. After eating dinner at their own home, they suddenly and unaccountably became frightened and can no longer endure remaining alone in their house. Agnes offers them Julia’s room for the night, and they retire. What troubles Edna and Harry is an overwhelming meaninglessness, a realization of the “absurd,” a glimpse of the existential void.

Other playwrights treated similar themes in the decade preceding A Delicate Balance. What Albee did was to domesticate this theme, presenting a more affluent American setting and characters from whom, presumably, primarily middle-class theatergoers in the United States would feel less estranged and by whom they would be at least initially less discomfited.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The tone of Albee’s play A Delicate Balance re- flects the overall social setting of the late 1950s. The postwar era was a time, in...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The entire play takes place in one room, ‘‘the living room of a large and well-appointed suburban house.’’ In...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1930s: Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) is founded in Cleveland, Ohio, and within four years its membership grows to 100.


(The entire section is 186 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Although Albee’s A Delicate Balance has often been described in realist terms, several critics point out absurdist elements in the...

(The entire section is 280 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

A movie adaptation of Albee’s A Delicate Balance was produced in 1973 and directed by Tony Richardson. It stars such actors as...

(The entire section is 31 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Albee’s writing is often compared to Eugene O’Neill’s. In Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), O’Neill tells a story about...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Adcock, Joe, ‘‘Production a ‘Delicate Balance’ of Dreadful Characters, Excellent Acting,’’ in Seattle...

(The entire section is 354 words.)


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 245 words.)