A Delicate Balance: A Play

by Edward Albee

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The Play

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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 frustrated by the bickering between his wife, daughter, and sister-in-law, by the government’s investigation of his income tax returns, and by Julia’s return home. Claire greets Julia and tells her about shopping for a topless bathing suit earlier that day. The humor masks a frustration that surfaces when Claire, half seriously, asks Tobias to take her and Julia away to a remote island, and Tobias demurs that it is too late. Agnes enters to report that the only time Harry and Edna left their room was to request sandwiches from the maid. Harry and Edna appear with coats over their arms, but instead of indicating that they are leaving, as Tobias, Claire, and Julia are ready to believe, they announce that they will return as soon as they are able to collect some things from home.

In scene 2, after dinner, Agnes tries to placate Julia by characterizing herself as an objective observer, whose job it is to maintain the family, to keep it from falling apart. Claire appears with an accordion; its chords relieve awkward tensions throughout the rest of the scene. When Harry and Edna reappear,...

(This entire section contains 1028 words.)

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they assume rights and privileges in the household, angering and distressing Julia. Harry plays host at the bar and admires Tobias’ leather-bound books, and Edna speaks of reupholstering some of Agnes’ furniture. Julia runs wildly from the room, calling for her father, and Agnes remarks that Julia has not called for Tobias since she was a child. Her mention of Julia’s childhood reminds Agnes of her son, Teddy, two years younger than Julia, who died, and of Julia’s skinning her knees to elicit sympathy from her parents at that time. Tobias enters and asks what happened to make Julia so hysterical that she is tearing apart the upstairs rooms. Soon Julia appears, disheveled, her face tear-streaked, threatening Harry and Edna with Tobias’ pistol. Edna slaps her, saying that it is her duty as her godmother; Tobias takes charge of his pistol; and all characters retire for the night except Tobias, who remains in the living room.

The curtain rises on act 3 at half past seven the next morning. After cordial, even close, domestic pleasantries, Agnes asks Tobias what he has decided to do about Harry and Edna, but his response is evasive and inconclusive. When he asks her to help him, Agnes replies that it is his responsibility to make such decisions, not hers. They discuss Agnes’ longing for a grandchild and Tobias’ fear of having another child. Julia and Claire enter separately and exit to the kitchen to make coffee. When they return with coffee and juice, Claire and Julia antagonize each other, and Tobias tries to calm things down by focusing the discussion on what to do about Harry and Edna. Tobias looks upon them as friends; Julia considers them intruders. Agnes believes that Harry and Edna are bearers of “disease,” “terror,” “plague,” and that only Claire is immune. As the family defers to Tobias for his decision, Harry and Edna suddenly appear. Edna announces that Harry wants to speak with Tobias, and the women exit to the kitchen to make breakfast. After some pleasantries, Harry asks several times whether Tobias really wants him and Edna there, and says that if Tobias and Agnes had made a similar plea to stay with him and Edna, he would not have allowed it. Tobias delivers a long and impassioned soliloquy, which ends with an emotional plea to Harry to stay. A subdued good-bye scene is followed by a curtain speech by Agnes, in which she expresses astonishment at the wonder of daylight and the order with which daylight arrives.

Dramatic Devices

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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 nothingness because, as Agnes says, she is one of “the walking wounded” and therefore “the least susceptible.” Yet to Agnes herself, who from her first speech reveals that she is close to going mad; to Julia, whose lack of parental love and nurture has rendered her an emotional cripple; and to Tobias, whose retreat from love and risk taking after his son’s death has reduced him to a milquetoast—to these characters, there is certain threat of death by “the plague.”

The most notable stage prop is Tobias’ gun, which proves to be ineffectual. Julia threatens Harry and Edna with it in act 2, but they do not take her seriously, she does not really use it, and it lies in Tobias’ limp hands for the rest of the scene. By way of contrast with a weapon of death, Claire, the jester-seer, appears in act 2, scene 2, with an accordion. Her chords drown out some conversation, and her dialect, baby talk, and offer to yodel provide comic relief. Like the gun, the instrument is ineffectual, too. Its obvious function is music, but Claire does not really play a tune on it. Given her position as an observer rather than participant, however, it is a prod to move the other characters to action or reaction.

The most constant activity of the play, in addition to polite conversation, is the consumption of alcohol. The bar, or sideboard, functions as a type of family altar at which Tobias usually presides. When Harry and Edna have more or less settled in and Harry moves toward the bar to fix himself a drink, Julia defends it with arms spread and warns him not to come near it. As the play ends, on a Sunday morning, Tobias, Julia, and Claire are all drinking, but Agnes, the stabilizer and leveler, is not.

Places Discussed

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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

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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 American culture, of very mixed messages. The older generation was caught up in putting on a good, social face while the younger generation was practicing drills at school on how to protect themselves from the radioactive fallout of atomic bombs. It was a time when parents (mostly mothers) were still greatly influenced by Emily Post, a socialite writer whose very name was an icon for social grace. Her books, such as 101 Common Mistakes in Etiquette and How To Avoid Them, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, and The Secret of Keeping Friends, defined success in life in terms of charm, proper social graces, and elegant and considerate speech. Television, which was impacting American society for the first time, aired shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best, all of which depicted idealized families that lived in properly kept homes, whose members neither raised their voices nor stepped outside of the perimeters of their prescribed roles. In other words, these television families lived according to Emily Post’s standards. With these role models, parents, generally speaking, taught their children to hide their emotions, to control their tongues, and to avoid confrontation. The socially correct behavior was to acquiesce rather than to make a scene.

In the meantime, Americans had grown increasingly more aware of the realities of war, more leery of the conformist mentality that had allowed the spread of Nazism in Germany, and of the paranoia of Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communism crusade. And the younger generation began experimenting with drastic change. Even if the majority of teenagers could not put their fingers on what was bothering them, there was a growing number of writers and artists who could. One of them was British playwright John Osborne, whose first play Look Back in Anger impacted British theatre in a similar way that Albee’s first play Zoo Story impacted American theatre. Osborne was referred to as one of the Angry Young Men, a term applied to English writers of the 1950s who expressed social alienation and rejected outmoded bourgeois values. In Osborne’s plays there existed no rules and no social etiquette, and this shocked the older generation of theatergoers and influenced many American writers.

Around this same period, in the United States a group of writers were being referred to as the Beat Generation. Their works critiqued the conformism of the 1950s. One of the techniques used by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, two of the more famous members of the Beat Generation, was to explore different forms of language and its expression, as they tried to put down in print an impression of spontaneity.

Another type of theatre that became popular during the 1940s and 1950s was referred to as Absurdist Theatre. French playwright Eugene Ionesco was famous for his absurdist plays and his style was transported to American theatre. Young actors and playwrights began off-Broadway productions in which they were able to perform new and experimental plays. By keeping production costs down and by using unknown casts instead of star performers, producers were able to offer interesting theatre at low prices. This fit in well with playwrights who wrote in the absurdist mode, either in all of its manifest forms or at least in part of them, sometimes even including incomprehensible language. In absurdist plays there is a loss of causal relationships, and everything becomes senseless. Albee’s early plays, including his Zoo Story, are considered absurdist plays because of their illogical or irrational elements. Harold Pinter, a contemporary of Albee’s, is also defined as an absurdist, as is Samuel Beckett, one of Albee’s role models.

Somewhere in between a romantic or an idealized view and the irrational absurdist view is the realist. In the 1950s and early 1960s, plays that leaned more toward realism were more likely to meet with commercial success, which is exactly what happened with two of Albee’s plays at that time, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance. By definition, a realist play is one that is concerned with the ordinary elements of life with a focus on present, specific action. A realist employs simple, direct prose with an emphasis on the characters’ inner selves. It is through Albee’s direct prose that the psychology of his characters is exposed, even as the characters try to hide it either from the other characters or from themselves. For Albee, this form offered a vehicle to deal with his unpleasant and sometimes debilitating relationship with his mother, who is a reoccurring character in Albee’s plays, such as Agnes in A Delicate Balance.

Literary Style

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The entire play takes place in one room, ‘‘the living room of a large and well-appointed suburban house.’’ In that room is a bar, which is well stocked with bottles of liquor. Time changes from Friday night to Saturday evening, then later the same Saturday, and eventually to early Sunday morning, but the setting remains the same. This one room is the focal point of the house, where all the characters can meet to argue about the living arrangements in the other rooms of the house.

In this play, there are very few dialogue passages that are written without script directions (written in italics inside parentheses before the actual printed dialogue). Although it is common practice for playwrights to supply some interpretation of how the dialogue should be delivered, Albee supplies these directions quite liberally and quite specifically. For instance, in the opening scene, he directs Agnes’s first lines with these directions: ‘‘(Speaks usually softly, with a tiny hint of a smile on her face: not sardonic, not sad . . . wistful, maybe).’’ In a later line for Tobias, Albee directs the actor to deliver it in this way: (Very nice, but there is steel underneath). For one of Claire’s lines, Albee suggests that the actor speak, ‘‘(to Agnes’ back, a rehearsed speech, gone through but hated).’’

Albee’s directing almost every line of dialogue demonstrates that he has very specific psychological meanings behind his words. He is aware of the characters’ thoughts and the emotions behind their words and wants to make sure that the actors understand them. He is not willing to allow the actors to interpret the play on their own. He uses terms like ‘‘quiet despair,’’ ‘‘surprised delight,’’ ‘‘slight schoolteacher tone,’’ and ‘‘the way a nurse speaks to a disturbed patient.’’ He often writes directions about how the actors should hold their hands, turn their heads, or change their facial expressions to include a narrowing of their eyes. The longest script notation that Albee writes occurs toward the end of act 3, before a monologue delivered by the character Tobias. Albee’s directions read:

(This next is an aria. It must have in its performance all the horror and exuberance of a man who has kept his emotions under control too long. Tobias will be carried to the edge of hysteria, and he will find himself laughing, sometimes, while he cries from sheer release. All in all, it is genuine and bravura at the same time, one prolonging the other. I shall try to notate it somewhat).

It should be noted that he does.

The central concept around which this play is built is the dilemma of what to do with Harry and Edna. Their situation is the focal point for all the characters, including Harry and Edna themselves. Albee uses this dilemma to cause emotions to rise. As his characters try to figure out what to do about the Harry and Edna, they have a series of discus sions or debates that slowly rise in emotional temperature. Each character has his or her definition of what the dilemma is, as well as a means for resolving it. The tension in the play rises with the rise of emotions as the characters move toward a climax or a moment of truth. This moment is played out most specifically by Tobias and Harry in the conversation that defines their friendship: one that is built on rights and responsibilities rather than love and affection. In the end, Harry and Edna decide to go back home, thus solving (or at least releasing some of the tension of) the dilemma.

Compare and Contrast

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

1950s: The Twelve Step program of AA offers those who are suffering from alcoholism a way to grapple with their dependence. It is estimated that there are now over 100,000 members in AA.

Today: Membership in AA is now international and includes over 2 million members.

1930s: Dogs and cats roam freely without restrictions and without protection from cruelty caused by humans.

1950s: The American Humane Association is formed in an attempt to protect animals.

Today: It is estimated that over 40,000 dogs and cats are euthanized each day in various animal shelters and veterinarian offices throughout the United States.

1940s: During World War II, women take on a more independent role in American society, and birth rates drop as divorce rates rise.

1950s: It is calculated that there are over one million divorced people living in the United States.

Today: It is calculated that there are over 2.5 million new names added to the divorce list each year, with an estimated figure of over 20 million divorced people living in the United States.

Media Adaptations

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A movie adaptation of Albee’s A Delicate Balance was produced in 1973 and directed by Tony Richardson. It stars such actors as Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Remick, and Joseph Cotton.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Adcock, Joe, ‘‘Production a ‘Delicate Balance’ of Dreadful Characters, Excellent Acting,’’ in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 26, 2001.

Amacher, Richard E., ‘‘A Success Story,’’ in Edward Albee, Twayne Publishers, 1969, pp. 15–25.

Berson, Misha, ‘‘Balance Filled with Angst over Drinks,’’ in Seattle Times, January 17, 2001.

Brustein, Robert, ‘‘A Question of Identity,’’ in New Republic, August 30, 1999.

Canby, Vincent, ‘‘Theater Review; An Albee Horror Story, Set in a Drawing Room,’’ in New York Times, April 22, 1996.

Clurman, Harold, ‘‘Albee on Balance,’’ in New York Times, November 13, 1966.

DeVine, Lawrence, Review of A Delicate Balance, in New York Times, August 15, 1999.

Drukman, Steven, ‘‘Won’t You Come Home, Edward Albee?’’ in American Theatre, December 1998.

Farr, Richard, ‘‘Edward Albee,’’ in Progressive, August 1996.

Kerr, Walter, ‘‘The Theater: Albee’s A Delicate Balance at the Martin Beck,’’ in New York Times, September 23, 1966.

Kolin, Philip C., ed., Conversations with Edward Albee, University of Mississippi Press, 1988.

McCarthy, Gerry, ‘‘A Delicate Balance,’’ in Edward Albee, St. Martin’s Press, 1987, pp. 79–97.

Review of A Delicate Balance, at http://www.circletheatre. com (March 1999, archives; last accessed September 2001).

Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, ed., Edward Albee, Modern Critical Reviews, Chelsea House Publishers, 2000. Edited by literary critic Harold Bloom, this book gives readers a well-collected and comprehensive history of the literary interpretations of Albee’s work.

De La Fuente, Patricia, ed., Edward Albee: Planned Wilderness—Interview, Essays and Bibliography, Pan American University Press, 1980. For a comprehensive background of Albee and his work, this book is a great resource.

Gussow, Mel, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey: A Biography, Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 2000. This book has been heralded as a very clear and objective piece of writing in which Gussow observes much of Albee’s personal and professional journey through the lens of a theater critic as well as a personal acquaintance. The biography is based on research and interviews with Albee and Albee’s colleagues and friends, and it provides very good insights into the long career of this American author. Gussow has also written books on Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, two playwrights who have influenced Albee’s work.

McCarthy, Gerry, Edward Albee, St. Martin’s Press, 1987. McCarthy provides an in-depth study of Albee’s plays.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide