A Delicate Balance: A Play

by Edward Albee

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Themes and Meanings

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Like most of Edward Albee’s plays, A Delicate Balance has a domestic focus, and, like those in most of his plays, the family here is mired in failed relationships and numbed sensitivities, full of vital lies they must tell to protect themselves from who they really are. The characters seem mediocre, if not stale. Actions run smoothly, without any raw or especially violent confrontation. A veneered surface of civility masks the terror of nothingness beneath it. It is a cliched portrait of “ideal” life in the suburbs—all affectation and no reality.

Into the deceptive calm, best friends Harry and Edna appear and inject their “terror” into the household, disturbing its delicate and precarious balance. Harry and Edna are themselves symbols of nothingness, of despair, of spiritual aridity that may infect the most sacred of havens, the home. Tobias is forced out of his complacency to make a decision he finds gut-wrenching; Agnes struggles to maintain the moorings of the household and succeeds in charting the path toward daylight; Claire, the seer and truthteller, lashes out at everyone and so betrays her desperation for warmth and love; and Julia, the weakest and most naive character, can no more find love under her parents’ roof than she could in the failed attachments of four marriages.

Tobias’ story of his cat, told in the first act, symbolically captures the hidden crises of all the human relationships of the play. It expresses Tobias’ inability to deal with relationships that have gone bad. He does not know how to handle Julia, thinks that it is too late to make Claire happy, and has given up sexual relations with Agnes because he does not want to take the chance of being hurt again as he was by the death of their son. The very fact that the reader is given no details about such a profoundly important and devastating event as Teddy’s death indicates the extent to which the characters wish to avoid dealing with painful realities. Harry and Edna become the explication of Tobias’ narrative about the cat. Just as Tobias could not understand the cat, he neither understands the characters in the play nor gives them what they most need. Harry and Edna force friendship to a test by making an impossible demand. Tobias’ extended speech to Harry in the last act is the rawest and most open scene in the play, revealing Tobias’ violent anger, frustration, and guilt for his failures in relationships.

Agnes, the balancer, the “fulcrum,” as she calls herself, soothes Tobias back into detachment. Unlike Tobias, she is a master at giving people what will placate them. Denied a significant relationship with Tobias, she satisfies herself by maintaining the well-being and, ironically, the stasis of the entire household, holding internal and external forces in check. The play is about her will and to what extent that will can control reality. Tobias is confused and uncertain and so returns at the play’s end to illusion; Agnes allows him that illusion because she knows that he wants and needs it, and she can live with it, too.

Agnes’ closing speech, expressing wonder at the sun and exhorting the household to begin the day, is ambiguous. Albee could be indicating that the characters have found a new awareness and direction in their search for more meaningful relationships, or that they are merely beginning again the same routine of deception, insensitivity, and uninvolvement. In fact, Agnes’ speech, mirroring so closely the structure and content of her opening lines, reinforces an important unifying device in the play—circularity, returning to the point of origin. Her imagery...

(This entire section contains 766 words.)

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of the sun, a spherical object associated with the continuum of days and seasons, and of a balloon, a membranous structure full of nothing, symbolize the family circle. The circle defines and holds captive (Tobias says to Julia, “YOU BELONG HERE!” and Claire remarks that she thinks that Julia is home for good this time), and it also excludes (Harry and Edna are absent at the end of the play).

Other important themes in the play are confrontation and death. Tobias confronts the cat before he kills it. Julia confronts her parents with bloodied knees and a scarred heart. Claire confronts everyone in the play, including herself, with truths about themselves that they cannot see or upon which they cannot act. Permeating the play is a restrained verbal dueling and a death-in-life existence manifested in betrayal, abandonment, loneliness, and indifference. The vacuity of the characters, the sameness of the set, and the artificially of the dialogue all symbolize such a vacuum.


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Loss There are many different kinds and levels of loss in Albee’s play A Delicate Balance. Most obvious is the loss of balance that has been precariously maintained by Agnes, the main character in the play and mistress of the house in which the play takes place. Agnes begins the play musing about sanity, a condition, at least in Agnes’s mind, that can easily be lost. Agnes wonders what would happen if she were to lose her sense of the rational. Who would take care of things? The way in which Agnes maintains the delicate balance in her home, as well as the delicate balance of her sanity, is to lose contact with her own emotional reality. She also tries to convince everyone else to supress his or her emotions. Agnes believes that by saying that the emotions are gone, circumstances will return to some condition that resembles normalcy.

A loss of opportunity is another kind of loss that is represented in Albee’s play. Agnes has lost the opportunities of youth, of having another child. Agnes’s sister Claire has lost her opportunity at married life, having children, doing something with her life other than getting drunk. Julia, Agnes and Tobias’s daughter, has lost several marriages and the opportunity to have children. She has also lost her room, symbolic of having lost her childhood. Julia has also lost a brother, who died in his youth. This loss Agnes mourns as a loss of love. After the death of the child, Tobias and Agnes no longer attempted to have more children. This eventually lead to the loss of their sexual life together.

There is also the overall loss of privacy and peace when Agnes and Tobias are invaded by Claire, Julia, Harry, and Edna, who all want to live with them. The crowding of the house, the battles for space and understanding, the irritations and frustrations of trying to compromise, all eventually lead to the ultimate loss of balance. Where patience and social sensibility once were the rule, chaos and emotionalism reign. And the play ends with Agnes once again contemplating the loss of her sanity.

Escape from Reality Reality in this Albee play is something that most of its characters try to escape. The most obvious escape route is through alcohol. Its presence is so entwined in the dialogue that it becomes almost a character itself. Every scene revolves around the bar and decanters of brandy, cognac, anisette, and gin. Claire is alcohol’s most wounded victim, but she is also the one who, although she has the most trouble dealing with reality, sees reality the clearest. Tobias is not as ruled by alcohol but uses it to calm himself enough to maintain his patience and usual silence.

Agnes, on the other hand, has a preprogrammed script in her head that contains all the social rules of conduct. She is easily embarrassed and uses most of her energies attempting to keep others from saying or doing things that go against her rules. In other words, she escapes the nasty or difficult parts of life by defining them as taboo subjects. Agnes hides from reality behind the rules. If the rules do not offer shelter, she then escapes reality through pure avoidance. She does not want to talk about things that are unpleasant, unless, of course, she is discussing her sister’s poor excuse for a life. She avoids her daughter’s temper tantrum, assuming that her daughter will eventually work things out on her own. Agnes, in the meantime, does not have time to deal with all those emotions. Even though she suspects that her husband had an affair, she only asks the people whom she knows will not confirm her suspicions.

Julia escapes from reality by marrying men on a whim and then abandoning them when things do not work out. She then runs home and wants to crawl back into the womb. She has not evolved into a mature woman although she is in her mid-thirties, she would rather go home to her parents and reclaim the room in which she grew up. Her energies are used in fighting for her right to return home rather than in fighting for a life of her own.

Harry and Edna are the most obvious escapees as they run from their own home and set up camp in the home of Agnes and Tobias. They run from a general sense of fear or dread, not even knowing what they are afraid of. All they want to do is escape by hiding, all day if they must, in a bedroom in their friends’ home.

Fear Fear could easily be argued as another character in Albee’s play. It is an unnamed fear that moves Harry and Edna out of their house and into the middle of the chaos in the home of Agnes and Tobias. As Harry and Edna explain it: ‘‘WE GOT . . . FRIGHTENED.’’ ‘‘We got scared.’’ We . . . were . . . terrified.’’ The fear is described as darkness, as when Agnes says: ‘‘I wonder if that’s why we sleep at night, because the darkness still . . . frightens us?’’ Agnes also labels fear as ‘‘the terror. Or the plague,’’ and she states that Harry and Edna have brought the plague with them. And she claims that the only solution is isolation.

There is also Agnes’s fear of going insane and her fear of confrontation; Tobias’s fear of having another child; Julia’s fear of growing up and her fear of being displaced in her parents’ lives; and Claire’s fear of life and her fear of love, the one thing that she desperately wants.