Themes and Meanings
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...
(The entire section is 766 words.)