A Delicate Balance (play)
|A Delicate Balance|
Broadway revival poster by James McMullan
|Written by||Edward Albee|
|Date premiered||September 22, 1966|
|Place premiered||Martin Beck Theatre
New York City
|Subject||Dysfunction in suburbia|
|Setting||An upper-middle-class home|
The uneasy existence of upper-middle-class suburbanites Agnes and Tobias and their permanent houseguest, Agnes' witty alcoholic sister Claire, is disrupted by the sudden appearance of lifelong family friends Harry and Edna, fellow empty nesters with free-floating anxiety, who ask to stay with them to escape an unnamed terror. They soon are followed by Agnes and Tobias's bitter 36-year-old daughter Julia, who returns home following the collapse of her fourth marriage.
After twelve previews, the original Broadway production, directed by Alan Schneider, opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on September 22, 1966 and ran for 132 performances. The cast included Hume Cronyn as Tobias, Jessica Tandy as Agnes, Rosemary Murphy as Claire, Henderson Forsythe as Harry, Carmen Mathews as Edna, and Marian Seldes as Julia. It was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play.
After 27 previews, a revival produced by Lincoln Center Theater at the Plymouth Theatre, opened on April 21, 1996 and ran for 185 performances. It was directed by Gerald Gutierrez and starred Rosemary Harris as Agnes, George Grizzard as Tobias, John Carter as Harry, Elizabeth Wilson as Edna, Elaine Stritch as Claire, and Mary Beth Hurt as Julia. The production won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play as well as Tony Awards for Grizzard and Gutierrez, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play.
A London production of the play previewed at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from October 15, 1997, opened on October 21, 1997 and closed on April 4, 1998. It starred Eileen Atkins as Agnes, Maggie Smith as Claire, John Standing as Tobias, Annette Crosbie as Edna, Sian Thomas as Julia and James Laurenson as Harry. Atkins won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress for the play in 1998.
A 2011 revival of the play was presented at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, London, directed by James Macdonald. The cast included Lucy Cohu (Julia), Diana Hardcastle (Edna), Ian McElhinney (Harry), Tim Pigott-Smith (Tobias), Imelda Staunton (Claire) and Penelope Wilton (Agnes).
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (March 2010)|
Agnes, a brutal, scathing, upper class woman in her late 50’s, discusses the possibility of suddenly and quite easily losing her mind. When Tobias reassures Agnes that “we will all go mad before you,” Agnes admits that she could not really go mad because she needs to take care of him. Agnes exclaims that although she is astonished by her own thoughts of madness, it is her sister, Claire, who lives with them, who astonishes her the most. Claire appears and apologizes to Agnes that her own nature is such to bring out in her sister the full force of her brutality. This inspires a diatribe from Agnes concerning Claire’s lifestyle. Claire senses that Tobias and Agnes’s daughter Julia might be going on her fourth divorce and predicts that Julia will be coming home shortly. Agnes reenters, announcing that Julia is coming home. Tobias then tells the story of a cat that he once had that he had put to sleep because the cat stopped liking him. There is a knock on the door, and Harry and Edna, Agnes and Tobias’s best friends, ask if they can stay there. They have been frightened by something intangible and do not want to return to their own home.
Agnes and Julia are discussing the fact that Harry and Edna are occupying Julia’s old bedroom. Harry and Edna have spent the entire day in the room. Julia whines to Tobias next about not having her room. Tobias discredits Julia for all the broken marriages that she has accumulated. There is mention of Julia’s brother who died while still young. Claire enters and chides Julia about her new divorce and about constantly returning home. Julia teases Claire back about her drinking. When asked if she knows what is going on with Harry and Edna, Agnes tells them that she knocked on the door but was too embarrassed, irritated, and apprehensive to pursue the matter. After asking Tobias for a drink, she announces that “there is no point in pressing” the issue of Harry and Edna. At the end of scene 1, Harry and Edna appear with their coats over their arms. They announce they are going home but will return with their suitcases. Scene ii opens with Julia and Agnes alone after dinner. Julia is disgusted with her mother’s desire to control everyone’s conversations and emotions. Agnes retorts, “There is a balance to be maintained . . . and I must be the fulcrum.” Agnes and Tobias leave to help Harry and Edna unload their suitcases from their car. Edna enters and tells Julia that it is time for her to grow up. Julia reminds Edna that she is a guest in the house, to which Edna responds that she and Harry are Agnes and Tobias’s best friends. When Harry enters, he goes to fix everyone a drink at the bar. Julia blocks him from the bar and insists that he stay away from it. Julia yells “I WANT . . . WHAT IS MINE!” and leaves the room. Agnes reminisces about the death of her son. She suspects that Tobias has been unfaithful, and asks Harry and Claire to confirm it, but they both deny it. After Tobias attempts to excuse Julia as being in hysterics, Julia reappears with a gun in her hand. She insists that Harry and Edna leave. Edna declares, “We have rights here. We belong,” and insists that she and Harry are staying there forever, “if need be.”
Tobias has stayed up all night, and is making himself a morning cocktail. Agnes comes down from her room. She tells Tobias that it is his role to make all the decisions with regards to what to do about Edna and Harry. She reminds Tobias of the time when he prevented her from getting pregnant after the death of their son. Claire, Julia, Tobias, and Agnes all discuss their versions of why Harry and Edna are there and what they should do about it. Harry and Edna join them, and everyone in the room is drinking. Edna announces that Harry wants to talk to Tobias alone, and the women exit. Harry tells Tobias that if the circumstances were reversed, he and Edna don’t think they would allow Tobias and Agnes to live at their house, in spite of the fact that they are best friends. Harry asks Tobias, “You don’t want us, do you, Toby?” Tobias delivers what the author refers to in the script notes as Tobias’s “aria.” Tobias answers that he does not really want Harry and Edna to stay there but that because they are friends, Harry and Edna have the right to be there. He goes with Harry to get their suitcases and put them back in their car. Agnes says to Edna, “Everything becomes… too late, finally.” The play ends on Agnes’s rumination that people sleep at night because they are afraid of the dark: “They say we sleep to let the demons out—to let the mind go raving mad…And when the daylight comes again... comes order with it.”
Agnes is the main female character of the play. She is woman in her fifties, well off, and married to Tobias. She is also the mother of Julia and the sister of Claire. Agnes believes herself to be the fulcrum of the family, keeping everyone in balance. She often maintains this balance, or order, by not confronting issues, not taking a stand, and not processing emotions. She tries to keep the peace by not dealing with anything that might upset it.
On the surface, Agnes is completely supportive of her husband, Tobias. She looks to him to confirm her thoughts, and, likewise, she confirms his. It is not until near the end of the play that she brings up issues that show cracks in her relationship with her husband. When the memory of the death of her son is brought to the surface of her thoughts, she reminisces about how difficult a time that was for her, a time when she questioned everything, including her husband’s love and faithfulness to her.
Although she feels as if she is the fulcrum, Agnes begins and ends the play on her musings of insanity. She wonders if she could just suddenly slip off into madness and what that would be like. She wonders what her husband would do if that happened. Would she be an embarrassment to him? Embarrassment is a very large issue with Agnes. She is easily embarrassed by her sister Claire, who Agnes believes has wasted her life and her potential. When Claire insists that she is not an alcoholic, Agnes states sarcastically, “that’s very nice.” Then she lists times that Claire has vomited, fallen down, and called from the club to have someone come and get her. She concludes this commentary with the words: “If we change for the worse with drink, we are an alcoholic.”
Agnes’s relationship with her daughter, Julia, does not fare much better. Julia also embarrasses her mother. When Julia becomes hysterical, Tobias asks Agnes to go talk to their daughter. Agnes’s response is, “I haven’t the time.” Instead of empathizing with Julia, Agnes becomes more self-absorbed. She tells her husband that she has suffered far more than her daughter. This same self-absorption is apparent in all of Agnes’s relationships. She easily becomes lost in self-pity and at the same time believes herself to be above everyone around her. If she is the fulcrum of the balance in the family, Albee portrays her as a very unstable one. Albee has admitted that the character of Agnes is based on his real-life adopted mother.
Claire is Agnes’s younger sister. She claims that she is not an alcoholic but rather a willful drinker. Of all the characters in the play, whether it is due to the alcohol or not, Claire has the loosest tongue. She speaks her mind and is the least affected by social politeness.
Claire lives with Agnes and Tobias and appears to have no means of support except for them. Her main role in life seems to be to annoy and embarrass her sister. She is everything that Agnes dislikes. Claire makes the statement, after telling Tobias that he would be better off if he killed Agnes, Julia, and herself, that she will never know whether she wants to live until Agnes is dead. With this statement, Albee makes it sound as if Claire holds Agnes up as a role model, a model that she has never been able to reach. And instead of trying to reach it, she has done everything to live her life in a diametrically opposed manner.
Claire’s relationship with Julia is closer than her relationship with anyone else. She and Julia identify with one another in their roles as the “other”—people on the periphery of Tobias’s and Agnes’s lives. Claire and Julia are the rebels, the failures, the embarrassments that must be tolerated. When Julia arrives home, Claire greets her more honestly, more warmly than do Julia’s parents.
Despite Claire’s open disdain for her sister, she has never told Agnes about Tobias’s affair. It is not clear if she does this out of love or out of spite. She keeps the affair a secret, almost as if she has a hidden weapon that she protects in case she may have to use it one day. When Agnes comes right out and asks Claire to confirm her suspicions about Tobias, Claire’s answer is, “Ya got me, Sis.” Shortly after this exchange, Agnes describes Claire in this way: “Claire could tell us so much if she cared to . . . Claire, who watches from the sidelines, has seen so very much, has seen us all so clearly . . . You were not named for nothing.” Claire is said to closely resemble Albee’s aunt Jane, an alcoholic and frequent visitor to the Albee home.
Edna is Harry’s wife. It is not clear if she is really Agnes’s friend or if she and Agnes know one another only because their husbands are friends. Edna arrives one day at the door of Agnes and Tobias’s home. She takes it for granted that they will let her and Harry stay there for however long it takes them to get over their unnamed fear.
Despite the fact that the relationship between Edna and Agnes is not clear (their names are very similar), Edna sometimes takes on the role of mother to Julia. Although Edna’s manner is dissimilar, her sentiments are comparable to Agnes’s. Edna is not afraid to voice her opinions. Edna tells Julia that she is no longer a child and should take more responsibility for her life. She also declares that Julia no longer has rights in her parents’ house.
Edna also confronts Agnes and tells her to stop making fun of her and her husband, Harry. Although Edna may not be able to name the fear that has driven her out of her own house, she appears to be quite capable of naming the things that other people are doing wrong in their lives.
But then again, it is Edna, in the end, who realizes that there are boundaries, even between friends. She understands that there are some boundaries that should not be pushed, some things that “we may not do . . . not ask, for fear of looking in a mirror.” And it is also through her reflection that the play resolves. Edna has looked into that mirror at the end of the play and has decided that if the tables were turned, if Agnes and Tobias had come to her, she would not have allowed them to stay at her house.
Harry is Edna’s husband and Tobias’s best friend. At one point in the past, Harry and Tobias, coincidently, had an extramarital affair with the same young woman. Besides both having been businessmen and meeting at the same club, it is unclear what else Harry and Tobias have in common except that they have known one another for a long time and neither sleeps with his wife. Harry is something of a reflection of Tobias, but he is even more reserved. Of all the characters in this play, Harry speaks the least. And when he does speak, he is a man of few words with lots of pauses around each one. He prefers to talk around things rather than going at them straight on. He also avoids questions, as when Agnes tries to find out why he and his wife have come to their home. Instead of giving Agnes an answer, he compliments the furnishings in Agnes’s home. He also has the tendency to repeat himself; at one point he repeats the same line four times when he tries to explain how fear has driven his wife and him out of their home. It is Harry, in the end, who tells Tobias that he and Edna have decided to leave. Although Harry prompted the discussion with Edna about resolving the issue of staying at their friends’ house, it is implied that Edna made the decision and that Harry just delivered the message.
Julia is the thirty-six-year-old daughter of Agnes and Tobias. Three times divorced, she has just recently left her fourth husband and has returned home. Her father calls her a whiner, and her mother has little time for her. Julia, based on a relative of Albee’s, his cousin Barbara Lauder, has set a pattern in her life of marrying for the wrong reasons and then divorcing and returning home. Her parents welcome her, although they make it clear that they wish she would establish an independent life of her own.
Julia is the catalyst of the play. While the other characters either hide their emotions in alcohol or avoid confrontations by smothering their feelings in banal social sweet talk, Julia brings matters to the forefront. She has wants, and she demands that they be at least heard, if not satisfied. The most obvious thing that she wants in this play is her bedroom in her parent’s home. However, upon her return, she discovers that her room is being occupied by Edna and Harry, her parents’ so-called best friends. In her attempts to regain control of her bedroom, Julia makes everyone confront the issues of the play, namely, defining relationships, wants, needs, and rights. At one point, Julia forces the issue first by having an emotional tantrum, then by upsetting the furniture and all the clothes in her bedroom, and finally by threatening everyone with a gun.
Julia tends to put down her mother and commiserate with her mother’s sister Claire. Julia acts as if she is Claire’s friend, until Claire points her finger at Julia and lets her know that Julia is as much a visitor in her parents’ home as Harry and Edna are.
Julia, Claire, Harry, and Edna are portrayed as invaders in the lives of Agnes and Tobias. They all have their own reasons for needing to be there: none of them is able to make it alone in the outside world. Julia falls back on her childhood to claim her spot, even though she is nearing middle age. She has little empathy for the others who are also seeking comfort in the same house.
Tobias is Agnes’s husband and the father of Julia. He is a well-to-do, retired businessman. Although he is tolerant of people around him, he, like his wife, tends to avoid emotional topics. His tolerance toward his sister-in-law Claire is shown in his nonjudgmental attitude toward her drinking. Although he encourages her to return to Alcoholics Anonymous at one point in the play, he does not berate her for drinking. In some ways, he even encourages it or at least does not discourage it. There are a few subtle insinuations that Claire and Tobias might have at one time had an affair, but this is initially only alluded to by script directions that have Claire open her arms to Tobias in a “casual invitation”. Later in the play, Agnes asks Tobias (when he cannot sleep) if he went to Claire.
Whether Tobias had an affair with Claire is not certain; however, his infidelity is. Claire knows about an affair that Tobias had with a young woman, but she has never told Agnes about it. Claire only uses the information to taunt Tobias. Some critics have suggested that the young anonymous woman with whom Tobias had the affair was actually Claire. Despite all this, Tobias appears secure in his marriage with Agnes, even though they have not shared the same bed for many years. Their marriage seems to have become something of a habit. Tobias shows very little affection to his wife except in the way that he reinforces her thoughts, giving her assurances, for instance, that she, of all people, should not worry about going mad.
Tobias appears to be closer to his daughter than Agnes is. However, the degree of intimacy is not considerably greater. Tobias is the more concerned parent when Julia becomes hysterical, although he does nothing but ask Agnes to console her. It is Tobias who takes the gun away from his daughter, and it is Tobias to whom Julia apologizes for her outburst.
If Agnes is the fulcrum, then Tobias is the energy behind the fulcrum that works at keeping a balance in this dysfunctional family. He is constantly asking people to talk more kindly about one another. Or, in the least, it is Tobias who keeps silent while fury flares around him. It is also Tobias who serves everyone drinks, as if trying to soften the edges of their grievances with alcohol.
It is Tobias’s friend Harry (and his wife, Edna) who bring the play to its conclusion, forcing Tobias to define what friendship is all about. In the end, Tobias proclaims that friendship is not about wants but rather about rights. Tobias’s friend Harry has the right to move into Tobias’s house even if that is not what Tobias, or the rest of his family, wants. Contradicting this conclusion is the story concerning his cat that Tobias tells in the middle of the play. In this case, the cat wanted to be left alone. Tobias was uncomfortable with the cat’s noncompliance, and eventually he hits the cat and then has the cat put to sleep. But disregarding the cat, Tobias seems true to his definition of friendship. He has, after all, allowed his sister-in-law to live off him. He allows his thirty-something daughter to continually move in and out of his house, and he tolerates his wife. He also tolerates his friend Harry’s moving into his house uninvited. At the end of the play, Tobias questions Harry’s efforts at friendship and honesty. Then he apologizes. Albee admits that the character of Tobias is based on his adopted father.
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 suppress 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 led 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 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.
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."
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 discussions 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.
Awards and nominations
- 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
- 1996 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play
- 1996 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play
- Billington, Michael (13 May 2011). "A Delicate Balance". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 23 June 2011.
- Jennifer Kiger (2008). "Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance". South Coast Repertory. Retrieved 2008-05-07.[dead link]
- "StageAgent Shows: A Delicate Balance". StageAgent. 2008. Archived from the original on 8 April 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-07.
- Albee, Edward (1966). A Delicate Balance: A Play (First edition ed.). New York: Athenaeum. OCLC 35283644.