A Delicate Balance

Agnes and Tobias, wealthy middle-aged couple, have their complacency shattered when their longtime friends Harry and Edna appear at their doorstep. Claiming an encroaching, nameless “fear” has forced them from their own home, these neighbors bring a firestorm of doubt, recrimination and ultimately solace, upsetting the “delicate balance” of Agnes and Tobias’s household.

Type: Full Length Play

Acts: Three

First Performance: 12 September 1966, Martin Beck Theatre, New York

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Albee’s first Pulitzer Prize), 1967.

Nominations: Tony Award for Best Play, 1967.

Plot Summary and Critical Analysis by Ashley Gallagher

Plot Summary

“The living room of a large and well-appointed suburban house.  Now.”[1]  So reads the opening stage direction of Edward Albee’s three-act play, A Delicate Balance, first performed on September 12, 1966 in New York City at the Martin Beck Theatre.  Indeed, the set description, although simple, provides the audience with essential elements of the play: a place for family and friends from the upper middle class to deal with the repercussions of living as contemporary society deems.  Act I opens with Agnes and Tobias, a middle aged couple, discussing the behavior of Agnes’ sister, Claire, at dinner.  As Claire enters, Agnes promptly exits, leaving Claire and Tobias alone in the living room.  Claire, whom Agnes calls an alcoholic, declares to Tobias: “It would be so much simpler if I were.  An alcoholic.”[2]  While alone, Claire and Tobias discuss Agnes’ and his daughter, Julia’s, most recent failed marriage and about a woman that both he and his best friend, Harry, had an affair with many years ago.  Her tone and level of detail about the affairs suggest that it was Claire who seduced Tobias and Harry all those years ago.  Upon Agnes’ return, she and Claire spar over Claire’s drinking which Agnes attributes to Claire’s selfish desire to take her whole life to commit suicide.  The topic of death soon leads Tobias to reminisce about a cat that he had before he met Agnes.  Although the cat had long been Tobias’ companion, one day he concluded: “She didn’t like me any more.  It was that simple.”[3]  Despite his countless attempts at winning back her affection, the cat still refused Tobias’ touch.  Enraged by her betrayal, Tobias “smacks” the cat across the head and takes her to the veterinarian to be euthanized.[4]  At the conclusion of Tobias’ story, Agnes remarks: “Well, what else could you have done?  There was nothing to be done; there was no…meeting between you.” Here Albee makes the metaphorical parallel between Tobias’ relationship with his cat and his relationship with Agnes, both in a state of decay. [5]  Just then, there is a knock at the door.  Harry and his wife, Edna, enter the living room seeking refuge.  Edna implores amidst tears: “WE WERE FRIGHTENED…AND THERE WAS NOTHING.”[6]  Disturbed, but politely welcoming, Agnes ushers Harry and Edna upstairs to rest in Julia’s room.

Act II begins the following evening with Julia’s petulant complaining about the crowded household she has come back to in her desperation to separate from her most recent husband.  As Julia discusses her failure at marriage, both past and present, Harry and Edna, descend the staircase, coats in hand.  Although their appearance may suggest that they have gotten over their fear, instead, they announce they are going home only to gather more of their things and will return shortly.  Upon their return, Julia and Edna quarrel over which of them has more of a right to live in Tobias and Agnes’ home.  Edna states, “My husband and I are your parents’ best friends.  We are, in addition, your godparents,” which gives them certain “[r]ights and responsibilities”.[7]  Julia exits in a huff and Tobias makes excuses for her hysteria.  Claire and Agnes, meanwhile, strike up a conversation about the summer Agnes and Tobias lost their young son, Teddy, and Tobias had an affair.  Agnes asks Claire pointblank: “Did my husband…cheat on me?”  To which Claire responds, “Ya got me, Sis.”[8]  Julia then reappears in the living room holding a gun and screaming, “Get them out of here, Daddy!”[9]  Tobias quickly disarms her as the rest of the group, though shaken, retreat upstairs to sleep.

By seven-thirty the next morning, when Act III begins, Tobias and Agnes are awake while the rest of the household slumbers.  Agnes remarks how comforting Tobias’ presence in her bedroom was during the night, which had ceased following the death of their son.  Agnes then asks Tobias if he has made a decision whether he will let Harry and Edna stay with them indefinitely.  Despite having been up most of the night considering his dilemma, Tobias has yet to decide and turns to Agnes for her opinion, but she declines, stating, “Whatever you decide…I’ll make it work; I’ll run it for you so you’ll never know there’s been a change in anything.”[10]  Frustrated at having to make the decision on his own Tobias exclaims, “I’LL LOSE CONTROL,” exhibiting a similar aggression as in the cat story.[11]  Julia and Claire then enter the conversation.  While Claire makes her usual sarcastic comments, Julia continues to press the issue that Harry and Edna are intruders in the house whereas she, Tobias and Agnes’ daughter, belongs there.  Soon Harry and Edna join the group, and the women clears out so Harry and Tobias can discuss the situation.  While Tobias admits that he does not want Harry and Edna to stay, because they are his friends, they have the “right” to stay.[12]  Harry then confesses that he and Edna realized they would not let Tobias and Edna stay if their roles were reversed, so they are going back to their own home.  As they exit, Edna, although a minor character, expresses the gloomy climax of the play: “It’s sad to come to the end of it, isn’t it nearly the end; so much more of it gone by…than left, and still not know—still not have learned…the boundaries, what we may not do…not ask, for fear of looking in a mirror.  We shouldn’t have come.”[13]   With that, Harry and Edna say their final goodbyes.  Order now restored in their home, Agnes makes a final entreaty of the remaining characters: “Come now; we can begin the day.”[14]

Critical Analysis

In Stretching My Mind, Albee writes of the resurgence of A Delicate Balance, thirty years after its premiere: “The play concerns—as it always has, in spite of early-on critical misunderstanding—the rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice, and that what choices they do have left are beside the point.”[15]  Winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize, A Delicate Balance delivers just what Albee asserts: a cautionary story of keeping life in balance above all else.  This conflict demonstrates the influence of both Chekhov and Eliot on Albee’s play.  Zinman writes of Albee’s use of Chekhov’s setting and plot structure, specifically “…the large house that is filled, in the course of three acts, with various family members and friends, and then, at the end, emptied of them again.”[16]  Albee’s focus on the “paralysis” that makes his characters miserable harkens to Eliot.  Bigsby comments that the play “is an attempt to invest a modern setting with metaphysical significance,” much like Eliot’s poetry.[17]  Despite its literary links, A Delicate Balance received mixed reviews after its opening.  Walter Kerr from The New York Times, however, saw something more.  He suggested of the play, “Perhaps friendship will be some sort of haven from anxiety, especially when the anxiety cannot be named or found hiding down the hall.”[18]  It is the introduction of this very anxiety which initiates the major story arc of the play: Tobias and Agnes must welcome into their home refugees from reality including their best friends, Harry and Edna, their daughter, Julia, and Agnes’ sister, Claire.  They have all sought asylum with Tobias and Agnes but have “falsely confuse[d]” their association, whether it be familial or friendly, with “‘love.’”[19]  In essence, as Zinman states of Tobias and Agnes’ relationship with Harry and Edna, “Forty years of friendship has revealed them to be strangers, and that is the dark weight of the play.”[20]  Zinman’s observation can also just as easily be applied to Claire and Julia’s status in the household; everyone is estranged despite the appearance of stability and unity.

Albee describes Harry and Edna as “very much like Agnes and Tobias.”[21]  Indeed, while their socioeconomic statuses make the couples strikingly similar, Harry and Edna can also be seen as “…an expression of the suppressed fears of Agnes and Tobias.”[22]  Although Agnes and Tobias are both central to the plot, Tobias, Porter asserts, is the central figure of the play.  For, once Harry and Edna’s fear has been brought into his home, he has a “dawning recognition of his own emptiness [which] provides the dramatic tension of the play.”[23]  Tobias’ hollowness can be attributed to the loss of his son and his ensuing lackluster marriage.  Clum observes that, much like other Albee marriages, “at the heart of this marriage…is a dead or missing son.”[24]  As the play goes on, Tobias seems guilty for the death of his son, prompting Clum to question: “why is Tobias riddled with guilt over Teddy’s death?  In what way is he responsible for his son’s premature death?”[25]  Clum’s query parallels the story Tobias tells about his euthanizing of his childhood cat that, without reason, began disliking him one day.  Tobias’ cat story also acts as a metaphor for his relationship with Agnes with whom he has not shared a bed these many years for fear of conceiving another child.  “[H]is sexual withdrawal from Agnes becom[es] therefore emblematic of his withdrawal from any of life’s risks,” observes Porter.[26]  As such, Tobias leaves Agnes to preserve the stability in their household, which is undermined by the presence of her sister, Claire.  McCarthy writes that Claire is an “alter ego to Agnes.  Where Agnes is restrained, Claire is drunkenly extrovert.”[27]  The role of comic relief is one of the cruxes of many Albee plays.  Albee is quoted in the introduction of Bottoms’ The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee: “Don’t forget the laughs and slapstick so essential to the success of any of my plays.”[28]  Claire’s humorous yet insightful sparring acts as a much needed foil for the more dramatic scenes involving Edna and Julia who are staking claim to Tobias and Agnes’ house.

Ultimately, the characters in A Delicate Balance must face the reality of their lives in Act III.  Clum writes, “As the married couples accept the bare bones of a marriage, so Albee seems to say that his characters have crossed a point of no return and that they are now incapable of change.”[29]  This acceptance of their fates, allows the characters to once again regain their balance in life, at least superficially.  Bigsby concludes about Albee’s play: “Indeed it is possible to see A Delicate Balance as, in part, an expression of Albee’s own sense of artistic frustration: the frustration of a dramatist able to command the attention of an audience in the theatre, but unable to wring from it an admission of the connexion which exists between the enacted drama and their own lives.”[30]  Albee’s utilitarian desire to make audiences cognizant of the parallels between their lives and the theatre underscores his overall critique of middle class America’s acceptance of the mundane life in place of the extraordinary.


[1] Albee 6.
[2] Albee 19.
[3] Albee 25.
[4] Albee 26.
[5] Albee 26.
[6] Albee 31.
[7] Albee 56.
[8] Albee 58.
[9] Albee 64.
[10] Albee 72.
[11] Albee 73.
[12] Albee 88.
[13] Albee 89.
[14] Albee 93.
[15] Albee, Stretching My Mind 174.
[16] Zinman 64.
[17] Bigsby 108.
[18] Kerr 44.
[19] Bigsby 97.
[20] Zinman 68.
[21] Albee 6.
[22] Bigsby 100.
[23] Porter 168.
[24] Clum 66.
[25] Clum 67.
[26] Porter 168.
[27]McCarthy 85.
[28] Bottom vi.
[29] Clum 68.
[30] Bigsby 106.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. A Delicate Balance. Rev. ed. New York: Samuel French, 1994. Print.

—. Stretching My Mind. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005. Print.

Bigsby, C. W. E. Albee. New York: Chip’s Bookshop, 1969. Print.

Clum, John C. “‘Withered age and stale custom’: Marriage, diminution, and sex in Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance, and Finding the Sun.” The Cambridge Companion to Edward Albee. Ed. Stephen Bottoms. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2006. Web. 15 July 2013.

Kerr, Walter. “The Theater: ‘A Delicate Balance’ at the Martin Beck.” New York Times 23

September 1966, sec. L++: 44. Web. 15 July 2013.

McCarthy, Gerry. Edward Albee. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Print.

Porter, M. Gilbert. “Toby’s Last Stand: The Evanescence of Commitment in A Delicate Balance.” Eds. Philip C. Kolin and J. Madison Davis. Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Print.

Zinman, Toby. Edward Albee. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.

Back to Works