A Delicate Balance: A Play | Critical Review by Whitney Balliett

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of A Delicate Balance: A Play.
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Critical Review by Whitney Balliett

SOURCE: "Three Cheers for Albee," in New Yorker, Vol. 36, No. 51, February 4, 1961, pp. 62, 64-66.

In the following excerpt, Balliett offers a highly complimentary assessment of The American Dream and a negative appraisal of Bartleby.

Classic tragedy is still kaput, and that rare and most admirable acrobat who, by managing the almost invisible tightrope between tragedy and comedy, produced the incalculably effective form known as tragicomedy no longer exists. He has been replaced by the horror-comic writer, who, like his progenitor, must have perfect equilibrium. If he slips, the results are either cruel or empty. Fortunately, it doesn't look as if Edward Albee, the thirty-two-year-old author of The American Dream, a one-act play at the York Playhouse, will ever slip. His first and third plays, The Zoo Story and The Sandbox, which were successfully unveiled in New York early last year, are estimable demonstrations of his footwork, and this time around, Albee even flips over onto his hands, and without a single wobble. (His second play, The Death of Bessie Smith, inexplicably unproduced in this country, is quite different; it is an out-and-out horror story that all but dissolves in its own acidulous irony.) Indeed, The American Dream is a unique and often brilliant play. Its horrible aspects, which reach directly back to the butchery and perversion of the Greek theatre, are forbidding, for they have nothing to do with a stage business of moans and blood and bodies. Far worse, the play's horror is only reported or implied, and it is further pointed up by being juxtaposed with an unfailing and wholly original comic inventiveness that is by turns ridiculous, satiric, sardonic, and sensibly Surrealistic. No sooner has a Sophoclean dismemberment been mentioned than it is illumined by a comic sense that matches and often resembles the comic sense of Gertrude Stein, Lewis Carroll, and Jacques Tati. The play is not realistic, but neither is it purely illusory. It is, in the fashion of a comic nightmare, fantasy of the highest order.

Like most expert playwrights, who graciously underwrite in order to make room for their interpreters' artistic proclivities, Albee comes fully alive only when seen. (The hot-and-heavy playwright usually regards actors and actresses as mere chimneys for his fire and smoke.) On paper, his work suggests a graceful but sketchy blueprint. The American Dream deals with a brief climactic period in the lives of five characters—Mommy, Daddy, Grandma (Mommy's ma), Mrs. Barker, and The Young Man. The setting is Mommy's and Daddy's plush apartment living room, which is succinctly suggested by William Ritman in a series of tall gray panels, Romanesque arches, heavy gilt-and-brocade furniture, and gilt picture frames, one of which is surmounted by two small crossed American flags—a touch that establishes the tone of the evening before a word is spoken. Since Albee doesn't have to worry about tragedy, Mommy is from the start a hideous caricature of a childless, waspish, well-to-do middle-aged American woman. Thin-lipped and snake-faced, she speaks in a voice that alternates between needles and syrup. She moves, her shoulders bent in witch fashion, in a series of sharp zigzags, and is smartly overdressed in a purple velvet suit, pounds of gold jewelry, and ugly harlequin glasses.

Daddy is mild, cowardly, conservatively dressed, and, since his digestive "tracts" have reportedly been replaced by "tubes," largely comatose. Albee sets his queer, singsong "Alice in Wonderland" dialogue, which reveals an impeccable ear, going at once. Mommy bullies Daddy into listening to a marvellously repetitious harangue about a hat and the subtle distinctions of color between beige and wheat. ("What did I say, Daddy? What did I just say?") The conversation veers with perfect aplomb to a broken toilet that no one seems able to get fixed. ("You can't get satisfaction any more," whines Daddy.) Then Grandma, who is short, spidery, blue-eyed, and eighty-six, and is dressed in black with a large pioneer-type shawl, appears and dumps at Daddy's feet an enormous bundle of boxes she has just wrapped. (The play is an endless series of surprises; in fact, it seems more improvised than written.) The boxes are fruitlessly discussed while Grandma, Mommy, and Daddy trade with glacial composure alternately hypocritical and vicious remarks about one another, including some indelibly libidinous remarks by Mommy about her sex life with Daddy. Mrs. Barker, the prototype of the American clubwoman, arrives, and is offered every comfort—a seat, a cigarette, a drink, the chance to cross her legs, and the suggestion that she remove her flowered silk dress, which she does, revealing a handsome black slip, in which she remains for most of the play. (No one seems to know Mrs. Barker or why she is there.) The rudeness and politeness, hypocrisy and truth, immediately envelop Mrs. Barker, who amiably joins in, and bit by bit the horrible vacuity of Mommy's and Daddy's life together is revealed. Grandma, who is unsentimental, plucky, shrewd, and funny, and who is Albee's sole but wholly adequate counter-balance to what goes on about her, is our chief informant. She tells with relish of how her daughter's head resembled a banana at birth, how she herself recently slipped secretly out of the apartment and entered a store-bought cake in a baking contest and won twenty-five thousand dollars, how Mommy and Daddy would like to shut her up in a home, and how the packages she has wrapped contain all the things Mommy and Daddy are always trying to take away from her, among them a blind Pekinese (a fine Albee touch) and her television set. In the meantime, Mommy has left the room with Mrs. Barker to show her where she can get a glass of water, and Daddy to search Grandma's room. Albee, though, is always a league or two ahead of us. Mommy cannot find the kitchen, and Grandma's room has disappeared. So it goes, through the revelation, ticked off like a shopping list, of how Mommy and Daddy, twenty years before, angrily dismembered an adopted child in an effort to remedy its illnesses and also to get their monetary "satisfaction." By this time, The Young Man, a vision of handsome, heartless muscularity (the American Dream), is on hand, and—well, the more one attempts to describe Albee the more elusive he becomes. Moreover, the play's resolution, which is critical, depends on considerable suspense. It is enough to say that Grandma gets full revenge on Mommy and Daddy through The Young Man, Mrs. Barker gets dressed again, and the play ends, leaving an irreparable and enormously comic hole in contemporary American middle-class life….

A warning: This is a play for the resilient young and the wise old. All those paunchy, sluggish targets in between had best stay away.

Unfortunately, The American Dream is prefaced by Bartleby, an indigestible one-act opera skillfully adapted from the Melville story by James Hinton, Jr., and Albee, with music by William Flanagan. (The Death of Bessie Smith would have made a perfect twin.) Bartleby is a dead-end tale that deals with a mysterious and taciturn clerk of that name, who, when asked to do this or that by his employer, a New York lawyer, simply replies, "I prefer not to." The clerk even refuses to be fired, forcing the lawyer, a patient, kindly sort, to move his office. Left behind, the clerk is arrested as a vagrant and taken to the Tombs, where he dies of malnutrition. (In the opera, he expires in the lawyer's old office.) This is the sort of teasing, blank-faced symbolism that Melville revelled in, but its possibilities are pretty well buried by Flanagan's score, which is vaguely atonal and full of the difficult, craggy melodic content that Charles Ives invented.

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This section contains 1,278 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by M. Patricia Fumerton