A Delicate Balance: A Play | Critical Essay by M. Patricia Fumerton

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of A Delicate Balance: A Play.
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Critical Essay by M. Patricia Fumerton

SOURCE: "Verbal Prisons: The Language of Albee's A Delicate Balance," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 201-11.

In the following essay, Fumerton provides an analysis of Albee's use of language in A Delicate Balance.

A Delicate Balance forms part of Edward Albee's continuing exploration into the potentialities and limitations of language. Surprisingly, however, no one has yet provided a detailed analysis of the play's language. This work intends such a study. The characters of A Delicate Balance are conscious manipulators of their language: a frightened people who use language in an attempt to control or simply to survive fearful realities. They use the decorum of language to disguise anxieties, to balance between implications (as when Agnes habitually says "either … or" and "if … then"), and thus to evade truths and choices. At the same time, they sharpen their language of evasion into a precise instrument of persuasion—wielded by all, but most skillfully by the "fulcrum," Agnes. Yet in employing it to evade and coerce, the characters limit and distort their language, separating the "word" from its concrete and unconditional "meaning." Ironically—and tragically—they become trapped within the limits they themselves impose upon language.

The play opens with a conversation between Tobias and Agnes, a husband and wife who appear contented and very much in love. The mood is subdued, the characters are attentive, and the language, although formal, is cordial and pleasant. Agnes's opening speeches undulate like the rolling of hills, never descending into deep chasms nor climbing to mountainous peaks. She begins with an idea, glides into a parenthesis that becomes a digression (intermixed with questions to her husband), returns briefly to that idea—from which she again digresses—and finally completes this same thought three pages after it was originally introduced. Her sentences overlap, continually balancing and qualifying themselves:

What I find most astonishing—aside from that belief of mine, which never ceases to surprise me by the very fact of its surprising lack of unpleasantness, the belief that I might very easily—as they say—lose my mind one day, not that I suspect I am about to, or am even … nearby….

Placid and lamb-like, Agnes appears well-suited to her name. And the further association, through her name, with Saint Agnes, a virgin martyr of the third century, evokes no striking sense of incongruity.

As the play continues, however, it becomes apparent that Tobias and Agnes are not content and that even their love is to be questioned. Their language is a camouflaging tool that expertly conceals a depth of pain and fear. Rather than being an expression of love, the almost euphonious decorum permeating the play is a mark of heightened tension (as in the tea-pouring scene of Act III) or of extreme uneasiness (as in the exchange of names when Harry and Edna first arrive). Whenever uncomfortable or fearful, the characters turn to recognized formalities in order to distance what they fear and to conceal what they feel. Thus, when left alone in the living room in Act III, Harry and Tobias formally greet each other even though they have already been in this same room with the others for some time:

HARRY: (Watching them go; laughs ruefully) Boy, look at 'em go. They got outa here quick enough. You'd think there was a … (Trails off, sees TOBIAS is ill at ease; says, gently) Morning, Tobias.

TOBIAS: (Grateful) Morning, Harry.

Ironically, Agnes, the "saint," is the most expert manipulator of this language of disguise. Her very correct, very polite, and very balanced language is deceptively open and articulate—it conceals, in fact, rather than reveals. When Agnes distinguishes between an hysterical condition and an hysterical action (in response to Tobias's declaration that Julia is in hysterics), she is actually using articulation as a defense. Similarly, when Agnes responds with the expression "either … or"—an expression frequently mocked by Claire—she articulates the alternatives, but never makes a choice: "She [Julia] will be down or she will not. She will stop, or she will … go on." Agnes is as noncommittal as Tobias and the others. By repeatedly using this expression, as well as "if … then"—expressions balancing like teeter-totters—Agnes focuses upon the implications and thus evades rather than faces the truths (which demand that one not only recognize, but actively choose between alternatives). Claire sees this clearly:

We live with our truths in the grassy bottom, and we examine alllll the interpretations of alllll the implications like we had a life for nothing else, for God's sake.

Claire's vision is indeed faithful to the meaning of her name:

AGNES: (An overly sweet smile) Claire could tell us so much if she cared to, could you not, Claire. Claire, who watches from the sidelines, has seen so very much, has seen us all so clearly, have you not, Claire. You were not named for nothing.

Constantly striving to break the balance and expose truths, Claire threatens the equipoise Agnes so carefully maintains. Claire's sentences reach for peaks and descend into chasms. Stuffed with quick, short verbs, they build up and run headlong, rather than balance:

Pretend you're very sick, Tobias, like you were with the stomach business, but pretend you feel your insides are all green, and stink, and mixed up, and your eyes hurt and you're half deaf and your brain keeps turning off, and you've got peripheral neuritis and you can hardly walk and you hate … and you notice—with a sort of detachment that amuses you, you think—that you're more like an animal every day … you snarl, and grab for things, and hide things and forget where you hid them like not-very-bright dogs, and you wash less, prefer to be washed, and once or twice you've actually soiled your bed and laid in it because you can't get up … pretend all that. No you don't like that, Tobias?

Like all potentially dangerous things, Claire must be controlled. With the mere mention of her name, before she even enters the room, Agnes's pleasantly rolling language becomes more forceful and oppressive. Her parenthetical comments (which had earlier acted digressively, dissipating her main idea) are now carefully laid one upon another in the building of her "mountain" of burdens. Note, in particular, the powerful accumulation of monosyllabic words in her first parenthesis:

If I were to list the mountain of my burdens—if I had a thick pad and a month to spare—that bending my shoulders most, with the possible exception of Julia's trouble with marriage, would be your—it must be instinctive, I think, or reflex, that's more like it—your reflex defense of everything Claire….

Agnes describes herself most aptly as the "fulcrum" of the family. A fulcrum is not only a support or point of support on which a lever turns in raising or moving something, but also a means of exerting influence or pressure. As the sole support of her family, Agnes must exert pressure to maintain its shape. She does so through language. Exemplary of this is Agnes's technique of ending a question with "was it not?" or "have I not?" thus adding assertive force to an interrogative sentence:

AGNES: (Quietly; sadly) Well, it was your decision, was it not?

TOBIAS: (Ibid.) Yes.

AGNES: And I have made the best of it. Have lived with it. Have I not?

Harry and Edna are the only people Agnes cannot quite control. These two pose a far greater threat to Agnes than does Claire because they do not fall within Agnes's domain, the family circle. Indeed, the sudden arrival of Harry and Edna is seen as a hostile "invasion" (the verb "harry" means "to plunder"). Fearing for the safety of her stronghold, Agnes struggles to control these invaders—to grasp hold of them—by shifting her mode of address. Throughout the first half of the play, everyone, including Agnes, refers to them as "Harry and Edna." Midway, however, Agnes suddenly switches to "Edna and Harry" and she alone continues to address them in this way throughout the rest of the play:

Would it seem … incomplete to you, my darling, were I to tell you Julia is upset that Har—Edna and Harry are here, that….

But Harry and Edna remain ungovernable and, therefore, most threatening.

In all other cases, Agnes successfully exerts control through language. She is able to do so because language itself is presented as an authority. But it is only accepted as such if one has the "right" to speak authoritatively. Those who are not members of the family have no right at all—at least, not in the eyes of Julia and Agnes. Consequently, when Edna criticizes the way Agnes and Claire banter—"I wish you two would stop having at each other"—Agnes immediately questions her right to interfere: "Is that for you to say?"

In contrast with the above sequence is an exchange between two rightful members of the family, father and daughter:

TOBIAS: (Quiet anger and sorrow) Your brother would not have grown up to be a fag.

JULIA: (Bitter smile) Who is to say?

TOBIAS: (Hard look) I!

Tobias, with verbal force, claims victory, and Julia silently accedes. However, the balance of power shifts at the beginning of Act III when, still dazed from his confrontation with Agnes, Tobias surrenders totally to what Julia says to him:

JULIA: (Setting the tray down) There; now that's much better, isn't it?

TOBIAS: (In a fog) Whatever you say, Julie.

In each of these dialogues one speaker emerges in control through the power of language alone. Of course, the right and ability to exercise this power rest foremost with Agnes. This is most evident when Agnes defines alcoholism:

AGNES: (Not looking at either of them) If we change for the worse with drink, we are an alcoholic. It is as simple as that.

CLAIRE: And who is to say!


After an appeal to Tobias, which receives no response, Claire accepts the definition—she is what Agnes says she is: "Very well, then, Agnes, you win. I shall be an alcoholic." The very use of "if … then"—"If we change for the worse with drink, we are an alcoholic"—is authoritarian. This sentence structure leads one to focus upon the "then" clause while unquestioningly accepting or ignoring the "if" clause.

But because the family members have raised their language to an imperious position, even those who try to exert themselves through that language are actually controlled by it: captives of their own language, they think what they say rather than say what they think. Language is a ritual that has become separated from thought and, therefore, from real meaning. The characters are all extremely polite (they cordially address each other with "darling," "dear," "please," "thank you") but Tobias himself questions, as do we, whether this cordiality is only mechanical. Do they really mean "darling" and "thank you" or is this apparent sincerity, when actually analyzed, only conditional upon circumstances—like Agnes's "if … then?":

When we talk to each other … what have we meant? Anything? When we touch, when we promise, and say … yes, or please … with ourselves?… have we meant, yes, but only if … if there's any condition, Agnes! Then it's … all been empty.

The emptiness of this ritual is most apparent when one compares the long exchange of personal names, upon the first appearance of Harry and Edna, with the similar yet confused voicing of names at the end of the same Act:

AGNES: (Reaches doorway; turns to TOBIAS; a question that has no answer) Tobias?

HARRY: (Rises, begins to follow EDNA, rather automaton-like) Edna?

TOBIAS: (Confused) Harry?

Each individual calls out helplessly, expecting no answer to alleviate his or her isolation.

Like the rules of etiquette, the rules of grammar must always be observed in A Delicate Balance. Claire deliberately breaks one of these grammatical laws by saying "a alcoholic" rather than "an," but Agnes is quick to catch any irregularity in her speech: "I dropped upstairs—well, that doesn't make very much sense, does it? I happened upstairs…." Here too, however, is an emptiness. The meaning which stands behind the order of language is missing:

EDNA: Harry is helping Agnes and Tobias get our bags upstairs.

JULIA: (Slight schoolteacher tone) Don't you mean Agnes and Tobias are helping Harry?

EDNA: (Tired) If you like.

Individual words clank hollowly within this syntactical kettle-drum—as does the expression, "best friends," or Agnes's repeated use of "glad": "We're glad you're here; we're glad you came to surprise us!" The characters have command of their own language in the same way that Harry has mastered French:

HARRY: … and I was reading my French; I've got it pretty good now—not the accent, but the … the words.

They know the lexicon and syntax of their language, but have lost, or forgotten, its meaning.

Several attempts are made to define or to redefine words in A Delicate Balance. When Agnes defines Claire as an alcoholic, she does so to gain control over her by labelling her. Edna similarly tries to manipulate the others by defining "friendship," yet she is also actually attempting to understand the meaning—or what the others mean—by the word:

EDNA: (To JULIA) You must … what is the word?… coexist, my dear. (To the others) Must she not? (Silence; calm) Must she not. This is what you have meant by friendship … is it not?

But Edna's efforts are pathetically unsatisfactory. The language to which these people have reduced themselves is simply too limited for meaningful expression.

This is most evident when Harry and Edna try to explain their terror. Their language fails to provide an adequate description of this fear or of its cause: the characters can only repeat the adjectives, "frightened," "terrified," and "scared." The closest they come to identifying their fear is through a simile:

HARRY: (Quite innocent, almost childlike) It was like being lost: very young again, with the dark, and lost.

Similarly, Julia, in her hysteria, is unable to express the full force of her pain and fear through language. In fact, the language actually disintegrates as she herself loses control: "Get them out of here, Daddy, getthemoutofheregetthemoutofheregetthemoutofheregetthemoutofheregetthemoutofhere…."

In their struggle to express themselves, individuals often distinguish between synonymous words:

AGNES: (More curious than anything) Do you really want me dead, Claire?

CLAIRE: Wish, yes. Want? I don't know; probably, though I might regret it if I had it.

They will even differentiate between identical words—as in Act III when Harry tries to explain his relationship with Edna to Tobias: "We don't … 'like.' Oh, sure we like…." In this same Act, Tobias screams that he does not "want" Harry and Edna to stay and yet he begs them to stay.

This word, "want," takes on special significance in A Delicate Balance. It denotes both a lack and a need of something:

EDNA: … if all at once we … NEED … we come where we are wanted, where we know we are expected, not only where we want….

When Edna and Harry come to the house, Julia repeatedly asks, "What do they want?" In Act II, Julia's horror-filled declaration, "THEY WANT!", is followed a few lines later by the pathetic cry, "I want!" But like the other characters, Julia does not know specifically what she lacks and needs:

JULIA: I want!

CLAIRE: (Sad smile) What do you want, Julia?


HARRY: Jesus.


AGNES: (Seemingly dispassionate; after a pause) Well, then, my dear, you will have to decide what that is, will you not.

"Want" lacks a definable object: it points to something beyond what each individual has, some unidentifiable thing that is missing from their lives:

TOBIAS: (Holding a glass out to AGNES) Did you say you wanted?

AGNES: (Her eyes still on CLAIRE) Yes, I did, thank you.

HARRY: (Subdued, almost apologetic) Edna and I … there's … so much … over the dam, so many … disappointments, evasions, I guess, lies maybe … so much we remember we wanted, once … so little that we've … settled for….

The word "want" exemplifies the casualties language suffers when warped into an instrument of disguise and control. Reduced to an evasive abstraction, "want" resonates with meaning yet is unable to communicate definite thoughts and feelings.

Dominated by this language, the characters themselves approach the undefinable and abstract. A distance separates them from the reader. Their talk is colloquial enough to be typically American, but elaborate enough to be found in a Restoration play like The Way of the World. Albee wishes us to be at home with these people and yet to remove them to a more abstract sphere. They are familiar, yet strangers, human and yet less vital than, for instance, George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

AGNES: Not even separation; that is taken care of, and in life: the gradual … demise of intensity, the private preoccupations, the substitutions. We become allegorical, my darling Tobias, as we grow older.

It is with the hope of arresting this process of substitution that Tobias reacts so violently against Agnes's evasively abstract use of language:

TOBIAS: (Frustration; anger) I've not been … wrestling with some … abstract problem! These are people! Harry and Edna! These are our friends, God damn it!

Ironically, these "invaders," Harry and Edna, unwittingly open up a path to salvation through self-revelation. Lifting the veil that has shielded but blinded his eyes, Tobias comes to see himself and Agnes in the figures of Harry and Edna. Indeed, Edna speaks in the same manner as Agnes (she uses the royal plural, "we," the affirmative interrogative, "didn't we?" and the expression, "if … then"), and Harry's speech mimics the vague language of Tobias (such as his repetitive use of "sure"). In one attempt at defining "friendship," Edna offers a simile that most closely "hits home": "Friendship is something like a marriage, is it not, Tobias? For better and for worse?" Tobias comes to see that the meaning of his relationships with his family is mirrored in the meaning of his friendship with Harry and Edna. Although Claire may also see this, she refuses to act. It is only Tobias—the vague, taciturn, and evasive Tobias—who accepts the revelation and makes a final bid for salvation. With open eyes Tobias makes his choice: he decides to go against what he wants—self-protection—for something he wants more—a true and meaningful relationship. Struck with the fear that love could only be error—

CLAIRE: What else but love?

TOBIAS: Error?

—he struggles to define such words as "best friends" and "right" in order to give them meanings that are not only meaningful, but concrete and unconditional:






You've put nearly forty years in it, baby; so have I, and if it's nothing, I don't give a damn, you've got the right to be here, you've earned it….

Hoping to release himself and his family from their bonds, Tobias strives to reunite their divided language, to restore thought to language:

I came down here and I sat, all night—hours—and I did something rather rare for this family: I thought about something….

But when Tobias calls out to Harry, "DON'T WE LOVE EACH OTHER?"—a pathetic repetition of Agnes's emphatic "do we not?"—he is begging for an affirmative response to what he fears is untrue.

Nevertheless, Tobias's "reaching out" is a saint-like gesture. As Agnes herself declares, "we quarantine, we ostracize—if we are not immune ourselves, or unless we are saints." The religious language in the play underscores this idea of sainthood. While such expressions as "for God's sake," "hell," and "Jesus" are commonplace expletives, they are selectively placed in A Delicate Balance. "For God's sake" is most conspicuous, occurring with unusual frequency throughout the play. Whenever upset, Tobias uses the adjective "goddamned." Here, in his hysterical speech to Harry, he pleads in the name of God:







… you've got the right to be here, you've earned it






BUT BY GOD … YOU STAY!! (my emphasis)

In fact, the name "Tobias" comes from the hebrew word "töbhïyäh" meaning "God is good." By extending hospitality to his neighbours (a connection with the Old Testament "Book of Tobias"), Tobias attempts to justify his name. But Tobias's offer is rejected and his name remains as split from his person as the language is split from meaning.

All of the characters in A Delicate Balance refuse to be saved—they dread upsetting the balance that so carefully hides and protects them from the naked truth. Each turns from salvation to the ritualistic language Agnes maintains. Indeed, the only religious expletives to be spoken after Tobias's scene with Harry—"good heavens" and "good Lord"—evoke a chilling sensation. For Agnes herself has become something of a substitute Lord. In fact, Agnes is a necessary factor in these people's lives: each individual—even Claire, the rebel—has fallen so low that the support Agnes offers, through language, has become both irresistible and indispensable.

The characters of A Delicate Balance momentarily waver between sanity and insanity, between revelation and self-deception. Drawn from their self-created—what Claire would call their "willfull"—illusions, they approach the truth, but quickly veer away from any openness, descending back into an even deeper mire of delusion. The language of the play follows a similar pattern: moving from a split between thought and language to a momentary union of words and meaning—the confrontation between Tobias and Agnes at the beginning of Act III, and Tobias' hysterical scene in the same Act—and outward again to a language even further divided from meaning and, therefore, to a language incapable of any real expression. By the end of A Delicate Balance, language appears not as a medium for communication, but as a necessary protective device; it forms an impenetrable blockage, a thick layer of skin within which each individual may rest secure: isolated and lonely and—tragically—invulnerable.

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