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A Delicate Balance Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee.
Edward Albee’s play, “A Delicate Balance,” takes place in Agnes and Tobias’ living room, where the couple and Agnes’ live-in sister deal with friends and family attempting to move in. The play premiered on September 22, 1966 at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City.
Agnes and Tobias are an upper-class married couple living in a beautiful, suburban home. Agnes’ sister, Claire, is an alcoholic who lives with the couple.
The first act opens with 50-year-old Agnes considering her sanity due to a disagreement she and Claire have had at dinner. Claire enters, and Agnes leaves. Tobias and Claire discuss a girl that he and his friend Harry both had an affair with, the implication being Claire might be referring to herself. Agnes returns, and Claire apologizes, insisting she only behaves in such a way as a reaction to Agnes’ personality. Agnes tells her that her drinking is her selfish way of committing slow suicide. Tobias changes the subject to an old cat he used to have who stopped loving him. Tobias had the cat put down.
The couple’s good friends, Harry and Edna, knock at the door and rush in, frightened by an unknown thing or event in their house. Agnes takes them up to her grown daughter Julia’s room to calm down.
In Act II, Julia has returned to the house, having divorced her fourth husband, and is complaining about Harry and Edna staying in her old bedroom. In private, Julia and Agnes talk about Agnes’ need to control situations and Agnes replies that “There is a balance to be maintained.” Harry and Edna return and have a tiff with Julia, with Edna insisting that Julia needs to grow up and Julia telling them that they’re only guests. Harry avoids the conversation and starts to fix drinks, but Julia gets in his way, shouting that she wants what is hers. She leaves.
Agnes and Claire talk about Agnes and Tobias’ dead son, Teddy. Agnes asks Claire if Tobias cheated on her that summer and Claire says “Ya got me, Sis.” Julia comes back into the room with a gun, telling Harry and Edna to leave. Edna says that she and Harry have a right to be there, and they will stay forever if they must. Tobias manages to get the gun away from Julia, and the group goes to bed.
Act III opens early the next morning. Tobias is making a cocktail after being unable to sleep all night. Agnes joins him and tells him that she was comforted by his presence in the room last night, as he hasn’t slept in there since their son died. She asks Tobias what he will decide about Edna and Harry, and she refuses to weigh in on the matter. After a discussion between all of the others in the house, save Harry and Agnes, Harry takes Tobias aside and tells him he’d rather they not stay. Harry admits he and Edna probably wouldn’t have let Tobias and Agnes stay with them were the situation reversed. Harry and Edna pack their suitcases back into their car, and Agnes tells Edna “Everything becomes… too late, finally.”
The play closes with Agnes’ theory that people sleep “to let the demons out, to let the mind go raving mad, and when the daylight comes again… comes order with it.”
Albee says of the play in his essay series Stretching My Mind, “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.”
The theme of strangers among friends and family is prominent in the play, with Tobias, Agnes, Harry, and Edna’s mutual realization that their 40-year friendship does not mean that they know each other after all. Tobias and Agnes are not wholly aware of who their family members are either, as their daughter pulls a gun and Claire has likely had an affair with Tobias. Tobias’ story about his cat mirrors the situation. His cat defied his expectations, and so he removed it from his life.
The theme of loss is also interwoven throughout the play. Agnes opens the play with a mention that she may be losing her mind. The balance that Agnes has carefully maintained is in jeopardy as unwelcome guests flood the house. Agnes and Harry have lost a son and their intimacy. Julia has lost a brother and four marriages as well as her room, which is perhaps symbolic of her childhood.
The play received mixed reviews at first but would go on to win many awards, including the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1973, Tony Richardson directed a film adaptation for the American Film Theater Series, which starred Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield as Agnes and Tobias.