“We’re not a communal nation, dear; giving, but not sharing, outgoing, but not friendly.” — Claire, well-named, in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance
After Ingmar Bergman turned him down,* playwright Edward Albee chose Tony Richardson to direct A Delicate Balance for Ely Landau’s American Film Theater series. The 1966 tragicomedy had won Albee the Pulitzer Prize. It spins off a situation that is absurd, indeed, Absurdist. In suburban New England, Tobias and Agnes are a well-to-do couple who have struck a “delicate balance” in their longtime marriage amongst various elements, including their competing notions of who’s in charge, the long-ago instance of infidelity that the victim suspects, and the loss of their son. Suddenly they find themselves beseiged: another couple, their longtime best friends, show up at their house unannounced and move in, having been driven out of their own home by the terror that the accumulated disappointments in their life let in. Weighing the claims of their own comfort, friendship and family (Agnes’s alcoholic sister, Claire, already lives with them, and their daughter, Julia, is moving back in after the breakup of her third marriage), Tobias must decide whether to admit Harry and Edna permanently, especially given the terror, the “plague,” they bring with them, which is bound to upset his and Agnes’s “delicate balance.”
This brilliant play, which among other things tests to the limit the American illusion of self-determination, is very funny and deeply moving—and, for the most part, beautifully staged and acted. Without doubt, it isRichardson’s finest film; Katharine Hepburn as Agnes, Paul Scofield as Tobias, Kate Reid as Claire, and Joseph Cotten giving the performance of his life as Harry are all marvelously touching. The co-opting of Tobias’s crucial decision unleashes piercing irony, and the closing irony that Agnes’s final utterance conveys** sounds out a bottom beneath what had seemed the lowest rung of Hell-on-Earth.
* Albee much admired Bergman’s theatrical staging in Stockholmof Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
** Albee, apparently, would have preferred that Agnes herself express the closing irony; but Richardson is right: the irony, exposing Agnes’s own terror and her hypocrisy, belongs to the piece, not to the character. Agnes’s restored complacency chills to the bone.
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