A Review of A Delicate Balance, by Edward Albee, Arion Press edition

Never having read Edward Albee before, I did not know what to expect when I jumped into reading his play, A Delicate Balance This latest edition from Arion Press showed up in my mailbox last week, and I immediately read it so to be familiar with the story prior to the book release party at Arion Press in San Francisco this Wednesday. I enjoyed the story immensely, despite modern plays not normally being my cup of tea, and despite not fully agreeing with its underlying sentiments on modern life.

The story is a glance into a couple days of the life of an upper middle class suburban couple named Agnes and Tobias.  Agnes’ alcoholic yet sharp sister Claire lives with them, despite the fact that the sisters clearly dislike each other.  Harry and Edna, the best friends of Agnes and Tobias, intrude into their home, coming to stay with them for an undetermined amount of time, as does Julie, the daughter of Agnes and Tobias, who comes home in the process of her fourth divorce.

In three acts, the play essentially is banter and arguments between these characters, often surrounding topics such as Claire’s drinking, Julie’s problems with remaining married, Harry and Edna’s staying in Julie’s room and whether any of them are actually welcome.  The dialogue is often witty, usually sharp, and portrays people lost in their own purposeless. One gets a feel of this in the opening sentence, when Agnes says:

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…

I am sure many people today, due to the crazy pace of modern life or to their alienation from the dreams they had in youth, think those thoughts, just as many have a motto similar to what Agnes declares as theirs: “We do what we can.”

Agnes is certainly central in driving conversations, arguments and the themes. She is constantly on her sister Claire, and often gets mad at Tobias as he sticks up for Claire. Here, Agnes jumps on Tobias after he suggests she apologize to Claire for their latest run-in:

Apologize!  To her?  To Claire?  I have spent my adult life apologizing for her; I will not double my humiliation by apologizing to her.

Claire is very witty, and her sarcasm and timing often sets Agnes off.  In one fight with Claire, Agnes says:

Oh, God.  I wouldn’t mind for a moment if you filled your bathtub with it, lowered yourself in it, DROWNED!  I rather wish you would.  It would give me peace of mind to know that you could do something well, thoroughly.  If you want to kill yourself–then do it right!

Not content with just being angry with Claire, Agnes gets in an argument with Julia. After Julia apologizes, Agnes says what I am sure many women contemplate:

I do wish sometimes that I had been born a man…Their concerns are so simple: money and death–making ends meet until they meet the end.  If they knew what it was like…to be a wife; a  mother; a lover; a homemaker; a nurse; a hostess, an agitator, a pacifier, a truth-teller, a deceiver…

Agnes also instructs Julie about what it means to hold a family together:

“To keep in shape.” Have you heard that expression?  Most people misunderstand it, assume it means alteration, when it does not.  Maintenance.  When we keep something in shape, we maintain its shape–whether we are proud of that shape, or not, is another matter–we keep it from falling apart.  We do not tempt the impossible.  We maintain. We hold….I shall…keep this family in shape. I shall maintain it; hold it.

Agnes also waxes on to Tobias on growing older:

…and in life: the gradual…demise of intensity, the private preoccupations, the substitutions.  We become allegorical, my darling Tobias, as we grow older. The individuality we hold so dearly sinks into crochet; we see ourselves repeated by those we bring into it, either by mirror or rejection, honor or fault.

Later, in more banter with Tobias, Agnes provides a bit of wisdom that all of us should keep in mind:

Do we dislike happiness?  We manufacture such a portion of our own despair…

Tobias seems to try to just roll with things, not being as animated as Agnes. Though, even he breaks occasionally, saying “there are some times when it’s all…too much.” Late in the story, in what Albee calls an “aria”, Tobias explodes, no longer able to keep his emotions under control, yelling at Harry and Edna including:

I DON’T WANT YOU HERE!
YOU ASKED?!
NO! I DON”T
BUT BY CHRIST YOU’RE GOING TO STAY HERE!…
I DON’T WANT YOU HERE!
I DON’T LOVE YOU!
BUT BY GOD…YOU STAY!!

After his outburst, Harry and Edna decide to leave.  In the parting conversation, Agnes says:

Time happens, I suppose.  To people. Everything becomes…too late, finally.

Like many of the quotes above, it is hard to argue with what is being said. There is no question that in the monotony of everyday life, relationships deteriorate, life becomes sometimes overwhelming, we question our purpose, the meaning of it all.  In that, A Delicate Balance is very real, a window into a certain view of life that seems to pervade modern times.  Yet I believe that more often then not, even when occasional bits of moroseness sink in, and despite the inevitable tragedies and setbacks in life, most of us find purpose, find things to fulfill us, find things that lead to joy or happiness….or, at least retain the hope of these things.

Edward Albee (1928-) is considered one of America’s greatest living playwrights, best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, The Zoo Story and The Sandbox.  His works focus on the modern condition, usually emphasizing themes that can be construed as alienation from modernity and the meaninglessness of life.  One of his three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama was for A Delicate Balance in 1967 (the other two are for Seascape in 1975 and Three Tall Women in 1994).

Tom Holland is one of California’s most important contemporary artists. Besides working on paper, marble and copper, Holland often uses materials, like fiberglass and aluminum, resulting in works that combine painting and sculpture.  A Delicate Balance is the first time he has done paintings for the illustration of a book.  His work is in the collections of all the major museums in the United States, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Guggenheim Museum.

I had the chance to meet the Albee, Holland and David Littlejohn (who wrote the introduction to this edition) this past Wednesday.  They were very nice, and it was a pleasure hearing them speak about themselves and this book.

Left to right, Tom Holland, Edward Albee, Andrew Hoyem and David Littlejohn, at A Delicate Balance release party held this Wednesday at the Arion Press.
The Invite
Tom Holland’s original watercolors for A Delicate Balance

About this Edition

Another beautiful edition from Arion Press, as you can see from the pictures below.

    • Book designed and produced by Andrew Hoyem
    • Binding has a purple goatskin spine, with the title stamped in silver foil, and lavender cloth over the boards, with an insert are on the front cover containing a Tom Holland watercolor
    • Watercolors by Tom Holland, reproduced by inkjet
    • Monotype American Garamond and Univers
    • Printed by letterpress on Revere, an Italian mould-made paper
    • Introduction by David Littlejohn
    • Signed by Edward Albee and Tom Holland
    • Large octavo, 6 1/4″ by 9 1/4′, 172 pages
    • 300 numbered copies, mine is #2

Pictures

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A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Spine and Cover
A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Cover
A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Side View
A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Prospectus
A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Title Page specially signed at the Release Party
A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Sample Pages with Text
A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Second Sample Pages with Text
A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Second Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Third Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
A Delicate Balance, Arion Press, Colophon

7 thoughts on “A Review of A Delicate Balance, by Edward Albee, Arion Press edition

  1. Enjoy! I’d be interested in your opinion on the film.

    And thank you for the excellent pictorial and commentary on the Arion Press production. I didn’t mean to sound so churlish in my comment. Sorry about that. The book is beautiful.

  2. The Arion Press edition of ‘A Delicate Balance’ is beautiful and I believe it will be one of the more collectible of their recent publications. Frankly, of the 34 books they have published since January 2000 there are only 9 or 10 that are of interest to me, either regarding the actual item published or the book design itself.

    Regarding Edward Albee, he is not my cup of tea. I have read two of his plays and found both strident, over-the-top, and simply unpleasant to wade through. Nearly all of the characters are thoroughly disagreeable and the situations are so emotionally charged that, after a time, they become draining and lack credibility. Put another way, as I read one of his plays I have the feeling that I am viewing his characters and drama as if I am looking at exotic fish in an aquarium. His characters and situations simply do not draw me in and I never have the feeling that any of this is believable. I do realize that he is trying to draw attention to stresses and tensions in our modern world and lives, but subtlety is not Albee’s game and little is left to one’s imagination.

    1. I can definitely understand where you are coming from. Frankly, what you describe, is how I find most ‘modern’ plays (and novels, for that matter). I ended up enjoying this due to some of the thoughts expressed by the characters….though I could (should) have mentioned none of the characters are at all sympathetic. Actually strange that I enjoyed it, so happy to hear your thoughts!

    2. It’s interesting to see “A Delicate Balance” marmorealized into an Arion Press volume. Beautifully done, of course, but quite irrelevant as a representation of Albee’s art. He’s a playwright, and the proper representation of his work is, naturally, a performance, not a limited edition. I urge you to view a copy of “A Delicate Balance” as produced for the American Film Theater back in the ’70s with a cast that turns the exotic fish into human beings with oodles of subtlety: Katherine Hepburn (Agnes), Paul Scofield (Tobias), Lee Remick (Julia), Kate Reid (Clarie) and Joseph Cotton & Betsy Blair (Harry & Edna). It’s available through Netflix, though not, sadly, through instant view.

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