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Review: A Delicate Balance (1973)

There is a notion that life is a futile pursuit of the ever-unattainable balance. Men are creatures of contrariety, incessantly flitting from one extreme state of mind to another; rarely predictable and always volatile. Human caprice has a way of conciliating the opposing sensations, of confounding their differing values and gradually assimilating them into one. That explains why we sometimes find ourselves irresistibly drawn to the things we fear, or react with sudden repugnance someone to whom we’ve harboured a long-standing affection. Balance has no part in this ceaseless tumult of the warring forces- and yet all our life we strive for it, even if the vision of it is a glimmering star that winks at us fools who try unavailingly capture it.

Less about the ongoing, workaday struggle to find balance in life, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is more concerned with the corrosive effect of keeping up a semblance of balance amidst the mounting chaos. At first glance the story seems to carry an obscure portent: Agnes and Tobias, along with Agnes’s sozzled sister Claire, are the lethargic suburbanites whose equable state is galvanised by an untoward visit of their “best friends,” Harry and Edna, who are hounded out of their household by a nameless fear. In an unforgettable moment (with its improbable comedy) the distraught couple proceed to invite themselves to stay indefinitely with Agnes and Tobias, as they assume they are bestowed the permanent right of their friends’ unconditional succour when in distress.

Reading Albee’s play one feels like an outsider witnessing the unfolding of an event that, even after the curtain drops, one still can barely make head or tails of. The reason isn’t with the inaccessibility of speech- the characters rarely prevaricate and often express themselves in the bluntest terms. But one is nagged with the sense of intruding on a conversation that one is not part of and the speakers, probably noticing that they are under inspection, occasionally put on a stilted display of emotional flourishes that contradict their real intents.

There are so many aspects of human condition that can be manifested through one simple sentence or gesture. Such is the understated power of the economy that Albee exerts to an ingenious effect that recalls Hemingway, and allows the directors and actors a relatively broader, and emptier, canvas to evolve their individual ideas. In the case of Tony Richardson’s 1973 film adaptation of A Delicate Balance, the director does not exploit much of his creative license but chooses to stay faithful to the source material. And the result is not too different from that of reading the play in print: that most of the time one is befuddled.

There are still some nice touches. The theme of intrusion is vividly demonstrated through the lumbering camera, which at times comes dangerously close to the actors’ faces, and at others coolly observes from afar. The performance is first-rate: Paul Scofield, his void of expressions suggestive of habitual inertia, which is momentarily broken during an inflamed confrontation with Harry, is Albee’s archetype of quiet, browbeaten husband on the verge of an explosive crackup; Lee Remick as the prodigal daughter who is driven to hysterics by the unwanted visitors; Kate Reid as the alleged addict who delivers scraps of unvarnished wisdom when under the influence of alcohols; and Betsy Blair is positively chilling with her glacial menace. As the bucked-up matriarch whose stuttering eloquence betrays a brittle heart, and whose curtain line: “They say we sleep to let the demons out- to let the mind go raving mad, our dreams and nightmares all our logic gone awry, the dark side of our reason. And when the daylight comes again… comes order with it” aptly sums up the play’s symbolic message, Katherine Hepburn’s Agnes sometimes appears too austere and distanced to convince the audience of the character’s inner torment. But this is mere quibble.

In Albee’s preface to A Delicate Balance he reveals the play’s main concern as “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.” This statement, in my mind, imposes a disquieting overtone to the play’s ambiguous ending: the pesky visitors are gone and the family are finally able to start their day in peace, but peace hinges on their consistent effort of eschewing realities, and maintaining a tenuous balance that they know will soon be disrupted again.


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