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Theatre / A Delicate Balance (1967)

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Hume Cronyn (Tobias) and Jessica Tandy (Agnes) in the original production

A Delicate Balance is a 1966 stage play by Edward Albee.

It is a domestic drama about upper-class suburbanites. Agnes and Tobias are a married couple in their late 50s, wealthy enough to have servants and to belong to a country club (although it's never specified what Tobias does for a living). They have a 36-year-old daughter, Julia, who has just returned home after breaking up with her fourth husband. They also have a permanent houseguest in Agnes's younger sister, Claire, an unmarried alcoholic. Agnes and Tobias also had a son, Teddy, but Teddy died years ago.

The household becomes more crowded when family friends Harry and Edna show up. Harry and Edna, whom a stage direction describes as "very similar" to Agnes and Tobias, suddenly became very afraid of—nothing, actually, they just became suddenly terrified for no reason. They show up at Agnes and Tobias's house and move in. The presence of Harry and Edna, and their demands to stay, cause conflict in the household.


A film adaptation was released in 1973, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Katharine Hepburn as Agnes, Paul Scofield as Tobias, Lee Remick as Julia, Kate Reid as Claire, Joseph Cotten as Harry, and Betsy Blair as Edna.


  • The Alcoholic: Claire insists that she's not really an alcoholic, saying "I was just a drunk". But she starts drinking first thing in the morning, and dialogue makes it clear that in the past she's vomited in public and had to be carried home drunk.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Agnes and Tobias haven't slept together in a long time, and their marriage has descended to a bitter Agnes passively-aggressively sniping at a weak-willed Tobias. There's Agnes's sister Claire, who is pretty much permanently drunk. They had a son who died young. Their daughter is calling it quits on her fourth marriage.
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  • Bury Your Gays: Teddy died in the backstory, and dialogue explains that he was gay. How much his homosexuality was a factor in his death isn't stated, and how he died isn't stated, but the implication is that the two things were connected.
  • Divorce in Reno: Alluded to with Claire's snarky commentary about Julie's return home.
    Claire: Home is the quickest road to Reno that I know of.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Friday afternoon to Sunday morning.
  • Manchild: Julie, in a rare female example. She is unable to maintain an adult relationship, having four failed marriages. Whenever a marriage fails, she runs home to her parents. And she goes into hysterics when she finds out that Harry and Edna have taken her room.
  • Nervous Wreck: The play makes perfectly clear that Harry and Edna have no idea what frightened them to the extent that they had to flee their house. Nothing happened.
    Harry: "There was nothing...but we were very scared."
  • Sexless Marriage: Agnes and Tobias have had separate bedrooms for a long time. Dialogue explains that Tobias did not want another child after the death of Teddy, and that for a time Tobias used the withdrawal method, until he just stopped sleeping with Agnes completely.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare
    Agnes: As the saying goes, the one thing sharper than a serpent's tooth is a sister's ingratitude.
    Tobias: The saying does not have it that way.note 
  • Sibling Triangle: It's implied that Claire was the person Tobias had an affair with in the past. A stage direction has Claire open her arms in a "welcoming" manner to Tobias. When Tobias comes into Agnes's bed, she asks if he tried Claire's bed first.
  • Tropaholics Anonymous: Claire used to go to AA, but quit "because I don't like the people." She's now drinking constantly.