Katharine Hepburn, 1935, by Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)
“What I find most astonishing -” Agnes begins saying to her husband Tobias at the start of Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance, and then she interrupts herself with an aside – about the astonishing idea that she might go mad one day – before she completes the thought, while her husband pours them after-dinner drinks, that what really astonishes her is her sister Claire. Claire is an alcoholic.
What is most astonishing to me is the use of language in Albee’s play, the nuanced word play, the ‘delicate balance’ between saying what you mean and meaning what you say, the bitter battles over the definition of words, of what words mean, literally and figuratively. Agnes isn’t really “astonished” by her sister’s alcoholism, of course, but it sounds nicer than saying she loathes and resents Claire. She isn’t concerned about her sister’s “madness” any more than she’s concerned she may go mad herself. It isn’t losing her mind Agnes is worried about, but losing her temper, losing her balance, losing control – and of course in polite society, these sorts of loss are dangerous but also easily confused.
Claire refuses to be an alcoholic because she’s not like “those people” at those meetings. The implication of naming or defining the problem is far worse than the problem itself. What is the nameless fear, the Terror, that drives their best friends Harry and Edna to show up unexpectedly in the night? One can’t ask. It isn’t polite. It isn’t done.
And yet at the same time what one does say, or how one says it, is critical. “The rule of an aphorism,” Tobias begins to explain to Agnes, but she interrupts – “An epigram, I thought,” Agnes corrects him. “An epigram is usually satiric,” he counters. “And I am grimly serious,” Agnes replies. “I fear so,” Tobias concedes.
They correct each other as well as themselves. “It must be instinctive with you,” Agnes says, then, ” – no, it’s a reflex…” – as if this subtle distinction made a difference. Albee’s characters are always seeking just the right word, fine-tuning their meaning and challenging each other to do the same, without ever quite getting around to telling the real truth or naming the real emotion – whether it’s grief, or fear, or hate – that drives them, motivates their action, or rather their inaction, their inability to change without upsetting the delicate balance of their world, their relationship, their lives.
Katharine Hepburn, A Delicate Balance, 1973, screen grab.
So many of us live in polite society these days, and while there are so many outlets to express ourselves there are so many words we’re no longer allowed to use that we all seem to be struggling to find other words to say what we want to say without saying what we really want to say – and I’m as guilty as the next in that regard. The problem is, you get upset enough, angry enough, frustrated enough, and you may find yourself saying not something you didn’t mean, but something you didn’t mean to say out loud. There is terrible pain and rage beneath the surface.
I just watched again the exquisitely nuanced film production of A Delicate Balance, (1973) directed by Tony Richardson and starring Katharine Hepburn as Agnes, Paul Scofield as Tobias, with Lee Remick, Joseph Cotten, Kate Reid and Betsy Blair . This fall, Glen Close will play the role of Agnes in a new Broadway production. I urge you to see it.