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How wrong were the critics when A Delicate Balance opened on Broadway?

By David Cote
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In 1967, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an honor that many (including Albee himself) believed was past due for the snubbed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Unfolding in a wealthy suburban sitting room over one very tense, enigmatical weekend, A Delicate Balance was revived at Lincoln Center in 1996 and now another Broadway revival—headlined by Glenn Close (above) and John Lithgow—opens Thursday night. In a nutshell, the play is about an older married couple, an alcoholic sister, a mentally unstable daughter and two friends of the couple who drop by unannounced—fleeing some nameless terror—who won’t budge. Balance is widely considered one of Albee’s finest plays and its place in the canon of postwar American drama is quite secure.

’Twas not always thus. It’s fascinating to read the reviews the play received as the first opening of the 1966-67 Broadway season. We can agree that taste is subjective, and in a healthy culture critics should disagree, and the standards of theater and reviewing were very different to today’s, and so on…but still: How could so many intelligent commentators be so tone-deaf or unimpressed? Herewith I present a selection of murmuring cavils from beyond the grave, the ghosts of opinions long-decayed and blown to the wind, the dust of criticism.

A Delicate Balance is the sort of play that might be written if there were no theater. It exists outside itself, beside itself, aloof from itself, as detached from the hard floor of the Martin Beck, where it opened last night, as its alarmed characters are detached from themselves. The effect is deliberate—because it is precisely hollowness that is most on Mr. Albee’s mind—and it is offered to us on an elegantly lacquered empty platter the moment the curtain goes up.”
—Walter Kerr, The New York Times

“Albee is too able a playwright to really lose his audience. Yet where this should grip us, it merely holds us with a limp but unreleasing hand, like an acquaintance too long leaving.”
—Norman Nadel, World-Journal Tribune

“The fourth in a series of disappointments that Albee has been turning out since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, [A Delicate Balance], like its predecessors, suffers from a borrowed style and a hollow center. It also suggests that Albee's talent for reproduction has begun to fail him until by now the labels on his lendings are all but exposed to public view. Reviewers have already noted the stamp of T. S. Eliot on A Delicate Balance … and it is quite true that Albee, like Eliot before him, is now trying to invest the conventional drawing-room comedy with metaphysical significance. But where Eliot was usually impelled by a religious vision, Albee seems to be stimulated by mere artifice, and the result is emptiness, emptiness, emptiness.”
—Robert Brustein, The Third Theatre

“I sat there in the Martin Beck Theater sometimes all but hypnotized by the flow of words, sometimes amused at a pert and suddenly deft observation of human frailties and encounters. But I also sat there wishing heartily that Mr. Albee would come to the point and tell us, in a playwright’s explicit terms, just what he wanted to say.”
—Whitney Bolton, Morning Telegraph

“Edward Albee’s new play is a dictionary with neither definitions nor order—a pile of verbiage accumulated for the sake of a trivial and naïve point. Just what this collection was doing in the mouths of various, well-meaning actors is not clear. Nor is the absence of Mr. Albee’s sense of the stage explainable.”
—Martin Gottfried, Women’s Wear Daily

For an excellent analysis of the play and its reception, I recommend Chapter 12 of Mel Gussow's splendid biography, Edward Albee: A Singular Journey. You can expect more respectful (maybe more insightful) reviews later this week when a new generation takes stock of a play that may be hard to comprehend and harder to love, but which also refuses to leave.

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