Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance: A Reflection

I first read Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" sometime in 1981, possibly as part of an Independent Study with Prof. William Handy, possibly in conjunction with his course in Modern American Drama, possibly in the early summer of 1981 as I prepared to take a graduate field examination in American Drama.

That summer of 1981 was my last summer with Eileen.  We had just moved out of Westmoreland married student housing, across town, into a two level, two bedroom apartment adjoining our friends Barbara and John's house.  I had never lived in a place I enjoyed more.  We were near campus, Prince Puckler's ice cream was available just down the street, and so was a book store, created out of a Victorian house (it's now Beppe & Gianni's Trattoria).

That summer of 1981 was my last summer with Eileen.  But, truth be told, we weren't really together that summer.  Eileen landed an internship at The Oregonian and lived with her brother's family and we saw each other less and less as the summer continued.  Our permanent separation was in the works.

Naively secure in our marriage, I enjoyed the time alone that summer and, in the early part of the summer, that time I enjoyed was reading American plays, getting ready for my exam.  I placed notes from different periods of the American theater in different parts of the house so when I thought about, say, Thornton Wilder, I imagined our dining table, tucked into a nook looking out a bay window on to 19th; notes on Tennessee Williams climbed the staircase;  Eugene O'Neill looked out on 19th from the upstairs bedroom that was my study; Edward Albee was spread out on my living room floor; Arthur Miller was on the sofa.  

I had had a mistaken sense of 20th century literature coming into this study of American Drama.  I had somehow finished my undergraduate studies thinking that existentialism was an exclusively European concern.

I chuckle now.  American drama relieved me of this misunderstanding.

In fact, serious American theater built its reputation upon the conflict in the United States between the assumed optimism, good cheer, and hope of the American Dream and the spiritual emptiness, dread, and violence that lies beneath this exterior.  Albee put it this way, seeing his play "American Dream" as "an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen."

If my life that summer had been the subject of an American play, I would have been the American gull, the naive man in his late twenties who had no idea he was in a slipping marriage, who thought all was peachy-keen, even as I was studying the portrayal of these exact kinds of illusions in the 20th century American drama.

Last night, while watching Katharine Hepburn (Agnes) and Paul Scofield (Tobias) and Kate Reid (Claire) and Lee Remick (Julia) and Betsy Blair (Edna) and Joseph Cotten (Harry) in the film version of "A Delicate Balance" it all came back to me.  The dread came back, the dread which started out in the summer of 1981 as an intellectual idea, a topic of intellectual exploration, a subject around which to possibly generate an essay on my exam.

Harry and Edna can no longer live in their own home because of this dread.  It's an unlocated dread.  It's not a dread brought about by fear of nuclear annihilation or the dread brought on by the fear of economic collapse.  No.  It's an existential dread.  It's the dread one feels when the possibility surfaces in one's consciousness that this life of clubs and gin and scotch and business success and a beautiful house and good friends might be meaningless, might be empty, might serve little or no purpose at all.  For Harry and Edna, it's terrifying.  That cannot live alone with it.  They bring their dread to the home of Anges and Tobias.  In fact, they move in.

Paul Scofield plays this dread as elegance.  He moves elegantly, dresses elegantly, drinks elegant drinks, speaks elegantly and eloquently while his elegant face is removed, his elegant eyes fatigued, his elegant voice flat, nearly a monotone for much of the play.  His elegance betrays his ennui.  He must sleep with Agnes when Harry and Edna move in and during the night he retires from their upstairs bedroom to the main floor.  The furnace is off.  He sits in the cold.

It's the chill of dread, the cold vacuity at the core of these socially privileged characters in "A Delicate Balance".

I passed my graduate exam, continued to live alone, studied German, began studying for my Renaissance Drama exam, and continued to believe everything was peachy-keen.  I paid dread little heed.

When Eileen told me she wanted out of our marriage, the dread I'd ignored surfaced as yelling, pounding walls, sobbing, throwing up, begging, pleading, promising -- that which terrified me most was in my home:  separation, loss, inadequacy, failure.  Eileen exposed my dread.  It grew into despair and took physical form as illness.

It was November.  I left Eileen's bed.  We heated the downstairs with wood fire and after about midnight the fire was out and chill filled the room.

Albee's portrayal, in "A Delicate Balance" of dread and the spiritual terror of loss and displacement were no longer subjects for a field exam or intellectual ideas informing literary criticism.

I was consumed by the chill of dread.

I experienced all of this again last night as I watched "A Delicate Balance".

The beauty of the play uplifted me.  Albee's dramatic prose is always on the verge of becoming verse, of becoming poetry.  I loved the performances, particularly Paul Scofield and Kate Reid.

I relived a rite of passage.  In 1981, I moved out of the innocence of believing in permanence into the darker and chilled regions of my own dread, of deeper consciousness, of inconsolable suffering.
I'm always aware of the chill, the dread, the sorrow.

Every day I wonder, and this is within the context of my life of faith, what purpose life has -- my life has -- and I always feel that slight ache,  hear those nagging whispers reminding me that it's all temporary, that nothing lasts, and that no matter the company I keep, in some way, I'll always be alone.

The chill abides.


M said...

Your words are beautiful and moving, Bill. This must be the reason you teach your students so well about the mutability and impermanence of this life.
I find myself wondering which road is the sadder or the lonelier - when you learn the truth in your twenties or when you learn it in your forties. Was it harder for you to have lived all of these years knowing "the chill, the dread, the sorrow" than it might have been, had you lived out those 20 plus years in the peachy keen mindset? Or is the blow more staggering after you've believed in the illusion more than half of your life when you finally allow yourself to feel that chill?

rocket said...

as i read this, i was trying very hard not to tear up...its very sad...i wish i couldve been of some help- if only in a small way- but we'd kind of lost track of each other by then...i'm so sorry you had to experience all that..

on the other hand, like some schumuck somewhere must've said at some point,'without pain we don't grow'...and it took alot of courage to face the pain and live thru it back then, and a lot of courage to write about it openly and honestly here in the present...thank you for sharing and allowing me into your soul a little bit and giving me some food for thought as well....