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  • The Crux of Melancholy:Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance
  • Allan Pero (bio)

How then do men act? As though one returning to his country who had sojourned for the night in a fair inn, should be so captivated thereby as to take up his abode there.

Golden Sayings of Epictetus, 2

Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance has been read variously as a play about responsibility, a play about friendship, a play about a crisis of (usually American) masculinity, and a play exploring the "source" of that crisis (regrettably, that most usual of suspects), Woman herself. It has been less often read as a text that explores the problem of melancholy's relation to desire and the labyrinth of choices that inform that problem. Albee himself contends that the play is about the loss of choice, or that Agnes and Tobias have, in a sense, missed their appointment with agency. The implications of this assertion require more attention, which brings me to Epictetus. The question posed in the epigraph points not only to a forgetting of the journey's intent – the inn is not a destination, only a point on the path that leads home – but also to the misrecognizing of the inn as a permanent abode. This misrecognition is not simply misunderstanding but should be thought of in Lacanian terms; that is, it is a kind of méconnaissance, a misrecognition of their place in the symbolic order, a kind of knowledge that is paradoxically based on a denial of lack. In the passage from Epictetus, this denial is prompted in part by how captivating the provisional space is; it implies an identification with place and the lack it is meant to fill as if it were home. It is, in other words, a domestication of the uncanny, a means of imposing familiarity on strangely recognizable difference. This struggle with identifying certain places as one's own – the difficulty, as Edna puts it to Julia, of being "dispossessed, and suddenly dispossessing" (121) – is a persistent vein in Albee's dramatic work: The Zoo Story, The Ballad of the Sad Café, The Play about the Baby, or more recently, The Goat are four different and differing examples. [End Page 174]

If one thinks of the spatial problematics of identification in Albee's work, A Delicate Balance offers several fascinating points of interest. Instead of focusing on the arrival of Harry and Edna, the "best friends" who announce that they have come to stay permanently with Agnes and Tobias (56), I will contend that the former are not at all the problem of the play but merely a symptom of the family's disease – melancholy. In order to think through this problem more fully, I want to explore how Tobias's monologue about the death of his cat is a kind of lynch-pin for the space of melancholy in which the family finds itself imprisoned. It is crucial not only to understanding the play's action but also to working through the role of Woman in resisting and maintaining the morose economy of the house. It is in understanding how, in Lacanian terms, "Woman is a symptom of Man" functions as a diversion for Tobias's own inability to confront the terror of decision; he protects and defends the melancholy that is a symptom of this inability, a melancholy that is, like splenetic black bile, threatening to burst forth and flood the family. To avoid the conflicting and competing desires of his family and his friends, Tobias turns to Agnes as the fulcrum that will keep melancholy under proper, but nonetheless corrosive, control.

Let's consider the spatial implications of Agnes's long opening monologue, which in its winding, Henry-Jamesian way, carefully wanders from its destination. It is, in fact, a long aside; she defers speaking of Claire, her alcoholic sister, and prefers to meditate on the possibility of going mad. What becomes apparent as her monologue continues is that it is a parenthetical clash of opposites. Her belief that she might become insane is not the most astonishing fact of her life but the second most; yet even this astonishment is mitigated by its "surprising lack of...