Thursday, November 29, 2012

Claire from A Delicate Balance -- An Email Exchange

A former student emailed me about Albee's Claire and she gave me permission to post our subsequent exchange, which I do with minor editing. Ideas are scattered, therefore, and undeveloped; but I thought the spirit of the exchange was worth that shortcoming.

The Emails
Evelyn (Not her real name):
So what's the deal with CLAIRE in A Delicate Balance? Now that I'm her age, and know a few struggling alcoholics, I have more questions than ever.... What is the true vulnerability that keeps her from trying to function on her own? What keeps her living with Agnes and Tobias? When did she get permanently installed? After the death of the boy? Was the affair of the wet July after the boy's death?
Yes, she's funny, and wise and acerbic and all that, but she has made MAJOR compromises to maintain this relationship. Did she try and work and the booze kept her from any sort of success.... What makes her feel that she is entitled to A and T's care? Did the Dad of Agnes and Claire have anything to do with this? There is a sentence about his deathbed wish...?

David (My real name):
There are lots of opposites delicately balanced in the play. The one that strikes deepest for me and that links all the scenes and the acts together is the balance between Rights and Responsibilities. This is the organizing oppositional balance for all the others: self v. others; family v. friends; parent v. child; etc. And where are the lines drawn? When does friend become invader? when does child become adult? What rights and responsibilities does that imply? What's the balance between doing for others and protecting yourself? etc. And behind it all, what is it that you're protecting?

It's important not that the characters are of a certain age, but that they are of a certain socio-economic class and are retired and no longer actively engaged in life and living -- and there is a question about how vital their engagement has ever been. They've made their compromises and they are living a relatively, though delicately (sorry), balanced life with them. (Tobias asks the gardener about the new orchids for the greenhouse; Agnes checks with the cook about the evening's dinner plans, stops at Claire's door to listen if she's awake. Perhaps without needing to say anything, she hands Tobias the empty brandy snifter she finds on the stairs.) Harry and Edna will challenge the structure of that life and force Agnes and Tobias to come to irrevocable decisions about this delicate balance. (I've always appreciated the metaphor of the mobile for family: each piece strategically placed to keep it all in balanced suspension. Add pressure anywhere and all pieces must adjust in an effort to maintain balance.) I like that the play pulls back from that final irrevocable confrontation by letting Harry and Edna upstairs arrive at the decision to leave just as downstairs Agnes and Tobias are reaching a decision about what they -- he -- will do. So Tobias's "aria" becomes not so much a confrontation with Harry as a plea for Harry to give Tobias a chance to Do the Right Thing -- even if doing so might bring disaster on his delicately balanced family life -- an easier "aria" to sing when you know that Harry and Edna are leaving.

It's pretty clear that Claire never quite lived up to the standard that her older sister set as a daughter, a girl friend, a mate, etc. And since Agnes surely was Miss Perfect, it's not hard to imagine slightly younger sister Claire becoming Miss Imperfect. If Claire wanted to, she could go to the country club Christmas party and dress and act just like all the other women, but long ago she fell before their judgments and Agnes's expectations and she began to parade her failings rather than hiding them. Why?
Yes, she did once live alone, though she has never worked because she has never needed to work. But living alone was a failure, no? The description Agnes gives of Claire's life on her own is an accurate one. And, yes, on his deathbed, their father made Agnes promise she would take care of Claire. And so Claire has a shelter, a home, a safe haven here without having to be personally responsible for maintaining it; balance that 'right' with the 'responsibility' of gratitude to her sister as well as some attempt to keep her excesses in check and you get the major forces of her life. So, yes, she's entitled. She's also needful of this. Dad knew it and Agnes knows it. And although it's not possible to pinpoint the exact time/occasion that Claire came to live with them, it has been long enough that her part in the mobile balance of this family has been firmly established.
I'm not sure that there is a "true vulnerability that keeps her from functioning on her own" beyond what the play suggests in the lifelong living in Perfect Agnes's shadow, etc. I think you can add that, given the kind of outsider's objectivity Claire has (It's not for nothing that she's named 'Claire'), she can see things clearly but can't find enough strength to live as if she didn't.

After the death of the paternal grandmother, Albee's adoptive mother and father moved into the house that provides the setting for this play. Mrs. Albee had an alcoholic younger sister who often made extended visits as a houseguest there. Imagine the young Edward Albee -- with the passion and the objectivity of an artist -- witnessing his father's acquiescence to his mother in all things as she destroyed his relationship with his father. He hated his mother -- and she him -- and it was many years after her death that he wrote Three Tall Women and came to some reconciliation with his feelings about her. He was an artist, a social activist, someone who wanted to matter, etc. -- and surely the privileged and essentially meaningless life of his family must have caused despair as well as anger.
Albee said, "These people [the characters of A Delicate Balance] are teetering between being able to survive and being thrown into chaos". And for me that describes the greater existentially philosophically huger reality behind "Rights v. Responsibilities". Behind it all, as Agnes says, is "the deep sadness". The existential despair thing. The sense of lives lived not meaningfully, not productively. Emptiness. I think this is as important to the play and to the characters as the foot pedal bass line is important to the musical meaning of an organ piece.

Anyway, to respond to your other specific questions, Tobias does say to Agnes that he didn't want to have sex with her after Teddy's death so that she might be spared another pregnancy. So we might be able to imagine that the July Claire affair happened after that. Dunno if it's essential (or possible) to know for certain. (And regardless of when Claire came to live with them permanently, this incident suggests that she has always been an intimate part of their lives.)
You may be only six or seven years younger than Claire, but important to understanding the gulf between you and her is that she lives in a world that expects no real productive activity from any of them and so they create a cocoon that keeps the outside world away. Until Harry and Edna (Mitt and Ann? George and Barbara?) enter with their fear of imminent disaster.

Okay, but now the question is: What does the actor DO to turn all these ideas into expressive meaningful behavior?

Enough. I didn't think this through carefully, so feel free to find it inadequate to your needs. And feel free to pound further on my virtual door.

I think the context of NON-PRODUCTIVE may be the most important touchstone for me. When I talk to my students, I remind them that knowing themselves is critical. In this case, knowing that EVELYN must at the end of the day Be Productive above all things, Claire will be a really interesting challenge for me. What if I, Evelyn, had no use? Couldn't Advocate, Teach, Parent, make lists, bake cookies, create, nurture, pick dog poop up, WHATEVER!!!!
I might drink. I often dream of being a more addictive personality, cuz I love a buzz, but my usefulness kicks in and I think about all that will not get done if I overdo.... WOW.

Ohyes, you have lots of Claire capacities. You have the objective fifty-yard line pov, her delight in language, her ability to see the ironies, the incongruities, in others' lives -- and in her own. You early on loved the response you got from knocking people off balance with straight-talk -- shocking!
(How do you relate to Claire's relationship with family?)

Then try this: View your out-going motivation/need to DO, to Produce, to pick up dog poop, etc., as an addictive energy/need all on its own. Fuel it with the early Claire failure to live up to Agnes -- and you can turn your own driving energy into destructivve behavior. Improvise the first time Claire decided to get drunk in order to escape from being compared and found lacking. Was it a club dance? a fund-raiser? Did she try hard to succeed? Maybe there was a contest to sign up as many people as possible to donate to charity. And Claire seems to be winning. Then, of course, Agnes's tally is counted (Or something -- you create one that works for you). And Claire just finally decides whatthefuckwhybother and she gets roaring drunk. She gets attention. Noticed. And she gets to give them the finger at the same time as she gets finally to be the one in the spotlight.
Drink as an escape from -- what? and also as a way to get noticed, responded to. ("Oh, I am here! I exist!")

One more thing: It occurs to me that [the name of an actress with whom Evelyn was often in competition -- and who usually won] is your Agnes.


Ooooo, I didn't mean to ouch you. But if it makes creative sense, it's worth it....

It was a good ouch!!


  1. David, I have been mulling over your post all day, and I feel compelled to comment:

    My reading of Claire is that she is not nearly as raging an alcoholic as the other characters claim. Rather, while Claire certainly suffers from alcoholism, the others are using it as a means to dismiss her observations in an attempt to preserve the protective bubble of their lives. By minimizing Claire's assertions, they can maintain their illusion of perfection while simultaneously invalidating her. I feel this results in her psychic damage and inability to disengage from a sadly codependent existence with Agnes and Tobias. While Agnes has been assigned the responsibility of caring for Claire, she merely provides for Claire's physical comforts -- not the emotional needs of her sister. I believe this produces a cycle of terror and emotional damage that neither of the siblings can escape. Claire poses the threat of exposing Agnes' fabricated protections, while Claire is subject to status as a persona non grata, which she so desperately attempts to dismantle.Thus, Claire's bad behavior is both a form of terrorizing and sibling warfare, and her means of gaining ANY attention at all.

    I have not read this play for several years, but Edward Albee remains my favorite playwright. Perhaps it is time to revisit this classic!

  2. Thank you for your marvelous analysis of the TobiasAgnesClaire family dynamic in that which will remain for all time my favorite of Albee's plays.

    The only point of clarification (oh, there's that word again: Claireification) I might add is that I think we can be certain that Tobias's (and Harry's) infidelities with Claire indeed occurred after Teddy's death. "Ah, the things I doubted then...[my ellipses, I'm skipping things, not Albee's]...that Teddy had ever lived at all...I think I thought Tobias was unfaithful to me then." Accent, I note, on "then." "Was he, Claire? That hot summer, with Julia's knees all bloody and Teddy dead? Did my husband...cheat on me?"

    It is indeed an interesting question (to me) as to when precisely and under what precise circumstances Claire moved in with Agnes and Tobias. Which is a cousin to my other recent question, which I think I asked in your presence: When precisely did George and Martha invent their child, and under precisely what circumstances? I guess you'd have to ask Albee (who wouldn't tell) or any and every actor who's ever played George or Martha. Could you play either role without asking yourself that question?

    Benjamin [also my real name]

    1. Benjamin, many thanks indeed for the claireification (and for that word).

      About sonny boy: Once in Bloomsburg, Lucy brought out a packet of papers wrapped in a little piece of flannel. They were the notes to the productions that Krause had written for the 25ish years of Eagles Mere. After we had looked at them, Lucy carefully wrapped them in the flannel and was taking them to the cupboard in the back room where she kept them. As she turned to the door she said, "Time to put the baby back".
      I think I'm suggesting that such a thing doesn't happen in a moment. It evolves. One day you realize that you've been calling it a child for a while now.