(Smiles back, with a hint of menace)

I recently finished reading Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.” It’s one of those plays that I’ve always meant to read but somehow never got around to. Anyway, finally I did. As I understand it, this was the play that turned his ascendant star on a downward trajectory that would lead to many years in the wilderness in the eyes of the critics. After the raw, brutal brilliance of “Woolf” it’s not hard to see why this play was the cause of some disappointment, and indeed head scratching. It did, however, win the Pulitzer that year…though, as so often happens with Academy Awards, I think this may have been in part something of an atonement for past misjudgments – i.e. “Woolf” not getting it.

However, I found the play to be quite affecting for the most part, and at times rather harrowing. I'm certain that any play he’d written after the huge critical and commercial success of “Woolf” would inevitably have been seen as something of a letdown. Consequently, I don’t think this play has been given a fair shake, and I wish it was produced more often, as I would love to see it performed. Although “Woolf” has its share of Albee’s penchant for metaphor and clever wordplay (something which some of his later plays have a little too much of in my opinion – and I say this as someone who puts Albee on a higher pedestal than any other living playwright), it also has a grounded quality that never alienates you from the reality of the characters’ lives. “Balance,” though, has an odd combination of realism and something else - I resist calling it absurdism, as that, to my mind, is misleading. Perhaps, hallucinatory would be closer to the mark – a heightened, nightmarish realism. I would reserve judgment on how well they work together in this particular play, as I’ve not seen it, but it certainly made for some interesting, and on occasion, very disturbing reading.

One thing about the play that I also found quite surprising was his bounteous use of stage direction. Albee is famous (some directors might say infamous) for his insistence that his plays be performed exactly as written, down to the last stage direction. I myself believe that is the playwright’s prerogative, and is no more unreasonable than a composer insisting that every note in his score be played as written. However, in “Balance” almost every piece of dialogue is preceded by a very specific piece of stage direction, frequently long and detailed. I don’t recall ever having seen so many stage directions in a play before. Clearly, Albee wants (and has every right to expect) his play to be heard exactly the way he heard it in his head. But not until I’d seen the stage directions in this script did I realize just how exactly that was. Quite amazing, really.

For my own work, the amount of stage direction I include depends entirely on the individual play. Some have quite a few (though not by Albee standards) and some almost none. The latter are a minority, I admit, but occasionally I’ll write something that really can’t be choreographed, as it were, until it’s on a stage being worked through by the actors and the director. Perhaps all of Albee’s plays are this heavily loaded with stage direction. I suspect they are and will definitely investigate further.

But all of this talk of stage direction brings me to my final comment. There are those (including a lot of playwrights, in fact) who frown upon using much stage direction. There are also those who will readily trot out that crusty old adage that “plays are meant to been seen, not read.” And to those people, I will say this: Whatever else may happen to a play, it is – without exception – read before anything else. Nothing happens to that play until after it’s been read by someone somewhere, who must imagine as they do so, what the script would play like on a stage. There is no way around this. Therefore, if the playwright wishes to have the reader understand their work as they’d intended, they have to arm the reader with as many signposts and as much information as is needed to achieve that.

That old adage is true in principle, but in practice, if your play doesn’t read well…it may never be seen.


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