"I hate restful art," Edward Albee once said, and in his six-decade career as a playwright Albee never gave audiences a restful moment. From the rants of the crazed Jerry in "The Zoo Story," to George and Martha's boozy all-night verbal brawl in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," to the man having an affair with a goat in "Who is Sylvia?" Albee staged a prolonged assault on the cozy presuppositions of audiences. The other great twentieth-century American playwrights--Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller--expertly tied granny knots in their audiences' security blankets, but Albee thrust them into a world where the rituals of polite society were Band-Aids over a miasma of hatred and unreason. "A Delicate Balance," in which an already troubled family is roiled by the sudden arrival of old friends who say they are too frightened to stay in their own house, is one of Albee's most representative plays. Albee takes Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel" and raises the stakes exponentially higher.
It is too easy to attribute Albee's ferocity to his upbringing.: Abandoned at birth, he was adopted by wealthy theater owners who gave him every physical advantage but mocked and belittled him, and eventually disowned him. "Three Tall Women" is the only play that addresses Albee's poisonous relationship with his adoptive mother, However, an early play, "Everything in the Garden," also shows the scars Albee bore from his childhood. The father in the play, having discovered his wife is prostituting herself, takes out all his rage on his early-teenage son.
In the end, however, the rage came from Albee himself, and also the tenderness. Precisely where they came from is a question for Albee scholars. A quote from Jerry's monologue in "The Zoo Story" could serve as an epigraph to all of Albee's work: "I have learned that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves, and I have learned that the two combined, together, at the same time, are the teaching emotion." We all remember the fumbled rapprochements at the ends of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "A Delicate Balance," with characters who both loathe and need each other, and we understand that these are the teaching emotions.