Is it heresy to suggest that friends are often easier to be with than family?
On a recent evening, I once again watched the movie version of the Edward Albee Pulitzer Prize Drama, “A Delicate Balance,” which was introduced on Broadway in 1966, yet seems in no way dated. I was drawn in by Albee’s message about the expectations and entitlements of both friends and family. I know I may here be telling my own story and not simply retelling his, but is that not the reward of experiencing the lives an author creates, discovering more about oneself?
Back to the play: Picture the beautifully appointed home of an upper middle class family in which live Tobias and Agnes, husband and wife, both approaching sixty. Their relationship is strained, Agnes dwelling on past misdeeds and sorrows. Also living in their home and complicating their conversations are Agnes’s alcoholic sister and Julia their adult oft-times married daughter, now estranged from her current husband, and reclaiming her childhood room.
Well into the evening, the doorbell rings. Their closest friends, Harry and Edna, another married couple, have dropped by. They are unexpected at this unusual hour, but are welcomed warmly. Until, to the consternation of their hosts, they announce they have come to spend the night. Without any discussion, they retire to the guest room, displacing Julia, their friends puzzled, but accepting. They leave the next morning, but as we later learn, only to collect more of their belongings, and upon their return, suitcases in hand, move in for an indefinite stay, And why? Because, they explain, while in their own home, they have become frightened. Their fear is undefined, described as “the terrors”.
One of the questions posed by the playwright: Does the forty-year friendship of the two couples warrant yielding to such an invasion of the family’s already crowded private space? Initially it hardly seems so, but some time later, just as Harry and Edna are finally ready to depart, Tobias urges them not to leave. Their friendship, he insists, whatever terror they have brought with them, entitles them to remain. He sincerely wants them to stay. The caustic and dismissive treatment of his wife’s sister and their petulant daughter who’ve moved in with an air of entitlement, makes the claim of difficult family members far less welcome that that of troubled old friends.
It’s not possible to watch this story unfold without wondering what one’s own response would be if dear friends, or family, arrived at the door seeking a safe haven, suitcases in hand. Or, how we might be treated if the terror was our own.
My friends and I can count on an ever-available listening ear, or comfort when needed. We share an ease and pleasure in most of these friendships that is free of parental or judgmental overlay, and devoid of the unique angst of parental worry, which is quick to surface no matter how mature the child.
The guardedness with which I studiously monitor appropriate parental boundaries with my children doesn’t exist with my friends. I can push or pull at will, even nag with impunity. They can accept or dismiss my admonitions. Only loving respect is called for. No unresolved ancient grievances. No sibling rivalry. No secrets.
Family is often defined as those who have to take you in when you’ve nowhere else to go. This is the tense reality the story presents. But friends come, are welcomed and offered respite, but then depart, taking all of their baggage.
I leave the world Albee has created still ready to happily welcome family at my door, but knowing that while with family there is a precious intimacy, there is also a promise of tension to come. With friendship, even if differences arise, the delicate balance is more easily restored.