Study Guide

Seascape

by Edward Albee

Seascape Essay - Seascape

Seascape

Introduction

Seascape

Albee himself directed the initial production of Seascape on 26 January 1975, at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre in New York City. This work depicts an aging couple who are accosted on a beach by a pair of intelligent lizard-like creatures that have been driven from the sea by the processes of evolution. The four characters discuss topics of mutual understanding, including the purpose of existence, before concurring that human and alien creatures should aid and inspire one another to shape the conditions of life.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Albee received his second Pulitzer Prize for Seascape. Although Walter Kerr found the play "predictable" and lacking dramatic energy and Stanley Kauffmann judged it "banal," many early reviewers commended its originality and—as several critics termed it—"exquisite" dialogue. Critical commentary on Seascape has focused on its analysis of existence, death, and the human spirit. Liam O. Purdom has viewed the play as a "treatise on human psychology," and Gerry McCarthy has seen it as a consideration of "the phenomenon we know as life and experience personally as existence." Lucinda P. Gabbard has read the play's "principal concern" as "the realization of the proximity of death," an awareness that Albee has gentled by means of the fairy tale form. Samuel J. Bernstein has argued that in Seascape Albee "has cast a broad, piercing light on the human condition" and revealed that love "is our only weapon against the void." Finally, Matthew C. Roudané has contended that in this play "Albee is not writing merely about the naturalistic evolution of the human species, but about growth patterns of humankind, about combining the visceral and the intellectual into a new whole which is the consciously aware person."

Production Reviews

Clive Barnes (review date 27 January 1975)

SOURCE: "Albee's Seascape Is A Major Event," in The New York Times, 27 January 1975, p. 20.

[The critic praises nearly every aspect of Seascape in the following review, especially its blending of the comic and the serious.]

Hats off, and up in the air! A major dramatic event.

Edward Albee's play Seascape, which opened at the Shu-bert Theater last night, is fundamentally a play about life and resolution. It is that currently rare thing, a comedy rather than a farce, and it is a curiously compelling exploration into the basic tenets of life. It is asking in a light-hearted but heavy-minded fashion whether life is worth living. It decides that there is no alternative.

As Mr. Albee has matured as a playwright, his work has become leaner, sparer and simpler. He depends on strong theatrical strokes to attract the attention of the audience, but the tone of the writing is always thoughtful, even careful, even philosophic. As with any major artist he has his own distinct profile—an Albee play is recognizably an Albee play—but if he could usefully be linked with any of his contemporaries, they would be Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

The story is simplicity itself. A middle-aged couple, with children departed and obviously of independent means, find themselves on a beach. They discuss, in the desultory fashion of old and friendly lovers, love, marriage and life. She paints, he snoozes. What has it all added up to? Eventually they are met by another middle-aged couple. The second couple happens to be lizards.

The lizards are deep-sea creatures at a very advanced stage of evolution who have decided to come up into the air. It is very nearly a foolish trick on the playwright's part. After all, anthropomorphic monsters from the nether depths, who wear scales but talk English in a stilted accent, should by all the rules of the game be childish. But plays have a happy way of not having rules.

What Mr. Albee has given us here is a play of great density, with many interesting emotional and intellectual reverberations. The trigger of the play's action is obvious enough—it is the old visitor from Mars examining human institutions and practices and comparing them with his own to the amusement and the amazement of the audience.

But the resonances go much deeper than could be offered by science-fiction pop-guns. Mr. Albee is suggesting that one of the purposes of an individual human existence is quite simply evolution—that we all play a part in this oddly questionable historic process. So that the purpose of life is life itself—it is a self-fulfilling destiny. We have to come out of the water and get onto the beach, we have to live and we have to die, simply because life is about life.

In a recent interview with Mel Gussow of The New York Times, Mr. Albee revealed that Seascape was a companion piece to his somber masterpiece about death some four years ago, All Over. This is an important fact for the audience to keep in mind. It is an optimistic play, a rose play rather than a black play, as Jean Anouilh would have said, but it is nevertheless serious and provocative. It is also funny, and the humor is all the funnier for having a point to it.

What marks out Mr. Albee as a comic writer is largely his compassion. Even in the bitchy dialogue of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? there ran this deep concern for humanity——even his chilliest wit has a saving grace of warmth to it.

The tone of the beginning of the play irresistibly recalls——surely intentionally?—Beckett's Happy Days. There is the same discursive familiarity, the same apparent aimlessness, which is betrayed only by the occasional pellet of truth or the compellingly apt joke. With the arrival of the sea-creatures there is a sudden danger of triteness. There is a fear that after all we are just going to be told that "everyone is the same under the skin—black, white, yellow or lizard." But the danger passes as Mr. Albee, with that spare laconic language of his, probes deeper and deeper into the subterreanean seascape of our pasts, presents and futures.

This is the first play that Mr. Albee has directed, and he has done so with self-evident skill and ease. The directorial difficulty is obvious enough—to make the sea-creatures both strange enough to cast contrasting light upon our own humanity yet credible enough to speak English, and also to draw the humor out of the similarities between the two couples with subtlety rather than obviousness. This he achieves by virtually choreographing the sea-creatures (he is much helped by the splendid costumes of Fred Voelpel) and giving them a special diction rather than a special language or even a special accent. It works well, as does the handsome sand-duned set by James Tilton.

The actors have been carefully picked, coached and presented. Deborah Kerr (after far too long away from Broadway) starts beautifully and diffidently as a no-nonsense English matron, and then slowly slips off her pretenses and becomes a very warm woman. Barry Nelson (who, like Miss Kerr, and this is not truly a fair criticism, looks a little too young for the role) is a complete master of the off-hand. His accomplishment is so charming and unforced, and he works with Miss Kerr as if they had been married for years.

To my amazement I note from the playbill that this is Frank Langella's Broadway debut—he is among our most distinguished young actors, and Broadway should be ashamed of itself. It would be so easy to play a lizard as a sort of Demon King or Godzilla, but Mr. Langella plays him precisely as one of those animals you have always longed to communicate with but never had the language. His partner, Maureen Anderman, is also superbly lizard-like, but as humanly feminine as Mr. Langella is humanly masculine. A distinguished quartet both with and without scales.

See Seascape and you will get a good few hearty giggles, but also, if you listen attentively, a good few insights about the primeval ooze from which we all came, and the blind, inarticulative courage that keeps us all going.

Walter Kerr (review date 2 February 1975)

SOURCE: "Albee's Unwritten Part, McNally's Missing Joke," in The New York Times, 2 February 1975, p. 5.

[The review that follows argues that Seascape lacks dynamic intensity.]

It seems to me that the key to Edward Albee's interesting, sun-bleached but taffy-thin Seascape is the part he hasn't written for Barry Nelson. Mr. Nelson, lined, grumpy, a grandfatherly fiftyish, is spending a day on the dunes with his much more animated wife, Deborah Kerr.

Miss Kerr, as blonde as the blinding daylight that washes the stage almost clean of color, has no intention of wasting all she's been through: growing up, marriage, motherhood, worry. "What have we got left?" she'd like to know. And, since Mr. Nelson has so little to say, she answers her own question: "Ourselves—and some time." She wouldn't mind circling the globe exploring every beach that exists: she is the nearly spent life force still in motion.

But Mr. Nelson has gone under, relaxing inert on the sand, willing to offer only the bleakest dismissive phrases as antiphonal response to his wife's monologue ("Let it go," "We'll see"), extending himself just enough to suggest that "we've earned a little rest." "We've earned a little life!" she explodes, chatting on and on about how women really want divorces so that they can be 18 again, cupping her shoulders with her arms till she resembles a tight little Valentine as she prods him to remember sex.

She must even prod him to remember a passion he had as a boy, a curious one. He'd always been fond of sinking to the bottom of a pool or pond or shallow cove, measuring his exhalations to keep him from rising, weighting himself with stones if necessary. Life on the sea-floor has seemed native to him, the abundant flurry about him more hospitable than human society above. But when she urges him to go try it again——now—he can't be persuaded. It's no longer life, of any kind, he's looking for. "All caved in?" she asks him petulantly, acknowledging that her petulance swells inside her like a bee-sting. "All closed down?"

Yes. Then, as the first of the evening's two acts is about to terminate its wholly static relationship, two humanoid lizards in breast shells, Harlequin scales, and avocado ridges to mark their exterior spines, appear from the sea, thrown upward by an inevitable evolutionary advance. Mr. Albee reminds us that he can be a shrewd craftsman here: the lizards appear, seem to threaten, cause consternation before the curtain falls. But they do not speak. It is only when the curtain has gone up again, and we have had time to come to terms with an agreeable fantasy, that the creatures choose to communicate—in English, and in English jargon at that ("Now, listen here, Buddy" may be a bit much from a species in mutation, but on the whole the conceit works: the author has known precisely when to make it unsurprising).

What follows is sometimes amusing, more often elementary. The male lizard, superbly writhed by Frank Langella, is shocked that Miss Kerr should have breasts, like a whale; the comedy of his won't-take-no-for-an-answer curiosity is secured by Mr. Nelson's huffiness over his wife's too-eager "exhibitionism." But once it has been established that both couples copulate, the humor becomes biology-class predictable. Miss Kerr is astounded that Maureen Anderman, reptilian tail cosily coiled, should take pride in having produced 7,000 eggs but should have thereafter cared for none of them. Mr. Langella, wide eyes made wider by the white ovals of paint in which they are embedded, is even more astonished that Miss Kerr should have cared for her unimpressive three and cared for them a good 20 years each. We are perhaps less stunned than they, having listened to our own sixth-grade charges expatiate upon such matters interminably—if without recourse to Mr. Langella's interjected "Wows!"

The conversation advances to matters of "emotion," "separation," consciousness of death, none of which belong to an undersea vocabulary. When Mr. Nelson remarks that death will someday separate their visitors, Miss Anderman cries. The tears enrage Mr. Langella. Emotions are coming into play now, and the lizards do not find them attractive. The question we have known was coming comes: had the advancing species best go back down while there is still time?

It is at this point that the piece wants drama. We've had stillborn talk, kept alive with her customary expertise by Miss Kerr; we've had momentarily engaging surprise; we've played the kindergarten games that Darwin taught us. But there is at last an issue, a crisis, and it seems, as issue and crisis, very much related to Mr. Nelson's earlier urge to surrender. Why is that not now picked up, toward one end or another? Since the very problem so much concerns Mr. Nelson, why does he not engage himself, as devil's advocate, as newly enlightened human being, as something? His very boyhood games seem to make him a likely participant in the struggle—to advance or not to advance—and we wait for connections, for a door to be opened that will disclose what-ever futures humans and lizards choose. But, with the key in his hand and a carefully built-up promise, Mr. Albee will not use it.

If Mr. Langella, turned even greener, senses that "It's rather dangerous up here," Mr. Nelson simply shrugs "Everywhere" and turns away, still counting himself out. It is Miss Kerr, pursuing precisely the same course she has from the beginning, who insists "You'll have to come back sooner or later, you don't have any choice," defending mutation simply because it's taken place. But if she has some effect on their so-tentative guests, neither she nor the new arrivals have any on the man in the case—or on the relation between man and wife—and the encounter comes out lopsided, lopsided and rather bland. We'd been expecting interaction all 'round, especially after what we've been told about Mr. Nelson. But the vital tangle is bypassed, and we must settle...

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Critical Commentary

Lucina P. Gabbard (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Albee's Seascape: An Adult Fairy Tale," in Modern Drama, Vol. XXI, No. 3, September, 1978, pp. 307-17.

[The essay below asserts that Seascape is a fairy tale that treats the problem of the acceptance of death, offering "a message of wisdom and comfort presented in a fanciful style that allows people to sip only as much as they thirst for. "]

Edward Albee's Seascape is obviously not a realistic play. When the two great lizards slide onto the stage, behaving like ordinary married human beings and speaking perfect English, realism is immediately dispelled. Encounters between...

(The entire section is 27622 words.)

Further Reading

Clurman, Harold. A review of Seascape. The Nation 220, No. 10 (15 March 1975): 314.

Asserts that Seascape is "light and cheerful. It is above all benevolent and, perhaps for the first time with Albee, rather charming."

Gussow, Mel. Interview with Albee. The New York Times (21 January 1975): 40.

Conversation in which Albee discusses the genesis and development of Seascape. This play, he states, is "the most difficult I've ever written. … Since the two people in the play are experiencing things that people have not experienced before, I didn't have any guide lines. With the other two characters, it was a problem getting their tone...

(The entire section is 100 words.)