Critical Essay on Seascape
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1612
In Edward Albee's Seascape, there are two female characters, each part of a couple. One, Nancy, is a human being, in a struggle with her husband, Charlie, over their future. She is more dominant than her husband and wants to take chances. The other female character is Sarah, the human-sized lizard who has just emerged with her mate, Leslie, from the sea to live on the land. Sarah generally defers to Leslie, giving her opinion when asked but rarely acting completely on her own. The contrast between these two characters echoes some of the changes women's status and position in the United States were undergoing when the play was written. Nancy is depicted as more evolved (liberated) than Sarah, literally and physiologically.
The 1970s were a dynamic time in American history, especially for women. After the civil rights movement and the social activist revolution of the 1960s, feminism and the rights of women emerged as one of the major social issues of the time. Many women no longer regarded homemaking as their primary goal in life. Greater numbers of women were becoming more educated and/or entering the workforce. More education meant more employment opportunities and life options for women. Women became more outspoken about what they wanted in their own lives and from their partners in a number of areas. Still, feminism was controversial in American society. A number of men and even some women feared these changes would negatively affect the family and threaten the status of American men. In some ways, these opponents were correct; for example, the divorce rate did rise in this time period. These issues about women and related controversies were examined on a number of fronts in popular culture, including films, television programs, and plays.
These ideas comprise one subtext of Seascape. Arguably, the main character and the vital life force of the play is Nancy. Nancy is near retirement age, but her actual age is not stated. Though it is implied that she stayed home and raised her family while her husband worked, Nancy is ready to experience more of life now that they are free. Like many women of the 1970s, she is suffering from empty nest syndrome. All of her three children have been raised and have left home, indeed, Nancy and Charlie have grandchildren. When Charlie retires, he would like to rest and "do ... nothing." She would like to meet new and interesting people and go out and see the world. Nancy wants to evolve away from her role as "mother" in order to create her own identity. Charlie wants no part of it.
Nancy repeatedly expresses her dissatisfaction with her role as wife and mother. Reflecting on a time earlier in their marriage when Charlie was distant and their problems were not discussed, Nancy muses to him, "Good wife, patient, see him through it, whatever it is, wonder if it isn't something you haven't done, or have; write home for some advice, but oh, so busy, with the children and the house. Stay neat; don't pry; weather it." Later, when Charlie reminds her of what a good husband and family man he has been to her, Nancy agrees but is also "slightly bitter" as the stage directions describe her. She tells him, "Well, we'll wrap you in the flag when you're gone, and do taps." Nancy cannot accept that they have had the "good life" that Charlie keeps going on about, because for her, life is not something in the past that is over and done with.
Charlie plays the role of the threatened man of the time period. It is Charlie who puts a damper on Nancy's plan to live traveling from beach to beach. He repeatedly dismisses her needs and desires. Charlie tells Nancy over and over in act I that she would not like living at the beach or any other active lifestyle. She resists his attempts to control her, and goes as far as to admit she might like to have her ideal life without him. In act I, she tells him, "I suppose I'll do the tag without you. Selfish, aren't you—right to the end." Though she eventually retreats somewhat from her beach-combing plan in act I, the idea of divorce reoccurs later in the act, and she threatens to travel alone several times in act II. Nancy surprises Charlie by telling him that during a problematic time in their marriage, she thought he was having an affair. For a time, she considered having an affair herself as well as divorcing him. Charlie shows that he is repeatedly concerned with his own plans for the future and wants no part of Nancy's adventurous ideas. He cannot see what he specifically and they as a couple would gain. He seems unconcerned, perhaps unbelieving, that he might lose her.
When Leslie and Sarah, the human-like lizards, appear on the beach at the end of act I, these characterizations of Charlie and Nancy are put into action. Charlie becomes defensive and wants to be prepared for battle. He is protective of Nancy. Nancy regards the lizards as interesting and wants to know more. She reluctantly finds Charlie a small stick to defend them with, but it is not good enough for him. This could be seen as a symbol of their marriage, minimal compliance and missed gestures. After the creatures leave for the first time, Charlie is in complete denial about what he has seen. At first, he can only believe the lizards are part of a death hallucination brought on by food poisoning. Nancy cannot believe what her husband is saying, which drives them farther apart. Neither can accept the other's chosen role.
This division continues when they begin to interact with Leslie and Sarah. Nancy remains open to possibilities and wants to help them, Charlie is unsure and sarcastic. Charlie antagonizes everyone with his attitude. It is only at the end of the play that he reluctantly supports his wife when she offers her help to the lizards after they decide to stay on land.
Sarah has a very different kind of relationship with Leslie. She is a much more traditional, deferential kind of mate to him. Because she is depicted as a lizard and because of her more retiring attitude, Sarah can be seen as a symbol of where women were before women's liberation, feminism, and the women's movement in the 1970s. She is literally the unevolved woman, defined by her relationship with Leslie. At one point, Sarah tells Nancy and Charlie, "He's kind and he's a good mate, and when he tells me what we're going to do, I find I can live with it quite nicely." Thus Sarah is supportive of Leslie, but rarely offers her own opinion to him unless she is asked. Leslie does ask for her input—especially early in act II when they are trying to figure out if the humans will harm them—but is annoyed by her mother-like admonishments to "be very careful." When they have a bit of an argument over whether or not Sarah should accompany him when he first approaches the humans, the stage directions call for her to be "feminine, submissive.''
Fulfilling some stereotypes of a "good wife," Sarah is friendlier than Leslie. Sarah encourages him to be polite. When Leslie is unsure about shaking hands with Nancy, Sarah encourages him. The fact that she might like to shake hands first is never considered by either of them. She and Nancy shake hands second; Sarah's enthusiasm is childlike. That enthusiasm spills over into curiosity, though not to the same degree or in the same way as Nancy. Sarah asks questions about the names of things and ponders the humans' answers thoughtfully. For example, Sarah is enthusiastic about examining Nancy's breasts to understand the differences between the humans and the lizards. Yet because Charlie is uncomfortable with Leslie seeing Nancy's breasts, Sarah has to play another role, acting as a go-between—relaying information between her husband and others.
As Sarah grows friendlier with Nancy, she acts less deferential and becomes more evolved in some ways. Despite Leslie's discomfort, Sarah reveals that they "couple" to mate. When Charlie asks Leslie if he and Sarah are monogamous, Sarah is "fascinated," (according to the stage directions) much to Leslie's annoyance. Later, when Leslie is insulted by Charlie's implication that he is somehow like a fish, Sarah becomes more insistent that Leslie remain in control. Sarah even contradicts Leslie when he insists that all fish are stupid. She reminds him that porpoises are not. Sarah asserts herself further when Leslie cannot explain to the humans why they came out of the water. Sarah tries to express herself accurately on what made them make this decision, despite Leslie's repeated attempts to silence her.
Like Charlie, Leslie is a stereotypical male, protective of his mate. When Charlie makes her cry, Leslie begins to beat on him and nearly chokes him to death. Though the women help break them apart, Sarah wants to retreat to the sea. Unlike Nancy, Sarah is somewhat sure about her changing life as a woman. Yet the ending of Seascape is affirmative about the changes women will inevitably make, both in the play and in society. Because of Nancy's offer to help, Leslie decides that he and Sarah will stay. Though Sarah is depicted as having no input in the decision, Albee's positive ending gives hope that women like Sarah will evolve and that women like Nancy will help them.
Source: A. Petruso, Critical Essay on Seascape, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Petruso is a freelance author and screenwriter in Austin, Texas.
Albee's Seascape Humanity at the Second Threshold
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3444
In reviewing Edward Albee's Seascape—winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Drama—, Clive Barnes concurred with the playwright's own statement that this work should be regarded as "a companion piece" to the play that immediately preceded it, All Over (1971), adding the proviso, "but this is an optimistic play, a rose play rather than a black play, as Jean Anouilh would have said." Placing the final curtain lines of the two side-by-side allows one to see readily the basis for the distinction Barnes was making. All Over, Albee's much underrated drama about death and egocentrism, about the refusal to commit oneself unselfishly to those one says one loves, ends, appropriately enough, with the words "All over." Seascape, on the other hand, concludes with a challenge: "Begin." Yet the note of pessimism that pervades All Over did not signal an abrupt shift in Albee's perspective, for ever since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962)—still his greatest critical and popular success—Albee's tone has progressively darkened as he has explored "how much false illusion" man must surround himself with "to get through life." And so one needs to go back farther than All Over, specifically to Albee's other Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, A Delicate Balance (1966), to find the true "companion piece" to Seascape. Indeed, the most fruitful way to approach Seascape is to examine it as a reverse mirror image of the earlier play.
Whereas the central couple in All Over are in their seventies, Agnes and Tobias in A Delicate Balance are, like Nancy and Charlie in Seascape, in their fifties. Furthermore, the concluding line of A Delicate Balance, Agnes's ironic "Come now, we can begin the day," provides a more subtle and telling juxtaposition with Seascape's "Begin." Since both these dramas about people in their mid-middle-age concern themselves with the effects of time on human choice and the possibility for change, it seems that Albee (himself now middle-aged) is in his latest full-length drama intentionally going back and giving his characters a second chance to not make such a muddle of their lives, as if to say things need not be so bleak. Though separated by nearly a decade in production, A Delicate Balance and Seascape thus form an Albee diptych, in much the same way that Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day's Journey Into Night do for O'Neill.
Almost the entire first act of Seascape is a "two-character play," taken up with Nancy's and Charlie's diametrically opposed viewpoints on where they go from here—a conflict so basic and yet so shrouded by an aura of ordinariness as to seem like no conflict at all, which several critics claim is the case. But it is typical of Albee's later dramas that the outward action has become more sparse while the language has become increasingly more poetic rather than naturalistic and colloquial. Yet here the battle lines between the urge to ever fuller life and the opposing urge to death are drawn early and in no uncertain terms. As Charlie languishes on the seashore after a picnic lunch, he revels in the prospect of gradually and painlessly easing out of the picture by withdrawing from all purposive activity: "I don't want to do ... anything ... I'm happy ... doing ... nothing." Faced with Charlie's desire to spend his waning years calmly wasting away, Nancy chides him, "all you want to do is become a vegetable ... a lump." Lying just beyond the sand dunes in the stage set is the sea, archetype at one and the same time of both life and death; once symbolic of Charlie's life-wish, it now symbolizes his willed movement toward inertia and death. He has confessed to Nancy that as "a little boy" he "wanted to live in the sea," and recounts with great nostalgia that in his more adventuresome adolescence he
would go into the water, take two stones, as large as [he] could manage, swim out a bit, tread, look up one final time at the sky ... relax ... begin to go down. Oh, twenty feet, fifteen. You can stay down there so long! ... one stops being an intruder, finally—just one more object come to the bottom, or living thing, part of the undulation and the silence. It was very good.
Yet if this "game" once served as a confirmation of life, implicit in it all along was the pull toward death: We rise from the sea at birth only to return to it at life's end. Like the persona in Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead," Charlie now "sigh[s] still for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile," a vision of a place where life goes on without burden and responsibility. A place where one can retreat into a pre-moral condition, Charlie thinks, free from the terror that is an inescapable part of life, which Albee here symbolizes by a recurrent sound effect: four times "a jet plane is heard from stage right to stage left—growing, becoming deafeningly loud, diminishing." Feeling existential man's angst, terrified by "deepspace? Mortality? Nancy ... not ... being with me?" and the possibility that even life itself might be just "an illusion," Charlie yearns for "Death [as a] release" since he has "lived all right." So the sea becomes for him a thanatopsis.
If Tobias in A Delicate Balance has as his motto, "We do what we can"—attesting to his refusal to go that extra distance, if necessary, to love instead of just being loved—, Charlie in Seascape has adopted as his watchword "We'll see," which is essentially another way of saying that something is "then put off until it's forgotten." Such delaying tactics in answering the call to action harbor within them, however, the potential for finally stultifying the very ability to act. As Agnes in A Delicate Balance wisely perceives: "Time happens, I suppose. To people Everything becomes ... too late, finally You know it's going on ... up on the hill; ... but you wait; and time happens. When you do go, sword, shield ... finally ... there's nothing there ... save rust, bones; and the wind." Life is a matter of diminishing possibilities; the "road not taken" can never be traversed. Every choice one makes limits all of one's future choices, for each time one chooses A over B, one's options at the next moment of choice are automatically halved: If one chooses A, the possibilities that would have opened up if he had chosen B instead are lost forever, and vice versa. Eventually, with the passage of time, the pattern has been so firmly fixed that man becomes locked in it, and it is then "too late" to break from it.
Albee shares with O'Neill this notion of man's possible choices becoming fewer and fewer with the passage of time and as finally determining his fate. In one of the central passages in Long Day's Journey, Mary Tyrone's words presage Agnes's: "None of us can help the things time has done to us. They're done before you realize it, and once they're done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you'd like to be, and you've lost your true self forever." In Virginia Woolf?, George poses much the same question about time's effect on human choice in an evolutionary metaphor that is a particularly apt gloss for Seascape as well, "man can put up with just so much without he descends a rung or two on the old evolutionary ladder ... and it's a funny ladder ... you can't reverse yourself ... start back up once you're descending." It is at this decisive point—poised between going onward into the unknown or succumbing to the urge to descend (metaphorically) back down into the sea—that Charlie finds himself.
Nancy insists that they not spend what time they have left, however long or short it might be, in a retreat from life; she refuses to vegetate in a period of inactivity that would be like condemning themselves to a "purgatory before purgatory," demanding instead, "We will do something." She believes that man must create his own happiness, must make a Kierkegaardian leap of faith and find some positive value in life. The gift of life is precious in and of itself and, in fact, is all that any of us have a right to ask for. Simply by having lived as long as they have, they "have earned a life" and the time to "try something new." Whereas Charlie, afraid of change, desires stasis, Nancy accepts flux as a part of life, as, indeed, the necessary precondition for progress and growth. Life, according to her, should never be in the "past" tense. Her motto, were she to formulate one, would be something like: Experience as many new things as possible, in one's fantasies if not in reality. Such a philosophy has helped her weather and turn to a positive advantage the rough times of loneliness within her marriage, for when Charlie lost all interest in sex during his "seven-month decline," she thought of something she had never imagined before, not even in her dreams, and that, without his "inertia" and inattention, might have been lost to her forever: "A child at thirty, I suppose. Without that time I would have gone through my entire life and never thought of another man, another pair of arms, harsh cheek, hard buttocks, pleasure, never at all."
Nancy has hardly completed her admonition to Charlie that they "do something" when the opportunity to respond to "something new" startlingly presents itself with the appearance of "two great green lizards." Without pursuing the point any further, in his review of the original production Howard Kissel detects in Seascape a continuation of the recurrent pattern in Albee's dramas of a person or persons arriving at the home—or territory—of someone else, with one or other of the parties then subjecting the other to a potentially salvific test, "prodding the others into a traumatizing outburst of emotion and violence." In The Zoo Story (1959), for instance, Jerry arrives in Central Park and accosts Peter on his comfortable bench; in Virginia Woolf?, Nick and Honey come for an early morning round of "fun and games" at the home of George and Martha; in Tiny Alice (1964), Brother Julian arrives for his "dark night of the soul" at the Gothic residence of Miss Alice, in Delicate Balance, Harry and Edna come to Agnes's and Tobias's demanding to be given shelter from the terror; and now in Seascape, Leslie Lizard and his wife Sarah arrive on the beach to confront Charlie and Nancy about admission to the human race.
The parallel between Seascape and Delicate Balance is, however, the most emphatic, for in these two cases the couples who arrive are designed more as allegorical personages than as fully-dimensioned characters, which contributes to the distinctive parable-like quality of the two plays. Leslie and Sarah exist at some prehuman stage on the evolutionary scale, while Harry and Edna are, as the List of Players indicates, "very much like Agnes and Tobias." They thus function as mirror images so that Agnes and Tobias can see themselves as they never have before. Brought face-to-face with the existential void "We were frightened ... and there was nothing" and now in need of "succor" and "comfort," Harry and Edna bring "the plague" and "terror" of self-knowledge into the home of Agnes and Tobias, who can see reflected in their hesitancy to assuage their best friends' needs the failure of their own existence.
In Seascape, Leslie and Sarah, instead of functioning as mirror images of what Charlie and Nancy now are, serve as recollections of what the older couple once were, for, as Charlie says, "there was a time when we all were down there" before one of our ancestors "came up into the air and decided to stay." Like Harry and Edna before them, Leslie and Sarah are afraid, but whereas the former couple was frightened by the prospect of the nothingness after death, the latter couple is terrified by "what [they] don't know," by the challenge of a more highly developed—which is to say, more fully human—life on earth. If life in the sea was unterrifying because a known quantity, it was also restrictive and limiting; as Sarah points out, they outgrew what was down there, and "didn't feel [they] belonged there anymore." They experienced, as Nancy would put it, the dissatisfaction, which can be redirected in either a positive or a negative way. In a very basic sense, every living creature must be "dissatisfied" with the way things are, or there could be neither movement nor progress in human history. The condition of stasis, of "delicate balance" in a comfortable routine that Tobias and Agnes nurture and cling to, can have as its result only death-in-life. So Leslie's and Sarah's predicament—faced as they are with the attractive temptation of "making do down there," of taking comfort in passively settling in and thus settling for less than a full life—exactly parallels Charlie's.
Significantly, it is Charlie, himself afraid, who convinces Leslie and Sarah to remain up on earth rather than return to their familiar habitat. And in the moment of convincing them, he himself undergoes a regenerative epiphany, moving from his customary stance of "put off" and "make do" to beginning again. Walter Kerr confesses some mystification over exactly what occurs at the climactic point in Seascape, feeling that Albee somehow misses his chance to connect the fate of the humans with that of the lizards:
But there is at last an issue, a crisis, and it seems, as issue and crisis, very much related to Mr. Nelson's [Charlie'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 lively participant in the struggle—to advance or not to advance—and we wait for connections, for a door to be opened that will disclose whatever futures humans and lizards choose. But with the key in his hand and a carefully built-up promise, Mr. Albee will not use it ... neither she [Nancy] nor the new arrivals have any [effect] on the man in the case—or on the relation between man and wife—and the encounter comes out lopsided, lopsided and rather bland.
Yet the connection is there, and it is precisely the same kind of connection as in Albee's earlier plays. The pattern of saving-others-in-order-to-save-oneself that recurs here should be familiar to students of Albee's work: in Zoo Story, Jerry (at least in Rose Zimbardo's widely-known and influential interpretation) sacrifices himself, Christ-like, so that Peter might be redeemed from his vegetable-like complacency; in Virginia Woolf?, George and Martha destroy the sustaining illusion of the child so that Nick and Honey can see the sterility of their own marriage—and, in the process, George and Martha achieve a firmer communion within a marriage now rebuilt on a stronger foundation; in Delicate Balance, Harry and Edna offer Tobias and Agnes a chance to be "good Samaritans" and
thereby redeem their "empty" existence, but the chance for salvation is rejected.
At the climactic point in Seascape, Charlie, like George and Jerry before him, hurts Sarah (and Leslie) in order to help them. Like Jerry—and this may well be the key line for understanding what happens in Albee's dramas—, Charlie realizes "that neither kindness nor cruelty by themselves, independent of each other, creates any effect beyond themselves," and that oftentimes "we neither love nor hurt because we do not try to reach each other." Recognizing that what separates man from beast is precisely man's "aware[ness that] it's alive, [and] that it's going to die," Charlie sees that to complete the transformation from beast to man that Leslie and Sarah embarked on with their sense of uneasiness in their old life in the sea, he must make them experience truly human emotions, playing on Sarah's fear of Leslie leaving her and "never coming back," he deliberately makes Sarah cry, which, in turn, makes Leslie so defensive and angry at Charlie that he hits and chokes him. Having tasted these dark human emotions of sorrow and wrath, Sarah and Leslie want more than ever to return to the prehuman security of the sea. The only thing that quenches their fear is Nancy's and Charlie's pleading with them not to retreat, and extending their hands in a human gesture of compassion and solidarity—a clear visual echo of the dramatic gesture which also ends Virginia Woolf?. In helping Leslie and Sarah to cross the threshold from animal to man, to take the mythic journey from the womb into the world that, however traumatic, must sometime be taken, Charlie simultaneously leaves behind his earlier attempts to escape from life and asserts once again his will to act, to live. And if one views Charlie as not only an individual but also as a representative, middle-aged Everyman who has fallen prey to ennui and despair, then Leslie's "Begin" on which the curtain falls is an act of faith and hope uttered not just for himself and Sarah and for Charlie and Nancy, but for all humankind who, with the passage of time, must be periodically rescued from the temptation of being "half in love with easeful death" and inspired to continue its arduous journey despite the inherent dangers.
Reportedly, it was Thornton Wilder who first suggested to Albee that he take up playwriting, and Seascape, Albee's most optimistic drama so far, might be seen as his homage to Wilder, since it contains not only verbal echoes to Wilder's plays but is likewise imbued with his positive tone and philosophy. In his review of Seascape, Brendan Gill succinctly capsulizes its theme—"Boldly and simply, it asserts that, at no matter what age and in no matter what time and place, acts of discovery remain to be undertaken"—and likens it to "some superb long poem." Certainly, one does find in it the repetition of imagery and verbal motifs, particularly of the words "wondrous" and "adventurous" or some form thereof, that one expects to find in poetry. Interestingly enough, Wilder designates one of these concepts as "the moral" of his delightful farce, The Matchmaker, with Barnaby saying in his curtain speech to the audience, "I think [the play's] about adventure ... we all hope that in your lives you have just the right amount of—adventure!" Nancy displays a childlike enthusiasm for "every bit" of the world and wants to be immersed in it. Leslie and Sarah share Nancy's capacity for awe, he punctuates his language with phrases like "My gracious" and "Wow" in response to even the ordinary facts of life usually taken for granted, revealing that he already possesses the insight that Emily in Wilder's Our Town can reach only in death: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you ... Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?" Nancy's reaction of "great awe" and "infinite wonder" at first setting eyes on Leslie and Sarah reminds one of "stout Cortez" in Keats's poem; the empirical-minded and prosaic Charlie (he has, Nancy claims, "no interest in imagery") long ago "decided that wonders do not occur" and so concludes that they must be dead—as he metaphorically is—in order to see such creatures. Finally, however, Charlie perceives that he cannot spend the rest of his life on the plain or in the valley; he must dare "the glaciers and the crags." Most of all he learns, like the Antrobuses in Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, about man's capacity for achieving progress in the long run if he only has the courage and confidence to always begin anew, often in the face of what seem like insurmountable odds. As George Antrobus, representative of mankind, expresses it at the end of that play: "Oh, I've never forgotten for long at a time that living is struggle. I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for—whether it's a field, or a home, or a country. All I ask is the chance to build new worlds and God has always given us that." Nancy's words quoted earlier, about being given the tune to "try something new," might be seen, therefore, as Albee's measured confirmation of the philosophy Wilder put forth through Antrobus.
Source: Thomas P. Adler, "Albee's Seascape: Humanity at the Second Threshold," in Renascence, Vol. XXXI, No 2, Winter 1979, pp. 107-14.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1901
Mutate or perish. Let your tail drop off, change your spots, or maybe just your point of view.
In an interview a few years ago Albee said, "When I write a play I'm interested in changing the way people look at themselves and the way they look at life.... The knowledge that you are going to die should present (an) intense awareness of life. People should be aware of all things at all times, they should experience the extremities of life, fulfill themselves completely. Why does anyone want to go to sleep when the only thing left is to stay awake." In 1968 he started to think about writing two one-act plays, companion pieces called "Life" and "Death." The latter grew into the full-length drama All Over, "Life" became Seascape, a comic fable which lightly deals with a number of themes that concern the author in all his work: "people closing down, how people get along with one another, how they make a marriage." The action involves a meeting at the seashore between a middle-aged couple and a pair of talking sea-lizards. Typically, there is a confrontation, a little cruelty and violence and, ultimately, an awakening for all which represents the passage or evolution from one phase of life into the next. Albee has wryly commented that Seascape is a "true-to-life-story" and that it all could happen. "There are still prehistoric fish at the bottom of the ocean. It's conceivable that they evolve." In the course of the play, however, "the evolutionary pattern is speeded up billions of revolutions."
The curtain opens on brightly lighted dunes under a blue sky that has a few clouds. A retired couple are enjoying a tranquil vacation at the beach and have just finished a delicious picnic lunch of "roasted chicken ... peaches ... brie and bread and wine." The husband, Charlie, is comfortably stretched out on a blanket, dozing. His wife, Nancy, perched high up on a dune, is painting a seascape. A long, blissful, quiet moment is shattered by the roar of a low-flying jet. With this ominous introduction of another dimension of contemporary reality, the action begins.
Thus far Nancy and Charlie are undoubtedly Albee's most attractive middle-aged married couple. They frankly love each other and shyly admit that they have been faithful to one another for some thirty years. They are close; they have a warm, good-humored rapport. There is no question of a state of "solitary free passage" in the case of these two people who have nicely weathered the private crises of a long marriage: the self-doubt, melancholia, imagined infidelities, and sexual fantasies. Three children, "precarious, those, for a while, but nicely settled now," reflect the fortunes of their parents' relationship. There are grandchildren already and more are on the way. Nancy observes:
We've served our time ... the pyramid's building by itself, the earth's spinning in its own fashion without any push from us; we've done all we ought to ... and isn't it splendid we've enjoyed so much of it.
Until quite recently, Nancy, whose life's ambition was to be "a woman" and "all it had with it" has fulfilled herself by keeping "busy, with the children and the house." Charlie has been a fine husband and father, and a good provider. They both share an interest in French literature and, so it appears, in the National Geographic Magazine. However, as this pair enter into the second phase of their lives together with "nothing binding (them)"— just each other and some time—a subtle conflict is brewing.
From all the fresh air and the wine and the sun, Charlie is feeling drowsy and self-satisfied. "The house, the kids, their kids, friends, all that," for him it is enough—or so he implies. Charlie would like to just settle in now and do nothing. "We've earned a little rest," he says. Nancy, on the other hand, feels refreshed and invigorated by the sea and the wind; all her senses are alert. Yet she is aware of her limitations: "Well, there's the arthritis in my wrist, of course, and the eyes have known a better season, and there's always the cancer or the heart attack to think about if we're bored." Nevertheless, she is filled with enthusiasm for a new life. With her paintbox near by and a brush in her hand, she strains to take in each glorious detail around her—the sand and the beach grass and the flies, the white clouds, the gulls, and the shells. Also the two people she thinks she sees climbing up the dunes. "I love every bit of it, Charlie," she says laughing gaily. "Seaside nomads, that's what we (could) be." Looking toward the future Nancy is filled with curiosity and a sense of adventure:
One great seashore after another; pounding waves and quiet coves, white sand, and red—and black, palms, and pine trees, cliffs and reefs, and miles of jungle, sand dunes ... and all the people! Every language ... every race.
Charlie, however, does not share his wife's enthusiasm. When he prevaricates, Nancy gets testy: "Figure out what you'd really like ... put it in your mind, then make all the plans." Even if it is only the principle of the thing, she has no desire to surrender to time. "We've earned a little life, if you ask me," Nancy mutters as the easy back-and-forth chatter of the couple in the opening scene develops into a tense if muted altercation. So many things go, she says. Sex diminishes. There is an echo of the words of Agnes in A Delicate Balance: "The gradual ... demise of intensity, the private preoccupations, the substitutions. We become allegorical ... as we grow older." But Nancy is a fighter:
Is that what we've ... come all this way for? Had the children? Spent all the time together? All the sharing? For nothing? To lie back down in the crib again? The same at the end as at the beginning? Sleep?
She does not want to give anything up before it is absolutely necessary. Nor does she want her husband to.
When he was a boy, Charlie's dream was to live in the sea. Nancy prods him into recalling for her things he talked about years before—how he used to find a protected cove, take two heavy stones and sink gently to the sandy bottom. He reminisces about the way he loved to stand among the ferns and lichens and, full of wonder, watch the underwater world move around him. It had made him feel very alive. Yet, in his cramped response to the recollection of something which once represented the stirring of an inquisitive spirit, Charlie defines his death-in-life mentality. When Nancy wants him to try it again, the first thing he worries about is what "people" will say: "They'd think I was drowning." Charlie does not have the courage to "be young again." In his failure of nerve and lack of direction, there is an echo of the nostalgic reflections of the Voice in Box; it appears that great beauty for him is now something which does not bring him closer to everything anymore but is "a reminder not of what can ... but what has." In essence Charlie is not altogether unlike Peter in The Zoo Story or Daddy in The American Dream or Tobias in A Delicate Balance, for after a life which to all appearances has been dedicated to upholding the status quo, his imagination and spiritual vitality have been snuffed out. When in so many words he refers to his life with Nancy in the past tense, she loses her temper. "Why not go to those places in the desert and let our heads deflate, if it's all in the past?" she queries angrily. Central in act I is Nancy's determined provocation of her husband from a mindless readiness to live as if he were not alive back into wakefulness: "Words are lies; they can be, and you use them, but I know what's in your gut."
Near the end of the first act, two great green, humanoid lizards suddenly appear at the edge of the dunes. Albee says, "They should be quite frightening. Seeing them for the first time the audience should have that shock of recognition. After all, it's what we all were." The tensions between Charlie and Nancy dissolve in a hilarious scene in which the two couples—in particular the males—try to decide what to do about each other's unexpected and unfamiliar appearances. However, act II is primarily concerned with the process of Charlie's opening up and his reaffirmation of life. His realization that "the wonders do ... occur" and that he is not "dead" is dramatized in a whimsical and charming way.
Thrust out of the sea by an inexplicable but inevitable urge for change and upward movement, Leslie and Sarah—in spite of their "carapaceous bellies, long tails and knobbing down their backs"—and their limited vocabularies—psychologically confront the middle-aged couple with mirror images of themselves. Sarah puts into words the very same feelings that Nancy is trying to express to Charlie in the course of her petulant and peevish proddings in the middle of act I:
"It was a growing thing, nothing abrupt, nor that anything was different, for that matter ... in the sense of having changed; but ... we had changed, all of a sudden, everything ... down there ... was terribly ... interesting, I suppose, but what did it have to do with us anymore? And it wasn't comfortable anymore. I mean, after all, you make your nest, and accept a whole, array, of things ... and ... we didn't feel we belonged there anymore. And, what were we going to do? Make (do) down there or try something else. But what?" Charlie's efforts to accept the existence of the sea-creatures and their evolution represent the unconscious stirrings going on inside himself, the consequence of Nancy's attempts to keep him from "caving in" and "closing down."
Nancy and Charlie take great pains to describe life "up here" as if to children of five or six years old. In the humorous and often touching exchanges between the two couples, Charlie guides the lizards step by step through the stages from instinctive behavior to the pain of consciousness. First his incredulity and then his anger at their innocence become metaphors for his own emotional and spiritual rebirth. Because of the struggles and disappointments over the years, something vital in Charlie has become numbed. Nancy explains it to Sarah: "He's been through life, you see." In his way Charlie is as much a "brute beast" as Leslie is in his. In the process of trying to explain to the lizards about their eating habits and greeting customs, about arms and legs and Nancy's breasts, in the talk about coupling and birthing, about birds and aerodynamics, photographs and carrots, in all the discussion about existence and evolution, with growing feelings of irritation and impatience—and sometimes desperation—Charlie is shaken out of his ennui. If the lizards have a lot to learn, like Peter in The Zoo Story, so has he. Leslie and Sarah represent the "glaciers, and the crags," the unexplored regions, the unknown. They help to fill Charlie with Nancy's sense of all the things that there are still to do and with the desire to keep searching for them.
Source: Anita M. Stenz, "Seascape," in Edward Albee The Poet of Loss, Mouton Publishers, 1978, pp. 123-27.