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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.
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."
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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 for a sometime charm.
James Tilton's dazzlingly lighted dunes beneath a faint swirl of clouds create a stunning stage picture—for once, the audience is honestly agape as it catches its first glimpse of the curving earth—and Mr. Albee has directed his own actors well, though directing Mr. Nelson has mainly, and necessarily, meant nothing more than finding him new recumbent postures. The writing is blessedly spare, free of the convoluted locutions that have sometimes grown like coral over the author's meanings. But he is sparing of more than language; an available dramatic energy is kept lying in wait.
Brendan Gill (review date 3 February 1975)
SOURCE: "Among the Dunes," in The New Yorker, Vol. L, No. 50, 3 February, 1975, pp. 75-77.
[The following admiring review declares that "of all of Mr. Albee'splays, Seascape is the most exquisitely written."]
Edward Albee's Seascape, at the Shubert, is a short, wryly witty, and sometimes touching play about discovery. 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. With luck, such acts will be found to have meaning; better still, there is the possibility that they will bear fruit. The plot is a charming toy: a well-to-do middle-aged couple, faced with the bleak certainty of the closing in and shutting down of their lives, have unexpectedly be-stowed on them the boon of doubt; through a prodigious accident, they perceive that their lives may yet open out, may yet contain unlooked-for wonders. After many words of despair, the last word we hear spoken, in bright sunlight, under the bluest of blue skies, is a hesitant and yet hopeful "Begin!" And the word is spoken not by a member of the human race but by an enormous speckled lizard, exceptionally distinguished in bearing and utterance, who feels that he has much to learn. So, Mr. Albee hints, do the rest of us. But we must be quick; such willing creatures are not easily come by, even at the edge of our mother the sea.
Of all Mr. Albee's plays, Seascape is the most exquisitely written. He has calculated not only every immaculate line of dialogue but every word, every caesura; when the actors fall silent, we hold our breath and wait, as we wait at the reading of some superb long poem. Serving as his own director, Mr. Albee takes us as quickly as possible over the harsh terrain of the first of his two acts. The middle-aged couple, Nancy and Charlie, have just finished a pleasant summer picnic among the dunes. Nancy has brought along her paintbox and is essaying a sketch, which we have reason to guess will not be especially good. Charlie dozes. A Coast Guard plane goes over, very low: a recurrent nuisance. Nancy talks a lot—a trifle too much for the good of the play—and always with an undercurrent of well-bred nagging. Now she launches what amounts to a monologue, which Charlie listens to with reluctance, perhaps because he has heard it several times before. By Nancy's account, it appears that their lifelong good fortune threatens with age to become ill fortune. They have loved each other and have been almost mindlessly faithful to each other; they have raised three children, who are now producing children of their own. Soon enough, they will be dead, but before that necessary event they must seek whatever small adventures their minds and bodies are still capable of responding to. Charlie groans impatiently. There is such a thing as having had one's life; what more does she want? They begin to bicker, and it turns out that there is much that Nancy wants, and much that she requires of Charlie that he should want. At that moment, terrifyingly, two lizards appear at the top of the dunes; Nancy instructs Charlie to assume a posture of submission, straight out of Lorenz (Nancy is evidently a great reader), and the curtain descends.
In the second act, the lizards prove to be every bit as much a married couple as Nancy and Charlie. They are named Leslie and Sarah, and they have had seven thousand children. They speak admirable English, though their vocabularies are limited; experiencing love and fear, they are ignorant of the words "love" and "fear." The two couples warily test their intentions; Charlie grows impatient with Leslie and makes an insulting remark about brute beasts. He goes further—he makes Sarah cry. This is something she has never done; Leslie, in a fury, comes within an ace of killing Charlie. Then, dismayed by his misconduct, Leslie makes an apologetic retreat. Charlie is also, if only mildly, apologetic. Nancy sees that their encounter with Leslie and Sarah is the very adventure that she has been pleading with Charlie to seek. It is too good a chance to miss. Luckily, Leslie and Sarah agree with her; Leslie makes a gesture of friendship to Charlie and speaks one of the most thrilling of all words. Mr. Albee has sounded his magic flute and the harsh terrain of the first act has become a verdant pathway through Cloud-Cuckoo-Land.
Deborah Kerr and Barry Nelson play Nancy and Charlie, and Maureen Anderman and Frank Langella play Sarah and Leslie. Miss Kerr carries the heavy burden of exposition in the first act with exemplary grace and skill, and Mr. Langella dominates the second act with an unprecedented display of lizardly winsomeness. Is there a Tony award for Best Animal on Broadway? If so, Mr. Langella deserves it, and Miss Anderman deserves an award for Best Supporting Animal. The utterly convincing scenery—all sand, eelgrass, and glowing sky—is by James Tilton, and the ingenious costumes are by Fred Voelpel.
Stanley Kauffmann (review date 22 February 1975)
SOURCE: A review of Seascape, in The New Republic, Vol. 172, No. 8,22 February 1975, p. 22.
[In the following assessment, Kauffman dismisses Seascape as "banal" and "a trite anatomy of middle-class marriage and spiritual menopause."]
In 1959 Edward Albee wrote a short one-act play called The Sandbox which takes place on a beach and has four (speaking) characters. It's a fantasy about the sterility of contemporary life and the relative authenticity of an older generation expressed in banality à la Ionesco. Now Albee has written a short two-act play, Seascape, which takes place on a sand dune overlooking an ocean and has four characters. This new play starts realistically, then becomes a fantasy. It, too, is about some sterilities of contemporary life. It, too, is expressed in banalities, but this time there is no reason to think that the diction is satirical.
When the curtain rises, a middle-aged couple, Nancy and Charlie, are sunning themselves. Almost the first line is Nancy's "Can't we stay here forever?" There, one thinks instinctively, is a hope for some banality-satire. But Charlie's reply, instead of being in a consciously banal pattern, takes that first line seriously. "You don't really mean it," he says sagely. Banality rolls in as the very medium of the piece, and we are off on a trite anatomy of middle-class marriage and spiritual menopause.
They are a typically typical couple: have made some money, have loved and liked one another through ups and downs, have loved and disliked their children, etc. One welcome change in Albee: as against his recent plays, he has here eschewed fake mandarinese. This dialogue is undistinguished, but at least it is decorated only with artificial broken sentences, not with artificial flowers. However he has clung to his pseudo-Chekhovian mode: a chief ingredient of this early section is reminiscence, in wistful voice, recalling one's silly but charming past self. Charlie in particular recalls how, as a child, he loved to sit as long as he could on the bottom of lakes and the ocean when he went swimming, worrying his parents but enjoying himself.
Then two human-size, lizard-like creatures, male and female, appear. Their sudden entry into this realistic play is pleasant: I felt that perhaps the long, basically familiar dialogue up to now was intended to lead somewhere. Anyway I found the lizard folk at least as credible as Charlie's knowing the author of The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife, which Nancy had asked him. (Anatole France.) The lizards speak English, and we soon learn that they live on the ocean bottom. Since it has been very carefully explained—planted, we can now say—that Charlie used to love to sit on the ocean bottom, it becomes apparent that these two creatures are meant to symbolize hidden aspects of Charlie and perhaps Nancy, who has also expressed interest in the ocean floor. (See the importance of water in Freud and Jung.) Presumably, at middle age, various buried elements in the earth couple have surfaced to be reckoned with.
This is hardly a startlingly original idea for a play, but it's not a bad one. The play itself is bad—because it is nothing more than its idea. The conversation before the lizards appear is only remastication of well-chewed play-film-TV cud. The conversation of the foursome is mostly sci-fi cuteness of a slightly refined take-me-to-your-leader kind, two alien societies sniffing at each other. It leads only to some sentimental affinities and some quarrels (meant to alter the tone briefly), with a final imposed determination of the lizards to learn and improve. In short the play never demonstrates in any degree a real necessity to exist. All it demonstrates is that Albee wants to exist, as a playwright. He cooked up an idea—worth maybe a half hour instead of a bloated hour and a half (including intermission)—and then forced some arbitrary trite points into it in order to justify using it. In character, in texture, in theme, Seascape is an echoingly hollow statement of bankruptcy.
I think it's fair to make an inference about Albee's career since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I think that he is caught in a modern trap. He wrote some good plays when he was young; thus by the conventions of our society, he is sentenced to be a playwright for the rest of his life, whether or not he has anything more, really, to write. This wasn't always so: Congreve, Wycherley, Vanbrugh, Sheridan all wrote some fine plays when they were young; then, for differing reasons, quit to do other things. Nowadays this doesn't seem possible if one has been successful early and then begins to run dry. (And it's not just an American phenomenon; see the work of John Osborne since Inadmissible Evidence.) I have no gifts of prophecy and wouldn't want them if offered; but Albee's work since Virginia Woolf (1962) seems so much more the product of compulsion to be a writer than to write, that there is no reason to hope for improvement. He's still relatively young and could do a lot of other things if he weren't shackled by fear of being thought a burned-out rocket. (For instance, as many of his comments show, he could be a perceptive critic.)
Albee himself directed Seascape with very mixed results. Deborah Kerr plays Nancy as if she were suspended in a noose of arch inflections and expressions. Barry Nelson, one of the last of the standard Broadway leading men—a player with a ready repertoire of "bits"—plays Charlie with modest technical competence. The she-lizard is Maureen Anderman who, completely covered with animal costume and grotesque make-up, still conveys sexuality with her voice and quivering thigh. The he-lizard is Frank Langella, who gives a good stylized performance. (If you saw the recent PBS telecast of the Williamstown production of The Sea Gull, you saw Langella play Trepleff, sensitively.) The lizard costumes by Fred Voelpel are excellent.
Henry Hewes (review date 8 March 1975)
SOURCE: "Albee Surfaces," in Saturday Review, Vol. 12, No. 12, 8 March, 1975, p. 40.
["Albee's random speculations delight the mind, " Hewes asserts in the review below, adding that Seascape is "… written with an exquisite concern for the careful use of language. "]
Edward Albee has long been concerned with the ways things come to an end. And most of his plays suggest that the American way of life has had it. In 1971 he presented us with a despair-ridden drama of conversations around the bed of a dying man, called All Over, and it was hard to see where the brilliant pessimist could go from there.
Yet now, some four years later, he has surfaced again with a Broadway play (which he also directed) called Seascape. The title suggests both that the play takes place on a beach and that it deals with escape from or into the sea. Indeed it does. The entire first act is a conversation between Nancy, a middle-aged, affluent wife who urges her retired husband, Charlie, to take up again his childhood hobby of submerging himself in water and sitting there as long as he can. He declines and wants only to rest and do nothing. Nancy warns him that they are in danger of letting their minds go dim and slipping into a canasta-playing retirement, which she wittily labels "that purgatory before purgatory." In despair she asks, "But is this what we've come all this way for? Had the children? Spent all this 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? Pacifier? Milk? Incomprehensible once more?" Samuel Beckett or the Edward Albee of All Over would have nodded a gloomy "Yes." But now Albee seems to be looking at Charlie and Nancy as representatives of an unsatisfactory civilization.
Albee seems to be suggesting that the real solution is for our civilization to recognize its failures and somehow to feed our experience into the evolution of a new and better species.
On a more comic level—and Seascape is a comedy—Albee can celebrate the wit and compassion with which this civilization deals with its dissatisfactions. For instance, Nancy tells Charlie that there was a time in their marriage when she felt that he had turned his back on her and she suspected it was another woman—"not prettier, even maybe a little plain, but unencumbered, or lonely, or lost." Charlie denies it, but Nancy reveals that her wise mother had once told her, "If he doesn't do it in the flesh, he'll think about it. One night in the dark if you listen hard enough, you'll hear him think the name of another woman, kiss her, touch her breasts as he has his hand and mouth on you. Then you'll know something about loneliness … you'll be halfway to compassion. …" "The other half?" Charlie asks, and Nancy replies, "Knowing how lonely he is." Charlie escapes from this heavy truth with a humorous confession that once while making love to her he had pretended that it was a previous time with her when it had been particularly good.
And so with wit and insight Albee dallies through the first half of his play, content merely to delineate these two drifting members of a growingly feckless species. Although there is a lack of dramatic urgency, Albee's random speculations delight the mind, for they are written with an exquisite concern for the careful use of language.
There is in this first act, however, an indication from Charlie that they are not up to facing the glaciers and the crags, which may mean that they no longer feel that they can cope with the trauma of vigorous living, or that the next Ice Age will destroy man, leaving the world to a new form of evolution, in which life will again try to emerge from the sea. Actually, of course, this process will take millions of years. But in the theater it can happen with the speed of imagination. Accordingly, the first act ends with the startling appearance of two sea creatures.
Fortunately for the playwright, these two lizard-like animals can speak English. They have ordinary names (Leslie and Sarah) and turn out to be more monogamous by instinct than their human counterparts are by religious and legal contract. Although they lack tools, art, and an awareness of their own mortality, they seem to have a passionate caring for each other that is more sensitive and more considerate than what most humans practice. There is much fun in Charlie and Nancy's trying to explain human customs to the animals, and Sarah and Leslie are particularly baffled to hear that we keep our offspring with us for 18 years. A serious crisis is created when Charlie cruelly makes Sarah aware that some day Leslie will die and leave her to live on without him. This is too much for them, and they decide to return to the sea. Charlie and Nancy tell them that they'll have to come back sooner or later, and they urge the creatures to stay and let them help them adapt to life on land. Leslie challenges them, saying, "All right. Begin."
This ending seems to say that the human race should use its retirement years to teach future civilizations how to acquire its virtues and avoid its mistakes. This positive thrust, and the compassion out of which it arises, allows Seascape to emerge as a benign comedy, without forcing the author into a renunciation of the scathing views he has expressed in his previous plays.
Albee has directed Seascape as if he understood the playwright's intent. Yet his unusual casting of the play has resulted in some slight incongruities. As Nancy, Deborah Kerr brings a proper British attitude to the role of an American housewife. And Barry Nelson's perennial boyishness seems at odds with Charlie's world-weariness. On the other hand, they both are excellent at keeping a comic tone in a play that is in great danger of slipping into a sober realism that its slight plot cannot support. But the outstanding performance is by Frank Langella as Leslie. Mr. Langella is wonderfully amusing in the moments when he expresses, with lizard-like movements, a startled bafflement at the strange human ideas he is hearing. And he is intensely moving when he becomes angry at Charlie's insensitivity. His response—"don't you talk to me about 'brute beast'"——pierces the separation between man and animal.
James Tilton's setting—some large-scale sand dunes——makes the actors seem smaller in contrast, an appropriate thing in comedy. Fred Voelpel's lizard costumes and facial make-up patterns are imaginative and beautiful, and they have just the right accent of absurdity. They enhance a unique comedy—one that gives us more to think about than any other of this season's new plays.
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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 human beings and talking animals are the stuff of fairy tales. Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, describes a fairy tale as a work of art which teaches about inner problems1 through the language of symbols 2 and, therefore, communicates various depths of meaning to various levels of the personality at various times.3 This is the method of Seascape.
The play's principal concern is the realization of the proximity of death that comes with the passing of middle age. Albee depicts the adjustments that this realization entails, adjustments made difficult in the twentieth century by a tendency to deny mortality. Sigmund Freud spoke of this denial as an inner struggle between Eros and Thanatos which he viewed as the wellspring of all neuroses. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the need for a oneness that would embody the affirmation of death as well as life. More recently, Norman O. Brown has maintained that constructing "a human consciousness" capable of accepting death "is a task for the joint efforts of psychoanalysis, philosophy, and art.4Seascape takes up this cause and earns importance because of it.
Symbols are the play's basic medium. Through symbolism the title announces that death is a part of the flux of life. A seascape is a view of the sea whose ever-moving waters are the meeting place between air and ground, heaven and earth, life and death. The waters of the sea are both the source and the goal of life. Returning to the sea is like returning to the birth waters of mother's womb; it is the symbolic equivalent of death.5 The seascape is also vast: its final shore is beyond sight; its horizon is beyond reach. So is the flux of life; man is the product of continuous evolution—unstoppable in its insistent progress. The sea is also deep and dark; beneath its bright ripples are undercurrents, eddies, unseen life, and unplumbed depths. So is man's awareness merely the outer rim of an inner self that seethes with the buried life of the subconscious. Thus, the play intertwines three levels of meaning, ingeniously allowing each to add insight to the other. All three are condensed in the symbol of the lizards who come up from the sea. They concretize the evolution of mankind from water animals, the emergence of the individual embryo from its watery womb, and the return to consciousness of the repressed self.
All these levels of meaning can be communicated simultaneously when the fairy-tale events of the play are interpreted as an initiation rite. Joseph L. Henderson, in Man and His Symbols, explains the rites of passage and their associated symbols which, he says, can relate to the movement from any stage of life to any other—childhood to adolescence to maturity to old age to death. Moreover, the symbols of these rites are known to appear in the unconscious mind of man just as they did in ancient rituals.6 One set of symbols that apply to this final stage of life, Henderson calls "symbols of transcendence" which concern "man's release from … any confining pattern of existence, as he moves toward a superior … stage" of his development. They provide for a union between the conscious and the unconscious contents of the mind.7 The experience is usually presided over by a "feminine (i.e., anima) figure" who fosters a "spirit of com-passion,"8 and it occurs between middle age and old age when people are contemplating ways to spend their retirement—whether to travel or to stay home, to work or to play.9 Often during this time the subject has dreams which incorpo-rate a piece of wood, natural wood which represents primor-dial origins and, thus, links "contemporary existence to the distant origins of human life." Other subjects dream of being in a strange, lonely place "near a body of water." Such places are stops on a continuing journey which symbolizes the need for release.10 The journey usually features an encounter with an animal that can live either on land or in the sea—a water pig, a lizard, a snake, or a fish. The amphibian quality of the animal is the universal symbol of transcendence. "These creatures, figuratively coming from the depths of the ancient Earth Mother, are symbolic denizens of the collective unconscious."11 The full power of transcendence also incorporates symbols of flight. Thus, the "lower transcendence from the underworld snake-consciousness" passes "through the medium of earthly reality" and into the "superhuman or transpersonal reality" of winged flight.12 In archaic patterns, the symbols of this final transcendence may havebeen winged horses or dragons or even wild birds. But Henderson says that today they can be jet planes or space rockets which also represent freedom from gravity. He notes that this final initiation begins in submission and moves through containment to further liberation. He warns, how-ever, that the opportunity to experience these rites is not automatic; it must be understood and grasped. The individual who does "reconciles the conflicting elements of his personality" and strikes "a balance that makes him truly human, and truly master of himself."13
Other writers concur with Henderson and elaborate his statements. Joseph Campbell, in Hero With A Thousand Faces, calls this opportunity to be initiated "the call to adventure." He tells a fairy tale in which a frog heralds the call—to life, death, adventure, or self-realization. Regardless of the "stage or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration—a rite, or moment of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth."14 Julius Heuscher, in his psychiatric approach to fairy tales, cites the story of the beautiful Czechoslovakian princess Zlatovlaska, who is won by a lowly cook, Yirik. This fairy tale introduces the "three realms of the physical world: earth, water, and air" which Yirik must befriend to gain his end, and it points out that death must be accepted as well as life if a true "spiritual awakening" is to occur, if a "wedding of the spirit or animus with the soul or anima" is to take place.15 A third relevant comment comes from Carl Jung: "In myths and fairy tales, as in dreams, the psyche tells its own story, and the interplay of the archetype is revealed in its natural setting as 'formation, transformation/ the eternal Mind's eternal recreation.' "16
Familiarity with the archetype of initiation and the symbols of transcendence facilitates their recognition in the events of Seascape. Albee's play begins on a deserted sand dune in the bright sun.17 The barrenness of the sand dune seems to suggest the absence of fertility at life's end. Traditionally, sand also represents time and life's journey. In this context, Albee's characters have travelled to the edge of the sands of time—the sea, home of the waters of life and death. The bright sunlight is associated with rebirth. According to J. E. Cirlot, the Moon becomes fragmented in its cycles, but the Sun can cross the heavens and descend without dissolving. "Hence, the death of the Sun necessarily implies the idea of resurrection and actually comes to be regarded as a death which is not a true death."18
Within this setting are Charlie and Nancy, whose names, perhaps by accident, identify them as representatives of the masculine and feminine spirits: the name Charlie implies manliness, strength and vigor; Nancy, a variation of Anne, suggests grace and mercy. The conversation of Charlie and Nancy tells of their presence in the retirement years. They speak of the long way they have come—the children, the sharing of much time, the prospects of settling in "old folks' cities" (p. 10). Nancy even verbalizes their awareness of approaching death. Twice she reminds Charlie that they "are not going to live forever" (p. 11). Their attitudes display a wish to stop their journey through time. Nancy wants to become a "seaside nomad" (p. 5), to "go around the world and never leave the beach" (p. 6). Charlie, on the other hand, wants to do "nothing" (p. 8); he feels he has earned "a little rest" (p. 10). Each in his own way, therefore, rejects continuing. She wants to treadmill it on the shores of life, and he wants to halt where he is. Their reluctance to continue is demonstrated symbolically as well. At the opening of the play, the deafening roar of a jet plane is heard passing overhead. Nancy complains of the noise, and Charlie declares that someday those jets will crash into the dunes. He fails to see "what good they do" (p. 3). If the planes are accepted as the symbols of winged transcendence, Nancy and Charlie's negative responses show their dread of this next higher plane of development. At the close of this scene, which sets up their present stage in life's journey, the jet planes fly over again. Charlie and Nancy repeat the same reactions and the same words, creating a refrain such as marks a stanza's end.
When conversation resumes, a new stanza presents another phase of their lives—their past. Charlie and Nancy review their progress through the earlier developmental stages. Charlie has always been slow to move forward into a new stage. When he was a little boy, his friends had wanted to soar on wings, like Icarus, but Charlie had wanted to be a fish and live under the sea (p. 13). His delight was to submerge himself and sit on the bottom. Until he was twelve or thirteen, he had enjoyed this symbolic regression to his beginnings in the womb. Finally, at seventeen he had begun his manhood and thereafter had been satisfied on earth's firm ground. Despite Nancy's entreaties that he recapture his youth by submerging again, Charlie refuses to retrench. He insists on remaining where he is. He had, however, had a seven-month decline before moving from maturity to middle age. Nancy was thirty when Charlie had had his "thing," his "melancholia" (p. 20). Then, as now, the deeper his inertia had gone, the more alive she had felt (p. 21). Finally, however, he had come back, but life had been quieter, more full of accommodations (p. 24). Now the time has come to progress from middle age to old age with its proximity to death. But Charlie wants to rest, to remain on familiar ground, to give in to inertia again. He fears "the crags" and "the glaciers" (p. 38). And the imagery of his words reveals his feelings about the next stage. He sees the future life as jagged and rough, like steep rocks rising above the surrounding rock mass. He sees the future life as cold and bleak, like a large mass of ice, rising where snow can accumulate faster than it melts. Like the jet plane, which Charlie figures will someday crash into the sandy earth, the glacier, when it does melt, slides down the mountain into the valley below. Charlie feels unequal to such a "scary" new life. He wants the comfort of "settling in"—where he is (pp. 38-39).
The backward look at Nancy's life reveals the differing role of woman. While he has accepted the traditionally active roles of manhood—wooer, sire, breadwinner, sturdy shoulder (pp. 29-30)—she has accepted the traditionally passive roles of womanhood. She has acquiesced to her husband's needs, accepted his way and place of life, reared their children, and waited out his inertia even at the height of her own sexuality. Nancy, therefore, feels she has earned "a little life" (p. 37). She is piqued by Charlie's use of the past tense with regard to her life. She compares her feelings about his phrase "You've had a good life" (p. 32) to his experience of being stung by a bee. He can still remember his swollen cheek and his half-closed eye (p. 33), and she can still remember all the ill-considered and near-impossible demands upon her ingenuity and her energy. Once he had called for "Mud!" and there was none; so he had insisted, "Well, make some." But she had felt helpless to make mud: she lacked a recipe, the right pan (pp. 32-33). She can remember staying neat and busy, not prying, during his "seven-month decline" (p. 21), wondering if he had found another girl, realizing their "rough and tumble in the sheets" was over, and considering a divorce as an entree into a more daring life (pp. 21-23). But she had passed through this difficult period by recognizing the mutuality of loneliness——even at the climax of love, "Le petit mort" (p. 24). Then he had come back, and she was "halfway there, halfway to compassion" (p. 24). Now they look back on the pyramid of children they have built together. She sees it as an individual, private effort—a precarious and difficult feat of engineering—which their children will now begin. He says, "It's all one" (pp. 14-15).
Each in his own way, then, has arrived at this new plateau——retirement age. Henderson says that those who have experienced adventure and change usually seek "a settled life" at this time, while those who have adhered to a pattern seek a "liberating change."19 And he seems to be describing the contrast between Charlie and Nancy as they pause on the brink of a new transcendence.
The moment is appropriate, therefore, for the entrance of the lizards. Earlier Nancy had sensed their presence or spotted them in the distance during her recollections of Charlie's love of submerging (p. 14). Later they reenter her vision as she makes her final plea to him to descend into the sea again—bare (pp. 27-28). These references to excursions into the underworld make the lizards' ascent into the upper world somehow less astonishing, a foreshadowing in reverse. The lizards, thus linked to Charlie's past, appear now as heralds, callers to a new adventure. Joseph Campbell says that the herald is a "representative of the repressed fecundity" within man; this description is certainly fitting to the present aridity of the man who once behaved like a fish. Campbell also describes the herald as "dark, loathly, or terrifying."20 and indeed the lizards do frighten Charlie. They arouse his deepest animal instincts, for he assumes a position on all fours. He also returns to his old habits and orders Nancy to get him a stick. Nancy reacts as though he had been stung by a bee again; she can see no sticks. Eventually, however, she does find him a thin, smallish one (p. 44). Perhaps this is the piece of wood symbolic of primordial origins. At any rate, she too takes to all fours as she crawls toward Charlie with the stick between her teeth (p. 44). Charlie's protective instincts are to the fore. When Leslie's throat-clearing assumes the character of a growl, "Charlie gathers Nancy to him," and he brandishes his stick in a pathetic attempt to "go down fighting" (p. 45). Nancy seems more fascinated than fearful. She is filled with wonder at the lizards' beauty (p. 45). But as Leslie threatens them by waving his own stout, four-foot stick, Charlie and Nancy remember to exchange, "I love you" (p. 46). They are prepared for crisis! Leslie and Sarah approach! Then the jet planes fly overhead again, frightening the lizards into a retreat toward the water. The refrain repeats its twofold function: symbolically it shows the creature-fear of unknown heights, and technically it marks the end of another stanza, so to speak.
The remainder of Act One gives Charlie and Nancy their moment to recover. Charlie intuitively recognizes that the lizards are the "glaciers and the crags" (p. 47). He even imagines he and Nancy are already dead—poisoned by Nancy's liver paste (p. 50). But when Leslie and Sarah approach again, Charlie and Nancy know by their fright that they are still alive. Nancy, with her feminine instinct, suggests they assume the animal posture of submission—on their backs, legs drawn up, hands curled like paws, "smiling broadly" (p. 51). Thus begins the rite of submission, the first step in answering the call, the prelude to the process of initiation.
The third stanza of Albee's poetic fairy tale is devoted to what Joseph Campbell has called the outgrowing of "old concepts and emotional patterns."21 At this point, Leslie and Sarah, representing the unconscious selves and the evolutionary predecessors of Charlie and Nancy, provoke for their conscious, modern counterparts a new and instructive look at the familiar. Consequently, old behavior patterns give rise to new self-realizations. The submissive females turn out to be more adventuresome and less fearful than the supposedly aggressive males, for Nancy and Sarah prod their men into friendly contact. Charlie and Nancy are forced to recognize that they are members of a dangerous species who kill other living things and eat all but their own kind. Both the lizards and the human beings discover in their own responses that the different and the unknown cause fears which spur defensive hostility. Leslie brandishes his stick out of fright just as Charlie does. The lizards reveal themselves to be as bigoted against fish as men are against other races. In his own defense, Leslie asks what frightens Charlie, what makes him panic. Charlie answers the question for himself as well as Leslie: "Oh … deep space? Mortality? Nancy … not being with me? Great … green … creatures coming up from the sea." Leslie is able to sum it all up, "what we don't know" (p. 73). And his words occasion in the dramatic imagination a greater Consciousness beyond earthly comprehension.
In that spirit the lizards and the human beings consider the enormous differences that time has made between them. Man's simplest everyday customs, like shaking hands, are strange to the lizards, and Charlie and Nancy recall earlier forms of human greeting which are now strange to modern man. The lizards are puzzled by clothes, and Charlie and Nancy grope to explain them. Leslie and Sarah have never seen a woman's breasts. Nancy's willingness to show hers to both Sarah and Leslie causes Charlie to reassess his feelings of jealousy and of love for Nancy's body. The most startling revelation, however, is of the enormity of the changes wrought by evolution. Leslie and Sarah are not even mammals. Their reproductive patterns are entirely different. Sarah has laid perhaps seven thousand eggs, many of which floated away or were eaten (pp. 82-83). Bearing one child at a time and lovingly nurturing him for eighteen to twenty years take on the aspect of a wondrous gift. This insight leads to the discovery that Leslie and Sarah do not know the emotions of love and loss. To borrow Carl Jung's phrase, they have not yet "blundered into consciousness"; consequently, they "have a share" in both the "daemonically superhuman" and the "bestially subhuman."22
While contemplating their differences, the animals and the human beings exhibit some similarities also; these reinforce the notion that Leslie and Sarah are counterparts, in this instance more subhuman than superhuman, to Nancy and Charlie. Sarah, like Nancy, submits willingly to her mate's decisions (p. 100); like Nancy, Sarah is fascinated by new experiences (p. 103). Both males, on the other hand, feel in-adequate at being unable to explain and understand, so they vent their feelings in anger at each other. Sarah is fascinated by the birds, but they activate Leslie's instinct to seek an escape route. Nancy is delighted to have been here "when Sarah saw it all" (p. 102), but Charlie, she chides, "has decided that the wonders do not occur; that what we have not known does not exist; that what we cannot fathom cannot be…" (p. 105). As a final similarity, both couples react negatively to the recurring sound of the jet planes overhead. Leslie and Sarah rush back over the dunes, and Charlie and Nancy repeat their refrain.
The last stanza brings the grasping of the opportunity offered by the initiation rites and the final understanding. It begins in Nancy's compassion for the lizards' fear of the jets: "Oh, Charlie; they're frightened. They're so frightened!" Charlie picks up her feelings: "They are" (p. 111); and both offer the comfort of explanations. Thus, they grasp their opportunity to consolidate the results of this encounter with the representatives of the unconscious, private and collective. The experiences which follow provide intuitive enlightenment to both the lizards and the human beings, and they also offer thematic statements to the student of Albee's Play
Overall the clear message is that individual human growth is analogous to the evolution of mankind. Authoritative testimony reinforces Albee's statement. Heuscher says a study of the "best known Grimms' tales" led repeatedly to the realization that "the growth of the individual is closely interrelated Charlie began with the historical fate of the human race."23 Charlie began in his mother's watery womb, and after his birth he liked to retire to its symbolic equivalent, but eventu-ally he moved on to adolescence and then adulthood and middle age. Now he is ready for the final step of life on this intermediate stage of earth. In the same way, mankind began in the "primordial soup." There was a "heartbreaking second" when "the sugars and the acids and the ultraviolets" all came together, and creatures began "crawling around, and swimming and carrying on" down mere (p. 118). In the eons that followed, they dropped tails and changed spots——they mutated (p. 123), until one day a "slimy creature poked his head out of the muck" and decided to stay up on land (p. 124). Thus, Charlie verbalizes one level of the symbolism of Leslie and Sarah. The implication is that Charlie and Nancy are the present product of the mutations that earlier Leslies and Sarahs have undergone. And now, as human beings, they must move on to the third level of life, symbolized by air.
Within this overall pattern are meaningful individual thematic statements. The first of these is that discontent is the springboard of growth. Henderson supports Albee's intuitive accuracy. He states that a "spirit of divine discon-tent … forces all free men to face some new discovery or to live their lives in a new way."24 Charlie no longer wishes to submerge himself in the sea. He knows he could not find satisfaction now in this twelve-year-old's game: "it wasn't … finding out" (p. 115). Leslie and Sarah have come up from the sea because they no longer felt they belonged there (p. 116). The fish in the "glop" became dissatisfied and "sprouted things—tails, spots, fins, feathers" (p. 121).
Second, these developmental stages are gradual but inevitable. Creatures and men come to believe they have always been as they are. Leslie says he has "always had a tail" (p. 122). Sarah says that their discomfort under the sea was "a growing thing, nothing abrupt"; it was a "sense of having changed" (p. 116). Charlie calls it "flux" (p. 124). And it is ultimately unstoppable. Before each new transition, creatures, as well as men, have the urge to turn back. Leslie and Sarah epitomize this wish to retreat at the very end of the play. Leslie states sadly that he is ready to "go back down," and Sarah concurs (p. 132). But Nancy overrules them with her insistence that they will have to come back eventually. They have no choice, she says (p. 134). Charlie agrees, "You've got to do it—sooner or later" (p. 135). Heuscher also concludes that individually and culturally, "growth appears as a neverending process." He places this thought in an optimistic framework which parallels the bright future he says is always present in fairy tales. He explains that the adult person who knows the challenge of continuing devel opment "finds himself wedded to the goddess of eternal youth."25
The play's third statement is the most meaningful: knowledge of one's own mortality is the key to being truly alive and human. Martin Grotjahn, in The Voice of the Symbol, confirms the importance of understanding finiteness. He explains that in old age man is given one last chance to understand himself and his world, and that chance "is created by the recognition that human life is terminable." Integrating the meaning of mortality and accepting it "without narcissistic delusion" accomplishes, he says, "the transition from maturation to wisdom."26 Nancy sees this awareness as evidence of true progress in evolution; she thinks men are more interesting than animals because they "use tools, … make art" and know death (p. 125). Charlie, whose great fear is separation from Nancy in death, intuitively forces Sarah to face this same possibility. He asks her what she would do if she knew Leslie "was never coming back" (p. 129). Once they have absorbed Charlie's question, Leslie and Sarah have learned what emotion is. They know their love for each other; they know the fear of loss. Sarah says she would cry her eyes out if she lost Leslie. Leslie almost kills Charlie for making Sarah cry (p. 131). Both lizards wish to return to the sea where, in Charlie's parlance, the brute beasts are "free from it all" (p. 128). But the whole experience has deepened the human beings' compassion and the lizards' trust. The constructive feminine spirit of man, Nancy, points out the inevitability of growth, and her other half holds out his hand in their mutual offer of help. Leslie straightens as he accepts, "All right. Begin" (p. 135).
The full meaning of "Begin" is contained in the play's central analogy. Both couples are ready now to begin the death of the old life and the birth of the new. Leslie and Sarah will die as lizards to be reborn as men; by gaining consciousness they have moved their home from the under-world of the sea to the middle ground of earth. Charlie and Nancy will die as men and be reborn to a higher plane of existence symbolized by winged flight in the upper world of air. Albee's analogy spares him the necessity of prophesying the nature of this new plane of existence, but its prelude seems to be ego-integration. On another level, "Begin" suggests the start of total reconciliation of all conflicting elements of the self—the past with the present, the subconscious with the conscious, and even the animus with the anima. Charles and Nancy join hands with Leslie and Sarah to begin the attainment of oneness. Thus, through the language of symbols, Albee speaks his major theme—acceptance of death is transcendence.
Seascape offers a message of wisdom and comfort presented in a fanciful style that allows people to sip only as much as they thirst for. But Albee's intent is clear in his choice of form. Bettelheim has verbalized it: "If there is a central theme to the wide variety of fairy tales, it is that of rebirth to a higher plane."27
1Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York, 1976), p. 5.
2Ibid., p. 62.
3Ibid., p. 12.
4Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death (Middletown, Conn., 1959), p. 108.
5J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, trans., Jack Sage (New York, 1962), p. 268.
6Joseph L. Henderson, "Ancient Myths and Modern Man," in Man and His Symbols, ed. Carl G. Jung and M. L. von Franz (New York, 1968), p. 100.
7Ibid., p. 146.
8Ibid., p. 150.
9Ibid., p. 151.
10Ibid., p. 152.
11Ibid., p. 153.
12Ibid., p. 155.
13Ibid., p. 156.
14Joseph Campbell, Hero With A Thousand Faces (Cleveland and New York, 1956), p. 51.
15Julius Heuscher, A Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales (Springfield, Ill., 1974), p. 193.
16Carl G. Jung, Four Archetypes, trans. R.F.C. Hull (London, 1972), p. 95.
17Edward Albee, Seascape (New York, 1975), p. 3. (Subsequent references to this play will appear in the body of the text.)
18Cirlot, p. 303.
19Henderson, p. 151.
20Campbell, p. 53.
2121Ibid. , p.51.
22Jung, p. 108.
23Heuscher, p. 189.
24Henderson, p. 151.
25Heuscher, p. 189.
26Martin Grotjahn, The Voice of the Symbol (New York, 1973), p. 45.
27Bettelheim, p. 179.
Samuel J. Bernstein (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "A Review of the Criticism," in The Strands Entwined: A New Direction in American Drama, Northeastern University Press, 1980, pp. 113-35.
[In the following essay, Bernstein offers a survey of the theatrical reviews of Seascape, a critical analysis of the play, and a discussion of its place in twentieth-century American drama.]
A Review of the Criticism
Mixed critical reaction has greeted Edward Albee's Seascape. Such critics as Clive Barnes, George Oppenheimer, Richard Watts, and Brendan Gill have written of their admiration for the work; others, including Walter Kerr, T. E. Kalem, Stanley Kauffmann, Jack Kroll, and Catharine Hughes, have been equally emphatic in deriding it. Harold Clurman, who scorns the hysteria of the love or hate reaction of his colleagues, has a generally favorable reaction to the play. Although he calls it a "little" play, his tone indicates that he is surely among that group of critics who might "find [the work] delightful."1
Mel Gussow, in a New York Times interview with Albee, reports that Albee began to think about Seascape in 1967, seven years before it was produced. It grew out of one of two companion pieces, at that time called Life and Death. Death ultimately became All Over, produced in 1971, and Life became Seascape, to which Albee gave special attention for three years prior to its writing.
Gussow finds in Seascape, as in most of Albee's works, elements of both tragedy and comedy. During the interview, Albee credits Samuel Beckett with traits that may be credited to himself as well:
Our best serious playwright, Samuel Beckett, is extremely funny. You've got to have a tragic sense of life to see the humor of the absurd.2
As the Gussow interview indicates, Albee was indeed quite serious in this dramatic effort. He allegedly has always been fascinated by the sea; in addition, he read extensively in anthropology and animal behavior in preparation for the writing. However, Albee does not see simple scientific knowledge as his substructure. Gussow calls it "still very much a play of the imagination." Albee states that it was the most difficult play he has ever written because he had no guidelines and because language and diction were particularly acute problems. He had to make the lizards seem believable and yet decidedly different from humans. As Albee states:
They should be so real that in a sense we can smell them. 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.3
However charming or witty the play might be, the Gussow interview indicates that Albee was attempting to confront weighty scientific and philosophical matters and to treat them in a fundamentally serious, though overtly whimsical, fashion.
It is precisely because of the seriousness of Albee's aim and posture that most of the criticism of the play has been leveled. In essence, a number of critics feel that Seascape is pretentious, dull, and pseudophilosophic; talky when it ought to have provided action; and abstract and distant when it ought to have conveyed intense feeling. Quite pointedly, T. E. Kalem of Time states that since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Albee's plays (including Seascape) have been "flaccidly somnolent affairs." Claiming that Albee has "a very weak gift for plot construction," he scores the characterization and language, refers to the play's "thudding banalities," and calls the work "bland and innocuous, a two-hour sleeping pill of aimless chatter."4 Similarly, Jack Kroll of Newsweek writes that Albee "seems drained of almost all vitality—theatrical, intellectual, artistic." Moveover, Kroll thinks that Albee has "committed the grisly error of becoming a 'sage.' "5
Catharine Hughes, who agrees with Kalem and Kroll that the play lacks "life," states:
As a course in elementary Darwinism, Seascape just might have some value. As a play, it is pretentious, simplistic, verbose and banal.6
Essentially in agreement, Stanley Kauffmann calls it hollow, banal, and unrealized. He goes on to suggest that Albee give up playwriting, since he has allegedly produced nothing of worth since Virginia Woolf.7 In a more moderate but equally firm critique, Walter Kerr argues that the play fails principally because it is not dramatic. The play begins with a long conversational debate between the middle-aged couple, Charlie and Nancy. In retirement, Charlie wants only to rest, while Nancy wants wonder and excitement. The couple is joined by two sea creatures, with whom they compare notes on many facets of their lives. When the sea creatures decide—inevitably, Kerr contends—to return to the sea, we have a crisis, but Kerr believes that Albee fails to present this crisis effectively. Since Charlie had formerly wished to surrender to old age and death, Kerr asks, "Why does he not engage himself, as devil's advocate, as newly enlightened human being, as something?"8
While the questions of dramatic effectiveness, philosophical richness, construction, and vitality are surely points of dis-agreement among critics, nowhere is the debate so pointed and acrid as it is on the subject of Albee's language. For example, T. E. Kalem writes:
Finally, he largely abandoned his strong suit, which was a flair for vituperatively explosive dialogue and bitchy humor. Instead, his characters have spoken for years now with intolerably stilted pomposity, as if they had wandered out of an unpublished work by some minor Victorian novelist.9
Similarly, Kroll censures Albee's "constipated language that moves in colonic spasms."10 Catharine Hughes, another detractor, states that Albee's writing "is presumed (by the author) to be poetic and profound, resonant, when in reality it is devoid of life and artificial, the producer of inertia."11
Although such judgments on Albee's language are powerful, they are not universally held. For example, Walter Kerr comments:
The writing is blessedly spare, free of the convoluted locutions that have sometimes grown like coral over [Albee's] meanings.12
Similarly, Brendan Gill writes in The New Yorker.
Of all Mr. Albee's plays, Seascape is the most exquisitely written. He has calculated not only every immaculate line of dialogue but every word, every caesura; when the actors fall silent, we hold our breath and wait, as we wait at the reading of some superb long poem.13
Clive Barnes and Henry Hewes are affirmative in their overall assessment of the play. Because of its warmth and human compassion, Barnes calls Seascape a true comedy, "a major dramatic event," and further states: "What Mr. Albee has given us here is a play of great density, with many interesting emotional and intellectural reverberations."14 Henry Hewes, agreeing that it is a comedy, praises Albee for his "wit," "insight," and "careful use of language." Although he believes that the first act lacks "dramatic urgency," Hewes concludes his critique by referring to Seascape as "a unique comedy—one that gives us more to think about than any other of this season's new plays."15
Harold Clurman seems to explain the differences in critical response to Seascape. He writes:
It is his most relaxed play, a "philosophical" whimsy. You may find it delightful, or, if the nice notion on which it is based does not suit your temperament, you will consider it a drag.16
The term philosophical whimsy suggests the light tone, the wit, and the playful creativity of language, idea, and theatrical image that Albee attempted to employ. If one disregards this graceful blending of light manner and serious matter, the work surely seems pretentious, the metaphor insoluble, and the language heavy. Seen, however, from the vantage point that Clurman suggests, we are compelled to open our minds regarding Seascape, as Albee suggested in an interview with the editors of The New York Times: "The most important thing you can ask from an audience is that it approach a new play with an open mind—without having predetermined the nature of the theatrical experience it will accept."17
While the detractors say little more of the play than that it is concerned with a troubled middle-aged couple and that it is concerned scientifically (or pseudoscientifically) with evolution, the play's supporters have attempted various interpretations, each more or less related to Albee's contention that the play is "a true-to-life story."18 ' For example, Clive Barnes claims that the play confronts life itself—its history, processes, and current expression in the human conditionand optimistically reminds us about "the primeval ooze from which we all came, and the blind, inarticulative courage that keeps us all going."19 ' Oblique but related is the interpretation of Henry Hewes:
Albee seems to be suggesting that the real solution is for our civilization to recognize its failures and somehow to feed our experience into the evolution of a new and better species.20
Brendan Gill concludes:
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. With luck, such acts will be found to have meaning; better still, there is the possibility that they will bear fruit.21
Regardless of which critical opinion we adhere to, we would do well to ponder Clurman's judgment that Seascape "is a step in Albee's still green career, a step which, seen in a certain light, augurs well for the future."22
In addition to receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Seascape, Albee won the Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award, given by the Dramatists Guild Council, for the 1974-1975 season.
This award "is given to a playwright whose work deals with a controversial subject involving political, religious or social mores."23
Edward Albee's Seascape, produced in 1975, won the Pulitzer Prize for that year. The tenth Albee play to be produced (the thirteenth if we include his adaptations), the work reassures us that Albee is still a powerful force in American theatre. Many critics have felt, throughout the course of Albee's career, that his most recent play would be his last. The notion that Albee had played himself out arose shortly after the production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; it was repeated for the next ten years and received new support in 1971 when All Over, which was concerned with death, seemed to state explicitly (in its title and symbolically throughout) that this would be the last Albee play. But Albee stunned critics and audiences again in 1975 with the production of Seascape. Hailed by Clive Barnes as "a major dramatic event," Seascape is of double significance. First, it reminds us that Albee is alive and well and writing superbly. More importantly, his winning a second Pulitzer Prize (he had won it in 1966 fox A Delicate Balance) affirmed his right to claim such a well-deserved honor, denied him for Virginia Woolf in 1962. (Because of the 1962 denial, John Mason Brown and John Gassner withdrew from the Pulitzer Prize Committee.)
Seascape is a two-act play concerned with a middle-aged couple, Nancy and Charlie. The setting is an isolated beach to which the couple has come for a vacation. The first act is largely a dialogue concerned with the couple's finding ways both to fill the emptiness and to combat the loneliness that have entered their lives. Basically, Nancy wants a life of excitement and new adventures, wandering from one secluded beach to another; Charlie wants simply to rest, to do absolutely nothing.
The first act begins with the deafening roar of a jet airplane passing overhead. This sound, which annoys and interrupts the couple's dialogue, is heard three times during the first act. It serves as a contrast to the quiet calm and pristine beauty of the sand dunes, and serves to remind us of the world outside the isolated beach. After the plane's initial roar passes, Nancy and Charlie debate whether to spend the remainder of their lives beachcombing and seeking adventure or to rest and let the years pass by uneventfully. Although the dialogue continues for a long time with no action, Albee keeps us absorbed in the conversation through his customary control of language. Although Nancy and Charlie speak of emptiness and inactivity, Albee's sense of verbal nuance, his ear for actual speech patterns, and his ability to heighten and intensify naturalistic speech endow the conversation with a wonderful energy. Moreover, we are drawn by the characters' situation (perhaps plight), the basic seriousness of their concerns, and the charming mixture of lightness and wit as a leaven to the sober communication.
The direct consideration of Nancy's beachcombing suggestion leads the couple to consider the meaning of life and the imminence of death. Nancy responds to Charlie's desire to rest by asking:
But is this what we've … come all this way for? (Some wonder and chiding) Had the children? Spent all this 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? Pacifier? Milk? Incomprehensible once more?
This statement, coupled with Nancy's fervor in considering old age, retirement farms, and whether they will die together or alone, causes Charlie to agree smilingly to Nancy's proposition of a life of endless beachcombing; he does so principally in an effort to pacify Nancy and to rest. Just as they reach a state of relaxation, the jet plane again roars overhead. Almost ritually, Nancy repeats her initial line, which came after the plane first disturbed them: "Such noise they make!" (pp. 3, 13). The repetition is deceptive; the plane's droning actually serves as a kind of coda, leading the couple to a new area of discussion. Such a change might in fact happen quite naturally in any conversation after such a disturbance, and the purity and cleanness of the transition maintains the ritualistic quality that lies just beneath the naturalistic surface of Albee's play.
Although this new period of discussion concerns numerous subtopics, it focuses primarily upon Charlie's boyhood practice of diving underwater and staying submerged for long periods of time. Ever since Charlie was a little child, he wished to live under the sea, and so he often would let out all the air from his lungs, sink as far down as he could, and remain there as long as possible. He loved to watch the fish and see the variegated colors of the underwater world, and presumably he felt a sense of oneness with the sea, the place from which all living creatures originally came.
In contrast to Charlie's impulse toward sea life, Nancy reveals that she wanted to be only two things when she was young: a pony and a woman. As they banter about her having achieved her second aim, they move associatively—the play's method—to the marvel of having built a family ("a reversed pyramid, always in danger of toppling over when people don't behave themselves"—p. 15). The challenge, excitement, and wonder of having built a family and the continuity of life are matters to which the couple thrill in discussion. Albee indicates a true reverence for the beauty of togetherness and closeness, which the word family implies. There is truth and tenderness between this couple; there is also love. Albee reveals himself in this discussion and throughout the play as a man of much wisdom, warmth, and insight into life.
Again, Charlie returns to a description of his submergence——this time at a protected cove at a summer place when he was a teenager. He tells how he would enter naked and remain under for a very long time, becoming "part of the undulation and the silence" (p. 17). He remembers that it "was very good" (p. 17). Appreciating the richness of Charlie's experience, with its associations of youth, courage, sensuality, and deep communion with nature, Nancy, who from the play's start has been trying to reactivate Charlie's life impulses, encourages him to strip and submerge himself once more. When he hesitates, she encourages him by countering all of his objections, including the possibility that some other beachcombers would observe him. Nancy wants him to relive the experience both for himself and for her own vicarious excitement. Since this experience has many sexual associations and ramifications, her encouragement leads them to a discussion of sex and the loss of potency. Associatively again, they go on to discuss marital fidelity and sexual fantasy.
Nancy tells of how, during a period when Charlie was melancholic, she had thought of divorcing him. She had been a modest girl before her marriage, but by marrying and staying with only one man, she feels that she deprived herself of much sexual experience. She reveals that she has dreamed of former boyfriends with whom she missed her chance for sexual involvement. She has thought of liberation and of regaining her youth by starting again. Such thinking, she contends (presumably, Albee agrees), is the cause of many divorces. Nancy's own wavering came when she was thirty; she recalls an instance when she was quite pretty, pink, and literate; propped up beside Charlie in bed, she stared at the moles on his back while he, in a state of melancholia, lay there unresponsive and uninterested in her.
At that time, Nancy had wondered if Charlie had found another woman; knowing how various are the springs of attachment, she would not have really blamed him if he had had such a relationship. Her mother, she reveals, had said that if Charlie did leave and had then returned to her, he would have done so at a price, the price being some loss of spiritual fidelity. Her mother suggested that that would bring Nancy "halfway to compassion" (p. 24). When Charlie asks what would then establish full compassion, Nancy answers that the other half of the journey to compassion would have had to do with sensing his loneliness and male need for liberation. In any case, she divested herself of the divorce notion within a week.
While Charlie agrees with her that fantasy can play a significant part in sexual relations, he contends that he has been faithful to Nancy, both in mind and in spirit. They now feel quite close, and Nancy again encourages him to find his cove, to submerge, even to take her along if he wishes. She looks about and says that the other sunbathers have gone; he would not be observed. This renewed exhortation by Nancy is motivated by her sense that so much in life is fleeting, "so much goes" (p. 25). She mentions her eyesight specifically, and yet implies the more intangible commodities of youth and opportunity.
Then Nancy thinks she sees people farther up on the dunes. Since she cannot see them clearly, Charlie jests that she would be of little use if they went underwater together. She comments that she would depend on Charlie's protection; this notion causes them to compliment each other on the sharing they have enjoyed as lovers and as married people. Charlie, for example, had courted her as she wished, been a good husband, and provided a "sturdy shoulder and a comfortable life" (p. 30). This sense of having wrapped life up neatly makes Nancy bridle, and she petulantly insults Charlie, saying: "We'll wrap you in the flag when you're gone, and do taps" (p. 30). This remark hurts Charlie, and he says that he wants to go home.
A recollection of a past incident, however, diverts them. Nancy recalls the time that Charlie was stung by a bee and ordered her to make mud. She recalls how, after years of working from recipes, she could not figure out the recipe for mud. She explains that her petulance comes upon her like a bee sting, calling it involuntary behavior that momentarily closes off her impulse to kindness. Charlie accepts this explanation, and she goes on to state that what most often causes her petulance is his speaking as if their lives were over.
Charlie agrees with Nancy that all they really have is "ourselves and some time" (p. 37), and once more they express their opposed attitudes: Charlie wants to rest and Nancy wants to find excitement. Charlie contends that one must face reality, the reality of death. Nancy opts for not giving up, for seeking and scaling the "glaciers and the crags" (p. 38). Slowly the debate plays itself out and they speak of returning to the business of the day—writing postcards and gathering seashells.
At this moment the act (and the play) makes its most dramatic and sensational shift. As Charlie and Nancy speak, two huge sea lizards, Leslie and Sarah, come up on the dune and squat down on their tails. Rarely in any dramatic experience, American or foreign, has fantasy been so strikingly imposed on a naturalistic environment. Actually, the imposition is merited; the couple has just been speaking of reality and illusion, and the notion that life is dull and unexciting has been a major theme throughout. The appearance of Leslie and Sarah ends whatever it is that is dull.
To the appearance of these sea monsters, Charlie and Nancy have different reactions. Charlie is petrified, and demands (reminiscent of the bee-mud incident) that Nancy find a stick so that he can fight them. By contrast, Nancy, although somewhat frightened, is fascinated by the monsters. She brings a small twig to Charlie, while Leslie lifts a huge branch; the implied sexual play, particularly the contrast of male potency, is quite funny. Believing that they are both going to die after Charlie is defeated in battle by Leslie, Charlie and Nancy hastily declare their love for each other.
At that moment, the airplane roars overhead for the third time in the act, and Leslie and Sarah become frightened and run away. Symbolically, the flight of the sea creatures serves to remind us how frighteningly far our modern technology has taken us from nature. For Nancy and Charlie, of course, the flight is hardly symbolic.
Nancy is awestruck by the entire happening. Although she has been frightened by the lizards, her sense of wonder and her exhilaration are greater and more compelling than her fear. In contrast, Charlie is relieved at the disappearance of the lizards and theorizes that their appearance was only a dream; he further conjectures that he and Nancy are dead, that they have succumbed to food poisoning from eating spoiled liver paste. Nancy answers:
We may be dead already, Charlie, but I think we're going to die again. Here they come!
With the reappearance of the monsters, both Nancy and Charlie are truly frightened. Upon Nancy's suggestion, they both assume postures of animal submission and take on fixed smiles. Thus ends Act I.
In this first act, which is largely conversational, a middle- aged couple moves from a discussion of humdrum ways to escape loneliness, dullness, and emptiness to a confrontation with sea lizards, a wonderful, frightening fantasy.
Act II begins where Act I ended, as though the play were one long, uninterrupted act. The act division is useful, however, for the opening of the second act provides almost as great a surprise as did the appearance of the monsters: the monsters talk! At least for the moment, we have entered a world of pure fantasy.
However, the sense of absolute fantasy lasts only a short time. That the fantastic creatures are capable of speech makes them less fearsome and more humanoid. Always aware at some level that the creatures are make-believe, we nevertheless become involved, in fact deeply involved, in the interaction between the two couples and in what is being discussed. During this act, in the midst of a consideration of differences and concomitant bigotry, Leslie, the male lizard, says:
Being different is … interesting; there's nothing implicitly inferior or superior about it. Great difference, of course, produces natural caution; and if the differences are too extreme … well, then, reality tends to fade away.
Leslie's assertion is generally true. However, Albee has managed to maintain a keen sense of reality in us, despite the extreme differences between the lizards and the people, and between the world as depicted and the world of our quotidian existence. This is truly a remarkable achievement, not just a trick. The great chain of being (the human's direct link with the animal world) is a theme of the play, and Albee's powers of characterization, particularly his psycho-logical insight and his great gifts of language, have enabled him to make a compelling portrayal of the monsters as early links in the chain. Through this linkage, Albee manages to bridge the gap between reality and unreality and to make our experience of each a means for a richer appreciation of the other.
More simply, just as Act I was essentially a dialogue between the two people, so Act II is a discussion between the two couples. As would be natural in a conversation, the pattern of couple-to-couple confrontation varies; each individual speaks to each other individual, and the partners some-times address each other as a unit. The second act, like the first, is an extended conversation, interrupted periodically with a few instances of physical action.
The second act actually begins with an example of such action. Charlie and Nancy are still lying on their backs with feet in the air, the postures of submission they assumed at the end of Act I. Thus a comic bridge is extended from the first to the second act. After Leslie examines the humans, the couples speak apart. The lizards wonder what the humans are doing, and the humans then try to decide what to do in the face of this awful danger. On Nancy's urging, they decide to stay still and smile.
During this examination period we discover what is to be the keynote of the entire act. Leslie tells Sarah:
Well … they don't look very … formidable—in the sense of prepossessing. Not young. They've got their teeth bared, but they don't look as though they're going to bite. Their hide is funny—feels soft.
He then declares that they smell "strange." This scrutiny of the humans as a different and strange species continues throughout the act. As this becomes more intense, it deeply affects Nancy and Charlie and, as the examination is applied to the lizards, it affects them as well. In this way, Albee can ask what it means to be human and whether it is worthwhile trying to survive, the questions that link Act II to Act I. The principal mode for this examination, set forth right away, is that of contrast. Two sets of beings from different worlds, or in some measure, two sets of humans from different cultures, meet and compare notes.
After their initial scrutiny, the monsters decide to approach the humans together; Charlie is frightened but Nancy is somewhat fascinated. Comically, Leslie and Sarah argue, like husband and wife, over whether she should approach with him. This speech, with its expression of fear of the un-known and its familiar husband-wife role relations, makes the monsters seem real and tends to link the couples. The lizards speak to the humans and the humans respond, despite Charlie's hesitancy. They all say "hello" and exchange pleasantries.
When both sets of creatures declare that they do not intend to eat the other, the way is paved for more facile and substantial interaction. This specific discussion of intention leads Charlie to comment more generally on the eating habits of humans; he tries to explain, for example, that "we don't eat our own kind" (p. 66), but he is somewhat frustrated in making clear his meaning. This pattern of humans trying to explain rather fundamental things to nonhumans will continue throughout the play and will have the effect of exposing and confronting much of what it means to be human. On the subject of cannibalism, Leslie agrees:
Well, we don't eat our own kind, either. Most of us. Some.
Such remarks (here and elsewhere) indicate the closeness of the human species to the animal world and subtly imply the unpleasant deviations of some human beings from civilized behavior.
The human explanation moves from eating habits to an attempt to explain handshaking, which brings some funny moments. Nancy and Sarah seem to interact more smoothly than Charlie and Leslie; Charlie is driven nearly mad when he tries to explain to Leslie why humans differentiate between "arms" and "legs" while animals have merely "legs." Despite the conversational tensions, they all ultimately shake hands, and this ritual seems to bring the couples a step closer. We feel that the development of real friendship is possible.
From handshaking, they begin to consider what frightens them; this discussion is motivated by a desire to avoid panic and consequent belligerence if one of them should happen to become frightened. They all agree that they are frightened by the unknown. For example, Charlie answers:
What frightens me? Oh … deep space? Mortality? Nancy … not being with me?
Then, on a lighter note, the humans try to explain what clothes are and why they wear them; Nancy defines the need as "to keep warm; to look pretty; to be decent" (p. 74). It is the attempt to explain decency (exposing the ridiculous puritanism of humans in the area of sex) that leads to a hilarious exploration—to Charlie's chagrin—of Nancy's breasts. Sarah's definitive analogy of Nancy's breasts to whale mamillaries is both funny and serious; its funny side is the image of size with which Nancy's breasts are being associated. Its serious side is the linkage again of humans with other, supposedly lower, species.
When the couples begin to discuss pregnancy and birth, the apparently minor gap between animals and humans grows wider. While lizards lay eggs, humans do not. While lizards spawn hundreds of eggs at a time—Sarah estimates that she has laid seven thousand eggs—Nancy explains that humans give birth to one or two babies at a time. Sarah reveals that her eggs are carried for only a few weeks, while Nancy tells of the nine-month gestation period. Their subsequent discussion of child rearing also reveals radical differences. While Sarah's children merely float away, Nancy indicates that human children are kept at home for twenty years or so until they can care for themselves.
While this comparison has both its comic and educational facets, it actually leads into a rather serious area, one of vital concern to Albee in this play. In explaining "another reason" why humans keep their children with them, Nancy says "we love them" (p. 86). When the lizards inquire what love means, Nancy responds that it is "one of the emotions" (p. 87), which leads Sarah to ask for a definition of emotions; this definition is one of Charlie and Nancy's most difficult tasks. Although they cannot easily explain the emotions, especially love, it is Albee's notion that the human capacity for love and the range of emotional life are what separate humans from other animals. Later Charlie will make Sarah cry as he asks her to contemplate Leslie's ultimate departure through death. He will then explain that her reaction is an emotional response. It is Albee's notion that lower forms of life possess rudimentary emotional mechanisms, and that animals may not be as distant from us as we would wish to think.
Since this first attempt to explain the emotions fails, how-ever, the couples discuss courtship and sex. This transition to lighter subject matter provides a relief and again empha-sizes the similarity between humans and supposedly lower species. For example, when Sarah describes how males chased her and fought over her when she reached maturity, and when Leslie tells that he was attracted because she smelled good, we immediately recognize an analogy to the sensory components of human attraction and we realize how near we humans are to the world of the animals. This discussion of sex gets particularly funny when Nancy objects to Charlie's thinking Sarah may have had affairs.
Conversely, Charlie's assumption that human standards are inapplicable to the lizards nearly gets him into a fight with Leslie. He says that Leslie "has no grasp of conceptual matters, … hasn't heard of half the words in the English language,… lives on the bottom of the sea and has green scales" (p. 94). In fact, he suggests that Leslie is no more intelligent than a fish. This infuriates Leslie. Just as Charlie feels superior to Leslie, Leslie feels superior to fish; there-fore, we perceive that both Charlie and Leslie are bigoted. But we also learn that Leslie is indeed capable of conceptualizing. It is he, in fact, who makes the observation that "Great difference … produces natural caution; and if the differences are too extreme … well, then, reality tends to fade away" (p. 98). In these lines, Albee once more lightly deflates human pride and pointedly reminds us of our link with the animal world.
Just at that moment, birds fly overhead and Nancy and Charlie try to explain what birds are. This discussion is inter-twined with Sarah's description of how Leslie checks out conditions to make "sure a way is open for us …" (p. 99), and how he sets the parameters for their behavior. After Nancy says it is similar with humans, the discussion returns to birds, and Sarah likens their flying to the swimming of rays. Photography is also mentioned, but Charlie laughingly dismisses it as a topic, realizing it would be impossible to explain. They also laugh at how crazy everyone would think them were they to try to recount their interaction with the lizards.
This brings us back to Charlie's notion of the first act that they are dead, this time whimsically expressed by Nancy. She also returns to the first-act motif of Charlie's giving up versus her sense of wonder. She explains that Charlie thinks they must be dead because he is a realist and a pragmatist and has rejected all sense of wonder on this earth (wonder being a matter for which Albee has subtly and ambiguously argued by presenting two fantastic beasts as symbols of believable wonder).
Leslie jumps right in on this life-death/reality-illusion question, and both couples are drawn into the ultimately unanswerable question of the reality of existence. When Charlie mentions Descartes' proposition, "I think: therefore I am," the prospect of having to define thinking for Leslie overwhelms him. In fact, everything all at once seems to overwhelm him, and he starts to crumble, saying, "Death is a release, if you've lived all right, and I have" (p. 109). Nancy wins him back to the world of the living by inserting her tongue into his mouth and giving him a long, lovely, French kiss. She explains that Charlie is all right; it is just that he has gone through life and found it a bit overwhelming.
Once again, intensity is interrupted by the roar of a jet plane overhead, the fifth time in the play and the second in Act II. Once more Nancy says, "Such noise they make," and Charlie ritually answers, "They'll crash into the dunes one day" (p. 111). Meanwhile, Leslie and Sarah have again run off in fear. Noticing their fear, Nancy and Charlie seem keenly sympathetic. Perhaps Charlie's recent confrontation with his own vulnerability, brought about by the lizards' questions, makes him especially sensitive to their plight. After the roar dies down, the couples come together once more. Charlie explains that planes are machines and, to Leslie's dismay, reveals that humans even have machines that go underwater.
Such a reference leads Nancy to mention Charlie's boyhood habit of submerging himself. Charlie is reluctant to discuss it and angrily asks the creatures why they came up on earth. Under stress, they reveal that they had lost a sense of belonging, of being comfortable down there. Here Albee is showing how dissatisfaction is a cause of change and development and how thoroughly grounded our human experience is in the life of the sea. Charlie is heartbroken as he considers the transition from simple, beautiful sea life to so-called higher forms of being.
Charlie proceeds to explain that humans also came from the sea and this naturally leads to an explanation of the theory of evolution. Charlie finally tells them that the key point for him was when some creature "poked his head out of the muck" and decided to stay on earth; "he split apart and evolved and became tigers and gazelles and porcupines and Nancy here …" (p. 124). Charlie also points out that some creatures went under and "turned into porpoises and sharks, and manta rays, and whales … and you" (p. 124). Sarah asks if this development, this "progress," is constructive. Charlie is unable to respond, but Nancy assures everyone that it is constructive, "because I couldn't bear to think of it otherwise" (p. 125).
Nancy goes on to explain that she values tools, art, and an awareness of mortality, and the discussion deepens. Charlie points out, rather harshly, that these things "separate us from the brute beast" (p. 126). He explains that the brute beast is "not even aware it's alive, much less that it's going to die" (p. 127). Here Albee is suggesting that this awareness, this crucial element of being a human instead of an animal, is also a source of human pain and perhaps of human accomplishment. With an impulse that is at once jealous, vindictive, and loving, Charlie is struck with a need to make the lizards humanly aware of life, human emotions and death. He says:
… I'm impatient for you. I want you to experience the whole thing! The full sweep! Maybe I envy you … down there, free from it all; down there with the beasts?
He tries to encourage Sarah toward an awareness of death, but in so doing, he makes her cry and he makes Leslie intensely angry. Sarah wails:
I want to go back; I don't want to stay here anymore. (Wailing) I want to go back] (Trying to break away) I want to go back!
This is one of the most striking moments of the play, as Albee sets forth the liability of being human, the deep sense of death and isolation that the human condition imposes.
Nancy, who has grown very close to Sarah, tries to comfort her. Charlie is very sorry for having caused her deep sorrow. Wildly angry, Leslie tries to choke Charlie to death for making Sarah cry. When Leslie states that "she's never done anything like that" (p. 130), Albee drives home his point that to have emotion, to cry, to learn about death, is to begin to be human. Nancy and Sarah exhort Leslie to stop choking Charlie, and finally he does, declaring that he and Sarah ought to return to the sea. The beasts resist Nancy's attempts to make them stay and, when Leslie touchingly puts out his paw to "shake hands," Charlie takes it. Nancy, in a final attempt to persuade them to stay, explains that although they may leave, they (i.e., the lower species) will have to come back some day. Then, as the confused lizards hesitate on top of the dune, Nancy and Charlie make the only meaningful effort that creatures can make to each other in the face of the void. They offer to help the lizards in their struggle to exist on this earth. Leslie, after descending a step down the dune and crouching, stands up straight and speaks the final line of the play: "All right. Begin" (p. 135). This is a highly affirmative conclusion to an essentially affirmative play, for Albee is suggesting that it is worthwhile to live upon this earth despite its troubles, its mysteries, and the imminence of death.
In Seascape, Albee has cast a broad, piercing light on the human condition. He has suggested that the human is but a step away from the simpler, lower animals, and that the simpler life—the life of the sea—is in many ways more attractive than life on this earth. The peace and beauty and mindless integration of the individual with nature is not to be found here. However, in the more complex human world, we have developed much that is artistically beautiful and technologically precise; such products have been the fruit of the developed human mind. More importantly, we have developed two principal capacities that distinguish us from animals: the ability to love and the awareness of death. The two capacities are interrelated, for human awareness of mortality draws us closer to our fellow creatures. Love, then, is our only weapon against the void.
Charlie and Nancy are in the process of confronting the void when we first encounter them in Act I. Basically, he wants to give up and rest; she wants to live actively. While we feel that Nancy's inclination is better because it is more in rune with human energy and natural optimism, Albee's purpose is not to tell us how to live. What he does show us, particularly in Act II, is that we are very deeply a part of—and a development from—the lower orders of nature (perhaps not comparatively so low after all). Therefore, we ought not to feel arrogant and emptily proud of our elevated station in the ongoing evolutionary process; rather, our part in the process should make us aware of our link with nature and give us a feeling of belonging to the world. But this feeling is not enough; to be human is to be separate, and this separateness is frightening. To confront this isolation, Albee contends, we have only human love. He demonstrates this by showing the great closeness of Nancy and Charlie in their most difficult moments, and the associated closeness of the humans for the lizards, from whom they do not wish to part at the conclusion.
Despite the heaviness and seriousness of Albee's concern, it is the catholicity of his vision and technique that really distinguishes this play. Albee shows himself open and sensitive to all facets of the human condition: the serious, the funny, the physical, the metaphysical, the actual, and the illusionary. All of his devices deserve commendation: his wit; the purity of his style, so maginificent in its captivation and alteration of normal speech; and his lizard fantasy, through which he reveals the human reality. The lizards are a bold theatrical stroke. Their appearance has dramatic power, and they serve, as does the isolated beach setting, to objectify the human condition and to bring us to a fundamental consideration of that condition; quite clearly, this is Albee's primary purpose.
Seascape is not only a remarkable aesthetic achievement, but it is also a highly affirmative statement on the human condition. Albee, an American writer, seems to have employed the techniques of the European playwrights Pinter and Beckett, and transformed them so that he could make a highly personal statement, one almost antithetical to their own. He seems to be saying that human life is worth living and that it is desirable to climb the evolutionary ladder in order to experience love, art, and the complexities of human interaction. It is desirable even if that means a certain loss of freedom, natural beauty, and the security possessed by the creatures of the sea. Albee has never made so affirmative a statement in his career; it is significant that Seascape should follow All Over, which dealt so heavily with death. With Seascape, Albee has, as if in a Lazarus-like rebirth of mind and spirit, magnificently affirmed life.
Entwining of the Strands
Of the five plays treated in this study, Seascape has the least intense atmosphere and relies the most on dialogue to move its action along. Additionally, despite its crucial surrealistic dimension, it is second only to [Robert Anderson's] Double Solitaire in being the most realistic. Indeed, it is the confrontation of committed realism and outlandish surrealism, a primary Absurdist tool, that accounts for the play's considerable dramatic appeal and theatrical significance.
The play's realism lies in the human characters, whose speech, behavior, ethos, and situation clearly distinguish them as upper middle-class Americans. With their fortune made and their children grown, Charlie and Nancy are alone together on an extended vacation for the first time since they were married. They have come to a secluded beach—during the play they speak of seeing only a few other people farther down the beach—and we encounter them lolling and chatting in the afternoon sun, disturbed periodically by a passing airplane.
Since there is minimal action and much dialogue during most of the first act, the focus is firmly fixed on what Charlie and Nancy say to each other. Again, the conversation is essentially realistic, although the spareness of the dialogue, the couple's naturalistic objectification of life experience, and certain pronounced thematic strains indicate that their seemingly idle conversation is hardly the exercise in pure realism that it seems to be. Yet the overall manner and matter of the couple's conversation is decidedly realistic, and their relationship makes for easy identification. As is natural for a couple who have spent a life together, they talk about their mutual past and their hopes and plans for the future. In fact, much of their conversation during the first act focuses upon what plans, if any, they ought to make for their twilight years. Although Charlie seems to be content just to rest, Nancy wants a life of endless roaming and beachcombing——some excitement and vital involvements to insure and preserve their own vitality.
The couple speaks also of the family they have raised, of the pyramidal structure of that family, and of the children's probable astonishment at Nancy's notion of endless beach-combing. They speak also of Charlie's boyhood habit of enjoying submersion and of the present task of writing postcards even though it is boring. During all this conversation there is the verisimilitude of a familiar mutuality of concerns, believable dissatisfactions, easy camaraderie, interpersonal sensitivity, and serious and comic moments that characterize the behavior of a loving couple after long years of common struggle, common striving, and innumerable experiences deeply shared.
Among the most serious topics discussed by the couple, still ostensibly realistic in their manner, are the matters of aging and death. Both Charlie and Nancy are concerned with the passage of time and both indicate a desire to find tangible proof of the significance of the lives they have led. Clearly life is ongoing, but the determination of their particular imprint and/or raison d'être is frighteningly and amazingly elusive. In effect, their fear of old age and their effort to find an effective means to confront or elude it is the major motif of the first act. The couple finds no effective source of consolation, and the passage-of-time motif recurs like a refrain.
Although the talk of aging and death, with its concomitant objectification of life experience, falls within the realm of realistic dialogue, such discussion (and the fears it indicates and produces) creates tension and introduces strains of hopelessness and vulnerability. Such negativism is given further emphasis by the openness and vastness of the setting, the limitless and consequently frightening sea, surf, and sky. Such an environment serves to engender a cosmic loneliness in Charlie and Nancy, which gives their conversation a particular pungency. Moreover, the peace and quiet of the isolated beach is periodically violated by the roar of a passing airplane, which recurs throughout the play. This interruption not only is intrusive to Charlie and Nancy, but also seems to threaten them, if not all living creatures.
The motif of comfortable, passive escape versus active escape, the discussion of old age and death, the boundless setting, the spareness of the language, and the incursions by the airplane in themselves intensify the action until it reaches the very limits of realistic acceptability; what drives us clearly out of the domain of the purely realistic and into the nightmarish world of the Absurd is the surrealistic appearance, at the the end of Act I, of Leslie and Sarah, two great, green, humanoid sea lizards.
The theatrical shock at Act I's conclusion diminishes some-what in Act II, when we learn that the lizards can communicate to the humans and do not intend harm. As the shock diminishes, the ensuing dialogue deepens our percep tion of realism versus surrealism; the conversation leads us to contemplate and explore the evolution of human life, the differences between human life and animal life, and, ultimately, the value amidst the pain of human life.
The essence of human life is subtly defined for us by Charlie and Nancy as they endeavor to explain various aspects of humanity to Leslie and Sarah. In a well-crafted, often comic series of comparisons and contrasts, Albee reveals both natural differences and ironic similarities between the two "species." Leslie and Sarah are husband and wife, and have a family, a history of biological attraction, a present mutual concern, a sense of pride, and a desire to learn and develop. The only real differences between the couples are in physical appearance; strength; the number of children each possesses; and the extent of technological, intellectual, and emotional development.
While the comparison produces much mirth and emphasizes and argues for a sense of wonder as one of the human being's greatest and most attractive capacities—the monsters become believable to us as well as to Charlie and Nancy—it also holds human life up to serious scrutiny. Furthermore, it produces a diminished sense of significance for Charlie and Nancy, inasmuch as they share so much with a lower species, and an even more trenchant sense that death and nothingness are a facet of both the human condition and the condition of all creatures. As with so many Absurdist plays, we do not know whether to laugh or cry as the amusing yet devastating interactional analysis between the couples proceeds.
Sarah, however, does know how to react; she begins to cry when Charlie explains to her what death is. This explanation and Sarah's raction to it constitute the play's climax, and it then moves swiftly towards its essentially, if ambivalently, affirmative denouement. When Sarah learns that death involves permanent loss of or separation from Leslie, the lizards hastily decide to return to the sea. But the humans (especially Nancy) convince them to stay. Nancy explains that evolution will send their species back anyway and that she and Charlie could, and would like to, help them make the evolutionary transition. Enticed by the logic of Nancy's assertion and the offer of assistance, the monsters decide to stay.
While this conclusion makes Seascape the most positive of all the plays discussed in this study, it is not entirely win-some. Just as Charlie and Nancy have had to confront the ineluctable contingency of their lives and the sense that humans are simply an ingredient in universal flux, so Leslie and Sarah agree, by staying, to enter into a condition that they already know to be dangerous. All four know that life is essentially an experiment that carries a high probability of pain, that ultimately ends in death, and that carries no certainty whatsoever as to the benefits of "progress," the entire evolutionary thrust.
In the first act, Albee leads us to contemplate what the human couple should do with their old age. At the end of that act and the beginning of Act II, he leads us to speculate what the monsters will do to the couple. Soon, however, the theatrical sensationalism of the monsters' appearance passes, and the monsters themselves become a vital ingredient in the dominant questions of the entire play (articulated only partially in Act I): what are the contours and what is the meaning of life itself?
Inasmuch as the couples share a closeness, there is vitalist (i.e., experiential, whether or not logically defensible) affirmation in the play; and the hope for a progressive development in nature is also affirmative. However, neither the camaraderie of the characters nor the possibilities of future development hold any real answers for any of the individuals. They are caught in time with death, and its concomitants of loss and separation, as their dominant individual and communal future prospects. Therefore, while Seascape is not as bleak in tone as the plays of Rabe, Guare, and Bullins, it does share their perception (as does the Absurdist theatre in general) that life requires human beings to face the void. Moreover, Seascape possesses many Absurdist features, including the fusion of comic and tragic elements, a certain circularity of plotline (tangentially Absurdist), and, of course, the dreamlike, intermittently nightmarish atmosphere that is highlighted by the stunning presence of Sarah and Leslie. Except for the monsters' behavior, the Absurdist elements of Seascape are more subtly intertwined than they are in the works of Rabe, Guare, or Bullins. In fact, the distortions inherent in many of Albee's Absurdist elements are recognizable only through objective analysis. Absorption of the monsters into a realistic framework at once enhances the realistic and surrealistic dimensions of the play. In Seascape, the models of realism and Absurdism appear like two hovering presences, essentially distinct yet capable of intertwining, disengaging, and intertwining once more. Seascape lacks a social protest dimension (except, perhaps, for a mild thrust at technology), and is clearly less realistic that Anderson's Double Solitaire, yet more realistic and, paradoxically, more fundamentally Absurdist than the works of Rabe, Guare, and Bullins.
1Harold Clurman, "Theatre," The Nation, 15 March 1975, p. 314.
2Mel Gussow, "Recalling Evolution of 'Seascape' Play, Albee Sees Tale Not of Lizard, but of Life," Th e New York Times, 21 January 1975, p. 40.
3Gussow, p. 40.
4T. E. Kalem, "Primordial Slime," Time, 10 February 1975, p. 57.
5Jack Kroll, "Leapin' Lizards," Newsweek, 10 February 1975, p. 75.
6Catharine Hughes, "Albee's Seascape," America, 22 February 1975, p. 136.
7Stanley Kauffmann, "Seascape," The New Republic, 22 February 1975, p. 22.
8Walter Kerr, "Albee's Unwritten Part," The New York Times, 2 February 1975, II, p. 5.
9Kalem, p. 57.
10Kroll, p. 75.
11Hughes, pp. 136-137.
12Kerr, p. 5.
13Brendan Gill, "Among the Dunes," The New Yorker, 3 February 1975, p. 75.
14Clive Barnes, "Albee's Seascape Is a Major Event," The New York Times, 27 January 1975, p. 20.
15Henry Hewes, "Albee Surfaces." Saturday Review, 8 March 1975, p. 40.
16Clurman, p. 314.
17"Albee: 'I Write to Unclutter My Mind,'" The New York Times, 26 January 1975, II, pp. 1,7.
18Gussow, p. 40.
19Barnes, p. 20.
20Mewes, p. 40.
21Gill, p. 75.
23"Marginalia: Albee Cited for 'Seascape,'" The New York Times, 25 December 1975, p. 27.
24Edward Albee, Seascape (New York: Atheneum, 1975). All pages cited are from this edition.
Liam O. Purdon (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "The Limits of Reason: Seascape as Psychic Metaphor," in Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, edited by Julian N. Wasserman, The University of St. Thomas, 1983, pp. 141-53.
[In the essay below, Purdon asserts that it is "… in Seascape that Albee provides one of his clearest attempts to render his own understanding of the human psyche into extended and concrete metaphorical form. "]
One of the most notable aspects of Edward Albee's drama has been his recurrent interest in theatre as a means for the revelation of psychological process, for by his own admission Albee has, as a writer, been most interested in capturing the unconscious rhythms of his onstage characters rather than their superficial mannerisms. Clearly, with their extensive speeches directed to multiple audiences and their diminished physical action, many of Albee's plays have as their focus the motivation behind action rather than action itself. Thus one finds that with increasing regularity Albee's work seems to include both discussions of and metaphors for the cognitive process, so that within his works virtually no explanation for human consciousness—ranging from the brief discussion of the physio-electrical basis of knowledge in Listening to the use of the phrenological model as a prop in the psychological allegory, Tiny Alice—is left unexplored. However, it is in Seascape that Albee provides one of his clearest attempts to render his own understanding of the human psyche into extended and concrete metaphorical form. While Tiny Alice, dubbed by its critics as "metafuzzical,"1 works as an abstract treatise on human psychology, Seascape functions in the tradition of the medieval morality play with its more clearly defined figures serving as emblems for the distinct parts of the human consciousness.
In rendering his own version of human psychological makeup, Albee clearly borrows from but does not conspicuously adhere to the traditional psychic zones of Freudian tripartation, for the playwright does metaphorically dramatize the tension between the forces, or principles, which pull man between his desire for reality (order) and pleasure (chaos).2 Indeed, the principal characters, Charlie and Nancy, call the audience's attention to what might be termed the American mid-life crisis: their children grown, Charlie feels that he has earned a little rest, while Nancy believes that they have earned a little life. Yet the conflict, if it may be called that, in the central characters' purposes takes on the proportions of crisis when, at the end of the first act, Charlie and Nancy encounter Albee's dramatically unique representation of the psychic energy of the unconscious: the saurian characters, Leslie and Sarah. As symbols of such psychic energy, the primordial lizard-creatures represent both the means and the opportunity for the central characters to act upon the conflicting desires which have been kept in balance until this moment of crisis. Thus, it is through the metaphorical confrontation between the dynamic principles for reality and pleasure with the unknown saurian creatures that Albee presents his allegory of the process of the regulation of that energy, a theme which comprises the didactic matter of the play.
As the play begins, Albee first introduces the audience to this metaphor of the psyche through the characters of Charlie and Nancy. They converse as might any couple on an outing to the seashore while the intrusive sound of a jet aircraft is heard overhead. But as their dialogue continues and transforms itself into an argument, the emphasis each places on his respective point of view illustrates the tension and perennial conflict between reason and desire. Each in turn becomes a spokesman for the reality and pleasure principles. Accordingly, Nancy, who believes they have "earned a little life,"3 argues inconsistently but passionately for the pursuit of unreproved pleasure, especially in the leisure activity of beachcombing, while Charlie, who remains circumspect and noticeably inhibited, argues for moderation and the acceptance of the status quo.
The revelation of the pleasure principle through the character of Nancy in Act I is developed several ways, the most noticeable of which appears in Albee's parenthetical stage directions. From the moment the curtain rises, Nancy demonstrates the full spectrum of human emotion: one moment she laughs and is gay; the next, she is sad and testy. She is enthusiastic, then taunting, and an instant later disappointed; one moment she is cheerful and matter-of-fact; the next, bitter and begrudging. Furthermore, Albee puts the intensity of Nancy's passion and her emotional capaciousness in relief by comparing it to Charlie's stolid indifference. Even Nancy's seemingly insignificant movements on stage—her several returns to the paint box, for example——assume functional meaning, especially as they occur while Charlie remains lying in the supine position for nearly half of the first act.
In her mercurial changes of temperament and restive actions, Nancy is the embodiment of what Sigmund Freud describes as the primordial life-principle which knows "no organization and unified will, only an impulsion to obtain satisfaction."4 Nancy is the very personification of inconsis-tent behavior bent on the fulfillment of appetitive desire. As such, she is the character with whom Albee associates the preparation of food. As the argument between Charlie and Nancy unfolds, it is Nancy and not Charlie who begins packing the lunch hamper. Later, as Charlie gropes for an explanation of the vision of the sea creatures and blames the whole experience on spoiled liver paste, Albee reveals that it was Nancy who had prepared the meal and chosen the fatal menu.
Yet Nancy embodies more than mere dietary appetite. In contrast to her husband, Nancy demonstrates an unrepressed appetite for the sensuous experience of nature. Arguing for a life spent by the seashore, she tells Charlie, "I love the water, and I love the air, and the sand and the dunes and the beach grass, and the sunshine on all of it and the white clouds way off, and the sunsets and the noise the shells make in the waves …" (p. 5). Such unabashed appreciation for the sensual naturally leads to the presentation of Nancy as a creature of sexual appetite as well. Recalling the vicissitudes of their earlier married life, Nancy, not Charlie, introduces, first, the subject of infidelity and, second, the subject of coital loneliness, a modification of the concept of La Petit Morte. While she reassures Charlie by confessing that she never succumbed to her passions and desires, Nancy does, nevertheless, reveal that earlier in her marriage she was obsessed with the idea of unrestrained sexuality for a short period of time:
Yes, but the mind. And what bothered me was not what you might be doing … but that, all of a sudden, I had not. Ever … All at once I thought: it was over between us … and I thought back to before I married you, and the boys I would have done it with, if I had been that type, the firm-fleshed boys I would have taken in my arms had it occurred to me. And I began to think of them, Proust running on, pink and ribbons, looking at your back, and your back would turn and it would be Johnny Smythe or the Devlin boy, or one of the others, and he would smile, reach out a hand, undo my ribbons, draw me close, ease on. Oh, that was a troubling time.
Yet the speech reveals more about Nancy than the nature of her sexual fantasies. While it portrays her as a creature of what Freud termed "impulsion," it shows that those natural impulses have been kept in check by external and, perhaps to Nancy, alien forces; the societal concept of "that type." Moreover, Nancy's reference to Proust is especially significant here since, within the context of the passage, it introduces the Proustian concept of absence, one of the most revealing of the 19th century literary representations of the primordial life principle of the Freudian "impulsion to obtain satisfaction." This view of love as a "subjective creation of imagination which cannot thrive in the presence of its object" explains the essential motivation behind her ephemeral infidelity.5
Albee completes the development of the metaphoric representation of the pleasure principle in the character of Nancy by illustrating telling idiosyncrasies of her behavior and qualifying the nature of her relationship with Charlie. Nancy, for example, is conspicuously and frequently ebullient, especially as she returns to her painting and tries to persuade Charlie "to unfetter" himself and "see everything twice" (p. 10). While originating in a natural desire, this ebullience, owing to its frequency, illustrates the frenetic condition of the "impulsion to satisfaction." Further, her thinking—often muddled and, as she herself points out, contradictory—degenerates frequently into emotionalism, which further illustrates the disorganized condition of desire. Likewise, her repeated demonstrations of peevishness—to which she, again, admits guilt as she states to Charlie almost perfunctorily, "I was being petulant" (p. 31)——reveal a disunified will. And her subordinate relationship to Charlie, which she acknowledges several times, also contributes to the metaphor of the pleasure principle in that it intimates the dynamics of mental process. This subservient status takes on significant meaning and even explains much of Nancy's argument when she begins to tell Charlie how she nearly became unfaithful and states, "The deeper your inertia went, the more I felt alive" (p. 21). As reason loses control of desire, the impulsion to satisfaction assumes a stronger vitality. Hence, Charlie's direct response shortly thereafter to Nancy's taunting—"You're not cruel by nature; it's not your way" (p. 17)—functions in a severalfold manner: it enables Charlie to gain the advantage in the argument, provides a statement of her character, and introduces for the audience, on the one hand, an illustration of the dynamic process by which one force keeps the other in check, and, on the other, a significant non-judgmental account of the nature of unrestrained fulfillment of satisfaction. The primordial life function is neither good nor bad; it is just the manifestation of tremendous vitality. As Freud points out: "Naturally, the id knows no values, no good and evil, no morality."6
As Albee uses the character of Nancy to illustrate the pleasure principle, so he likewise uses Charlie to embody the corresponding reality principle and its role of restraining, or counter-balancing, the uncontrolled impulses of the former. Thus, while Nancy refers to Proust, Charlie is through his own allusion associated with Anatole France, a figure noted for his rationalistic, dispassionate approach to art.7 While Nancy consistently reacts through the display of emotion, Charlie reacts through reason. Thus, Charlie's first reaction to the sight of Leslie and Sarah is to posit the "logical" explanation that he and Nancy have become victims of food poisoning, a logical if incorrect means of making the un-known and irrational fit neatly into the constructs of his own world. Thus, in Charlie one finds a man who finds it easier to yield up his own life, through the assumption of his own death, than to accept that which defies his own logic and experience. While Charlie first becomes distraught at the sight of the two reptilian creatures, he quickly gains control over his emotions, in contrast to Nancy, who is immediately attracted to the creatures precisely because they seem so alien and, hence, apart from ordinary, rational experience.
However, if Charlie and Nancy are so different in their initial responses to life in general and the sea-creatures in particular, it would be a mistake to conceive of their mid-life crisis as being analogous to that of the anonymous pair in Counting the Ways, whose lives are shown to have grown so separate and self-contained, for the point of conflict between Nancy and Charlie is the way in which their differently directed points of view act upon each other in order to create a workable psychological balance which allows them to function successfully in the world at large. Thus, Charlie and Nancy cannot ultimately be examined in isolation since both of their identities come from the continual tug-of-war between their conflicting desires, a conflict which results in their perpetual process of dynamic self-definition and their mutual dependency rather than separateness. One sees this self-defining tug-of-war in Nancy's attempt to convince Charlie to relive his boyhood experience of submerging himself in the ocean. Charlie points out to Nancy that as a child he enjoyed sensory delight and the condition of being submerged and contained in the water:
I used to go way down; at our summer place; a protective cove. The breakers would come in with a storm, or a high wind, but not usually. I used to go way down, and try to stay. I remember before that, when I was tiny, I would go to the swimming pool, at the shallow end, let out my breath and sit on the bottom … and when I was older, we were by the sea. Twelve; yes, or thirteen.
I used to lie on the warm boulders, strip off … learn about my body … And I would go into the water, take two stones, as large as I could manage, swim out a bit, tread, look up one final time at the sky … relax … begin to go down … just one more object come to the bottom, or living thing, part of the undulation and silence. It was very good.
Clearly, Charlie's description of this world of "undulation and silence" is one of a state of pre-consciousness, of the mind free and unrestricted by reason and, especially, social convention which restrains impulse. Nancy's prolonged insistence that Charlie attempt to re-enact what has become just a pleasant and remote memory is her attempt to convert Charlie into her own image by returning him to a type of prelapsarian state of consciousness. Significantly, Charlie's stern resistance to this letting go of the conscious world is rooted in his self-consciousness, his awareness of himself as an adult. As in the case of Nancy's early sexual urges, it is the category, or role, imposed from without which ultimately separates Charlie from the pleasures of his youth. For both Charlie and Nancy, then, the result of this verbal give and take concerning desire and restraint is a process of self-definition through assertion and defense of their own points of view as each tries to defend his own values while converting those of the other.8
Having established the tenuous balance between the two parts of the waking consciousness, Albee proceeds to examine and test that balance through the introduction of the two saurian creatures who have as their origin the hidden, subconscious world of "undulation and silence" described by Charlie much as the playwright does with Jerry's entrance into the well ordered, conventional world of Peter in The Zoo Story as well as in the unexpected appearance of Elizabeth in The Lady from Dubuque. If the appearance of the saurian creatures is intended as a litmus test of the central characters, the differences between Charlie and Nancy become apparent almost immediately. However, in order to understand these differences, it is important to recognize an important but subtle metamorphosis which occurs within the play. The first part of the play, the initial debate between Charlie and Nancy takes place in the realm of ordinary consciousness, the world of reason. It is a world in which Charlie, as a symbol of reason and convention, acts as indolent restraint on the more active pleasure principle. The interjection of reason into that world is symbolized by the intrusive sounds of jet aircraft into the naturalistic scenery of the first act. The jets, whose sounds are heard some four times within the first act, are representatives, par excellence, of controlling rationality—for they are non-natural machines created through reason in order to satisfy and, hence, channel the primordial, imaginative urge to fly.
With the appearance of Leslie and Sarah that world is transformed into a realm in which the laws no longer apply and where the non-rational is in control. In this made-over world, the jet airplanes, whose presence were so strongly and frequently felt in the first act, make only one brief appearance. The terror which they inspire in Leslie and Sarah as well as the discomfort they create for Nancy show just how alien such machines are to nature. Within this context even the "reasonable" Charlie doubts their worth—"They'll crash into the dunes one day; I don't know what good they do" (p. 111)—with the result that he repeatedly emphasizes their status as mere "machines" whose imitation of the flight of birds is as unsatisfactory and incomplete as he had earlier judged a parrot's unthinking mimicry of human speech to be. Thus the formerly lethargic Charlie becomes active and aggressive and has to be restrained by the previously restive Nancy. From the first appearance of the saurian creatures, Nancy has clearly been in control. She is the first to notice their approach. As she recalls her childhood desires, she sees Leslie and Sarah emerge from the water; as she and Charlie discuss the possibility of Charlie's submerging himself, she notices that the two visitors are lying prone on the beach; and as she almost cajoles Charlie into slipping into the water, she observes that she has lost track of Leslie and Sarah. Nancy is also the first to recognize the intrinsic beauty of the visitors, although, in keeping with the function of her characterization, she does not know why she finds them aesthetically pleasing. Thus, as Charlie recoils at the sight of Leslie and Sarah and assumes a defensive posture, Nancy almost dreamily responds to Charlie's commands, extolling Leslie's and Sarah's beauty, first, with "Charlie! They're magnificent!" (p. 44) and, later, with "Charlie, I think they're absolutely beautiful. What are they?" (p. 45).
Yet if Nancy is in her element, Charlie clearly is not. From the outset, the reason and restraint which he demonstrated in the first part of the play repeatedly fail him in his dealings with the saurian intruders. His rational explanation for the appearance of the creatures as a result of "bad liver paste" is painfully inadequate, even to the non-rational, intuitive Nancy. And with the movement into the non-rational world, the playwright's function becomes the demonstration of the failure of rationality in the face of the irrational. This is, of course, a familiar theme in many of Albee's works, such as A Delicate Balance and Tiny Alice, and is no doubt responsible for Albee's interest in and adaptation of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener."9 Thus, as reason breaks down, Albee proceeds to give the unconscious a conscious form just as, when the restraints of marriage weakened, Nancy found herself giving form to her fantasies of premarital encounters with young men. Yet what is unique about Seascape is that, while Leslie's and Sarah's appearance suggests promordiality, it is not their saurian physical natures but rather the lengthy and seemingly desultory conversations which they have with Charlie and Nancy that confirm their introduction as representations of psychic energy. On the one hand, these discussions reveal an absence of the laws of logic; on the other, they demonstrate a disregard for or ignorance of social convention, moral restraint, and cognitive awareness of the totality of being—in other words, the artificial restraints imposed from without upon the "impulsion to satisfaction." In this regard, Leslie and Sarah also provide a view of the source of aggression and desire, another principal aspect of libido.10
As the two couples encounter each other at the beginning of Act II, they reveal fear and a lack of trust. No sooner do they introduce themselves to each other than they begin a series of dialogues which, while intended to be informative, end in futility, without the exchange of any meaningful information. Significantly, the first of these dialogues concerns eating. Interestingly, it also introduces the correlative condition of the ignorance of social convention. Charlie points out to Leslie that he does not know Leslie's eating habits. He then adds that "It'd be perfectly normal to assume you … [that is, Leslie and Sarah] … ate whatever … you ran into … you know, whatever you ran into" (p. 65). Leslie's ingenious response—"No; I don't know" (p. 65)——reveals the weakness of Charlie's assumption. But the absurdity of the assumption is not exposed until Charlie, who is striving for a simple response to Leslie's initial inquiry regarding Nancy's and his disposition, states that he and Nancy do not eat "anything that talks; you know, English" (p. 66). Nancy at this turn in the dialogue points out that parrots do talk and that people eat parrots. This revelation not only emphasizes the illogic of Charlie's second generalization, which is reinforced by Leslie who asks, "What are you saying?" (p. 66) but also brings the dialogue to an abrupt halt, as Charlie attempts a restatement of his original assumption, saying "I'm trying to tell you … we don't eat our own kind" (p. 66). Charlie does not contradict himself, but his attempt to sustain his original assumption undermines itself and meaning vanishes.
Another exchange that brings to the fore the absence of logic appears shortly afterward as Nancy shows Sarah her breasts. As in the first case, this instance also provides another view of the ignorance of social convention on the parts of the saurian creatures. The passage in question begins with the discussion of the function of clothing, another artificial convention, but soon focuses on the subject of Nancy's breasts. While Nancy conducts herself in a straightforward manner and shows no shame in the hope of enlightening Leslie and Sarah who have never seen a mammalian breast, Charlie becomes irrational at the seeming breakdown of decorum. At first Charlie demonstrates a postlapsarian prudishness when he corrects Nancy, indicating that she should say "mammary" instead of "breast" (p. 75). Next, when Sarah ingenuously beckons Leslie to see Nancy's breasts, Charlie reveals possessiveness, stating that he does not want Leslie looking at Nancy's nakedness. But when Charlie is questioned by Nancy and Leslie as to the motivation for his possessiveness and Leslie states conditionally that he does not want to see Nancy's breasts, Charlie reverses his original attitude, defending and extolling the virtue and beauty of Nancy's anatomy: "They're not embarrassing; or sad! They're lovely! Some women … some women … Nancy's age, they're … some women … I love your breasts" (p. 77). While Charlie's about-face can certainly be viewed as a positive act of acceptance, it reveals the working of the emotional rather than the cognitive consciousness because it is predicated upon pride and follows a demonstration of repressive social behavior. It is no coincidence, then, that Albee includes in his stage directions for Charlie that he is "more flustered than angry" (p. 77). What Charlie achieves is what he needs to achieve; that he finally perceives beauty through the challenging of his possessive nature, however, demonstrates the absence of logic.
While several other instances of emotionalism and nonsequiturs appear in this act, the discussion of ontology provides the best example of the suspension of the laws of reason. In an effort to explain why they are dead, the absurdity of which cannot go unnoticed, Charlie tries to explain to Leslie that created reality is an illusion and that true existence comes about through thought. Instead of being logical, Charlie becomes flustered and angry, and the dialogue degenerates into an emotional bout which concludes ironically with Charlies losing control of himself, shouting the name of Descartes:
Leslie: Then I take it we don't exist.
Charlie: (Apologetic.) Probably not; I'm sorry.
Leslie: (TO Nancy.) That's quite a mind he's got there.
Nancy: (Grudgingly defending Charlie.) Well … he thinks things through. (Very cheerful.) As for me, I couldn't care less; I'm having far too interesting a time.
Sarah: (Gets on all fours.) Oh, I'm so glad!
Leslie: (Comes three steps down L. ridge. Puzzled.) I think I exist.
Charlie: (Shrugs.) Well, that's all that matters; it's the same thing. …
Leslie: What you said.
Charlie: (Barely in control.) descartes!! descartes!! i think: therefore i am! ! (Pause.) cogito ergo sum! i think: therefore i am. …
Leslie's comment that Charlie has "quite a mind" adds a further touch of irony, but it is Charlie's final comment concerning death as a release that confirms that logic has indeed failed. That Charlie beckons death by describing the final moments of life shows that he prefers the dissolution of life or existence and, in turn, the absence of reason. While the sound of an airplane flying overhead ends the discussion, the actual termination of the exchange of ideas, then, occurs in Charlie's demonstration of emotion. Even with the invocation of Descartes, the laws of logic remain absent.
The final fight or disagreement which draws the play to a close might also be viewed as another instance of the suspension of the laws of logic. Charlie's attempt to make Sarah cry is certainly irrational; this persistent taunting is clearly cruel. But the fight also introduces another view of the unconscious; it reveals an account of aggression. As Charlie forces Sarah to admit that she would cry her heart out if Leslie ever left her, Leslie grabs Charlie by the throat and slowly strangles him. Leslie's act of aggression is a demonstration of brute force, but as Leslie himself implies shortly afterward in the line "Don't you talk to me about brute beast" (p. 132), Charlie's remorseless questioning illustrates a verbal manifestation of the same act. Leslie's implication also clarifies Charlie's previous statements concerning Leslie and Sarah. When Charlie begins the confrontation which nearly leads to his own strangulation, he exclaims that he does not understand his own feelings toward Leslie and Sarah: "I don't know what more I want. (To Leslie and Sarah.) I don't know what I want for you. I don't know what I feel toward you; it's either love or loathing. Take your pick" (p. 128). While Charlie's ambivalence represents a lack of conscious control, the fact that he does describe his feelings toward Leslie and Sarah as being either of love or loathing represents an acknowledgement of Leslie and Sarah as being either the source of aggression or of desire.
Several other minor instances of aggression also arise in the second act, such as Charlie's continued taunting of Leslie and Sarah, but the one that brings the question of the unconscious clearly to the fore, like the fight in the conclusion, occurs when Charlie questions Sarah's fidelity. Charlie gets Sarah to admit that she has not "coupled" with anyone but Leslie; however, Leslie, who, like Nancy, is confused by the line of questioning, asks Charlie to state precisely what "are you after" (p. 128). When Charlie cannot and evades making an attempt at a conceptual understanding of his own purpose, a fight nearly breaks out—Nancy's and Sarah's joint intercession notwithstanding. The conflict which arises, then, results partly from Charlie's effrontery but mostly from a breakdown in communication. Ironically, it is Charlie, not Leslie, who is incapable of maintaining symbolic logic, although he blames Leslie for his own ineffectuality when he condescendingly adds, "Especially to someone who has no grasp of conceptual matters, who hasn't heard of half the words in the English language, who lives on the bottom of the sea and has green scales!" (p. 94).
This representation of aggression resulting from the absence of conceptual ability introduces a third way in which Albee creates the metaphor of uncontrolled psychic energy. Throughout the second act, he calls attention to the need for and the absence of a cognitive awareness of the totality of being. The latter obviously appears in all of the instances of aggression and lack of logic that appear from the moment the second act begins. The former, on the other hand, appears twice: first, early in the act, as Charlie and Leslie enter into a discussion of anatomical differences and, second, as Nancy and Charlie later attempt to explain and define the concept of emotion for Leslie and Sarah. In the discussion of the anatomical differences, Leslie and Sarah learn the distinctions between toes and fingers, arms and legs. This knowledge then leads them to an understanding of the social convention of hand-shaking, which they perform enthusiastically. While the information allows Leslie and Sarah to experience something they have never known, the significance of the event lies in the fact that it represents the beginning of the fusion of the conscious, embodied by Nancy and Charlie, and the unconscious self, embodied by Leslie and Sarah. In the later discussions of emotion, the same thing happens but to a greater degree. As Nancy and Charlie explain the nature of emotion to Leslie and Sarah, not only do the two couples gradually overcome the differences that separate them, but each couple also gains its own emotional equilibrium. Charlie and Nancy work out the doubts that each has felt toward the other; Leslie and Sarah learn what love is. Furthermore, through the delineation of emotion and the attainment of the awareness of social convention, Nancy and Charlie discover the means by which to keep Leslie and Sarah from retreating to the sea. Thus, as Albee indicates in the conclusion, it is through the understanding of the physical that one begins to perceive the totality of his being, but it is through the examination of the emotions, difficult as it may be, that one attains the totality of being.
Seascape, then, is much more than a fantastic dramatic experience. Like many of Albee's other plays, it is a romance. It provides a view of order in the presentation of the metaphoric representations of the reality and pleasure principles and a dissolution of that order in the symbolic representation of psychic energy. Like all romances, it possesses an essentially comic structure and so offers a resolution to the dissolution. Symbolically, that resolution appears in the form of a handshake. But as the conclusion to the second act demonstrates, the means by which order is reestablished is through the maintaining of contact with and the understanding of the subconscious: hence, the function of Nancy's unremitting insistence in the closing moments of the play that Leslie and Sarah not leave. To attain consciousness, as Albee indicates, one must be willing to enter the seascape, or Charlie's "protected cove," where land and sea—consciousness and the unconscious—meet and learn to accept the meaning of the experience. In that sense, Seascape, with its face-to-face confrontation between its creatures of the land and the sea, is not the flawed tale of unanswered evolutionary questions often described by critics11 but is, instead, an optimistic blueprint for the development of a higher consciousness, for in Albee's mind evolution is clearly a matter of consciousness rather than form.
1John Chapman, "Revival of Tiny Alice: Still a Metafuzzical Bore," New York Daily News (NYDN), 30 September 1969, contained in New York Theatre Critic Reviews (NYTCR), 1969, p. 256.
2For a brief discussion of these two principles, see Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, trans, by Joan Riveire (New York: Garden City, 1943), pp. 311-2.
3Edward Albee, Seascape (New York: Antheneum, 1975), p. 37. All future page references appear in the text.
4Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans, by W. J. H. Sprott (New York: Norton, 1933), pp. 102ff.
5Geoffrey Brereton, A Short History of French Literature (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1968), p. 243.
6Freud (Sprott), p. 105.
7Brereton, p. 232.
8In this, Charlie and Nancy are much like George and Martha of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Like Charlie and Leslie, George and Martha seem to embody dispassionate intellect and unrestrained sexuality locked in perpetual, self-defining battle. As becomes apparent at the end of the play, their verbal battles are not symptoms of the breaking apart of their marriage but, rather, the dynamic force which binds the two differently directed individuals together: hence, Martha's vigorous defense of George at the play's end. For a discussion of similarities between Virginia Woolf and Seascape, see Howard Kissel, "Seascape," Women's Wear Daily, 27 January 1975, reprinted in NYTCR, 1975, p. 370.
9Albee completed an unpublished libretto adaptation of Melville's short story in 1961.
10Freud (Sprott), pp. 140ff.
11See Edwin Wilson, "Disturbing Creatures of the Deep," Wall Street Journal, 28 January 1975, reprinted in NYTCR, 1975, p. 370. For the view that the play ends optimistically, see Henry Hewes, "Theatre," Saturday Review, 8 March 1975, p. 40, as well as Sam Coale, "The Visions of Edward Albee," Providence Journal, 28 December 1975. Reprinted in Newsbank (Literature) (Nov.-Dec, 1975), p. A3, and Clive Barnes, "Albee's Seascape is a Major Event," New York Times, 27 January 1975 reprinted in NYTCR, 1975, p. 368.
Gerry McCarthy (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: "Seascape," in Modern Dramatists: Edward Albee, St. Martin's Press, 1987, pp. 115-28.
[In the essay below, McCarthy asserts that in Seascape, "Albee escapes the particular social contexts within which he normally writes in order to consider in a fundamental way the phenomenon we know as life and experience personally as existence."]
Long before the first performance of Seascape Albee teased his questioners over what it would contain. 'I'm moving from writing about people to writing about animals', he declared, and later described the play as a 'true to life story'. His audience could hardly have been prepared for the play they attended in January 1975. Many of the Albee ingredients are there. There is the married couple face to face with the problems of what is reality in their lives, and there is the intrusion of a second couple to create the quartet for which he writes so fluently.
When the setting is a holiday beach, and the atmosphere is one of love and seductive contentment, the scene seems strangely anodyne; but, when the crisis is provoked by two giant humanoid lizards crawling up from the primeval depths of the sea, then the result is something quite new. When he says that he is writing about animals Albee is teasing, but at the same time that is precisely what he is doing. Commentators who obstinately concentrate on the familial struggles in his plays ignore the fact that he writes in a wider context: a society, a way of life, even a species. Seascape is an important development in this process in that it treats the question of the future of the species.
It appears in the opening seconds of the play in a purely theatrical image that includes the seeds of much of what follows:
The curtain rises. NANCY and CHARLIE on a sand dune. Bright sun. They are dressed informally. There is a blanket and a picnic basket. Lunch is done; NANCY is finishing putting things away. There is a pause and then a jet plane is heard from stage right to stage left—growing, becoming deafeningly loud, diminishing.
Nancy: Such noise they make.
Charlie: They'll crash into the dunes one day. I don't know what good they do.
Nancy: (looks toward the ocean; sighs): Still … Oh, Charlie, it's so nice! Can't we stay here forever? Please!
There is the hint of apocalypse in Charlie's resentment of the noise and a yearning for a truer life in Nancy's delighted fascination with the seascape. (The same sort of combination of images is found in Elizabeth's dream of the holocaust in the final moments of The Lady from Dubuque.) From time to time the sound of the plane returns to over-shadow the events of the play, as they bring into perspective a view of life which Albee has not developed elsewhere on such a scale. There are suggestions of the dimensions to life as early as The Zoo Story, when Jerry explains that, to break out of isolation, some contact must be found:
it's just that if you can't deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere, WITH ANIMALS.
(Much faster now and like a conspirator) Don't you see? A person has to have some way of dealing with some-thing …
In Seascape Albee escapes the particular social contexts within which he normally writes in order to consider in a fundamental way the phenomenon we know as life and experience personally as existence.
The action of Seascape is elegantly simple. Nancy and Charlie are a warm, affectionate couple now entering their retirement. As they picnic by the seaside Nancy enthuses about the natural life around, and, wishing it were possible, innocently suggests that they should live always like this. Beside the sea. Always moving on in the sun.
One great seashore after another; the pounding waves and quiet coves; white sand, and red and black, some-where, I remember reading; palms, and pine trees, cliffs and reefs, and miles of jungle, sand dunes …
Nancy: … and all the people! Every language … every … race.
Charlie's refusal to consider Nancy's eccentric fancies is a contrast to the recollection she elicits from him that when he was a child he loved to escape down into the sea. Unlike his friends, who dreamed (significantly) of flight, he imagined himself 'a regular fish … fishlike arms and legs and everything, but able to go under'. As the couple reflect on their past life, including its moments of tension, a picture emerges of their fidelity and warm interdependence. The conflict appears now at the point where the children are grown—'nicely settled … to all appearances'—and the next generation has begun. Having done what they 'ought to do', they are at the point where they have new choices. As Nancy puts it, 'now we've got each other and some time, and all you want to do is become a vegetable'.
With the appearance of the two talking reptiles Sarah and Leslie, there is a more urgent confrontation. There is the threat of violence as the males face one another, but this gives way to the struggle they experience in explaining and, inevitably, evaluating what their lives are like. The climax of the play is produced as Charlie tries to explain how the four of them are part of a process of evolution. As he and Nancy attempt to explain the concept to their new friends, the images of life on land and in the sea are drawn together, and the truth emerges that what they are all involved in together is the progress of life. Charlie is moved, much to Nancy's wonder, from his inertia of the opening of the play to a demand that Sarah and Leslie accept emotion—which is expressed in the play as a feeling for the life in you. As the quartet weathers the storm of mis new emotion, the sea creatures are persuaded to stay and adapt to the new life they have encountered and help the unfamiliar creatures they recognise as their fellows.
Very often there is a distinct reminiscence of All Over, suggesting an alternative presentation of similar material. In All Over the family appeared synonymous with sterility and failure. This is reversed in Seascape. Nancy plays with the engaging image of the pyramid of succeeding generations. They have succeeded but she knows the risks:
everybody builds his own, starts fresh, starts up in the air, builds the base around him. Such levitation! Our own have started theirs! …
… Or maybe it's the most … difficult, the most … breathtaking of all: the whole tiling balanced on one point; a reversed pyramid, always in danger of toppling over when people don't behave themselves.
Nancy has lived her life looking forward. From the earliest days she wanted to be a woman: she wanted to grow up, un-like the Wife, who felt twelve years old when her husband came to her. There are two different values to the security the women see in their husbands: in All Over it is a security which involves an abdication in the face of life: in Seascape it is a progressive building, aware of the dangers but full of love and compassion.
The dangers are visible in the story of Charlie's seven months of depression, an episode which Albee invests with a particular richness of expression. At the heart of it is the idea of life as involving choice. The narration includes the choices that might have been: if Charlie had been unfaithful, if she had known other lovers; the consequences are worked out in the speech. Despite the fact that it all was not, Nancy learned and grew. 'The deeper your inertia went, the more I felt alive', says Nancy, and over the span of the narration the feeling for life is translated into the understanding present in a mature, even weatherbeaten, relationship. She recalls her mother's advice ('wise woman') and the stages of compassion: experiencing her own loneliness, and understanding his.
The picture is very much that of the Mistress in All Over and her compassion for her lover in, for instance, his loneliness on being separated from his family. Even the precision of language in the two characters is similar. Like the Mistress, Nancy insists on the importance of the tense of a verb: 'Am not having? Am not having a good life? … I know the language, and I know you. You're not careless witii it, or didn't used to be.'
In Seascape Albee writes with energy about the potential there is in life, which largely he invests in the role of Nancy. Against this comes intermittent resistance in the character of Charlie. In much of the action of the first act there is a contest between Charlie's theme—'Well, we've earned a little rest'—and Nancy's determination to avoid the 'purgatory before the purgatory': 'I haven't come this long way … Nor have you! Not this long way to let loose. All the wisdom—by accident, some of it—all the wisdom and the … unfettering.'
Albee finds the everyday phrase and exploits its deeper meaning. Charlie is 'happy … doing … nothing'. He spells out his conviction and the dramatist anatomises it in a 'testy' exchange between the two. As Nancy 'busily' tidies up and Charlie refuses to move, she challenges the absurdity of giving up on life:
We are not going to be around forever, Charlie, and you may not do nothing. If you don't want to do what I want to do—which doesn't matter—then we will do what you want to do, but we will not do nothing. We will do something.
There is a delightful comedy to this combination of the philosophical and the domestic, and it sets the tone for the play as a whole. In all his work Albee shows a fine inteligence, and the comic viewpoint is rarely far off. It is, however, rare to find the humour that there is in Seascape: a fundamentally positive sense of life which, together with the compassion Albee always exhibits, makes Seascape an exceptional piece of work.
The comedy gathers momentum with the appearance of the sea creatures and so too does the density of thought which is worked into the play. Albee manages a sustained flow of questions about social and individual existence through the agency of his monsters. Initially Charlie refuses to believe what his eyes tell him. The answer to these 'wonders'—and in his direction of the original production Albee required that they really be quite frightening—is characteristically to choose to believe in death:
We ate the liver paste and we died. That drowsy feeling … the sun … and the wine … none of it: all those night thoughts of what it would be like, the sudden scalding in the centre of the chest, or wasting away; milk in the eyes, voices from the other room; none of it. Chew your warm sandwich, wash it down, lie back, and let the poison have its way …
Nancy's reaction is to instruct Charlie to roll over like an animal and adopt a submission pose. Natural enough in the meeting of two sort of animals. Albee bridges his acts with this image of the lizards and the submitting humans, and it is a delightful piece of theatrical fun. Especially when the newcomers, who are reflections of the first couple, open the second act with a somewhat disdainful discussion of the panic they have provoked: 'Well … they don't look very formidable—in the sense of prepossessing. Not young. They've got their teeth bared, but they don't look as if they are going to bite. Their hide is funny—feels soft.'
What follows is a true comedy of manners. Charlie and Nancy have to negotiate every step of the way their exchanges with these imagined representatives of another line of evolution.
Sarah: This is Leslie.
Nancy (extending her hand): How do you do, Leslie?
Leslie (regards her gesture): What is that?
Nancy: Oh; we … well, we shake hands … flippers, uh … Charlie?
Sarah is delighted to learn of the gesture, whereas Leslie, who adopts Charlie's brand of negative rationalism, is un-convinced and wishes to know why it is done. When Charlie, progressively more involved, explains the significance of the proffered right hand, Leslie is equally defensive in his manner:
it used to be to prove nobody had a weapon, to prove they were friendly.
Leslie (after a bit): We're ambidextrous.
Charlie (rather miffed): Well, that's nice for you. Very nice.
The essence of the comedy lies in the wonder that each couple presents for the other, and in the parallelism that Albee devises to show up inflexibility, particularly of the males' position. In the females there is a parallel sense of wonder but an eager curiosity about what the new encounter may contain. Clothing and 'decency', for example, are concepts the scaly newcomers require to be defined, and Albee's idea drives a neat wedge between the human couple. The effect is to make comedy out of social manners but also to suggest the gradual awakening of Charlie from his somnolent attitudes to his wife and his life in general. Nancy teaches by the direct method and invites Sarah to see her breasts. To Charlie's great dismay Sarah, full of wonder and excitement, calls her mate Leslie to see. When Charlie objects, Leslie adopts a suitable nonchalance:
It's up to you; I mean, if they're something you hide, then may be they're embarrassing, or sad, and I shouldn't want to see them, and …
Charlie (more flustered than angry): They're not embarrassing; or sad; They're lovely! Some women … some women Nancy's age, they're … some women …
(To Nancy, almost spontaneously bursting into tears) I love your breasts.
With great skill Albee contrives a debate to combine the sharply differentiated reactions and characteristics in the four roles and a shifting discussion of various aspects of the new experience that the characters are called on to live. The subjects include marriage customs, flight and aerodynamics, child-bearing and rearing, and racialism. Albee establishes some hold over the form of the act by centring the conflicts in Charlie's progressive involvement. He makes one retreat into the negative rationalism he shares with Leslie when he staunchly reaffirms in the face of the facts that they are dead. Nancy explains
I mean, we have to be dead, because Charlie has decided that the wonders do not occur; that what we have not known does not exist; that what we cannot fathom cannot be; that the miracles, if you will, are bedtime stories; he has taken the leap of faith, from agnostic to atheist; the world is flat; the sun and the planets revolve around it, and don't row out too far or you'll fall off.
This prompts a most elegantly ridiculous routine as Leslie the lizard engages Charlie in a discussion of the nature of existence and the theories of Descartes
Leslie: Then I take it we don't exist.
Charlie (apologetic): Probably not; I'm sorry.
Leslie (to Nancy): That's quite a mind he's got there.
Leslie (to Charlie): You mean it's all an illusion?
Charlie: Could be.
Leslie: The whole thing? Existence?
Leslie (sitting down with CHARLIE): I don't believe that at all.
Like meets like in the encounter and Leslie's dogged pursuit of the discussions runs into Charlie's hysterical rage as he has to explain Descartes's Cogito.
Charlie is reassured of the physical fact of his existence by a particularly lengthy and passionate embrace from Nancy, and this, together with the lizards' panic at another passing jet, brings him finally face to face with the 'wonders'. Albee gives the stage direction 'Awe' at this point.
The creatures can be seen as a threat but they are an aspect of the wonder of life. They are animals with whom Charlie shares life and with whom he can make a society. Albee consolidates the shift in the role with Nancy's proud revelation to her new companions that there was a time when Charlie escaped from the world 'up here' by diving down to the bottom of the sea—unlike his fellows who wished to take to the air and, implicitly, join the noise of the jets. Charlie is uneasy at the reminder of his childhood curiosity: 'It was just a game; it was enough for a twelve-year-old, maybe, but it wasn't … finding out, you know; it wasn't real.' Yet the arrival above water of Leslie and Sarah is the parallel to the childhood Charlie. They are looking for somewhere to belong, despite the former ease of their everyday existence.
As Charlie finally emerges from his inertia, he discovers again the wonder of life and its sense of purpose and development. In his lengthy discussion of evolution the boundary between sea and air becomes a focus: 'What do they call it … the primordial soup? the glop? the heart-breaking second when it all got together, the sugars and the acids and the ultra-violets and the next thing you knew there were tangerines and string quartets.' Charlie explains to them all that they are part of the same wonderful process of life: 'there was a time when we were all down there, crawling around, and swimming and carrying on—remember how we read about it, Nancy …
The sea-land exchange is crucial to Charlie's realisation that the four of them are united in all the implications of evolution from the 'aminos to the treble clef.
And do you know what happened once? Kind of the crowning moment of it all for me? It was when some … slimy creature poked its head out of the muck, looked around and decided to spend some time up here … came up into the air and decided to stay? And as time went on, he split apart and evolved and became tigers and gazelles and porcupines and Nancy here
Leslie (annoyed): I don't believe a word of this!
Charlie: Oh, you'd better, for he went back under, too; part of what he became didn't fancy it up on land, and went back down there, and turned into porpoises and sharks and manta rays, and whales … and you.
Charlie's vision includes them all as part of life and evolution. What is now vital is to know in what direction it is all going. Like the mirror couple they are, Leslie and Sarah react in opposite directions. Sarah asks if it is all for the better, Leslie tells her not to be 'taken in'. By the end of the play Albee has revolutionised the situation at the outset. Faced with a carbon copy of his own and Nancy's attitudes, Charlie crusades to convince the neophytes of the possibilities that lie before them: 'What are you going to tell me about? Slaughter and pointlessness? Come on up here. Stay.;
Albee doesn't sentimentalise the play at this late point; the role of Charlie is to remain sceptical, Nancy hopeful, but the alteration is into awareness and commitment. The man has been stung into life by the conflict with the inhabitants of the sea he loved as a child. His sense of wonder is once more awakened. The ultimate development of this is in terms of the tensions which the theatre can produce. Albee shifts the conflict to the plane of emotions. The translation is apt in ideological terms. The commitment to life can only be achieved by the recognition of the emotions which are proof of one's reaction to existence. Charlie provokes a final confrontation as he makes Sarah weep at the suggested loss of Leslie, and Leslie in his turn react violently in defence of his mate. Charlie's motives are stated clearly for the audience to understand:
(To Leslie and Sarah) I don't know what I want for you. I don't know what I feel toward you; it's either love or loathing. Take your pick; they're both emotions. And you're finding out about them, aren't you? About emotions? Well, I want you to know about all of it; I'm impatient for you, I want you to experience the whole thing! The full sweep!
As it stands, the play is concluded with the sea creatures coming to the arduous decision that they will stay on land when the painfulness of the experience they have been through seems too threatening. The final gestures of the play are touching but finally quite unsentimental as the quartet recognise in each other a necessary confrontation with life and the need to live. It is a choice that can be faced with, literally and figuratively, a helping hand. Hands and foot-paws are extended in the closing moments of the play. This conclusion contains the elements which resolve the questions and the experiences of the play, but nevertheless this work remains Albee's Unfinished Symphony. He has made it clear that there is a third act, which will complete the form of the play. As it stands, the play may seem slightly unbalanced, as the emphasis of discovery has shifted to the sea couple, and the ideas of wonder which are so joyously exposed in Nancy's speeches at the outset are overtaken by the development of relationships between the members of the oddly assorted quartet. This does work as a resolution of the action, for what is clearly and warmly felt by the audience is the primacy of life and genuine emotion in the play. However, one cannot help hoping that Albee will keep his promise to restore the final act, in which the positions are reserved and the human couple take up the theme of Charlie's childhood dreams and descend beneath the waves to discover life as something totally new, strange and fabulous.
The decision to shorten the play and abandon the third act indicates in part Albee's desire to keep its effect fully under control. The final act would have depended upon a theatrical dissolve into the underwater scene, which would have been very demanding technically but also visually stunning. The spectacle of the lizards would have gone much further, with submarine encounters with sea creatures, including a fight with an octopus. (In this Leslie would have rescued Nancy but Sarah would have died in coming to Nancy's assistance.) The scenic effects in the unpublished third act show, like Tiny Alice, Albee's power of imagination, and it is revealing that he should have decided to cut the fantastic episide which was to conclude the play.
At a certain moment part of the play took place at the bottom of the sea. This was not necessary, it was too fantastic, and it was very difficult to realise a changeable set. Finally it was becoming a play centred on set changes.1
Albee's distrust of the merely decorative style of theatre against which he has struggled so energetically is revealed in this decision, and it supports the impression given by the present text of a play, which aims at a high degree of internal relevance and organisation of ideas and events. The extrapolation of the action into the third-act adventure would have been a justifiable pleasure for Albee to give himself as a writer. However, he has left the play now as a balance of the actual and the imagined in which the future is left to the audience and its reflection. The play therefore ends with an invitation: 'All right. Let's begin!' It is the positive image of the negative supplied in All Over, the companion play. That concludes with the end of a life and the eclipse of the possibility of change: 'All Over'.
lNew York Times, 21 Jan 1975.
Matthew C. Roudané (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: "Death and Life: Seascape," in Understanding Edward Albee, University of South Carolina Press, 1987, pp. 131-51.
[The essay below examines Albee's "persistent concern with dramatizing what may occur if the human spirit withers. " The critic further asserts that in Seascape, "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. "]
Albee's theater challenges those who, as the playwright has said, "turn off" to the complex business of living, who "don't stay fully awake" in relationships, who for various reasons choose not to immerse themselves in an "absolutely full, dangerous participation" in experience.1Seascape once again reflects those thematic concerns to which Albee continually gravitates. In Seascape he explores three interwoven forces: animal nature, as imaged by the sea lizards Sarah and Leslie; human nature, as reflected by Nancy and Charlie; and the kind of existentialist imperative forged by the curious intermixing of the animal world with the human world. The audience discovers Albee's response to the fact that so many people turn off. Originally titled Life, the play reconfirms Albee's ongoing battle to stage the various kinds of ethical problems with which his heroes struggle, whether they know it or not—or even care to know.2
The design of Seascape seems simple enough. Nancy and Charlie are vacationing at the beach, where they have finished a picnic. They are relaxing, reminiscing, figuring out what they will do with their lives now that their children are grown and their own years are numbered. They give voice to different selves and motivations, but during their encounter with the sea lizards their purposes ultimately unite, fixing on a shared consciousness concerning, to go back to Jerry's words in The Zoo Story, "the way people exist with animals, and the way animals exist with each other, and with people too."3 Their new-tempered awareness, as seen throughout the Albee canon, objectifies Albee's central concern.
Charlie contends that they have "earned a little" rest from the hectic business of living.4 Nancy, however, rejects this notion. In spite of their successful marriage Charlie and Nancy, currently on the threshold of beginning a new life——retirement—disagree on the way in which they will live out their remaining years. As in so many of his earlier plays Albee again joins opposites as a method of producing dramatic tension. Charlie is passive and inert, Nancy active and alive. Charlie elects withdrawal, while Nancy seeks engagement. He resists, she persists. She acts as a kind of benevolent instructor, he as the indifferent student. Charlie is tired of living, seems bereft of emotion, while Nancy is eager to investigate new terrain, willingly embracing change. Both clearly want to relax, but their interpretations of relaxation clash. Nancy craves to use their new free time by traveling along the world's shoreline as "seaside nomads" (5), exploring the wondrous sights of the earth. For Nancy life becomes meaningful when one lives it. She may have, in her older age, slight physical handicaps, but she does not suffer from the disabling psychological wounds that paralyze so many Albee protagonists. Albee shows her exuberance, enthusiasm, and spiritual vitality:
I love the water, and I love the air, and the sand and the dunes and the beach grass, and the sunshine on all of it and the white clouds way off, and the sunsets and the noise that shells make in the waves and, oh, I love every bit of it, Charlie.
The first act presents Nancy's optimistic stance toward living, as the tonal quality of her language suggests. Unlike the tonal quality of language in, say, Counting the Ways and Listening, which seems so tortured that the act of viewing or reading often becomes difficult, the language in Seascape emanates a lighthearted, humorous quality. Nancy voices this quality. For example, as her rapture with travel dreams continues, she exclaims to her lethargic husband, "My God, Charlie: See Everything Twice!" (10). Albee's thematic point centers on portraying a wife concerned with her husband, with loving attempts to revitalize his spirit.
Charlie resists. He has "to be pushed into everything" (7) because, as he informs Nancy, "I don't want to travel from beach to beach, cliff to sand dune, see the races, count the flies" (8). Retirement for Charlie means he can rest—and do nothing. He seems in many ways reminiscent of Peter in The Zoo Story, Daddy in The American Dream, Tobias in A Delicate Balance, and the Son in All Over, for Charlie also elects to withdraw from authentic engagement: "I'm happy … doing … nothing" (8). More than retiring from work, Albee suggests, Charlie is retiring from life itself, his spiritual laziness a willful surrendering of self-freedom.
Charlie defends his position. Claiming that Nancy's adventuresomeness would lead to "some … illusion" (38), he believes that "there's comfort in settling in" to doing nothing (39). After all, Charlie argues, "I have been a good husband to you" (31), and this is apparently true. He courted and loved Nancy, and fathered her children—just as she desired. By all accounts he has been faithful and forthright, the dependable provider and parent. From his point of view, Charlie has earned the right to do nothing. For him the choice to withdraw suggests that the whole affair of traveling, of being alive like Nancy, is too bothersome. If in functioning in a middle-class society, if in his efforts to uphold appearances, Charlie's vitality has diminished, it has clearly been his own conscious choice.
His attitude disturbs Nancy. They have not earned a little rest but, counters Nancy, "We've earned a little life, if you ask me" (37). She appears determined to begin anew, in qualitative terms, their life together. Nancy advocates what for the author is an important existentialist tenet when voicing her desire to experience life as fully as possible. Specifically she is aware of the finiteness of their existences: "We are not going to be around forever, Charlie, and you may not do nothing" (9). Nancy's zest for living, her impulse to respond, may remind the audience of Henry James's Lambert Strether, who, in The Ambassadors, confides to Bilham: "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had?"5 Like Strether, Nancy feels her old age on a physical level but refuses to capitulate on a spiritual level; she too wishes to "live all you can." Because of her insight Nancy appears objectively open toward experience, and will try anything, as long as they "do something" (9). Her zest for living takes on a larger, more compelling dimension because her stance is not a product of philosophic intellection but emerges from the concreteness of her conviction to experience fully her surrounding. Even years ago when, just married, Charlie slipped into a period of psychological withdrawal from both Nancy and life itself (his "seven-month decline"), Nancy felt a driving impulse to live. As she said, "The deeper your inertia went, the more I felt alive" (21).
Albee dramatizes Nancy's passion for life throughout the play. This is comically as well as seriously presented when Nancy catches Charlie speaking of their relationship in the past tense. Nancy ardently believes that they are having "a good life," not that, as Charlie sometimes states, they have "had a good life" (34). For Nancy and Albee alike, it is more than semantic nitpicking. Rather, it points to a whole way of being. Charlie rationalizes, perhaps convincingly, that "it's a way of speaking!" but Nancy objects: "No! It's a way of thinking!" (35). Nancy exclaims that they now have "two things!" (36) left, namely, "ourselves and some time" (37). Aware of the significance and precariousness of these two precious elements—the self and time—Nancy squares her hopes on experiencing qualitatively the world external to her self. She appears innately opposed to the Tobias-like acquiescence that can neutralize the individual's impulse to live.
In the midst of their conversation during the waning moments of act 1 Nancy and Charlie encounter the two anthropomorphic, green-scaled sea lizards, Sarah and Leslie. At this point Albee begins accentuating Nancy's and Charlie's differing attitudes toward experience. He objectifies this difference by the couple's initial reaction to the sea lizards: Charlie panics, Nancy beckons. While he issues a call to arms—and brandishes a feeble stick—she gazes at the two creatures in awe, saying "They're magnificent!" (44). As the two imposing, curious sea lizards approach, Nancy takes peaceful command, assuming a submissive pose. Finally Charlie takes heed, holding his fright in check.
What follows, as in so many Albee plays, is the interacting of two distinct yet clearly related worlds—here represented by the human world and the animal world. The reader or viewer has witnessed this technique of joining two contrast ing worlds before in the encounter of Peter and Jerry in The Zoo Story; in the contrast of Grandma's earlier values versus the newer values of Mommy and Daddy in The Sandbox and The American Dream; and in the meeting of the secular and the religious in Tiny Alice. In Seascape the yoking together of the human world and the sea lizard world provides a clear definition of Albee's thematic interest: that love and sharing and awareness are all necessary forces, forces to be integrated into one's inner reality if one is to live life honestly. But unlike some of Albee's earlier works, especially All Over, Seascape emphasizes the presence of love and sharing and awareness. In Seascape the bringing together of opposites—humans and sea lizards—does not produce illusions, deceit, or hatred. And it does not produce a Pyrrhic victory in which consciousness is gained, but with such terrible losses—alienation, suicide, murder, death— that the value seems dubious. Rather, the joining of Nancy and Charlie's world with that of Sarah and Leslie generates understanding, education, sharing, and love, perhaps at the cost of merely two bruised male egos.
Act 2 embodies the education of the characters. It starts simply enough, with Leslie and Sarah asking a barrage of questions ranging from the banal to the profound. As Charlie's fear and Nancy's confusion wear away, as Leslie's skepticism and Sarah's apprehension subside, the characters establish communication. As the difficulty of the questions increases, Nancy and Charlie fumble with imprecise expla-nations regarding birth and children—as when Nancy notes that humans keep their offspring for eighteen or twenty years because, she tells the uncomprehending sea lizards, "we love them" (86). Pressed to explain what love signifies, Nancy replies, "Love is one of the emotions" (87), to which an impatient Leslie retorts, "Define your terms. Honestly, the imprecision! You're so thoughtless!" (87). The two humans struggle to elaborate and to educate their companions about human life, as their reliance on abstract concepts suggests. But abstractions do not adequately account for the richness and complexity of actual experience. A frustrated Charlie turns the tables on the sea lizards by asking them about their past. What follows ostensibly concerns the sea lizards' account of their courtship. Through their honest and humorous tale of courtship, however, Sarah and Leslie reveal very humanlike emotions: love, hate, anger, hurt, jealousy. Leslie fought to win Sarah's affection; and this show of commitment forever united them, as Sarah remembers: "And there he was… and there I was … and here we are" (90). The exchange emerges as a point of illumination. For now Charlie provides a graspable illustration of the emotions and the way in which they function. He succeeds in making the abstract concrete.
Of all their discussions, from prejudice and bigotry to aerodynamics and photography, one topic appears crucial to the play. Nancy and Charlie have been discussing tools, art, mortality, those qualities and things which separate man "from the brute beast" (126), and again the concept of emotions, particularly love, surfaces. Charlie, miffed at Leslie's presence but wanting to show him the concrete reality of love, turns to Sarah. He pointedly asks what she would do if she lost Leslie. Her response:
I'd … cry; I'd … I'd cry! I'd … I'd cry my eyes out! Oh … Leslie!
Leslie (Trying to comfort Sarah): It's all right, Sarah!
Sarah: I want to go back; I don't want to stay here any more. (Wailing) I want to go back! (Trying to break away) I want to go back!
Here is Sarah's sudden experience of terror, her sense of aloneness, her understanding of the possibility of profound loss. The precariousness of her life with Leslie suddenly made real, Sarah is, for the first time, experiencing an awakening. Sarah's dread brings forth Leslie's emotions, and in the only violent scene in the play he attacks Charlie, the instinctive response to terror:
Leslie: You made her cry! (Hit)
Charlie: stop it!
Leslie: I ought to tear you apart!
Charlie: Oh my God! (Leslie begins to choke Charlie, standing behind Charlie, his arms around Charlie's throat. It has a look of slow, massive inevitability, not fight and panic)
While communicating (and fighting), the characters reveal one of Albee's basic concerns in Seascape, namely, the importance and process of evolution. For the playwright is clearly rendering what occurs, in part at least, when the species evolves into a higher form of life. "Like Arthur Miller's somewhat similar allegory, The Creation of the World and Other Business," observes C. W. E. Bigsby, "Seascape is best regarded as a consciously naïve attempt to trace human imperfection to its source by unwinding the process of history and myth."6 Sarah explains that their evolutionary process was caused by a sense of alienation: "We had a sense of not belonging any more" (116). As with most complex growth patterns, Albee suggests, their evolution did not occur in an epiphanic moment but developed over a longer period of time, reflecting a gradual coming to consciousness. In Sarah's words, "It was a growing thing, nothing abrupt" (116). This is not to suggest, however, that Seascape celebrates a naturalistic evolution, that it is simply a Darwinian pierce dramatizing the advancement of the saurians. Rather, the impact of Sarah and Leslie's realization of their estrangement from their familiar environment radically altered their perceptions not only of place, but of themselves within their natural place. Although she finds it difficult to articulate, Sarah still persists in her efforts to define their "sense of not belonging," even over Leslie's objections:
… all of a sudden, everything … down there … was terribly … interesting, I suppose; but what did it have to do with us any more?
Leslie: Don't Sarah.
Sarah: And it wasn't … comfortable any more. I mean, after all, you make your nest, and accept a whole … array … of things … and … we didn't feel we belonged there any more. And … what were we going to do?!
Leslie and Sarah have experienced the divorce between man and his environment that Albert Camus described as the "feeling of absurdity."7 They have been experientially forced to question the whole of their existence. Further, the passage illustrates Albee's deft interweaving of a serious subject within a lighthearted context. In spite of the humor permeating much of the play, the scene presents the characters as quite earnest because Albee stages the effects of alienation. But whereas in the earlier plays alienation typically begot more estrangement, even death, here it gives way to a sense of belonging, a sense of community. Even a stubborn Charlie begins lowering his defenses, becoming shy one moment, enthusiastic the next, all in an effort to understand the sea lizards' process of evolution.
The theme of evolution continues with Nancy and Charlie's explanations. Charlie, for example, reflects on the origins of humankind, linking the sea lizards' home with his own environment:
What do they call it … the primordial soup? the glop? That heartbreaking second when it all got together, the sugars and the acids and the ultraviolets, and the next thing you knew there were tangerines and string quartets.
Besides suggesting a mere biological interpretation of humankind's development, Charlie and Nancy also connect human evolution with the sea lizard's animal evolution:
Listen to this—there was a time when we all were down there, crawling around, and swimming and carrying on——remember how we read about it, Nancy?
The comments transcend a report of biological history, for they also operate on an archetypal level, unifying the animal world with the human world. As Charlie figuratively sums up to a skeptical Leslie and a fascinated Sarah, "It means that once upon a time you and I lived down there" (119). Nancy carries on the discussion, saying that the primitive creatures of long ago necessarily evolved to a higher plane of existence because "they were dissatisfied" (121) with their lives, just as Sarah and Leslie were not "comfortable" any more with theirs.
The reader, of course, sees the parallels between the worlds of the two couples. As Sarah voices her displeasure with their lizard life "down there" (117), so Nancy voices her dissatisfaction with their human life on land. As the women are open and enthusiastic, the men are closed, skeptical. Both couples throughout the drama are upset by the loud jets that fly over the dunes. The two couples come to recognize and appreciate the similarities between their worlds, and through their questioning and answering they learn about much more than the biological origins and evolution of the species. In Albee's presentation they also learn about the evolution of the spirit.
The evolution of the spirit draws the two couples intimately together. Nancy and Charlie, and Sarah and Leslie not only play counterpoint to each other but also mirror each other. Sarah's confession that they "considered the pros and the cons. Making do down there or trying something else" (117) directly mirrors Nancy's admission that her life with Charlie needs reevaluation too. If Leslie exemplifies brute bestiality, Charlie's actions at times reflect precisely such animalistic behavior. Like their sea lizard counterparts the humans must try "something else" if their lives are to avoid the potential stagnation inherent in "resting" too much. What this means, Albee implies, is that they should immerse themselves in the shape and energy of experience itself.
In A Delicate Balance, Claire mentions the value of developing gills as a way of adapting to and surviving life. But for Claire and most others in A Delicate Balance such evolutionary capability functions as a means of coping with a confusing, puckish reality. The subterfuges in A Delicate Balance are not present in Seascape. Here humankind's ability to evolve, to use "gills" when needed, becomes necessary if the individual is to grow. Charlie argues this very point when discussing the value of one's capacity to evolve:
Mutate or perish. Let your tail drop off, change your spots, or maybe just your point of view. The dinosaurs knew a thing or two, but that was about it … great, enormous creatures, big as a diesel engine——(To Leslie) whatever that may be—leviathans!… with a brain the size of a lichee nut; couldn't cope, couldn't figure it all out; went down.
Albee further develops the connectedness of the humans and sea lizards when Charlie describes his boyhood immersions in the sea. Nancy even asks if he developed a fishlike form: "Gills, too?" (13). In one passage in the play Charlie lapses into a pleasurable recollection:
And I would go into the water, take two stones, as large as I could manage, swim out a bit, tread, look up one final time at the sky … relax … begin to go down. Oh, twenty feet, fifteen, soft landing without a sound, the white sand clouding up where your feet touch, and all around you ferns . . . and lichen. You can stay down there so long! You can build it up, and last … so long, enough for the sand to settle and the fish come back. And they do—come back—all sizes, some slowly, eyeing past; some streak, and you think for a moment they're larger than they are, sharks maybe, but they never are, and 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.
As Sarah and Leslie explore the solid earth, so Charlie, years ago, explored the sea. In both contexts sea creatures and humans are "eyeing past" each other. Thematically, Charlie's recollection of his submersion into the water directly correlates to the obvious archetypal patterns embodied in Seascape.8
Returning to the sea, archetypalists tell us, is one way for man to reestablish a rapport with the natural cycle. It also symbolizes man's attempt to reestablish contact with his own psyche. Carl Jung wrote: "Water is no figure of speech, but a living symbol of the dark psyche."9 Although as a boy Charlie could not intellectualize about his water experience, his account suggests that the immersion concretely placed him within his own dark psyche. In Charlie's account living on the surface was equated with "breakers" and "a storm, or a high wind"—chaotic forces which affected his external world. But "to go way down" to the cove's bottom, living underneath the surface, was equated with solitude and calming silence. Seeking adventure and a comforting refuge, Charlie established an intuitive, sympathetic correspondence with his self and the underworld. Jung discusses the influence of this kind of immersion:
The unconscious is the psyche that reaches down from the daylight of mentality and morally lucid consciousness into the nervous system that for ages has been known as the "sympathetic." This … maintains the balance of life and, through the mysterious pathways of sympathetic excitation, not only gives us knowledge of the innermost life of other beings but also has an inner effect upon them.10
In his underwater experience Charlie was privy to just this form of unique "knowledge of the innermost life." Thus, on an archetypal level Charlie's submersion allowed him to be present to his inner self, his hidden self, as well as to the world external to himself—the ocean world. Charlie's archetypal water experience serves as a rite of passage, a form of initiation into a primordial setting that precedes any capacity to evolve. In Jung's words, "The descent into the depths always seems to precede the ascent."11
But where is Charlie's "ascent"? Apparently his psychic ascent came long after his physical surfacing. As a teen-ager he came in touch with his inner psyche (16), but integrating the meaning of this experience is only achieved a lifetime later. In his unique encounter on the dunes Charlie rekindles contact with the natural cycle and with his self. Leslie and Sarah, of course, represent that vital contact. They represent what Charlie and Nancy were "eons" ago (117). As Lucina P. Gabbard points out, Leslie and Sarah "concretize the evolution of mankind from water animals, the emergence of the individual embryo from its watery womb, and the return to consciousness of the repressed self."12 Thus, the random encounter of the two couples on the dunes symbolically reveals the connectedness of animal nature and human nature, the biological as well as spiritual kinship which ex ists, at least in this play, between beast and human.
The intermingling of the animal and human world in Seascape, finally, precipitates an existentialist imperative which has become a familiar trademark of any Albee play: the need to communicate authentically with the other. Through mutual communication the characters of Seascape evolve into what Jung calls a "higher consciousness."13 In a state of higher consciousness Nancy voices one of Albee's central concerns in the play, saying, "And I'm aware of my own mortality" (125). Passing middle age, Nancy feels the nearness of death. For Charlie the nearness of death remains, like his childhood experience, distant. Only when Leslie nearly strangles him do Nancy's attitudes become tangible to Charlie. Through their collective experience the characters begin to understand and live with, in Albee's words, "the cleansing consciousness of death."14 That is, the characters gain an acute awareness of the proximity of extinction, of the finiteness of their existence, which in turn creates the possibility for living life fully, as Nancy advocates throughout.
In spite of the evolving spirits of the characters, the mythical uniting of brute beast with civilized person, Albee does not formulate a purely fairy-tale ending: there is no guarantee that their lives will be substantially changed. Sarah, for example, shyly voices her concern surrounding evolution: "Is it … is it for the better?" and Charlie can only reply honestly: "I don't know" (124). The tentativeness evident in Charlie's response, like George's "maybe" to Martha's questions at the close of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? captures something of the precariousness of their newfound knowledge. But they discover that, with each other's compassion, they can help each other. As Leslie says in his play-closing line, "All right. Begin" (135).
If the couples learn anything during the play, Albee suggests that it involves the recognition of and the need for involvement, engagement, and love at a consciously aware level. Through their explanations of their respective roles on earth the couples come to view themselves in a larger context. If the sea lizards have much to learn about life "up here" (132), so, too, with the humans. Their struggle only highlights the archetypal circularity fusing the animal and human worlds. Nancy and Charlie realize that they are not "better" but are, perhaps, "more interesting" than animals (125); that they are but a more-developed link on the physical and spiritual evolutionary chain. Albee implies that through the sweep and play of evolutionary patterns human-kind has transcended noble savagery and the instinctive response to nature, to become beings whose mentor increasingly is reason. Surely the power of reason, Albee would say, is useful, necessary; still, in Seascape the dominance of rational faculties poses a threat. The danger is that, with rationality triumphing over the instinctive, the primordial life-giving passions will dissipate, and, for Charlie at least, there will be no other source of vitality to replace them. Unless reason and the emotions exist in counterpoise, more will be lost in the wonders of evolution than gained. Albee implies that evolved humanity will cease to feel deeply, or, continuing to feel at all, the individual may care only for the wrong things. Perhaps this is why Albee has called Seascape "triste."15
Seascape, which opened on 26 January 1975 at the Sam S.Shubert Theatre, New York City, and which won Albee his second Pulitzer Prize, represents Albee's persistent concern with dramatizing what may occur if the human spirit withers. Here 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.
1Matthew C. Roudané, "An Interview with Edward Albee," Southern Humanities Review 16 (1982): 41.
3Edward Albee, The Zoo Story and The American Dream (New York: Signet, 1960) 39-40.
4Edward Albee, Seascape (New York: Atheneum, 1975) 10. Page references within the text are to this edition.
5Henry James, The Ambassadors (New York: Norton, 1964) 132.
7Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1955) 5.
8For elaboration of the archetypal patterns in Seascape, see Thomas P. Alder, "Albee's Seascape: Humanity at the Second Threshold, "Renascence 31 (1979): 107-14; Lucina P. Gabbard, "Albee's Seascape: An Adult Fairy Tale," Modern Drama 21 (1978): 307-17; and Kitty Harris Smither, "A Dream of Dragons: Albee as Star Thrower in Seascape," Edward Albee: Planned Wilderness, ed. Patricia De La Fuente, (Edinburg, TX: Pan American University Press, 1980) 99-110.
9Carl G. Jung, "Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious," Twentieth Century Criticism, ed. William J. Handy and Max R. Westbrook (New York: Free Press, 1974) 215.
13Jung 230. For further discussion of the role of consciousness in the play see Liam O. Purdon, "The Limits of Reason: Seascape as Psychic Metaphor," Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, ed. Julian N. Wasserman, Lee Lecture Series, University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1983) 141-53.
14Edward Albee, The Plays (New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1981)1:10.
15Matthew C. Roudané, "Albee on Albee," RE: Artes Liberales 10 (1984): 4.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 100
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 exactly right."