The Play

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On a bright sunlit beach, picnic finished, Nancy paints while Charlie relaxes on a blanket. A jet airplane approaches, continuing loudly overhead and then fading away. Nancy comments on the noise of airplanes; Charlie predicts their crash into the dunes one day. He doubts that they do any good.

Relaxing...

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On a bright sunlit beach, picnic finished, Nancy paints while Charlie relaxes on a blanket. A jet airplane approaches, continuing loudly overhead and then fading away. Nancy comments on the noise of airplanes; Charlie predicts their crash into the dunes one day. He doubts that they do any good.

Relaxing again, the couple begins what appears to be an ongoing discussion. Retired and well-off, they ponder how they will spend the days ahead now that their careers and children are behind them. With nothing to tie them to any one place, Nancy suggests that they spend the time traveling around the world from beach to beach. At first barely listening, Charlie finally asserts that he does not want to do anything; he has earned a little rest. Is that what their life together adds up to, Nancy wonders, to end as they began, infants with pacifiers, milk, and sleep? Nancy, it seems, will not settle for retirement farms; life is not over for her.

Again the sound of the jet intrudes, becoming deafening as it crosses overhead. The dialogue that follows is exactly like that at the opening. After a bit, as Nancy begins to paint, Charles shares a memory of how, when he was twelve or thirteen, he liked to find a protected cove near his family’s summer place; taking two large stones to weight himself down, he would sink to the bottom to sit on the sand long enough to stop feeling like an intruder. Excitedly, Nancy urges him to try it now, to go down to the edge of the beach and “be young again,” but Charlie firmly refuses. They should still be having a good life, Nancy feels, rather than being content with memories of the good life they have had.

The climax of act 1 occurs when two sea creatures, Leslie and Sarah, appear atop the dune. Suddenly Charlie, sensing something behind him, turns; he is aghast and immediately defensive. Nancy, however, is fascinated with what they see: human-sized green lizards with humanoid arms and legs and large saurian tails. When Leslie picks up a large stick and brandishes it overhead, Charlie thinks that the end is near, but at this moment another jet crosses overhead, louder and lower than before. Frozen with fear, the amphibians dive behind the sand dune. While they are out of sight, Charlie decides that the only possible explanation for what they have just seen is that he and Nancy are dead, casualties of the spoiled liver paste they ate for lunch. When the lizards reappear, Nancy rolls onto her back, assuming the position of submission that she has seen in animals, and begs Charlie to follow suit. Hesitating only a moment, Charlie assumes the position, too. “Now, Charlie, smile! And mean it!” she urges as act 1 ends.

When act 2 opens, neither couple has moved. The sea creatures now begin to sniff, touch, and poke the humans while discussing the situation—in English. Guardedly, Leslie addresses Charlie but gets no response. Sarah greets Nancy, who, eager for this new experience, responds warmly. After introductions, the couples begin to compare their lifestyles: eating habits, handshakes, terms for various parts of the body, what frightens them. The discussion serves to educate the sea creatures about life on land.

Soon the conversation turns to their families. Sarah, who has had hundreds of children she has never seen after laying her eggs, is startled to learn that humans usually bear one child at a time and care for it for about eighteen years. When Sarah wants to know why the children stay so long, Nancy explains that humans love their offspring. The sea creatures do not know what love means; it becomes apparent that they have no concept of emotions.

When the lizards notice seagulls flying overhead, Leslie, cautious of the unknown, becomes wary, but Nancy, attempting to ease tensions, jokes that it makes little difference because, according to Charlie, they are all dead anyway. Her husband has trouble accepting what he cannot explain. Leslie, on the other hand, refuses to believe that they are dead; he disagrees with Charlie’s theory of existence—that life could be an illusion.

Again the jet intrudes. Once again Leslie and Sarah, terrified, rush half out of sight while Charlie and Nancy engage in the familiar refrain about the noise and uselessness. Now, however, Nancy and Charlie are moved to compassion because of Leslie and Sarah’s fear. They explain about airplanes and about machines that go under the water. When Nancy mentions her husband’s youthful excursions underwater, Charlie, increasingly uneasy, finally explodes by asking Leslie why he and Sarah came up to a place to which they were not accustomed. Sarah relates their growing sense of no longer belonging, of a feeling that they had changed somehow. Understanding, Charlie and Nancy describe the evolutionary process eons ago that brought them up to earth and left Leslie and Sarah to develop in the sea. Nancy explains how creatures adapted and changed—an idea Leslie rejects.

Charlie adds that this is an ongoing process: Mutate or perish. There are advantages in being human, Nancy points out. Humans use tools, make art, and are aware of their mortality. These are the things that separate humans from brute beasts, Charlie explains.

The act and the play climax when Charlie pushes the sea couple into an emotional experience by asking Sarah what she would do if Leslie went away and she knew he would never be back. He presses her until, understanding the full impact of the question, Sarah begins to cry. Angry at seeing his mate cry for the first time, Leslie strikes Charlie, then begins to choke him. Suddenly he releases him. The ferocity of the confrontation and his awakened emotions have made Leslie realize how dangerous earth is; he thinks that they must return below. As they are about to depart, Nancy reminds the couple that they will have to return to land sooner or later, that they have no choice. Reluctantly, Leslie and Sarah realize that, indeed, this is true. Nancy volunteers to help them to adjust now; Charlie shyly agrees. “All right. Begin,” Leslie responds.

Dramatic Devices

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Seascape is set at the conjunction of land, water, and air: arid sand where human life is lived, teeming ocean where human life once lived, and space above, a new frontier for human life—or death. The setting symbolizes the themes of the play, depicting the union of sand and sea—the former suggestive of death in life, the latter of both life and death. The title of the play not only alludes to the physical setting but also conveys the idea of escape, which is the route the play refutes. Escape into the water—death—was Charlie’s youthful activity; death by withdrawal from life is his present inclination. Each time the jet flies over, the amphibians retreat seaward; finally, after their emotional awakening, they turn once again toward the sea. Ultimately, however, they choose a different escape: from the sea to life on land.

The recurring jet frames four sections of this play, which is similar in structure to many of Edward Albee’s other plays—that is, contrasting ideas and worlds are brought together for examination. Outsiders arrive in the domain of others, resulting in a confrontation that produces maturation, education, and growth to self-knowledge for the less sophisticated visitors. In the first segment, Charlie and Nancy discuss their present problem: what to do in retirement. The second is an exploration of their past, Charlie’s underwater jaunts, and their sexual relationship. Sarah and Leslie are introduced in the third section, and the contrasts between the two couples are developed. The last segment brings them all into harmony and moves them to another, higher plane in their “evolution.”

The sound of the jet, which becomes louder with each passing, may suggest the terrifying part of life, or perhaps the destructive forces in the world. Possibly it represents the passing of the human spirit into a higher realm of consciousness. All four characters react to the noise of the jet with either annoyance or fear. Fear of the unknown and an uneasiness with the present are characteristics of both couples. They are reluctant to move out into unknown paths.

Albee’s style in Seascape is to combine humor with a serious subject. There is humor and wit in the lizards’ examination of human life and in the exchanges between husband and wife in act 1. The similarity between the two couples’ feelings of alienation is amusing, as is their defensive behavior in their initial face-to-face encounter. The overall feeling of lightheartedness, the simplicity of the story, the compelling sea creatures, and the idyllic seaside setting all contribute to the rather cheerful mood. Beneath the amusing conversations, however, Albee communicates a serious message.

Although not all scholars agree, Albee insists that his play is realistic. The jet, introduced early in the play, provides an element of realism; it helps to set the time and place in reality rather than fantasy. The audience becomes comfortable in this familiar world and is willing to accept Sarah and Leslie as “real” when they are finally introduced. According to photographs and reviews of the initial production, effective lizard costumes aided this leap of faith as well.

Historical Context

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Family Life
In the 1970s, American society was in transition, undergoing radical changes in a number of areas including family life. The 1970s were known as the "me" decade; people were passive and self-absorbed, concerned primarily with their own personal happiness and self-fulfillment. During this era, the divorce rate rose, and there were more nontraditional families because of divorce and remarriage. Another prominent aspect of this time period was the "empty nest syndrome." Children who left home at the age of eighteen to attend college did not return after graduation. Because there were no children in the home, many mothers felt loss. Women's lives changed. Some entered the workforce or continued their own education; others did volunteer work.

Women and Feminism
As women's role in the home changed, so did their role in society. Some historians consider the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1970s as one of the most important social elements of the decade. The women's movement emerged from the social revolution of the 1960s and shared many aspects with the civil rights movement. Through the efforts of feminists, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by the senate in 1972 and was ratified by states throughout the decade. Similar to the Civil Rights Acts, this amendment to the Constitution would have guaranteed equal rights for women under the law in a number of areas. The ERA was never ratified by three-quarters of the states, as required by law, and thus it ultimately failed. Its failure was due in part to the efforts of those who feared change in society. Some believed empowering women would destroy the family.

Though the ERA failed, women's issues were addressed by legislation that was passed by federal and state legislatures as well as court rulings. Because more women were entering the workforce (about forty percent of the workforce was women in 1975), sex discrimination was outlawed in a number of areas, including the right to have pensions and nondiscrimination in hiring. More educational opportunities were opened to women. In 1972, Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act guaranteed women equal access to higher education and athletic opportunities. Despite such positive steps, many women did not receive equal pay for equal work. Women sometimes earned only two-thirds to three-quarters of what men earned for performing the same job.

The year 1975 was particularly important to women on a global scale. It was declared the International Women's Year by the United Nations. Among the events was a conference sponsored by the United Nations in Mexico City, Mexico. Women representing countries around the world gathered to talk about women's issues and to work to improve their status.

Environmental Issues
In the 1970s, environmental and ecological concerns took center stage in the United States. Many people spoke out about the impact of industry on the environment. There was widespread interest in environmental organizations like the Sierra Club. Of particular concern were air and water quality, and the limiting of pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encouraged water conservation by regulating the quality of drinking water. Environmental laws affected the licensing of nuclear power plants. One controversy of the time period focused on the regulation of the height of smokestacks: the taller they were the more pollution they could emit because it could be spread over a wider area, making it seem as if the actual amount of pollution was less. Other concerns included the disposal of radioactive waste and the effects of aerosol cans on the ozone layer. Within a few years, these cans came under strict scrutiny.

Dissatisfaction with urban life and related problems led to a back-to-earth/New Age movement, primarily among hippies. A significant number of hippies moved from cities to rural communities to farm organic food. Because of concerns with farming practices, including the potential danger of pesticides, growth regulators, and other synthetic compounds, organic food became a fad during this era. Organic food was grown using "natural" biological practices. This fad soon became a common and accepted method of farming.

Literary Style

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Setting
Seascape is set on a beach in a time contemporary with when the play was written. Though it is unstated in the text, several critics have assumed that the action takes place somewhere on the east coast of the United States. All of the play is confined to one afternoon. This physical setting emphasizes the transitional state of the characters' lives. It is one of many symbols in the play.

Fantasy
There is critical debate over exactly what genre of play Seascape is. Some believe it is a comedy, while others see it as absurdist, satirical, or allegorical. Most agree that there is an element of fantasy involved. While Nancy and Charlie are humans and act accordingly, Leslie and Sarah are fantastic creations. They are human-sized lizards that have left their life in the sea to live on land. They speak perfect English and understand some aspects of human life. Charlie has a hard time accepting that they are real. He wants to believe that he and Nancy see them because they are suffering from food poisoning or are dead. In terms of the play, however, Leslie and Sarah are very real, a fact that Nancy immediately grasps and embraces. The fantasy aspect of the play creates dramatic tension and allows issues such as progress, values, and differences to be discussed.

Symbolism
Many symbols are employed by Albee to underscore the action and themes of Seascape. The most obvious symbols are the lizard characters, Leslie and Sarah. Because these are anthropomorphic creatures (that is, animals with human qualities), they can be used to illustrate Albee's ideas about humans and their relationships. Leslie and Sarah represent many things, including a literal depiction of evolution and progress and an ideal of a relationship that works in stark contrast to Nancy and Charlie's relationship.

The setting itself is also symbolic. The beach—where land and sea meet—represents a place of progress. In the theory of evolution, creatures emerged from the sea to live on land like Leslie and Sarah do in the course of the play. Changes for all four characters are taking place at the beach. Another symbol is the jet planes that zoom overhead. The jets are another symbol of progress, but a more mixed one than those already discussed. The jets are described to Sarah as the mechanical evolution of the seagulls that fascinate her. Yet Charlie worries that a jet will one day crash into the dune—a temporary if not symbolic end to evolution. The jets also scare both Sarah and Leslie. But the jets continue to fly and never crash, and the lizards decide to embrace their evolution. Though feared by everyone but Nancy in Seascape, change seems endorsed by the play's complex symbolism.

Compare and Contrast

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1975: Though it is the International Women's Year, many women in the workplace face discrimination, especially in terms of pay. Women generally earn about a quarter to a third less than men for doing the same work as men.

Today: Though the "glass ceiling" has been broken and many more women work, women still generally earn only about 80 to 90 percent of the salary of their male counterparts.

1975: Organic foods are a relatively new concept, a fad among hippies concerned with environmental and ecological issues. Their availability is limited but growing.

Today: Organic farming is an accepted practice, and organic foods can be found in many grocery stores.

1975: There is controversy over the effects of the use of aerosol cans on the environment, especially the ozone layer. Within a few years, their use is regulated.

Today: The hole in the ozone layer has grown significantly since the 1970s. Though the use of aerosol cans is regulated, many scientists agree that their use played a role in the hole's size.

1975: The United States is still recovering from the OPEC crisis of 1973-1974. The crisis limited the amount of oil that the United States could import, creating an energy crisis. Many called for the exploration of alternative sources of energy.

Today: The use of alternative energy in the United States remains limited, though the calls for its exploration are ongoing. American consumption of oil has not decreased, and some have considered drilling untouched, hard-to-reach places under the sea to find more oil.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Albee, Edward, Seascape A Play, Atheneum, 1975.

Barnes, Clive, "Albee's Seascape Is a Major Event," in New YorkTimes, January 27, 1975.

Beaufort, John, "New Albee Comedy on Broadway," in Christian Science Monitor, January 30, 1975.

Clurman, Harold, Review in The Nation, March 15, 1975, p. 314.

Gottfried, Martin, "Edward Albee's Latest," in New York Post, January 27, 1975.

Kauffmann, Stanley, Review in The New Republic, February 22, 1975, pp. 22, 33.

Kissel, Howard, "Seascape," in Women's Wear Daily, January 27, 1975.

Koehler, Robert, ''Albee's Seascape Runs Aground on Characterization," in Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1988.

Kroll, Jack, "Leapin' Lizards," in Newsweek, February 10, 1975.

Wilson, Edwin, "Disturbing Creatures from the Deep," in Wall Street Journal, January 28, 1975.

Winn, Steven, ''A Lizard-Eye View of Humanity / Wonder and Whimsy in Albee's Seascape," in San Francisco Chronicle, October 19, 1996.

Further Reading
Gussow, Mel, Edward Albee-A Singular Journey, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
This biography covers the whole of Albee's personal and professional life and was written by a former New York Times theater critic.

Hirsch, Foster, Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?, Creative Arts Book Company, 1978.
This monograph provides critical commentary of Albee's plays and career, from 1959 to the mid-1970s.

Kennedy, Pagan, Platforms' A Microwaved Cultural Chronicle of the 1970s, St. Martin's Press, 1994.
This nonfiction book discusses social and cultural aspects of the United States in the 1970s.

Kolin, Philip C., ed., Conversations with Edward Albee, University of Mississippi Press, 1988.
This is a collection of interviews with Albee, which were originally published between 1961 and 1988.

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Amacher, Richard E. Edward Albee. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Bigsby, C. W. E. “Edward Albee.” In Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee. Vol. 2 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Bryer, Jackson R., ed. The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Gabbard, Lucina P. “Albee’s Seascape: An Adult Fairy Tale.” Modern Drama 21 (September, 1978): 307-317.

Kolin, Philip C., and J. Madison Davis, eds. Critical Essays on Edward Albee. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

Post, Robert M. “Salvation or Damnation, Death in the Plays of Edward Albee.” American Drama (Spring, 1993): 32-59.

Roudane, Matthew C. Understanding Edward Albee. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Stenz, Anita Maria. Edward Albee: The Poet of Loss. New York: Mouton, 1978.

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