Seascape takes place on a sand dune on an ocean beach. The location of the beach and the identity of the ocean remain unspecified throughout. Given the nature of the characters, we surmise that we are somewhere on the coast of the United States, and given the frequent, loud passage overhead of jet planes, we assume that we are near an airport, perhaps one belonging to a large city.
Apart from some driftwood, a few tufts of grass, and a blanket and picnic basket, the dune is empty. The screaming jets link us to everyday reality, but the barren solitude suggests the metaphorical landscapes of Beckett, especially the grim world of Happy Days. In that play, as in Seascape, we encounter an aging married couple; and as in Seascape, Beckett’s duo inhabit an empty, anonymous landscape: "Expanse of scorched grass rising centre to low mound. Gentle slopes down to front and either side of stage." What Beckett confronts his couple with are the elementals of human existence: earth, air, sky, blazing sun. And amid these essentials we find a desperately cheery woman struggling with the simplest--and most intractable--of dramatic challenges: getting through yet another day in the face of onrushing mortality.
Seascape presents the older of its two married couples with some of the same stark elements of human existence. The dune, the bright sky, and the surging ocean frame a choice that is fearful and inevitable: how to meet death. Will Charlie and Nancy follow Charlie's inclination to "do . . . nothing," sliding inertly into the void; or will they respond to Nancy's desire to "See Everything Twice!"?
Nancy's longing for new experience points to another important element of the setting of Seascape: the beach as threshold, as the borderline between earth and sea. As they sit at the edge of this primal divide, Nancy expresses a passion for crossing the boundaries of conventional behavior, for exploring new worlds. Charlie, on the other hand, wants to wait passively for the fated end. In any case, the play places both of them face to face with the mystery of death, which Hamlet calls "the undiscovered country from whose bourne [or "border"] no traveler returns." As the play goes on, introducing a younger couple from the other side of the border between earth and ocean, the setting draws us more fully into an awareness that life is always challenging us to confront and to cross new boundaries of knowledge and experience.
The action of Seascape is in many ways as simple and uncluttered as the setting. As the play opens, we discover Charlie and Nancy relaxing on the beach after a picnic lunch. A long-married couple on the verge of old-age, they begin to discuss their expectations for the future. Nancy expresses a desire to become "Seaside nomads," to "go from beach to beach . . . live by the water." Charlie deprecates this vision, declaring that he doesn't "want to travel from . . . cliff to sand dune, see the races, count the flies." In fact, as he announces chillingly, he doesn't want "Anything. I don't want to do . . . anything."
They proceed to explore numerous variations on this theme of conflicting desires, their differences reaching a climax as Charlie imagines the moral and physical dangers implicit in Nancy's longings:
CHARLIE: I'm not up to the glaciers and the crags, and I don't think you'd be . . . once you got out there. . . .
Just as they have reached what seems like a state of impasse and, for Nancy, a deeply grudging acceptance of the status quo, the extraordinary comes to them. It arrives in the form of Leslie and Sarah, a pair of human-shaped, talking lizards that climb up onto the dune to explore an unknown world. After a terrified standoff between the two couples, the lizards retreat in fear when they hear the scream of a jet plane overhead, leaving behind a pair of dumbfounded humans:
NANCY (With great awe): Charlie! (Infinite wonder) What have we seen?!
The universe, it seems, won't let them surrender to entropy. Instead, the miraculous crosses the threshold between the sea and the land and winds up on their beach blanket.
Eventually, Leslie and Sarah return, and after further tentative and anxious introductory maneuverings, these mutually alien couples begin to become acquainted. When an irritated Charlie asks the inevitable question, the humanoids provide a surprising answer:
CHARLIE: Why did you come up here in the first place? . . .
Thus, Leslie and Sarah are going through a crisis parallel to that of Charlie and Nancy. Like Nancy, they want to escape from the stale and familiar, but like Charlie they are full of trepidation as they stand at the boundary of a new world. Nancy, seeing her ambitions reflected in the adventure of the lizards, is full of curiosity and eager to encourage their enterprise. Charlie, resentful of a daring he lacks, is more hostile, taunting the aliens with their lack of knowledge of life on the land.
What especially infuriates Charlie is the lizards' lack of consciousness of their own mortality. For him this awareness is the supreme burden of humanity, its absence the mark of brute beasts. The burden of this knowledge is also what makes him so reluctant to meet Nancy's challenge to live more boldly. Determined to vindicate his own timidity, and to make the lizards understand the price of their ignorant audacity in taking up life on the land, Charlie, like the serpent in Eden, feeds them the poison fruit of the knowledge of death:
CHARLIE: 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! Maybe I envy you . . . down there, free from it all; down there with the beasts? (A pause) What would you do, Sarah? . . . if Leslie went away . . . for a long time. . . . what if you knew he was never coming back? (Sarah does a sharp intake of breath) What about that? . . . What would you do, Sarah? . . . .
Infuriated at Charlie's cruelty toward his wife, Leslie begins to beat and strangle Charlie, almost killing him. Newly acquainted with violence and death, the lizards have learned from the humans the dangers of life on earth. In view of these horrors, Leslie and Sarah declare their intention of returning to the sea. But Nancy intercedes, assuring the lizards that they have embarked on an evolutionary transformation whose continuation is inevitable: "You'll have to come back . . . sooner or later. You don't have any choice. Don't you know that?" Nancy, joined finally by Charlie, offers to help them learn to live with the knowledge of death. Hearing this pledge, Leslie reluctantly halts his steps toward the ocean, turns toward the humans, and speaks the last line of the play: "All right. Begin."
Nancy, as we have seen, is the more adventurous member of the human couple. We can hear her vitality in her mocking tirade against Charlie's inertia:
Why don't we settle in to waiting, like . . . like the camels that we saw in Egypt--groan down on all fours, sigh, and eat the grass. . . . Why don't we go and wait the judgment with our peers? Take our teeth out, throw away our corset, give in to the palsy, let our mind go dim, play lotto and canasta with the widows and the widowers, eat cereal . . .
She explains to Charlie that her occasional fits of petulance come over her like a bee-sting, prompted by, “something you say, or do; or don't say, or don't do. And it brings the petulance on me--not that I like it, but it's a healthy sign, shows I'm still nicely alive.”
What brings on the fit of the moment is Charlie's having told her "You've had a good life." This she feels is more than a way of speaking; it is a way of thinking: "I know the language and I know you. . . . Why not go to those places in the desert and let our heads deflate, if it's all in the past?"
Nancy refuses to accept the pastness of their lives, and continues to hope for more exhilarating prospects in the future. For her life is change, offering the lure of endless possibility. Thus, when the lizards arrive, she welcomes them with wonder and delight. Their presence is itself an adventure, while their foray onto dry land represents the kind of vital daring she embraces. And at the end it is she who urges Leslie and Sarah to accept the challenge of an indeterminate future, the same challenge she seeks for herself.
Charlie's most vivid memory of his youth tells us something essential about his character. As a boy he wanted to be, “a regular fish, I mean fishlike--arms and legs and everything, but able to go under, live down in the coral and the ferns.”
Even as an adolescent he continued to yearn to become, "just one more object come to the bottom, or living thing, part of the undulation and the silence." Thus, Charlie's core desire puts him at odds not only with Nancy, but with Leslie and Sarah as well. His nostalgia for the bottom of the sea is the opposite of the lizards' desire to leave the ocean. We see that Charlie nurses a recidivist streak, a craving to undo evolution and to return to insensibility, becoming a mere "object," or else a marginally conscious creature, undulating in passive silence.
We can thus understand his resistance to Nancy's desires for discovery and change. His life as husband and father has been exemplary--as Nancy concedes--but cautious. He has managed, through a determined embrace of the duties and conventions of his world, to achieve something like the security he once knew as a young man, holding his breath and sitting under the water.
When he encounters the lizards, he is hostile and mistrustful toward them. In their willingness to court danger in pursuit of change, they embody everything he instinctively shuns. What is more, they are free from the nagging sense of mortality that makes him so cautious in the first place. As we have seen, he describes his attitude toward them as a kind of "envy" at their being "free from it all; down there with the beasts." Confronted by their arrival with an adventure he never sought, Charlie takes his revenge by introducing them to the fears and anxieties that constrain his world.
Leslie and Sarah are somewhat less fully developed than Nancy and Charlie--which is perhaps appropriate for creatures still in the process of evolving toward human consciousness. Leslie exhibits certain typically masculine traits in his encounter with the humans: he threatens violence with an enormous stick of driftwood; he exults in his sexual prowess in mating with Sarah; he pretends to understand more than he does about life on the land when goaded by Charlie; and he leaps to the violent defense of his wife after Charlie reduces her to tears. Although confused by what he encounters in his new surroundings, Leslie is quite confident in discussing his own world. He despises fish because "they're stupid and they're dirty and they're all over the place," though he does not reject difference as such:
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.
Despite his anti-fish bigotry, then, Leslie is capable of understanding and insight. Thus equipped, it seems likely that Leslie will ultimately be able to master life in a new environment.
If Leslie is represented as a classic male, Sarah is presented as a traditional female. Open and accepting where her husband is standoffish and mistrustful, she establishes an immediate rapport with Nancy. They swap information about body parts, reproduction, and motherhood. Sarah listens delightedly to Charlie's description of birds, and she shrewdly intuits some of the difficulties that bedevil the humans' marriage. In her pleasure in discovery, she mirrors Nancy, just as Leslie echoes Charlie in his hesitancy and suspicion toward the humans. Essentially, however, Leslie and Sarah are less complex reflections of their human counterparts. The play is primarily about Nancy and Charlie--their responses to life and to one another--as they face the new thresholds they must cross in approaching death. Leslie and Sarah, late arrivals in the play and in the world, bear less of a burden of past experience for Albee to explore.
Although the influence of Beckett is evident in the play's barren setting and its insistent concern with mortality, it is clear that Albee embraces a far more optimistic vision than anything available in the work of the Irish dramatist. In the character of Nancy, we are reminded that the inevitability of death does not require our premature surrender to its power. Instead, Nancy insists that life ought to be lived all the way through, even in old age, in the expectation that there will always be something new worth experiencing. She is vindicated in her faith in life's endless promise by the arrival of the lizards, an absolutely unanticipated and absolutely enthralling bonanza cast in their laps by the sea.
And what brings Leslie and Sarah to Nancy and Charlie is the dynamic that drives life itself, the evolutionary restlessness that Charlie describes as "flux. And it's always going on; right now, to all of us." When Sarah asks if this is "for the better," Nancy declares, "It is. It all is." To live is to evolve--that for Nancy is the fundamental law of nature, a fact confirmed by the destiny of the lizards, and by her own restless longings. She is in love with the activity that existence requires because, as she says, she "couldn't bear to think of it otherwise." Unlike Charlie who questions and mistrusts the changeful nature of the world, Nancy accepts it. Like her, so do Leslie and Sarah who, by the end of the play, have decided to accept the flux of their own evolutionary destinies by continuing to live on the dangerous but enthralling earth.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. What function does the periodic sound of a jet plane passing overhead serve in the play?
2. What cues are there to establish time and location in the play?
3. What does Charlie's boyhood memory of sitting underwater tell us about him? Why is Nancy so eager for him to repeat this experience in the present? Why is he so reluctant to comply?
4. What does Charlie mean when he says he and Nancy are not "up to the glaciers and the crags?"
5. Why is Nancy so excited and pleased to encounter the lizards?
6. Why do Nancy and Charlie have to explain the meaning of "emotion" to Leslie and Sarah?
7. Why does Charlie force Sarah to learn about death?
8. Why does Leslie attack Charlie near the end of the play?
9. Why do Leslie and Sarah decide to remain on the land?
10. Do you think the lizards will be happy in their new life?