Lovely, Dark, and Deep:
Edward Albee’s Seascape (1975)
The Humanities Post-Show Talkback will be after
Sunday, January 22’s matinee performance.
© 2016 by Eileen Warburton
And I stood upon the sand of the sea,
and saw a beast rise up out of the sea . . .
Charlie and Nancy have spent a long, mostly-satisfying life together. Love and friendship. Children, even grandchildren. The ordinary pleasures of making a home, working, raising a family, fulfilling their obligations. They’ve even survived the dark times, the suspicion of an affair, the toying with the idea of divorce. And now. They’ve arrived at ‘retirement’ and the mystery of what to do with the rest of their lives. It’s a significant transition and they disagree about what they want. Charlie wants to rest, to do nothing. Nancy wants to renew herself, to explore, to have a bit of adventure. Life is short, she argues. It’s wrong to waste the chance to experience more. She yearns to grow. She wants change.
So they argue on the beach, on the sands by the ocean. Nancy suggests that they spend their time moving from beach to beach, shoretown to shoretown, enjoying the view and atmosphere, meeting new people. But, at first, this is as far as Nancy wants to go. Stay on the shore, don’t go in the water. Charlie, however, remembers a time—his childhood—when he was drawn to submerge himself in the sea. Weighted with rocks, he would sink as deep as he could go, holding his breath as long as he could, staying undersea. Charlie wants no part of that urge now, despite how exciting, even arousing, the idea seems to Nancy.
In dreams, mythology, and disciplines like Jungian psychology, the sea is often a symbol of our unconscious mind, of the mysterious, hidden part of ourselves. So it is that, as Charlie and Nancy stand bickering on the shore, talking in circles about the evolution of their relationship and whether to welcome change, two reptilian deep sea monsters emerge from the deep. Leslie and Sarah, a mated couple, are driven from their undersea complacency by a disturbing sense of discomfort with their existing environment, of needing change. As Sarah says, ”It wasn’t . . . comfortable anymore. I mean, after all, you make your nest, and accept a whole . . . array . . . of things . . . and . . . we didn’t feel we belonged there anymore. And . . . what were we going to do?!” These odd, lizardy creatures are actually in physical evolution and it frightens them, even as they are called to a new world. With fear, with rising sympathy, with humor, with annoyance, Nancy and Charlie offer the reptile couple their own perspective on human life in the upper world that they inhabit and, in doing so, reaffirm their own interest in what’s next in their lives. Deeply frightening as it is to go forward in an unsafe environment, profoundly aware of mortality, they insist to Leslie and Sarah (as to themselves), that they will have to come back up eventually. There is no choice but to evolve and the human couple, consciously and lovingly, will help. “Is it for the better? I don’t know,” sighs Charlie. Evolution is simply imperative.
Experiencing life is all its often-uncomfortable, challenging fullness is Edward Albee’s major theme. “All my plays are about people missing the boat,” he explained in a 1991 interview, “Closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done . . . I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.” In all of his work, people crash through the comfortable illusions that enable their lives and encounter, often violently, a passionate, inexplicable, even ugly, otherness that redefines them. Plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe (1962) and The Goat (2002) totally wreck relationships, even leaving the stage set in ruins. But Seascape is Albee’s venture into a lightness that has a comically bittersweet ending. Fantastical and absurdist, it’s an open-ended tale of possibility.
For Albee himself, the sense of being an alien in his environment is biographical terrain. He was born in 1928 in (depending on your source) Virginia or Washington, DC to a father who immediately abandoned him and a mother who put him up for adoption. Like a Dickens hero, he was adopted by a millionaire couple (whose money came from an empire in vaudeville theatres) and brought up in Larchmont, New York, affluent, sheltered, and cosseted. However, Edward didn’t fit into their world. Reed Albee, his adoptive father, was withdrawn and absent, a serial adulterer. Frankie, Reed’s third wife, was a glamorous former model, “imperious, demanding, and unloving,” to quote Albee’s biographer. The Albees were politically right-wing and never accepted Edward’s homosexuality. The boy (who became a ferocious liberal) was thrown out of the best private schools, endured the same military academy in which JD Salinger suffered, and lasted only three terms at Trinity College, Hartford, where he was expelled for cutting classes and refusing to attend chapel. He left home for good in 1949 (aged 21), adopted the bohemian life of Greenwich Village, and remained there for the rest of his life. For years he supported himself with odd jobs, while he learned to write plays. He found his voice with The Zoo Story (1958). He went on to such challenging and controversial plays as The Death of Bessie Smith (1959), The American Dream (1960), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), Tiny Alice (1965), A Delicate Balance (1966), Three Tall Women (1991, and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (2002). Among his many awards, including seven Tonys, Albee won three Pulitzer Prizes (A Delicate Balance, Seascape, Three Tall Women) and a fourth for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that was withdrawn by a spooked-out advisory committee. Before his death at 88 in September 2015, Albee was honored with lifetime achievement awards, Kennedy Center Honors, and the National Medal of Arts.
This essay has been sponsored by the generous people at
Ocean State Urgent Care of Barrington
The opinions expressed in this essay
are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.