On a deserted stretch of beach, a middle-aged couple relaxes after a picnic lunch and converse idly about home, family, and their life together. She sketches; he naps. Then, suddenly, they are joined by two sea creatures, a pair of lizards from the depths of the ocean, with whom they engage in a fascinating dialogue. The emotional and intellectual reverberations of this bizarre conversation will linger in the heart and the mind long after the curtain falls–or the last page is turned.

Edward Albee says, “Seascape wonders whether we are an evolving species or perhaps a devolving one. Two lizards; two humans.”

Albee, Edward. Introduction. The Collected Plays of Edward Albee. Vol. 2. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005. 9.

Type: Full Length Play

Acts: Two

First Performance: 26 January 1975, Shubert Theatre, New York

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Albee’s second Pulitzer Prize), 1975.

Nominations: Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Play, 1975. Tony Award for Best Play, 1975.

Plot Summary and Critical Analysis by Sarah Stryker

Plot Summary

The first act of Seascape opens on a beach where a pleasant and ordinary retired couple, Nancy and Charlie, are in the midst of a pleasant and ordinary picnic. Nancy is painting, Charlie resting, as they discuss their plans for the future. They disagree about how they would like to spend the rest of their lives. Nancy wants to “go from beach to beach . . . [like] . . . seaside nomads,” [1] seeing everything from Rio de Janeiro to “what’s-her-name’s—Martha’s—vineyard.” [2] Stolid Charlie, however, does not share his wife’s adventurous spirit; he is simply “happy . . . doing . . . nothing” [3]. He feels that after a life of diligent work and successful parenting, they have “earned a little rest.” [4] As they grapple with the question of change, two enormous sea lizards appear. Nancy’s and Charlie’s responses to the situation are as different as their retirement plans. Charlie panics, concluding that he and Nancy must have died from eating spoiled liver paste and that the lizards are simply a hallucination. Nancy, however, is full of delight and wonder, exclaiming “Charlie! They’re magnificent!” [5]. The act ends with Nancy and Charlie curled up on the ground in a submission pose, smiling meekly at the lizards.

The second act begins with Leslie and Sarah, the two sea lizards, discussing the odd and suspicious creatures crouching at their feet. Leslie approaches Charlie and greets him in English, and after some coaxing from Nancy (“Speak to it, Charlie! Answer it!” [6]) Charlie responds. The two couples begin to explore one another: what they eat, what they fear, and how they reproduce. Sarah and Leslie are shocked to discover that their human acquaintances produce only one offspring every nine months. Leslie asks, “What if they’re washed away, or eaten? How do you . . . perpetuate?” [7] Nancy answers that they keep their young near them “ . . . ’till they’re all grown up and ready for the world” [8] because they love them. But Leslie and Sarah are not familiar with emotions, so Charlie tries to explain love using the lizards’ relationship. But all goes awry when Leslie gets defensive about his coupling habits. To diffuse the situation, Nancy jokes that the dispute doesn’t matter because according to Charlie, he and she are dead, which means Leslie and Sarah don’t exist. [9] This upsets Charlie and offends Leslie, but then a plane passes overhead and frightens the lizards. Charlie and Nancy explain planes, technology, and tools to Leslie and Sarah. Charlie asks the lizards why they came up to the beach in the first place, and Sarah answers that they “had a sense of not belonging [in the sea] anymore,” [10] that after a life of breeding and eating and staying alive, they had outgrown the world in which they lived. Nancy explains that this is evolution at work, and Charlie agrees: “it’s called flux. And it’s always going on; right now, to all of us.” [11] Sarah wonders if these changes occur for the better. Charlie says ‘progress’ is a set of assumptions, but Nancy protests that progress makes them more interesting at least, giving them tools, art, and awareness of death. Charlie agrees that these traits are what separate them from the “brute beast[s]” [12] who only eat, breed, and stay alive. Charlie illustrates for Sarah what her life would be like if Leslie were to disappear permanently, and she confronts for the first time the idea of loss and death. This realization is too much for the lizards and they decide to return to the sea, but Nancy pleads with them to stay, saying “you’ll have to come back . . . sooner or later.” [13] She and Charlie offer to help the lizards along the first part of their evolutionary journey, and Leslie says, “All right . . . begin.”

Critical Analysis

Seascape was originally written as a three-act play, with a “second act” set on the ocean floor. Due to “staging problems . . . it was cut after the first day of rehearsals.” [14] The play opened for previews on January 21st 1975 and closed its run on March 22nd 1975 after 75 performances in the Shubert Theatre. It was nominated for a 1975 Tony Award for Best Play, Best Featured Actor in a Play, and Best Lighting Design. It won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1975 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play, and was nominated for Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Featured Actress, Outstanding Costume Design, and Outstanding New Play (American). [15] However, critical reception of the play was “overwhelmingly negative, except for the raves from Barnes and Gill.” [16]

Like many of Albee’s plays, Seascape explores the human habit of creating illusions to fill an internal void or to sweeten the bitterness of life. In the case of Seascape, “its theme is the need to recognize and accept [death] as part of life’s process.” [17] Seascape is set in a world whose citizens have erected all manner of buffers and protections against the idea of death. Such technological advancements allow humans to deny death more easily than ever before, according to Kübler-Ross, but “for Albee, the need for recognition of the human condition in pain and suffering is absolute.” [18] Thus it becomes imperative that these characters confront their own mortalities as they begin the next leg of the evolutionary journey. But the “dull, bleak now” of existential awareness is “shattered by a primeval then[19] when two primitive creatures rise from the primordial soup. Seascape juxtaposes man’s consciousness against the obliviousness of the “brute beast” that is “not even aware it’s alive, much less it’s going to die.” [20] Leslie and Sarah’s simplicity “reminds us of innocence lost,” [21] and their curiosity about the practices of the human life identify the conventions that are pointless and illuminate “what is truly worthwhile.” [22]

As self-aware beings, Nancy and Charlie are conscious of death’s certainty, but their responses to its inevitability are vastly different. Charlie responds with submission; “he revels in the prospect of gradually and painlessly easing out of the picture by withdrawing from all purposive activity.” [23] Indeed, he hopes for a “release” [24] from the responsibilities and fears of life. His childhood habit of sinking under water is a “retreat into a pre-moral condition . . . free from the terror that is an inevitable part of life.” [25] Moreover, when Charlie encounters the lizards he would rather believe that he is already dead than face the unfamiliar.

Nancy, instead, sees the certainty of death as a reason to live life to the fullest. In Nancy’s eyes, since people “are not going to be around forever . . . [they] may not do nothing.” [26] Life’s inevitable termination is the very thing that makes it precious. She refuses to resign herself to “the purgatory before purgatory,” [27] but instead “accepts flux as a…necessary precondition for progress and growth.” [28] Charlie wonders “what’s to be gained” by spending energy doing things – “some . . . illusion, I suppose; some smoke.” [29] He feels that Nancy’s efforts to “see everything twice” [30] are a futile effort to resist what cannot be repelled. But Nancy’s zeal for adventure is merely a “Kierkegaardian leap of faith [to] find some positive value in life.” [31] She is determined to find inherent worth in the using of tools and in the making of art, in being “more interesting [than a rabbit] . . . all [they] do is eat carrots.” [32] To her, moving forward is essential, while to Charlie progress is simply “a set of assumptions” [33] that will eventually dwindle into obscurity.

The crucial question which Nancy and Charlie face in Seascape is what, if anything, should be done with their life. The answer seems to be “something.[34] Nancy and Charlie find their answer in Leslie and Sarah, who are unaware of their own mortality. It seems that Albee’s “pattern of saving-others-in-order-to-save-oneself,” [35] is the only way to quiet the terror of being alive. The innocence of Leslie and Sarah “remind[s] us, in almost childlike terms, of what is really important in life,” [36] and also offers Charlie and Nancy a solution to their existential crisis. Charlie shows Leslie and Sarah the pain of self-awareness by forcing them to imagine their lives without one another, and then “quenches their fear . . . [by] extending [his hand] in a human gesture of compassion and solidarity.” [37] The ultimate realization of the play is that human connection eases the pain of mortality. And the resolution comes with Leslie’s agreement not to re-enter “the pre-human security of the sea,” [38] but instead to “begin” living. [39]


[1] Albee, 6.
[2] Albee, 6.
[3] Albee, 7.
[4] Albee, 8.
[5] Albee, 22.
[6] Albee, 29.
[7] Albee, 38.
[8] Albee, 38.
[9] Albee, 45.
[10] Albee, 49.
[11] Albee, 53.
[12] Albee, 53.
[13] Albee, 56.
[14] Horn, 61.
[15] Internet Broadway Database.
[16] Horn, 61.
[17] Miller, 150.
[18] Miller, 150.
[19] Paolucci, 23.
[20] Albee, 54.
[21] Paolucci, 23.
[22] Paolucci, 24.
[23] Adler, 180.
[24] Albee, 47.
[25] Adler, 181.
[26] Albee, 7.
[27] Albee, 8.
[28] Adler, 182.
[29] Albee, 20.
[30] Albee, 8.
[31] Adler, 182.
[32] Albee, 53.
[33] Albee, 53.
[34] Albee, 7-8.
[35] Adler, 184.
[36] Paolucci, 25.
[37] Adler, 184.
[38] Adler, 184.
[39] Albee, 56.

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. Seascape. Rev. Ed. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc. 2003. Print.

Miller, Gabriel. “Albee on Death and Dying: ‘Seascape’ and ‘The Lady from Dubuque.’” Modern Language Studies, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Summer, 1986), pp. 149-160.

“Seascape.” Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League, 23 June 2014

Adler, Thomas P. “Albee’s Seascape: Humanity at the Second Threshold.” Critical Essays on Edward Albee ed. Philip C. Kolin and J. Madison Davis. Pub. G. K. Hall & Co. (1986) Boston, MA.

Horn, Barbara Lee. “Edward Albee: A Research and Production Sourcebook.” Modern Dramatists Research and Production Sourcebooks, Number 19. Praeger Publishers, (2003) Westport, CT.

Paolucci, Anne. “Edward Albee: A Retrospective (and Beyond).” Edward Albee: A Casebook. Ed. Bruce J. Mann. Routledge Publishing, (2003) New York, NY.

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