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Frederick Weller, Elizabeth Marvel, George Grizzard, Frances Sternhagen in the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Edward Albee's "Seascape" at the Booth Theatre, directed by Mark Lamos. Photo: Joan Marcus

Beyond Landscape

By Una Chaudhuri

By Edward Albee
Booth Theatre
222 W. 45th St.

The recent New York production of Edward Albee's Seascape--which accomplishes the unlikely feat of getting two talking lizards onto a Broadway stage in a play that is neither a musical nor a children's entertainment--has been appreciated as an elegant and urbane entertainment in many reverential reviews, which read it essentially as a portrait of a marriage. In fact, there is much more in it, which a comment I overheard during intermission suggests is not being lost on ordinary spectators: "Doesn't it make you think of this whole Intelligent Design thing that's going on?"

Seascape is one of three Albee plays whose titles signal their interest in literary modes and genres. The earliest was The Zoo Story, which staged the power and limits of narrative through the unforgettable "Story of Jerry and the Dog." The most recent was The Play about the Baby, which slyly revealed the subtle terrorism involved in making lives into plays. Seascape, written in 1975 and recently revived by Lincoln Center at the Booth Theatre in a production directed by Mark Lamos, transposes the elements of drama--including several vintage Albee themes and character-types--into the representational frame of landscape.

The genre of landscape first enjoyed a rich history in painting, followed by a second complex life in association with such practices as the design of parks and gardens, environmental policy, public architecture, and the spatial representation of national identity. This reframing of landscape--from (as it were) a small picture to a big one--is part of the subject of a critical field known as Landscape Studies, which has emerged and flourished in the years since Albee wrote his play. Landscape Studies offers a way to respond to the invitation embedded in Albee's title, and to take his formal interest seriously. The suffix "scape," while phonically evoking a notion--"escape"--that Albee's play mines fully, also posits a unifying point of view, a perspective from which the figures in the landscape are no more interesting and meaningful than the world they inhabit.

The set design of the current production, by Michael Yeargan, does justice to the genre of landscape as it is understood today: a culturally overdetermined transformation of a piece of land into a set of meanings. The slice of environment in this case is a sun-soaked beach, rendered here as a vast swath of golden sand stretching across the stage and rising to almost half its height. Framed by the Booth's proscenium arch, this deceptively simple set becomes hugely resonant. First, its cultural meanings are heightened and indexed by the opening dialogue, where the fantasy of a lifetime of beach-combing, free from the cares of life and work, features prominently: "Can't we stay here forever?" To these familiar associations the action of the play adds a second, more archetypal layer: the beach as no-man's land, social border and human limit, place of ends and beginnings, and the extreme verge of life for most animals, whichever side of it they inhabit.

George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen in Edward Albee's "Seascape." Photo: Joan MarcusThe two animals discovered lounging on this evocative expanse of earth turn out to be the aforementioned vintage Albee types: hyper-cultivated WASPS who would never allow their fitful search for the meaning of life to interfere with the opportunity to deliver a shapely witticism. Charlie and Nancy are a benign version of old George and Martha, this time amply supplied with satisfactory progeny (so they say), and basking in the warmth of their plump retirement funds. Their conversation reveals a relationship full of affectionate amusement, with just a touch of discontent smoothed over with rueful toleration. Played with deep yet ironic humanity by George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen, Charlie and Nancy are ideally suited to the role Albee has in mind for them: explorers of the human verge.

Albee's affinity with Beckett is well-known (and was recently explored when three Beckett shorts were paired with Albee's Counting the Ways at The Century Center in New York City). The setting of Seascape, an expanse of sand, suggests another echo: the unexplained and unforgettable abode of the loquacious Winnie in Happy Days. The dialectic of movement and immobility Beckett explored in that play has undergone a gender-switch in Seascape: Nancy, with all her talk of travel, adventure and change, is the one associated with movement, while Charlie yearns for stillness. But the key resemblance to Beckett remains: the everyday absurd is finely calibrated with--set within, resonant with, ironized by--the philosophical sublime. In Albee's case, this sublime has a biological, even evolutionary inflection: absurdity stirred into, as it were, the primordial soup.

The opening conversation consists of vague planning, gentle disagreements, and some surprising reminiscing. Details about Charlie's childhood game of sitting at the bottom of the ocean give the plot the gentle shove it needs to tip over from its familiar little world into a very different and strange one. When Charlie and Nancy are joined by Leslie and Sarah, the English-speaking reptile couple, Albee's little landscape suddenly becomes a very big picture indeed.

Leslie and Sarah are played with such absolute assurance and complete embodiment by Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel, and so brilliantly costumed by Catherine Zuber, that one watches their every move with a mixture of admiration and alarm, fascination and fear. The encounter of the human and non-human animals turns out to be not only hugely entertaining--suspenseful, funny, moving, surprising--but also one of the most unexpectedly respectful ever imagined by a writer. As the two couples quiz each other about the nature of their lives, venturing into intimate topics that produce both amusing biological information and strong emotional responses, the stage begins to move back and forth between the "small world" preoccupations of its characters--love and marriage, offspring and obligation, pride and prejudice--to decidedly "big picture" considerations that rarely make their way into theater. More on this in a moment.

Animal references in the theater are often quickly translated into allegory, either by the playwright or the spectator/critic: thus Ionesco's rhinoceroses are read as fascists, Shaeffer's horses as paganism, Ibsen's wild duck as freedom, Chekhov's seagull as art. In Seascape, the slide into allegory is arrested by being explicitly acknowledged: when Leslie's comments about other sea creatures begin to sound familiarly racist, Charlie cries out, incredulously, "You're a bigot!" The temptation to read the reptile couple as typical members of another social group, with characteristic chauvinism and intolerance, is short-circuited, because that thought is immediately portrayed as superficial and insufficient. Interestingly, Albee performed a similar evasive maneuver in The Goat, preempting the equation of bestiality with homosexuality by providing his goat-loving protagonist with an openly and unproblematically gay son.

George Grizzard, Frederick Weller, Elizabeth Marvel, Frances Sternhagen in the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Edward Albee's "Seascape" at the Booth Theatre, directed by Mark Lamos. Photo: Joan MarcusSo far is Albee from wanting to abandon his animal characters to a reductively allegorical fate that he had originally planned to transport the entire play into their world: as he mentioned in a recent interview, the first draft of Seascape had three acts, one set underwater! Though later excised, this astonishing idea has left its mark on the play. For the inter-species encounter it stages is also a meeting of worlds, landscapes, ontologies. While owning up to--and brilliantly dramatizing--the seduction of human personalities, with all their pettiness and weightiness, Seascape also manages to open a space around them. This space--one might call it an ecological setting--subtly but profoundly alters the human story, redrawing it to a scale which reveals unexpected patterns and enjoins a new ethics.

In a special issue of the journal Performance Research on animals and performance in 2002, guest editor Alan Read asked the question: "What might it mean to practice, think, and write theater beyond the human?" Seascape is one answer. Among its discoveries is the recognition of a new time-span for realistic drama--one that vastly surpasses the usual limit of two or three human generations. Though the two couples talk of their childhoods and youths, their children and their future, the obvious difference between them bespeaks a much longer time-table. The ethics of this evolutionary schedule are made explicit in the last few moments, when the human couple promises to "help" the others to succeed in the next phase of their existence, on land. The creatures, returning from the verge of retreat, accept the offer of help. The last line of the play is a single resonant word, spoken by Leslie: "Begin."

The new beginning is hardly imaginable but remarkably resonant. Nancy, who had earlier on admitted that she couldn't "resist slipping into the past tense," and Charlie, who thought longingly of a watery oblivion, are invited--commanded--to alter their default temporality, and to regard themselves as implicated in a future no less than they are defined by their past. That future, it seems, requires them to think beyond the human, and to offer aid and assistance to lives they have been accustomed to ignoring. It requires them to move from being mere figures in a landscape to being the co-creators, with other figures--however improbable--of a landscape imbued with a new environmental ethics.


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