The Sea: A Critical Analysis

The Sea: A Critical Analysis

The Sea: A Critical Analysis : Bond’s play is subtitled ‘A Comedy’. It was written, straight after Lear, as an antidote to the remorseless theatrical experience of early play. In The Sea, Bond shows the ability of human beings to survive the worst, to retain their optimism, and not to be brought down by the lunacy and injustice of the world they live in:

The Sea: A Critical Analysis

I wanted very much in The Sea to look at the same sorts of problems but this time to put the emphasis on the strength of people, on their ability to change their society… So wanted to make people laugh and experience human strength.’

‘This is not to say that The Sea in any way encourages com­placency. The tightly knit society of a small town on the East Coast of England is a battleground over which the victims of an oppressive and morally impoverished culture wander in mad distraction. Alternatively, they hide away in disgust at what they have seen. The town is isolated on the edge of the sea; the effect is of a society sealed off from the outside world and from any poten­tial for change. Bond sets the play at a precise moment in time-it is 1907, and the iron-clad values of Edwardian England are leading inexorably to the disasters of the early twentieth century.’

It is a world ludicrously bent on self-destruction – just like that of Early Morning. The central character is another Bondian innocent. Willy Carson, like Arthur, is a young man who slowly awakens to the horrors around him. He is not a heroic figure, but a very ordinary man who is forced by circumstance into trying to understand his world: ‘He isn’t consciously searching for any­thing. What happens intrudes into his day-to-day compromise with living.’ You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

Willy and Arthur both come close to being overwhelmed by cynicism and despair, but they survive, and Bond expresses through them his conviction that society can be changed, while people like them continue to question its values. Their reactions inevitably involve a rejection of the world as they know it: at the end of both plays, they are seen moving out of the irrational world the other characters inhabit as though abandoning it as lost. Their action is a rejection of their present (and our present), but it also signifies the chance for a better future. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

In Lear, Bond is concerned with different kinds of political oppression and the violence he shows is exclusively political in nature. In The Sea, Bond shifts the focus and shows a more characteristically English form of repression – the operations and influence of a rigid class structure, which is carefully worked into the whole fabric of the play. It is the source of the strong thread of social satire that runs through it. Mrs. Rafi, the village dictator by virtue of her supreme upper middle-class self-assurance, is the
Edwardian equivalent of the lady of the manor; she and her entourage of genteel middle-class ladies are characterised as figures of fun, unaware of the emptiness of their posturings and the hollowness of their values. To mock their pretensions, Bond uses a more conventional comic approach than in any of the earlier plays — although there is a marked family resemblance between Mrs. Rafi and Victoria in Early Morning or Georgina in Narrow Road
to the Deep Nortb, 
Mrs. Rafi is essentially a grande dame in the tradition of English high comedy. In the same way, the farcical events that disrupt the funeral service on the cliff-top have earlier forerunners in scenes like the one with the young priests and the holy pot in Narrow Road to the Deep North, but without the sustained pitch of comic anarchy and the sheer ingenuity in the handling of the farcical mechanics that Bond attains in The Sea.

The satirical comedy is, however, only one element in the play. Bond is concerned to show the effects of a rigidly sectionalised society on its victims. Mrs. Rafi practises a form of mental and emotional violence on all those beneath her – as Rose says late in the play: ‘The town’s full of her cripples.’ Her main victim is the draper, Hatch, a tradesman who uneasily straddles the two worlds – that of me working class (Hollarcut, Thompson and Carter, the village men whom he influences with his ideas) and that of his genteel middle-class customers, to whom he is obliged to display an attentive servility. Unable to give direct expression to the antagonism he feels, he redirects his hostility. His fears of an alien invasion of England from outer space may be lunatic and unreal, but they find very real expression in his attitude towards Willy and Evens. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

 Willy is an object of suspicion because he arrives, in strange cir­cumstances, from outside the village; Evens is equally suspect because, in removing himself from society to his hut on the beach, he has rejected the same social pressures that constrict Hatch-he has found a solution which Hatch, still grappling with them in his own way, is unable to accept. Evens and Hatch represent two extreme poles of social response, as Bond explained: ‘My play is pointedly about sanity and insanity, and the town represents the dilemma of entrapment. The 8o-year old man, Evens, is the sane one. The rest are manic about their entrapment.’

What finally drives Hatch mad is not so much his sense of the unjust way that his society is organised, as the fact that he is forced to suppress his feelings about the real causes of these injustices -his aggression is directed not at Mrs. Rafi but at alternative scape­goats. As a result his views border on the fascist; although this is not made explicit in the play, in interview Bond has made the point very directly: ‘There is no doubt but that Hatch is a Hitleresque concept on my part.’ While Willy works steadily towards a view of his world that allows grounds for hope and opti­mism, Hatch’s inability to reach an intellectual understanding of his situation culminates in the futile intensity of his knifing of the corpse washed up on the beach.

 The progress in Willy is from the shell-shocked state he falls into after the drowning of his friend, Colin, in scene one to a fuller understanding of the problems of his life and his society. Above all, he ‘has to learn to face and accept Hatch’s fury, but not be seduced, corrupted or intimidated by it. He must avoid it and its deeds. But he mustn’t pretend it isn’t there.’ Hatch, however, has an increasingly insecure hold on reality – he invents fantasies to explain the tensions in the real world: ‘he lives in a world as illus­ory as that of the play which is rehearsed in Mrs. Rafi’s drawing-room.’ His false diagnosis of the reasons for his own unhappiness and discontent is a form of irrationality which, Bond suggests, in the end wreaks its own revenge. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

Three main elements, then, are interwoven in The Sea: the world of Mrs. Rafi, expressed mainly through high comedy; the barely controlled paranoia of Hatch; and Willy’s growing matur­ity and understanding, partly under the tutelage of Evens, together with his dawning relationship with Rose, Mrs. Rafi’s niece and the fiancee of Willy’s drowned friend.

The dramatic pattern that Bond forges from these three ele­ments is very carefully shaped, as an examination of the distri­bution of main characters through the play’s eight scenes shows. Willy is there almost throughout. The only scene in which he does not appear is scene five (the confrontation between Hatch and Mrs. Rafi which precipitates Hatch’s madness); he witnesses only the effect that Mrs. Rafi has on Hatch. In scene two he comes into the shop after Hatch’s fawning attempt to sell the curtain material and gloves to her, and Willy’s other meetings with Hatch consist entirely of the series of bizarre encounters on the beach (scenes one and six) and on the cliff- top (scene seven).

Hatch appears in six of the eight scenes; the prominence Bond gives to this character underlines the importance he attaches to keeping Hatch’s failure to cope with the social pressures exerted on him constantly in the audience’s mind. There is no call for him to be involved in scene five (the rehearsal of the play Mrs. Rafi and her ladies are putting on), but far more telling is his exclusion from the last scene; clearly, he can have no part in the rational delibera­tions between Willy and Evens about the state of the world and Willy’s best course of action. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

More interesting still is a breakdown of the respective appearances of Mrs. Rafi and Evens. They appear together in the same scene just once — at the cliff-top funeral service, theatrically the climax of the play. The remainder of the scenes contain either the one character or the other, a structural pattern which emphas­izes how Willy is shuttled backwards and forwards between the kind of society to which, by birth and social station, he belongs and the influence of Evens, the old recluse, whose support Willy needs if he is to face and to comprehend the lunacy around him.

Given that the three elements in the play involve considerable variations in mood and tone, where does a director or actor place the main emphasis? What is the balance between the fun and the intensity? Bond would want to stress that any production should reflect the comic nature of the play as a whole, and not just go for the humour in the scenes which are obviously comic – otherwise the intended effect of the play will be lost:

‘I simply cannot rec­oncile myself to a life that will ultimately end in violence and chaos. I do believe in the triumph of the human spirit. If The Sea starts violently and noisily, it should end with the profoundest sense of tranquillity. I gather from the reviews that the German productions treat the play as something very grim and serious. Please remember it is labelled a comedy and for a reason! It should be played lightly and with as much fun as possible.’

Bond’s instruction is clearcut and straightforward. It precisely matches his intention ‘deliberately to say to the audience “You mustn’t despair. You mustn’t be afraid. You must be conscious of the dangers but nevertheless be conscious of your strengths.”

How useful, though, is this general observation to an actor playing, say, Hatch or Willy? Each of these actors is presented with a number of situations of a seriousness and intensity that must be reflected in their performances: Hatch’s stabbing of the body, for example, can’t be played ‘lightly’. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

The task for an actor in The Sea, or in any play by Bond, is to avoid letting moments such as these colour the rest of his performance or form the basis for an overall characterisation of the part. To do so is to misunder­stand the way Bond constructs the characters and the function he gives them – as he has explained : ‘

We see the character from dif­ferent facets, we see the character acting in different situations, and what the actor therefore has to act is simply that one situation.’ In other words, the situation is never to be used by the actor as a basis {or generalising about his character elsewhere in the play. As Bond describes it : ‘The situations are designed not to show the de­velopment of his character but to show the crucial situations that an individual has to cope with in order to produce what is’of value in him.

Scene one of The Sea is the most directly the theatrical of all the openings to Bond’s plays. Although the first lines of The Woman also plunge the spectator right into the thick of the dramatic action, the opening scene rapidly demands an attentive intellec­tual response to the excitement and tension displayed on the stage. In The Sea, Bond aims at a very different effect. At the start, there is only the darkened empty stage, and a wall of sound that stuns the senses:


Empty stage. Darkness and thunder. Wind roars, whines, crashes and screams over the water. Masses of water swell up, rattle and churn, and crash back into the sea. Gravel and sand grind slowly. The earth trembles.

Two subsequent stage directions indicate that this is only the beginning – the assault intensifies in the course of the scene, as ‘The tempest grows louder’. The sounds, the empty stage, Willy’s offstage cries for help, twice eclipsed by the noise of the water, combine to disorientate the spectator. To begin with, there is no fixed point of focus for the audience to look at; when one arrives, in the shape of Evens (‘A drunken man comes on singing’), the result is to add a layer of strangeness to the general pattern of chaos, disorder and despair. It is not only what Evens says that seems so strange, but even more his behaviour. Two young men are struggling for their lives in the sea, yet he makes no effort to help them. His one gesture is to offer Willy a drink from his bottle — and even this minimal gesture has a chillingly surreal quality about it, since Willy is still in the sea. What one sees is a drunken old man proffering his bottle to the raging waters offstage. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis. 

An audience’s first response might be to view the situation as a combination of accidental and tragic circumstances: Willy is unable to save his friend from drowning because, through an un­fortunate freak of fate, the only person on the beach is an old drunk. Such a view at once appears too easy and reassuring with the entrance of a second, even stranger figure] In the published script, Bond’s only direction is ‘Hatch a middle-aged man comes on with a torch. This is expanded in his script for the B.B.C. Television production to include a brief description of Hatch’s move­ments: ‘Hatch, a middle-aged man, is marching stiffly towards the camera with a torch. He looks like an automation.’ In this case, it is not only the character’s attitude – nakedly hostile to the young man in distress – which strikes a chill: his lines ring with the sound of a harsh, crazed morality: ‘Filthy beast… I know who you are. You thought you wouldn’t be seen out here.’ The failure of the drunk to offer help was one thing: suddenly, it seems the whole world is crazy, incapable of one single natural response.

The whole scene lasts two to three minutes: the audience does not have time for a considered, rational response. The function is to shock and disturb – and incidentally to make Willy’s traumatic state throughout most of Act one seem convincing and under­standable as a reaction not only to Colin’s death but equally to the callousness and inhumanity he has encountered. Yet one inescap­able question stares out at us from what we see: what kind of world is this, where basic human impulses are so blunted and attitudes so deranged?

The thought might also cross our minds that another play has started in a very similar fashion – even without the help of Bond’s tongue-in-cheek stage direction. ‘The tempest grows louder’. Bond has openly confessed his indebtedness: ‘Yes the play is strongly influenced structurally by Shakespeare’s Tempest. I even have it start with a storm too.’ But he has also explained how what matters in the end is the essential difference between the two plays rather than the similarities: ‘The basic idea behind The Tempest, I think, is the idea of conflict and resolution. The image of the sea conveys this very well – the storm is a destructive image, it reflects social and personal conflicts; the sea is finally able to resolve these images into a powerful continuity. That’s what Shakespeare, I think, had in mind. That’s not finally a satisfactory image for our own age.’ You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

For Bond, conflict is rooted not in basic human nature but in the constrictions forced upon it by society, and conflict can only be resolved by human action to change society.

In an early note on the play, Bond wrote: ‘The storm at sea is to image the storm in the draper’s shop’ — a reference to Hatch’s onslaught on the curtain material, and on Mrs. Rafi. (One of Bond’s two early titles for the play was ‘Two Storms’.) Scene two, although set in Hatch’s shop, offers no hint of the man-made storm to come.

The tone is very quiet. Hatch’s opening lines are full of the ingratiating servility of the tradesman: ‘Art serge is coming in now, Mrs. Rafi. Very fashionable for winter curtains.’ Dropped softly into the sudden stillness and silence after the end of the storm, their effect is to bring one back with a jolt to what seems a reassuringly familiar world.

Evidently the sound-effects of the storm need to continue beyond the end of scene one and through the scene-change for the sharpness of the contrast to be fully registered. The effect Bond is after is more easily achieved in film or television than on the stage, as Jane Howell, who directed the play for television, explains: You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

The marvellous thing that you could do in the television production was make changes in a flash, so you could get the counterpoint of the relationship between the scenes, the rhythm of the scenes against each other — something you can never truly do in the theatre. .. Bond does hand one scene into the next and you can never quite get that in the theatre, where something has to be taken off the stage, or characters have to go off.

Hatch’s hushed tones are also in violent contrast with his last lines in scene one, railing demoniacally at Willy above the booming of the guns from the shore battery. Within the space of a minute we have seen a Jekyll and Hyde character, the two facets of his personality clinically juxtaposed. When the audience recognises him as the madman they saw on the beach, the inevitable question which arises is: can this be the same man? There is no apparent link between the two extremes of behaviour we have witnessed. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

The first clues are laid as we watch Mrs Rafi systematically humiliate Hatch. She grudgingly selects her curtain material, then rejects the gloves he has on offer; the tension caused by his subser­vient social position and by the precariousness of his livelihood, at the mercy of Mrs. Rafi’s whims, are clear to see. In the television script, when Willy enters the shop, Hatch reacts by ‘watching ner­vously as he pretends not to notice and tidy the gloves away instead’. Is this an expression of guilt? Or is it out of fear that Willy might publicly condemn his behaviour on the beach? The former seems unlikely since, when Willy and the two ladies have gone, Hatch persuades the other coastguards that Willy is the advance guard of an invasion force from another planet.

As he talks to the three men about his beliefs, Hatch’s manner changes. His words have a directness and confidence about them: ‘They come from space. Beyond our world. Their world’s threat­ened by disaster. If they think we’re a crowd of weak fools they’ll all come here. By the million. They’ll take our jobs and our homes. Everything.’ But this is different again from his expres­sion of these selfsame fears when he confronted Willy during the storm.

In a way, the changes we see in Hatch – the different Versions’ of his character presented over the short space of two scenes – make perfect sense: it’s a truism that human beings behave dif­ferently in different situations. What is distinctive here is the com­pactness and terseness of Bond’s dramatic technique. The changes in Hatch are shown not as subtle gradations from a secure and established reference-point, but as a series of apparently contrasting statements. The audience’s perception of the character is formed out of this dialectic and, what is more important, can only be formed from an understanding of the situations in which we see him. The key to the first part of scene two, for example, is the difference in class and social standing between Hatch and Mrs Rafi. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

Several implications for the actor spring from this. He must play the character in each situation and that situation only; he will not get very far by inventing an overall psychological base for the character as a launching pad for the performance of individual scenes. As Bond explains: ‘There is a continuity within the character …. because although things are done to them, they do still react with a certain consistency. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis. The actor has to ask what type of person am I – and then define this in terms of a situation . . . It’s no use asking: “How did /get here?”: You have to ask: “How did it [the situation] get here?”’.

So far, the play hardly sounds much like a comedy. There is comedy, even in the first scene, as Jane Howell points out: ‘It comes from Evens during the storm. But it seems so improbable. I don’t think an audience can laugh at it. It’s so difficult for them to know what is going on. So much so that I love it when Hatch comes on and says “I know what’s going on here”‘. But until scene four the comedy is mostly on a slow fuse; it is used to point the strangeness of the situation and to set up questions in the audi­ence’s minds. The exception is Mrs. Rafi. Bond gives to this character lines which in their polished wit trigger memories of Oscar Wilde, particularly when she gives vent to her feelings by way of epigrams: ‘Leave her. Never show any interest in the pass­ions of the young, it makes them grow up selfish.’ The language reflects her continual disdain for everyone she comes into contact with. What is missing from her words is any sense of human feeling. With the blithe, unquestioning self-assurance that derives from her social position, she queens it over the other characters, sweeping all before her on an imperious torrent of words; the casual viciousness with which she treats her social inferiors goes hand in hand with her haughty, grande-dame manner. It is this one facet of her character that Bond holds steadily before us until her last four speeches in the play.

 Willy’s appearance in scene two is limited to the one brief con­versation with Mrs. Rafi and Mrs. Tilehouse. He is cautious and withdrawn. There is no evidence of how the events of the first scene have affected him. There is more than a suspicion of the stiff upper-lip in his bearing-Mrs. Rafi’s world is not conducive to the open expression of personal grief. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.  It is only when he visits Evens at his hut on the beach, prompted by Mrs. Rafi’s suggestion that the old man will know where Colin’s body might be washed ashore, that he gives vent to his feelings:

Willy sits down on a box and starts to cry into his hands. evens looks at him for a moment and then goes slowly into the hut. willy cries a bit longer before he speaks.

Willy (trying to stop). So stupid – doing this-coming here and . . .

Evens (inside the hut). Is there a proper place?

This small incident lays the ground for the vital conversation between them in the last scene; as scene three develops, there is the sense that we are in a different world from the one over which Mrs., Rafi presides, a world with at least the potential for an open exchange of thoughts and feelings. At this stage Bond allows no more than a hint of this potential, while Hatch and Hollarcut watch suspiciously from not far off, forcibly reminding us of the warped aggressiveness that Mrs. Rafi’s values can provoke. (Hatch’s interpretation of Willy’s tears as a signal to his fellow space-creatures is itself a sign of his reluctance to tolerate any display of natural human feelings.)

Evens tells Willy what he wants to know about the tides. But his long speech giving this information contains a lot more than is needed to answer Willy’s questions:

Perhaps not. We’re into the spring tides now. He’ll be washed up where the coast turns in. (Points.) You see ? People are cruel and boring and obsessed. If he goes past that point you’ve lost him. He should come in. He’s hanging round out there now. He could see us if he wasn’t dead. My wife died in hospital. She had something quite minor.

I sold up. They hate each other. Force. Make. Use. Push. Burn. Sell. For what? A heap of rubbish.

This extract, and the remainder of the speech, is a characteristic Bond ‘soliloquy’. Evens’s lines switch continually from one train of thought to another; the subject is changing all the time, from his description of the movement of the body in the sea to his account of his view of the world. At first sight, it might seem that these abrupt changes in subject also represent a movement from the external to the internal. On closer examination, this is clearly not the case – it is hard to imagine how an actor could pitch half of the lines on an emotive, interior register and then switch back to an impassive description of the tides without making the whole speech topple over into melodrama. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

The variations in the speech^ demand only the very slightest changes in the vocal and emotional register; its distinct sections need to be played as simply a success­ion of individual statements. The method is analogous to the way in which Bond constructs a character, showing the character from a number of fixed points and asking the audience to draw the necessary conclusions. In the same way, the actor here needs to deliver the lines trusting in the information they convey about Evens, not complicating them by trying to construct a hidden network of emotional linkages.

Played this way, there is no danger of Evens becoming a senti­mentalised figure, a wise old man of the sea. Even at this early stage the character needs to be kept in perspective: ‘The old man on the beach has weaknesses – and he indulges in the luxury of admitting this without doing anything about it. Perhaps he can be excused more easily than other people in the play – but perhaps he should be condemned more than any of the others.’ You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.  Evens’s comments on human beings in scene three are entirely negative; he has withdrawn from society and sits outside it, staring balefully in. Bond does not want us to be too easy on him: ‘He is a man of enormous potential and intellect, and also a man of personal taste and conviction … and he has done nothing with his talents – or only enough to show what he could have done. Was anything done again?’

The reverberations from this early note on the character carry through to the next play, Bingo, where Shakespeare, like Evens, sits watching with disgust the way men behave towards each other, yet does nothing to interfere with the injustice he sees. The question Bond has him frequently ask of himself is phrased in the same words. Was anything done?’. It is echoed, in a significantly modified form, in Mrs. Rafi’s burst of self- analysis – and self-pity — in scene seven j ‘Has anything been worthwhile?’. Bond’s ear­liest projected title for The Sea, before ‘Two Storms’, had been ‘Was Anything Done?’.

By the end of the scene, it must seem possible that Evens’s nega­tivism will carry the day. There is no question that he is a more powerful figure than Willy and the fierce irony of his reply when Willy asks him why he was drunk during the storm has a convinc­ing ring to it: ‘I drink to keep sane. There’s no harm in the little I drink. Li Po: you who are sated with life, now drink the dregs.’ His explanation prompts further questions in our minds. Can he honestly claim there is no harm in his drinking?  You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis. What if he had not been drunk? Might Colin have been saved? Later, Willy voices this thought for us: If you hadn’t been drunk. ‘ Evens disposes of it with a reply which implies far more than it says: ‘I answered that question long ago:  if he hadn’t gone to sea. ‘ Nothing can be gained by wishing things different. Colin is dead, Willy is alive, and he must face the world as it is.

To begin with, Willy shows no inclination to question his condition; his mind is still locked on thoughts of Colin and his death. It has argued that the character on stage presents much the same problems as Arthur in Early Morning, because Willy too seems to hover on the edge of the main action rather than being directly involved at the centre of it. It is easy to see how Willy’s role could be overshadowed by the more virtuoso parts of Mrs. ‘Rafi and Hatch. ‘These are the “vital” characters,’ wrote one critic, ‘the ones to whom you respond, for whom you care … If the death matters . . . then it matters to the stony-faced, the silent, the young automatons Willy and Rose – as “dead” as the dead man, but representing the hope of the future.

But Willy, as we shall see, is very far from being dead by the end of the play. What truth there is in this stricture might fairly be applied only to Willy’s characterisation in the early scenes. His appearance in scene two amounts to only a very brief conversation with Mrs. Rafi and Mrs. Tilehouse. Scenes three and four present more difficulty, because he plays a large part in both yet his state of mind remains something of an enigma. How, then, does an actor playing Willy negotiate these two scenes without creating the kind of totally negative reaction stated above? You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

To a large extent, it comes back to the point made earlier about the character of Hatch. Bond’s method is to show different facets of a character, either from scene to scene or within a scene. There will always be the danger of an actor or an audience unconsciously combating this by striving, too hard and too soon, for a genera­lised, composite view of the character which glosses over Bond’s emphasis on the primacy of the situation in favour of a more con­ventional consistency of character. Jane Howell points to the distortions that can result:

Willy could be played as the perfect hero – a generalised perform­ance of Willy would make him always quietly spoken, never raising his voice, very intelligent – which he undoubtedly is – calm, all-seeing, wise — totally wonderful!… If you let the actor generalise from scene to scene, the logic will go something like this: he has lost his best friend in the storm, the rest of the time he is shell-shocked, he is in mourning for his life, he is in mourning for everything eke. And the actor won’t actually look for the changes in the scene. )

In scene three, Willy is self-absorbed and relatively withdrawn. The ‘changes’ in the scene, as far as Willy is concerned, are minor variations on that one note. What must not happen is that the Willy of this scene should come to characterise and colour the part as a whole. It is clearly significant that Willy is young- twenty-one years old – and that in the course of the play he starts to come of age. The intelligence and maturity he shows later should not strike the audience as extraordinary or come as a surprise. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

In scene four Bond switches back from the beach to the unnatu­ral climate of the town. With imperious authority, Mrs. Rafi pres­ides over an event which — characteristically – represents a triumph of art over life – the rehearsal of a play on the subject of Orpheus and Eurydice, to be given by her group of local ladies in aid of the Coastguard Fund. The irony that this play within a play is on a theme which, according to one critic, contains strong cor­respondences with the remainder of the play (one only needs to substitute Colin, Rose, and Willy for Orpheus, Eurydice and Pluto) cannot be completely ignored. But thematic ironies of this kind are infinitely less important than what Bond shows in direct stage terms — the juxtaposition of Willy and Rose (the dead man’s fiancee) with the arid inanities of the rehearsal.

The rehearsal scene is one of two comic highlights in The Sea. It is a wicked parody of the worst kind of village hall amateur theatri­cals. By the standards of, say, Early Morning, the comic effects are quite conventional- the scene is structured on one basic comic principle: the idea of constant interruption. As Mrs. Rafi struggles to inspire her cast, she is frustrated by a combination of external circumstance and individual recalcitrance. Mrs. Tilehouse questions the appropriateness of Mrs. Rafi’s star turn- a solo ren­dering of ‘There’s No Place Like Home’. Mafanwy objects to playing the dog. Jilly is so overcome with emotion that she breaks down and cries. The Vicar is incapable of delivering his lines without indulging in constant digressions about the life of the parish. On top of all this come two major dislocations of Mrs. Rafi’s insubstantial pageant: Willy’s arrival, and the sound of guns, which finally and conclusively shatters the elaborate cocoon Mrs. Rafi has carefully spun (‘one can’t play lutes to the sound of gunfire’). You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

Mrs. Rafi’s first action in the scene is to send her ladies scurry­ing to close the curtains on the windows overlooking the sea -nominally to prevent Rose from tormenting herself with thoughts of Colin. However, as John Dillon remarked, describing his pro­duction at the Asolo Theatre, Florida: ‘The closing off of that light is an important moment. The women scurried over to the curtains – and the three curtains fell as one. And you had that idea of arti­ficial light, which is very much Mrs. Rafi’s environment.’ The alternation between indoor and outdoor scenes, between the town and the beach, between the tight enclosed environment of-Hatch’s shop or Park House and the natural world outside, is fun­damental to the structure of The Sea; the contrast between the two worlds is built into the narrative rhythm.

In the Royal Court pro­duction, the backcloth of sea blending into sky was always visible behind interior and exterior scenes alike; partly, as the designer Deirdre Clancy explains, ‘for its symbolic effect, but also because it was practically impossible to get rid of it! The impression of the wider natural world waiting outside heightens our sense of the cramped artificiality of Hatch’s and Mrs. Rafi’s behaviour. In David Carson’s production at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, ‘six or seven feet were left clear each side of the shop set; Hatch’s shop seemed like a small island.’ The effect of the world outside the windows should be one not of threat but hope: in the television production, Bond’s suggestion for the lighting of the exteriors was: ‘I think everything should be bathed in light, cocooned in white.’

The rehearsal is well underway and the comic momentum well established by the time Willy appears. For the remainder of the scene, until his conversation with Rose at the end, Willy is onstage but silent- after stuttering out a few words to Rose when they are introduced, he returns to the sidelines to watch the play. It is vital that the audience remains aware of him there during the rest of the rehearsal but this presents the director with an immediate theatri­cal problem — in the words of William Gaskill, who directed The Sea at the Royal Court; ‘How do you make it clear that the passive figure is also the central figure?’

 Bond’s only stage direction for Willy after his entrance is close to the end of the scene. The rehearsal has broken. Rose crosses to Willy. He sits alone on a chair. While they talk the others are admiring and giggling at the designs.’ But what of Willy earlier on? In the Royal Court production, Gaskill had Willy and Rose sitting on a sofa in the foreground, stage right, with the back of the sofa towards the audience. Thus, two characters who have little direct part in this scene, but who must remain in the forefront of the audience’s mind, were placed in a strong position downstage. At the Asolo Theatre, the director found the same solution, placing them on a downstage sofa ‘as if putting a frame around their meeting’.

From this vantage point, Willy — and Rose, until her turn comes to appear in Mrs. Rafi’s play — watch the rehearsal. Rose’s first lines in the character of Eurydice — ‘I am queen of this dark place. My heart burns with a new cold fire.’ – are an ironic comment on her own reaction to Colin’s death. They introduce a moment of genuine feeling into the general posturing and histrionics around her, but they also mark Rose out as a potential victim – like Willy, she is in danger of letting her feelings close her off from life. Meanwhile, the actions and gestures of the other participants in the theatrical travesty point up the ludicrous hollowness of their lives. The grand declamatory style of the play they are rehearsing, the constant interruptions, Mrs. Rafi’s attempts to keep things on an even keel, all cry out for a calculated comic exaggeration in the acting. The exaggerated comic style is important for another reason — Bond wants to show not only the ridiculousness of their values but the unnaturalness of their behaviour. The final effect of this play within the play, together with the alarums and excursions that surround it, is to project a bizarre vision of a dead world. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

Willy’s presence as an onlooker at these weird and artificial rites focusses our attention more keenly on the chasm that separates Mrs. Rafi from the real world outside, but it is easy to overlook the fact that this is also a vital scene in terms of the development of one Howell explains: ‘In the play scene he goes into hell, if you like, and sees these strange fantasy figures, and then suddenly the curtains are drawn and there is light on his face, and it’s like recreating the whole experience of the storm for him in a different form – something like the torch Hatch shone on his face; suddenly there’s light on his face.’

 The opening of the curtains, following on from the sound of the guns^ firing as they did during the storm, jolts Willy out of his trance-like state. (The script for the television adaptation contains direction that perfectly describes the image of Willy sitting gazing at the rehearsal – ‘Willy appears as a pale, ghostly, unmoving shape in the background.’ On television Jane Howell had sought to underline the metaphysical connection between the play scene and the storm scene by adopting a suggestion made by Bond. When Willy first enters, the curtains have been drawn and ‘He looks round at the darkness’. Bond’s suggestion was that, as Willy makes for a seat, he has to clamber past the chairs and other furniture, pushed to one side to make space for the rehearsal; his movements through the darkened room should suggest his strug­gling movements through the waves in scene one. This is a diffi­cult effect to bring off-it is more likely that Willy will simply look awkward – although this kind of visual simile, like the ‘pale, ghostly’ image of Willy, is probably easier to realise on television than on the stage.

What must be registered is the change in the scene – and in Willy’s state of mind -after the curtains have been opened again. The change of attitude comes at a precise moment in his conver­sation with Rose.

Rose. Mr. Carson, you must go home.

Willy. No. I sat in that hotel all yesterday. No. And what has been happening here this afternoon, I noticed nothing till the guns… ? There were people on the beach when the boat turned over.

The last sentence signals a complete change of tone. For the first time he talks to Rose directly about Colin’s drowning. The plati­tudes he’d spoken a few lines earlier (‘I can’t say how sorry I am. There’s nothing I can do.’) are replaced by an urgent need to describe the experience to her. On the evidence of the character we have seen so far, this has to be regarded as a positive step. But two cautionary notes are struck. Willy is still obsessed, just as he was when talking to Evens, about what might have been: ‘We were so near the shore. If only I’d been able to get to him.’ And Rose closes her ears to his account, preferring her role as tragic heroine to the disturbance Willy’s new tone would cause her. You are reading The Sea: A Critical Analysis.

Willy’s ‘reliving’ of the storm is a prelude to the storm that erupts in Hatch’s shop. Unlike the natural storm at sea of the first scene, this one is unnatural, man-made, the consequence of intol­erable social pressures. In scene five, Bond shows a man driven into madness; but the tone of the scene is by no means unrelieved-ly serious. As in the play scene, comedy is used to satirise and to deflate. It acts as a frame within which Hatch’s outbreak of emotion stands out that much more starkly. The mood of the scene switches from comedy to near melo­drama to periods of calm – the audience is never allowed to relax into a settled response. Ironically, we see two sides of Hatch with which we are already familiar- they are different sides of the same coin, in that both are ways of coping with his role in society, but whereas his ingratiating manner towards Mrs. Rafi is consciously adopted, his vision of alien invasions, although rationally and coherently expressed, is not a conscious mechanism for survival: it is a form of displacement activity, a transference of aggression from its natural target in the real world (Mrs. Rafi and those who hold sway over him) to a fantasy substitute.

The connection between Hatch’s paranoid interpretation of other people’s behav­iour and his own struggle to survive is made in his conversation with Hollarcut and the others – his instinct is to see anyone who poses a threat to him as in league with the creatures who are out to subvert his world/’You soon spot them behind this counter. You get a fair indication from the way they pay their bill. That shows if they respect our way of life, or if they’re just out to make trouble by running people into debt.’

Hatch still has the cool logic of the self-assumed prophet. But his mask of rationality, or reasonableness, crumbles in the face of Mrs. Rafi’s ultimate blow to his livelihood: because of his derelic­tion of duty in failing to help Willy in the storm, she refuses to accept the 162 yards of blue velvet curtain material he has ordered for her. Her action triggers off the comic frenzy that typifies the rest of the scene. Hatch’s first reaction is to make excuses for his behaviour, but there is more than a trace of exasperation in his voice: ‘Did you see the storm? What could I do – Christian or not! – calm the waters, Mrs. Rafi?’. Mrs. Rafi’s immovability rapidly pushes him into further excesses – he hints darkly that she is in league with Willy – but he is still torn between a compulsion to retrieve the situation and the need to speak his mind. Bond’s way of representing this in the dialogue is succinct and graphic: ‘Feel the stuff, ma’am. Really, an educated person of your taste can’t resist a product as beautiful as – (Crying.) but oh the pity of it is you don’t see the whole community’s threatened by that swine, yes swine, bastard, the welfare and livelihood of this whole town!’. The shift in the tone and rhythm of the speech is another instance of Bond’s characteristic method of juxtaposing contras­ted statements. There is no sense of a slowly mounting hysteria in Hatch’s remarks; it is the suddenness of his display of open emotion that shocks and works on the mind.

In a conversation with William Woodman, who was about to direct The Sea at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, Bond stressed how important it was for the actor not to anticipate Hatch’s break­down – and acknowledged the technical difficulty of the sequence when he cuts, tears, rips and slashes at the material, all the time commenting on his life in the trade:’ The cutting scene is the most difficult to stage. Ian Holm wanted a glove, it was such arduous work. The actor playing Hatch mustn’t be obvious at all in this scene that he’s cracking. It’s a temptation to be avoided.. ’.

The attack on the material is yet another displacement activity: shortly afterwards Hatch actually strikes out with the shears at the real object of his aggression – Mrs. Rafi. But the seriousness of Hatch’s predicament, and the sense of the agony of long years of oppression bursting to the surface, is counterbalanced by sharply comic sequences: Hatch’s hacking of the material is prefaced by Mrs. Rafi sternly leading Thompson, her gardener, out of the shop by his ear; Hollarcut watches the height of the drama from a safe position behind the counter, ducking his head down beneath it when things get too hot; Mrs. Tilehouse swoons; and there is a continual, increasingly frantic coming and going, marked by the clanging sounds of the doorbell which Bond scrupulously indi­cates in the stage directions on each occasion One consequence of the way he has written the scene is that, although we are made still more aware of Hatch as a victim, we are not encouraged to feel empathy with the character. The overriding principle is one of de­monstration.

Hatch’s breakdown and the preceding scene of the rehearsal expose the hollowness and frailty of the protective shells which individuals like Hatch and Mrs. Rafi grow to avoid any real contact with other people. In the remaining three scenes, Bond shows through the characters of Willy and Rose that there are alternatives to the irrationality we have seen.

Reviewers and critics have tended to sentimentalise Willy and Rose by referring to them in a lazy shorthand as ‘the young lovers’ – the vision conjured up is of them walking hand in hand down the beach and into the sunset as they leave for a new life together. But what Bond shows is Willy and Rose learning to live in the real world, learning to face the worst and not to grow protective armour but to plunge back into life: ‘Like the young couple in The Tempest, Willy and Rose have to create their own personal maturity. The ideal figure is drowned and lost – he would have been impossible either to live with or live up to – and the couple have to find their own strength by learning to solve the problems of their own lives and their society. They find that strength in the process of learning, they don’t bring that strength to the process.’

Our last sight of Willy was of him trying to convey to an unwill­ing Rose what he remembered of Colin’s drowning. After only a few lines of scene six, talking to her on the beach, he again con­fronts her with his thoughts about Colin. It is like a continuation of his earlier, fruitless conversation with her — except Willy has changed. The calmness and directness of his words is one aspect of this change – although he had shown evidence of this capacity in his talk with Evens in scene three. More striking is what he actually tells her.

Rose’s attitude is remote: as Jane Howell puts it: ‘She still has an image of herself sitting in black on the beach.’ Their early exchanges consist of separate trains of thought which overlap, rather than an actual dialogue. Willy is now capable of being objective about Colin; Rose continues to romanticise both Colin and her own position, and her stance is entirely negative: T can’t bear to lose him. I don’t think I can live without him.’ This self-regarding quality in Rose goes hand in hand with a passive despair: ‘How can you escape from yourself, or what’s happened to you, or the future?

 Willy offers no easy comfort:

If you look at life closely it is unbearable. What people suffer, what they do to each other, how they hate themselves … you should never turn away. If you do you lose everything. Turn back and look into the fire. Listen to the howl of the flames. The rest is lies.

This is Willy’s strongest speech in the play, echoing Evens’s long speech to him in scene three but with a maturity and power which alert us to how changed he is from the ghostly figure of the play scene. Deliberately, Bond shows the change not the develop­ment; this scene could be happening two days, three days, a week after his visit to Park House, and we are neither shown nor told anything of his thoughts in the interim. All that matters is that he is now capable of confronting reality, however grim, with the voice of reason.

 The whole sequence between Willy and Rose is played out in front of Colin’s dead body, washed up on the shore and lying upstage, at first unnoticed by them. The drowned man’s appearance, down to the last detail, had been one of the formative images in Bond’s mind when he started to think about the play: ‘… I heard about somebody who had been drowned after a ship had sunk, and he was found washed up, dead, lying on the beach. And he’d been trying to get his jumper off over his head so that he could swim better – his head was covered by this jumper, and his hands were stretched upwards, still caught in the thing, and he’d drowned like that… it seemed to me so extraordinary, that he’d pulled this hood thing over his head trying to escape.’

The body clearly has a metaphorical significance: the action of ‘trying to escape’ is analogous to the situation of Willy and Rose, who have both come close to being swamped by their own despair. But any metaphorical connotations give way to a more immediate theatrical reality: Willy has come to terms with the death and has achieved a sane perspective on life and so reacts undramatically to the body, but the same is not true of Hatch, who arrives on the beach and, thinking himself to be alone, stabs and hacks at the corpse in the delusion that it’s Willy he is killing. The parallel with his earlier slashing of the curtain material is obvious, but by now Hatch has lost all hold on reality and his alienation is expressed through a vicious and calculated act of vio­lence. Our immediate reaction might be horror and repulsion, but the parallel with his attack on the material reminds us of the pressures that forced this action by driving Hatch into madness. Willy’s comment to himself as he watches- ‘Hit it. That’s an inno­cent murder’ – is true not only because Colin is already dead but because Hatch, in the fullest sense, is not responsible for his actions.

The body is used as a focus for the contrasting states of mind -and views of the world – that Willy and Hatch have arrived at. Willy’s newly-born determination to ‘look into the fire’ is put to an acid test. He is not horrified by what he sees. He does not react with conventional moralising. His observations on the innocence of Hatch’s fury is not a ham-fisted attempt by Bond to ram home a message, it is evidence of the clarity and maturity of Willy’s per­ception.

As if to test our readiness to confirm Willy’s judgement, Bond makes the desecration of Colin’s ashes the centrepiece of the comic action in scene seven – the scene where he gathers together all his characters for the play’s dramatic climax. The funeral service on the cliff-top disintegrates into chaos when Hatch bursts in upon it; Colin’s ashes, already dropped, scattered, and carefully swept up by Mrs. Tile house with her handkerchief, become a weapon in Mrs. Rafi’s self-righteous hands-she throws handfuls of them in Hatch’s face (in the Royal Court production she also hit him with the urn!).

The effect is overwhelmingly funny; it also emphasizes the desperation of Mrs. Rafi’s efforts to keep control of the empty ritual which she has so carefully stage-managed. The similarities with the play scene are inescapable: the merciless parody of the Church of England funeral service (with the accompaniment of a piano whose sound is ‘hollow and spread’) takes the place of the bloodless Orpheus play, and the false piety Mrs. Rafi imposes on the proceedings is again under­mined by interruptions. She is confronted, as before, with nig­gling challenges to her authority: the rivalry for the most elaborate descant between Mrs. Rafi and Mrs. Tilehouse is a comic tour de force. The sound of the guns again shatters the spu­rious solemnity of the occasion.

 It is another broadly comic scene, but the comedy is played off against a number of very sobering moments. Hatch enters in a frenzy of messianic zeal, believing he has saved the town (the world, perhaps) by killing Willy; he comes face to face with his supposed victim, very much alive. His bafflement and despair intrude on the mood of farce, just as his last speech in the play intrudes on the mind. It starts with Hatch afraid: ‘I don’t know if you’re all ghosts or if you still have time to save yourselves’, and ends with the warning:’. . . no one can help you now.’

In his delirium, Hatch offers a piercing observation on the town’s inhabitants: they are all ghosts, as Mrs. Rafi admits to Willy later in the scene, living a dead culture, exercising a morality which consists of stock responses and pious faces. Although the shakiness of their morality has been exposed, it reasserts itself as Hatch is dragged away ‘to the town lock up’. Mrs. Rafi regains control of the situation, bossing a surly Hollarcut into promising to atone for his part in the anarchy by digging her garden.

Then Bond gives Mrs. Rafi a speech which, for the first time in the play, shows her as a vulnerable, frightened human being ‘afraid of getting old’. The placing of the speech is deliberate – any earlier in the play, and the critical amusement with which we have viewed her might have been clouded by sympathy. Like Hatch as he hacked at the curtain material, she talks of her life having been wasted. Like Hatch in that scene, her mask drops and we see the tense and twisted face behind it. But even now we are not asked to waste too much pity on her – what she does is to find excuses for the harsh way she has treated people, and Bond’s attitude towards that is unequivocal: ‘I think what she says about herself is ulti­mately unacceptable. I don’t think you can push people around in the way she does and then find a legitimate excuse for it. That’s wrong. That’s the excuse of a lot of leadership – and it’s absolute nonsense. . ,’.18 We should be wary of misinterpreting Mrs. Rafi’s plea for sympathy as an occasion for extending it to her: ‘She looks into her soul when she is alone with Willy on the beach – but even as she does so she admires her courage for doing so, and this is also an illusion, as Rose points out a few moments later with her cutting remark about cripples.

Rose’s remark not only undercuts Mrs. Rafi’s speech, it also tells us a lot more about Rose’s strength of character. The change in her from the previous scene is as pronounced as the changes in Willy from scene five to scene six, although her acceptance of what Willy told her is still tentative and hesitant:

Willy. The dead don’t matter.

Rose. I’m not sure.

Willy. Then you’re like your aunt. You talk and have no courage.

It is inevitable that Willy will leave the town: Rose might stay and turn into aversion of Mrs. Rafi. Bond never has her actually state her decision to leave with him. He indicates it through two simple actions. First, ‘rose covers the piano with a green or faded dirty white sheet’ – exactly the same colours Bond specifies for the blanket used to cover Colin’s corpse on the beach. And when Willy announces his intention to go for a swim in the sea-it is as if by swimming in the same sea in which Colin drowned he is assert­ing that he has exorcised his former self and can look life in the face – Bond shows Rose coming to her own decision. It takes no more than a dozen words:

Rose. Will you?

Willy. Oh yes.

He looks at her for a moment and then turns to go.

Rose. Wait. (He stops.) I’ll come down and hold your clothes…

She follows him off, leaving behind the dead past- the covered piano and, by association, Colin’s drowning. Bond might have ended the play here, if he had merely been aiming for a satisfying theatrical resolution. Instead, he wrote a last scene which most critics have seen as a postscript, an adden­dum in which ‘enactment gives way to philosophising’. At a cursory glance, Evens’s speeches in this scene – in particular the fable of the rat and the ratcatcher-might seem to bear all the marks of an epilogue, with Evens as the author’s spokesman, but this view ignores the context in which Bond has set them and the interaction between Willy and Evens, of which the speeches are only one part.

In the two preceding scenes we have witnessed Willy’s new strength and resolve. In this last scene we see that he is still a prey to doubts. The old man confirms what Willy knows – the world full of savagery and aggression – and Willy openly expresses the weakness he feels: ‘How can you bear to live? I’m not sure if I can bear it.’ In the following speeches Evens offers Willy a positive vision; he still emphasises the difficulties, but he counsels hope: ‘What the old man says is that there is certainly a lot of violence in life. And that life kills other forms of life in order to exist. And that on this planet, most life has been lived this way- that’s why life has survived. But what he really says is that this is unacceptable to human beings. It’s not the sum total of all life. Human beings have other possibilities open to them.’

It is important to note that Evens shows considerable hesitation before telling Willy all this:

Evens. .. . Have faith.

Willy. In what?

Evens (shrugs). Well. (Looks round.) Would you like some tea?

He pours himself a mixture of tea and whisky. Even then, in a stage direction Bond added for the collected edition of his plays: ‘The silence lasts a moment longer.’ There is a strong sense of de­liberation, as if Evens had often thought about what he says to Willy, but has never before said it to anyone. The distinction is vital. It is not only what Evens says that is important, but the fact that he is saying it: ‘The old man doesn’t say anything that Willy hasn’t already told Rose, in essence, when they talked on the beach just before they found the body – but the act of saying it and listening to it demonstrates their belief in the possibility of a rational, sane society.’

The scene is convincing because of what is being enacted. Not that the intellectual content of the speeches is unimportant, but the interplay between the characters, as Jane Howell emphasises, is vital to its meaning: ‘It’s like two people testing each other. They’ve both been through an incredible experience, they both respect each other, and they discuss the root causes of what’s been going on. And they test each other out as they do so.’ In a way, Willy and Evens serve as a model of the rational, sane society in which Bond wants the audience to place their trust. We should take hope, as much from the relationship we have seen them work their way towards as from Evens’s parting words of advice: ‘Go away. You won’t find any more answers here. . . Remember, I’ve told you these things so that you won’t despair. But you must still change the world.’

There is no guarantee of success. That much is implied by the unfinished sentence that ends the play – Willy’s reply when Rose asks what he has been discussing with Evens: ‘I came to say goodbye, and I’m glad you -’. Bond leaves room for a literal-minded interpretation, something like ‘I’m glad you are coming with me’, but the effect is to leave us in a state of suspension: ‘I left the last sentence of the play unfinished because the play can have no satisfactory solution at that stage. Rose and Willy have to go away and help to create a sane society- and it is for the audience to go away and complete the sentence in their own lives.’

The Sea stands at the end of Bond’s first cycle of plays. In an interview in 1975, Bond explained how he had conceived of the re­lationship between The Sea and The Pope’s Wedding before he wrote any of the plays. An image for the beginning and the end of the series, which he then thought would take him his entire working life, was in his mind from the start: ‘I would begin with a tragedy in which the old man would not talk. .. Scopey never gets an answer from him. I wanted to end the series of plays with two people sitting on a beach after the storm has died down, talking to an old man. They try to come to terms with the prob­lems that they have to face.’

The connection between the two plays becomes even clearer when we realise that Scopey is there in The Sea, in the figure of Hollarcut, a character whom Bond treats with great sympathy -he alone of Hatch’s three disciples remains loyal; he has a mind of his own, and there are a number of indications that he doesn’t really swallow all of Hatch’s strange beliefs; and he speaks out for­cefully against Mrs. Rafi after the melee at the funeral. There is a strength and dignity about Hollarcut which is impressive. Like Hatch, he feels frustrated and alienated by the way he is made to live, but because he never clearly understands the nature of his problem he is reduced to expressing his feelings by way of a cheer­ful aggression.

At the beginning of scene eight, he stands outside Evens’s hut, holding a big stick. He could be Scopey, about to murder Alen, since in his muddled anger he still fixes on Evens as a scapegoat; ‘Who drove him wrong in the hid ? Why’d he take up all they daft notions? I don’t know no one doo that if that weren’t yoo.’ As his parting shot, he indicates that he also intends to ensure that nothing will grow in Mrs. Rafi’s garden. It’s an appro­priate gesture of defiance, but it will do nothing to change his life. Hollarcut is a character who will appear again in Bond’s later plays. He is the working man, conscious of the injustices to which he is subjected, but with a blurred vision, without the same degree of rational consciousness that Bond gives to his central characters. He reappears, with a more substantial role, in the second cycle of plays -in the shape of Darkie in The Fool and the Dark Man in The Woman.

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