Teaching the Play: The Sandbox by Edward Albee

We begin by offering a few generalizations about the "theater of the absurd" (it got its name from Martin Esslin's useful critical study, The Theatre of the Absurd), and then turn to Albee's play. Some students may already have read a play by Beckett or Ionesco, or perhaps another play by Albee, and can be encouraged to try to define the type by seeing what The Sandbox shares with what they have read earlier. We think it is fairly accurate to say that an "absurd" play usually has most of the following characteristics:

  1. The plays are "theatrical" rather than realistic, often setting forth obviously impossible situations with obviously unreal characters.
  2. The plays are serious but often (or at least intermittently) comic, especially satiric.
  3. The basic themes are
    1. human loneliness in a world without God;
    2. the inability to communicate;
    3. the dehumanization and impotence of individuals in a bourgeois society; and
    4. the meaninglessness of death.
  4. Characters behave illogically, speak in clichés, rarely if ever communicate with each other, and seem to have no clearly defined coherent character.
  5. The plays are relatively plotless (nothing much seems to happen).

So far as The Sandbox goes, the last two points need considerable modification. Mommy and Daddy certainly speak in clichés, but they are fairly coherent (Mommy is stupid and cruel, or at least cold; Daddy is vapid). And so far as the plot goes, death comes to Grandma. The play thus ends in a rather conventional way, especially when compared, for example, to Waiting for Godot, whose ending is open, ambiguous, unresolved: The characters announce that they will leave but remain on stage. The other characteristics in our list are evident in The Sandbox.

We have suggested approaching the play by drawing on students' familiarity with some other play of the type. If, however, most students are unfamiliar with any plots of the "theater of the absurd"—or even if they are familiar with some—you may prefer from the start to deal with the play itself, or perhaps with the play in light of the quotation from Albee and Esslin given in the questions appended to the text.

We prefer, if the class will let us, to postpone discussion of the symbolism of the sandbox and to begin with easier material: Mommy and Daddy. Mommy's callousness and moral imperceptiveness, like Daddy's vacuity, are easily seen. One can begin with the description in the dramatis personae. Mommy is "well-dressed" and "imposing." Now, there is nothing wrong with being well-dressed, or even with being imposing, but students can easily see that in the context of the play, "well-dressed" suggests materialism, a concern for the self, and superficiality, while "imposing" suggests being self-centered and stupidly cruel. Daddy is "small," "gray," and "thin"; in the play this suggests that he is negligible, emasculated, and colorless.

Grandma is described as "tiny" and "wizened," but also as possessing "bright eyes." Though physically weak, she is animated, spirited. We learn, too, that she married a farmer (suggesting closeness to the soil, fertility, hard work) when she was 17, was widowed when she was 30, and was left to raise her daughter "all by my lonesome. You can imagine what that was like." This is not a loving maternal comment, but since we see the dreadful Mommy, we can easily sympathize with Grandma. (In our experience, students often start blaming Grandma for behavior that presumably made Mommy what she is. We try to counter this by asking them if they really believe that they are what their parents made them. Most students, we have found, are quite willing to see the bad influence of parents on others, but not on themselves.)

Although Grandma at first utters the meaningless sounds that in much of the "theater of the absurd" stand for the gibberish that passes for human conversation, she soon becomes articulate, engaging, and very human. Where Mommy says nothing but an empty "Hello" and "Hello there" to the Young Man, Grandma does "a mild double-take" at his inane "Hi," addresses coherent words to him, gives him "the once-over," and sizes him up ironically with "Bright, too." Of course Grandma is not precisely the sort of person one would like to have as one's own grandmother, but she has worked hard, and she has a sense of moral and intellectual values.

The Young Man—a simpleton who, appropriately, wants to be an actor—that is, wants not to have an identity of his own—begins merely as a hunk, a male beauty engaged in mindless repetitive physical activity. However, he develops—in response to Grandma's vitality—into a more sympathetic, loving figure (he kisses Grandma), and his kiss brings her comfort and evokes from her a highly civilized response.

What of the sandbox? It seems clear to us that it is an image of the sterile world (contrasted with the farm of Grandma's earlier years): It stands for the barrenness of today's society, and it anticipates the grave.

Finally, brief though the play is, it can be put into the context of traditional tragedy; that is, it can be discussed as a play that (to use the Aristotelian term "catharsis" introduced in the text on page 1515) evokes both pity and terror.

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