The Irony of Edward Albee’s “The Sandbox”
Edward Albee’s “The Sandbox” is a one-act play about a couple who went to the beach and appears to be preparing for a special occasion. Mommy and Daddy hired a musician along with them and when all is set, they take their Grandma out and put her into the sandbox nearby. Then they left her there and sat all day while watching her in the sandbox. Night came and Grandma passed away.
The following day, Mommy and Daddy had their brief mourning and then left. Grandma was left behind in the sandbox with the company of a mysterious young character who was present in the scene the whole time and who later revealed himself as the Angel of Death.
The story of the “The Sandbox” is about death and how a couple deals with it when an old family member is nearly passing away. There are several symbolism used in the story.
Although the play is brief, it has a few transitions from day to night then to back to day. This implies that story is longer than it was depicted and that the time Grandma was in the sandbox did not happen all in one day. The characters’ off-stage references such as Mommy saying, “It was an off-stage rumble” (Albee 967) or the Young Man saying, “they haven’t given me one yet…the studio…” (Albee 966) in reference to not being given a name in the play, are used not only as a comic relief to elicit a response from the audience but also as a manifestation of the characters’ self-awareness of the play. This shows that the whole play was not a treatment of a real-life occurrence at a beach but a mere representation of reality. Mommy and Daddy represent normal couples who are designated as unwilling carers for their old parents who are represented in here as Grandma. The relationship of the couple is also shown here as Mommy is shown as “a well-dressed imposing woman” while Daddy is a helpless small, thin, gray old man (Albee 964). The dominance of Mommy is obvious but it isn’t clear if Daddy’s obedience to Mommy’s orders is a submission to her authority or he simply doesn’t care about the whole ordeal and just want to get it over with by saying, “Whatever you say, Mommy” and “She’s your mother, not mine” (Albee 965). Whatever their motivations are, it shows that both of them do not care for Grandma by putting her alone in “the sandbox.”
In the play, “the sandbox” may represent a hospice care center or it may just be a place in the house where Grandma is relegated to. It is a place without any attention or affection. A place where Mommy and Daddy “more or less dump her in” (Albee 965) and wait for her to die. As a play dedicated to her Grandmother, it is interesting to think how Edward Albee was able to conceive “The Sandbox.” It may be a representation of the relationship of his parents to his grandmother and his relationship to her as well or it may just be a productive of his artistic genius. It is interesting to note, however, that the Young Man in the play, although not being given a name, gives a very specific detail to his character: an actor from “Southern California” (Albee 966). Edward Albee may have represented himself here. As an artist, it is not unjustified that Mr.Albee is the Young Man. Throughout the play, the character of the Young Man, while recognizing everybody else’s greetings by saying “Hi!” spoke in long sentences and in a real conversation only to Grandma. In contrast to the dull, unaffectionate and sometimes hostile conversations between Mommy and Daddy, the Young Man’s conversations with Grandma are intimate and full of respect. With a relationship like that, there is no doubt why “The Sandbox” is Edward Albee’s favorite work among his other more popular plays like “The Zoo Story” (1958), “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” (1962) and “Three Tall Women” (1994).
Much of the play is assigned to Grandma’s ordeal while in “the sandbox.” It is not hard to tell what it is like being in “the sandbox.” “There is not respect here,” Grandma says twice (Albee 966). Her frustration is obvious when she said, “What a way to treat an old woman!” (Albee 966). Her begging for attention is manifested by “throwing sand at Mommy!” (Albee 966). However her efforts were futile as her daughter ignored her, even ordering her husband to do the same. Here, it is clear what kind of mother-daughter relationship exist between Grandma and Mommy. It also shows what kind of a daughter Mommy is. Except for one occasion where Mommy shouted at Grandma for throwing sand at her, there where no other direct conversation between the two. Only Daddy showed a hint of care to Grandma by asking Mommy, “Do you think she’s comfortable?” (Albee 965). However, Mommy does not care a bit saying, “How would I know?” (Albee 965) and even instructed Daddy not to look at her. Although there was no harm about it, Mommy’s adamant conviction to ignore her shows how hostile she is to her mother.
As if there was not enough sympathy that the audience can give to Grandma with what she was going through, Edward Albee attempted to present her as a real person. Grandma says,
I’m eighty-six years old! I was married when I was seventeen. To a farmer. He died when I was thirty… I am a feeble old woman (Albee 966).
Perhaps this is to emphasize that Grandma is also a human being, with a life and a husband, despite the inhumane treatment given to her. Being a widow at thirty, she made it clear how lonesome she was raising her daughter alone. It is difficult to imagine her disappointment at how she is being treated by her daughter. Knowing this, it is clear where calling Mommy a “cow” is coming from. It is a painful manifestation of how a mother’s love to her daughter has dissolved into hate and disgust. But no one can blame her. If only she had her husband to take care of her, she does not have to put up with her daughter and vice versa.
The main symbolism in “The Sandbox” is irony. Throughout the first half of the play, Mommy’s hostile treatment to Grandma is depicted to almost an exaggeration. However, as “the time has come for poor Grandma,” Mommy’s character swiftly evolved into a caring and loving daughter (Albee 967). “I can’t bear it,” Mommy says while watching her mother pass away (Albee 967). For the first time in the play, Grandma addresses her daughter, like a mother comforting her weeping child, “I’m fine! I’m alright!” It is ironic how people have maltreated their parents all their life and only show their love when there is only little more time (Albee 967). Edward Albee showed through this play that people should love their parents while they are still alive and make an effort to know that they love them before it is too late.
There is a dilemma as to the conclusion of the play. For Jennifer Bayot, the sincerity of Mommy as well as Daddy’s has been inevitably cast in doubt base on how quickly they change their attitude after Grandma’s death (Thinkquest.org). Mommy says,
Our long night is over. We must put away our tears, take off our
mourning…and face the future. It’s our duty (Albee 967).
In some ways, Mommy is right. People somehow need to move on. However, after all that she had done to Grandma, no one can tell if that moment of grief during her death was sincere. For Carol A. Burns, there is no doubt at all because in the first place the couple’s intent was “killing off the wife’s troublesome, aging mother” (S. Illinois Univ). This is because Mommy and Daddy brought her out of the house and to the beach to die. The “nastiness” of their inhuman behavior even made them to bring along a musician to play during the entire ritual. “What kind of sick people are they?” one might ask. Indeed, in terms of symbolism, it is difficult to discern who or what the musician personifies. The play may have literally occurred in one night and that Grandma is in fact murdered by Mommy and Daddy by leaving her to die without medical attention. Edward Albee’s ambiguity to the literal and symbolic meanings of the characters and events in the play affect the audience in various ways and elicit differing responses in emotion. Curiously, it may be what Mr.Albee has intended for writing “The Sandbox” and he obviously succeeded, without any doubt.
Bayot, Jennifer, Junior The Symbolic Self-Awareness of The Sandbox’s Characters. 8 July 2006
Burns, Carol A. “Edward Albee.” Southern Illinois University. 8 July 2006.
Literature and the Writing Process
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The Irony of Edward Albee’s “The Sandbox”. (2017, Jan 17). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-irony-of-edward-albees-the-sandbox/