Explanatory Notes on The Sandbox
In Albee's "The Sandbox," the scene is a bare stage on which the stage-center is "a large child's sandbox with a toy pail and shovel."
• a strong connection between the very old and infant, both are unable to care for themselves, both require an inordinate amount of patience from whoever is responsible.
• Obvious symbolic meaning is that the sandbox which is square and full of sand is made to keep in whoever is placed there much like a coffin.
• Using a toy shovel busily covering herself with sand, the grandma is symbolically digging her own grave.
• Grandma ¦s dilemma is prevalent throughout the US Xthe spiritual sterility of life in a highly materialized society in the second half of the twentieth century.
Generally speaking, the theater of writers as Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, and Albee is called the theatre of the absurd. Here we can briefly list the characteristics usually found in the works of these playwrights. We do not mean, of course, that all of these qualities are found in all of their works. In fact, we urge you, after reading the list, to think about the ways in which Albee ¦s The Sandbox does NOT quite fit the list.
In the theatre of the absurd:
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
a) human loneliness in a world without God,
b) the inability to communicate,
c) the dehumanization and impotence of individuals in a bourgeois society, and
d) the meaninglessness of life.
4. Characters behave illogically, speak in clichés, rarely if ever communicate with each other, and seem to have no clearly defined coherent characters.
5. The plays are relatively plotless (nothing much seems to happen).
In thinking about (and in reading) The Sandbox, you may find that it does indeed embody some of these characteristics, but of course it may embody other qualities, too, and some of the points listed may not be relevant. In fact, the most useful function of this list may be that it will stimulate you to think about ways in which the play departs from it
Questions for Discussion :
1. In a sentence, characterize mommy, and in another sentence characterize Daddy. By the way, why doesn ¦t Albee give them names?
2. Of the four characters in the play, which do you find the most sympathetic? Exactly why? Set forth your answer, with supporting evidence, in a paragraph, or perhaps in two paragraphs Xthe first devoted to the three less sympathetic characters, and the second devoted to the most sympathetic character.
3. Why, in your opinion, does Albee insist in the first stage direction that the scene be "a bare stage"? Do you think a naturalistic setting would in some way diminish the play? Explain.
4. What do you make of the sandbox? Is it an image of the grave, with suggestions that life is meaningless and sterile? Or is it an image only of the sterility of life in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century? Does the fact that Grandma was married to a farmer suggest an alternative way of life? Explain.
5. In a longer play, The American Dream, Albee uses the same four characters that he uses in The Sandbox. Of The American Dream he wrote:
The play K is a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.
To what extent does this statement help you to understand (and to enjoy) The Sandbox? 6. In The New York Times Magazine (February 25, 1962), Albee protested against the view that his plays, and others of the so-called theater of the absurd, are depressing. He includes a quotation from Martin Esslin ¦s book The Theatre of the Absurd:
Ultimately K the Theatre of the Absurd does not reflect despair or a return to dark irrational forces but expresses modern man ¦s endeavor to come to terms with the world in which he lives. It attempts to make him face up to the human condition as it really is, to free him from illusions that are bound to cause constant maladjustment and disappointment K. For the dignity of man lies in his reality in all its senselessness; to accept it freely, without fear, without illusion Xand to laugh at it.
In what ways do you find this statement helpful? In what ways do you find it not helpful? Explain.
7. In an interview in 1979 Albee said:
I like to think people are forced to rethink some things as a result of the experience of seeing some of my plays, that they are not left exactly the way they came in.
Has reading The Sandbox forced you to rethink anything? If so, what?
Martha: The fifty-two-year-old wife of a college history professor. Martha defines herself through her "Daddy," the president of the college in the New England town of New Carthage. In her past, after her mother died when Martha was a child, she attended a convent school and young ladies' junior college, where she fell in love with a blue collar gardener and married him on a whim. Her shocked, upstanding father quickly annulled the marriage though it was consummated and brought her home, where she reveled in the power of playing hostess for her widowed father. She chose George, believing he had potential to become the head of the history department and eventually to replace her father as president of the university. George's failure to rise to this position is her biggest disappointment, and she refuses to let her husband see just how much of a disappointment he is to her. Now 52, Martha is a braying, heavy-drinking embarrassment, who seduces new faculty member Nick just to anger George and has no qualms about airing her dirty laundry in front of guests. Martha's decision to share the story of their imaginary son with the guests breaks the unspoken rules of the emotionally cruel games she plays with George and leads to chaos.
George: Forty-six years old and an acknowledged failure. George is in the history department, though much to Martha's chagrin, he is not the head of the history department. As a teenage boy he may have accidentally shot his mother and accidentally killed his father in a car crash. Or this may be just a fiction he has created. George's professional high-point came during the war when he was left in charge of the department while the other faculty members were serving in the military. Since then, he has written an autobiographical novel, the publication of which was forbidden by Martha's father. Always in the shadow of his father-in-law, whom he calls a great white mouse with red eyes, George plays along with Martha's games. When alone with her, he ignores her as much as possible. But when she launches into a game of Humiliate the Host, exposing his most painful secrets to Nick and Honey, George decides to strike back. Unable to control his wife, George usually retreats into his history books. He makes the biggest power play of his life here, "killing" the imaginary son he shares with Martha, thus punishing her for bringing their illusion into the harsh light of reality.
Nick: Nick is thirty years old and blond, a young genius who received his Master's degree at twenty. He grew up in the Midwest with his wife Honey, whom he knew since childhood. Though he initially appears to love his wife, it becomes evident that he married her for her money and because she was pregnant with what turned out to be a hysterical pregnancy. An ambitious new member of the college's biology department, Nick is the golden-haired boy who just might succeed where George failed taking every opportunity offered to him to get ahead, including sex with faculty wives. At first, he acts horrified by George and Martha's antics but soon becomes drawn in. He attempts to sleep with Martha and is proved impotent.
Honey: Nick's twenty-six-year-old wife. She's frail and "slim-hipped." Honey is rich, left money by her late evangelist father. She drowns her sorrows in brandy, getting silly and childlike. She suffered a hysterical pregnancy, which led Nick to marry her. While drunk, she confesses to George her fear of the pain of childbirth and of getting pregnant which she is, unbeknownst to Nick, preventing secretly. Drunk and throwing up in the bathroom for most of the play, Honey is the most innocent of all the characters. Her immediate reactions to the chaos around her function as a sort of Greek chorus on George and Martha's marriage.
Reality vs. Illusion: Edward Albee has said that the song, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" means "Who is afraid to live without illusion?" At the end of the play, Martha says that she is. Indeed, the illusion of their son sustains George and Martha's tempestuous marriage. Ultimately, George takes it upon himself to "kill" that illusion when Martha brings it too far into reality. Throughout the play, illusion seems indistinguishable from reality. It is difficult to tell which of George and Martha's stories about their son, about George's past are true or fictional. Similarly, Nick and Honey's lives are based on illusion. Nick married for money, not love. Though he looks strong and forceful, he is impotent. Honey has been deceiving him by using birth control to prevent pregnancy. As an Absurdist, Albee believed that a life of illusion was wrong because it created a false content for life, just as George and Martha's empty marriage revolves around an imaginary son. In Albee's view, reality lacks any deeper meaning, and George and Martha must come to face that by abandoning their illusions.
Games and War: The title of the first act is "Fun and Games." That in itself is deceptive, for the games that George and Martha play with their guests are not the expected party games. Rather, their games of Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, and Hump the Hostess which involves the characters' deepest emotions. George's characterization of these emotionally destructive activities as games and assumption of the role of ring master reveals that all the events of the evening are part of a power struggle between him and Martha, in which one of them intends to emerge as victor. Martha and George's verbal banter and one upsmanship is also characteristic of their ongoing game-playing. Years of marriage have turned insults into a finely honed routine. By characterizing these activities of games, Albee does not suggest that they are frivolous or meaningless. Rather, he likens game-playing to war and demonstrates the degree to which George and Martha are committed to destroying each other. George and Martha in fact declare "all out war" on each other. What begins as a game and a diversion escalates over the course of the play until the characters try to destroy each other and themselves.
History vs. Biology: George and Nick's academic departments at New Carthage College set up a dialectic in which Albee presents a warning about the future of life. George is an associate professor in the History Department, while Nick is a new member of the Biology Department. Old, tired, and ineffectual, George exemplifies the subject that he teaches. What's more, he notes that no one pays attention to the lessons of history just as Nick ignores George's sincere advice, responding contemptuously, "Up your!" Nick, as a representative of science, is young and vital. In the words of George, he is the "wave of the future." Through Nick and George's argument about Biology and History, Albee demonstrates two clashing worldviews. George's lack of success in the History Department and inability to rise to power as successor to the president of the college contrasts with Nick's plans and seeming ability to move ahead first taking over the Biology Department, then the college. Albee clearly intends for us to perceive Nick's (half-joking) plan as a threat. George's criticism of Biology's ability to create a race of identical test tube babies all like Nick and Nick's ruthless willingness to take any means necessary (including sleeping with factory wives) to get ahead reveals the absence of morality and frightening uniformity in a future determined by science. What's more, in exposing seemingly virile Nick's impotence, Albee demonstrates the underlying powerlessness of science and in George's perseverance, the unexpected staying power of history.
The American Dream: The title of one of his earlier plays, the American Dream was a significant concern of Albee's. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he explores the illusion of an American dream that masks a core of destruction and failure. Writing during the Cold War, Albee was responding to a public that was just beginning to question the patriotic assumptions of the 1950's. His George and Martha reference patriotic namesakes George and Martha Washington. Albee uses this symbolic first couple's unhappy marriage as a microcosm for the imperfect state of America. When George and Martha's marriage is revealed to be a sham based on the illusion of an imaginary son, the viewer is led to question the illusions that similarly prop up the American dream. Nick and Honey, a conventional American dream couple, are also revealed to be presenting a falsely happy façade. They too secretly take advantage of and lie to each other. What's more, Nick's name is a direct reference to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, and his threat to George and Martha's marriage references the Cold War turmoil of America.
The Christian allegory: Subtle references to Christianity, particularly to Catholic rites and rituals, abound in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. For instance, Martha refers to her (imaginary) son as a "poor lamb," making him a Christ symbol for Jesus is also known as the Lamb of God. George chants the Kyrie Eleison, Dies Irae, and Requiem from Catholic liturgy. The doorbells chimes which sound at the end of the second act echo the chimes that sound during a Catholic mass. Albee even names the third act of the play "The Exorcism." That name, of course, refers to George's attempt to kill the "son" and thus exorcise illusion from his marriage. The killing of the "lamb" can also be seen as a sacrifice necessary to save George and Martha's marriage. George calls the proceedings "an Easter pageant," referencing the day the Lamb of God was sacrificed to save the world, and the scene even takes place early on a Sunday morning.
Love and Hate: In his portrayal of George and Martha's marriage, Albee seems to make the not-uncommon literary assertion that love and hate are two parts of a single whole. From their vitriolic banter, it clearly appears that George and Martha hate each other. In fact, they say as much and even pledge to destroy each other. Nonetheless, there are moments of tenderness that contradict this hatred. George even tells Nick not to necessarily believe what he sees. Some of George and Martha's arguments are for show, others are for the challenge of arguing, while still others are indeed meant to hurt each other. However, Martha's declaration that George is really the only one who can satisfy her suggests that there are or have been positive aspects to their marriage. Clearly, as much as they fight, they also need each other, even if just to maintain the illusions that keep them going.
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