The Sandbox: The Text Analyzed II

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The Sandbox: The Text Analyzed II

Post by Rachid Amri on Sun Mar 09, 2008 10:56 pm

The Characters in Conflict

The five characters in the play have obviously been selected with great care and in accord with the artistic principle of economy of means. Grandma, for example, is not only the leading character, or protagonist, but also the chorus. Her mimicking of Mommy and her mocking of Daddy, as well as her early cries, some of which are like screams of antagonism or growls of disgust, reinforce the self-revealing speeches of these two unsympathetic characters, just as the chanted explanations of the Greek chorus in ancient tragedies underlined similar aspects of the characterization and the action. In one or two places Grandma also functions as the stage manager or director, for she calls out directions to the stage hand about dimming the lights and she tells the musician how to play his music--"Keep it nice and soft"--in the night scene signifying the approach of death (153).


Study of the conflicting forces in The Sandbox shows us how central the character of Grandma is. On the surface, it appears that we have two pairs of characters struggling against each other--Mommy and Daddy in the antagonist group (who are really trying to bury Grandma, as we see by their symbolic action of heartlessly dumping her into the sandbox); and Grandma and the Young Man in the protagonist group. This ostensible pairing of unsympathetic and sympathetic characters overshadows a less obvious conflict--that between Grandma, an admirable old lady full of spiritual vitality, and the Young Man, the Angel of Death. Despite the Young Man's modesty and politeness, he is, after all, the Angel of Death; and while Grandma recognizes that her life cannot go on forever (154), she nevertheless still has a certain spark of spunky rebelliousness and fight left in her--enough, as a matter of fact, so that the manner of her final encounter with death becomes a suspenseful question: Will she fight to the end? Or will she resign herself to the inevitable--the superior power of the Angel of Death?

Grandma struggles against the injustice of her daughter's and her son-in-law's treatment of her more than she does against the Young Man, whom she finds attractive, pleasant, sympathetic. Although his approach is gradual, he, when the time comes, accomplishes his work quickly and efficiently--even apologetically, so polite is he--with a kiss and a laying on of hands that resembles a benediction. This kind of treatment Grandma will accept. But in resentment of her daughter's and son-in-law's standing around and not only waiting for her to die but even hastening the process, she throws sand and yells at them menacingly.

In the course of the action, Grandma moves from "puzzlement and fear" to acceptance (146). When she says "You're welcome . . . dear" to the Angel of Death at the end of the play (158), we see her conquer her fear of the unknown and admire her all the more. We begin to sense her heroic nature, for it is death and dying she struggles against, sympathetic as the Young Man, to her surprise, and relief, finally turns out to be after her discovery of his essential nature.

Grandma is just as sensitive to the Young Man's physical power and beauty as Mommy--in fact, more so. When he flexes his muscles for her and asks, "Isn't that something?," she answers, "Boy, oh boy; I'll say. Pretty good" (150). Her conversation with and admiration of the Young Man is interspersed with the story of her life and hard times, which arouses sympathy for her, particularly as she stresses the fact that she is neither complaining nor feeling sorry for herself.

Pity and Fear: Arousal and Purgation

Grandma effectively arouses pity and fear in the audience. We pity her because she deserves better than she has received. After the early death of her husband, after a hard life spent in sacrificing to her undeserving daughter, after being uprooted from her natural setting on the farm (her husband having been a farmer) and transported to the city, where she was treated like a dog, she deserves something more than merely dying. But it would be unrealistic for her not to die, for the expectation of her dying has been established from almost the beginning of this play when she is carried in and dumped in the sandbox.

We fear for Grandma because in Aristotelian terms she is a person like ourselves--neither entirely good nor bad. In addition, her fragility, because of her great age as well as because of the great powers arrayed against her--Mommy with her "imposing" vigor, Daddy with his wealth, the Young Man with his immense power as the Angel of Death (144, 157)--makes us sense that her position is indeed precarious. The four off-stage rumbles (153-54) especially arouse in the audience a feeling of the Young Man's power; and, since we tend to identify ourselves with Grandma, fear is aroused in us. The arousal of this fear continues until the point where the Young Man kisses her; then we are fearful that he may severely hurt her. After all, there are various ways of suffering in the death of the body.

Purgation of fear and pity in The Sandbox results from the demonstration that Grandma is not going to suffer more--from our comprehension that death, contrary to our usual expectations, is, for her, a sweet, welcome experience. If pity and fear are not only effectively aroused but also competently purged in this play, if these are the distinctive and characteristic emotions making up the effect of the play, we must conclude that the play is a tragedy. And so it is--a serious tragedy--well flavored with irony and absurdity--from Grandma's juvenile antics in the sandbox and her reference to her daughter as a "big cow" to the awkward embarrassment of the Young Man. Touches like these may not exhale the high seriousness of tone that critics like Krutch might like to find in modern tragedy, but we must remember that we are living in the age of the "absurd."1

There are, quite naturally, different kinds of tragedy. Aristotle lists two general directions that the turn of fortune may take--either from good to bad or from bad to good.2 In The Sandbox the turn seems to be the second kind, and Grandma goes from a state of querulousness and rebellion, mostly against her daughter, to one of insight, acceptance, and peace. Beyond the essential brevity of the action imitated in the play, the use of music, an equivalent of "Song" in Aristotle's list of the essential parts of tragedy (see Poetics, 6), gives The Sandbox a certain Grecian lyrical quality.

As mentioned earlier, Grandma acts as chorus in talking directly to the audience, as she provides the exposition about her past and complains about her daughter's treatment of her (149-52). In at least two speeches Mommy also plays this role of chorus, but Albee has her talk superciliously "out over the audience," (148-49) when she complains about Grandma's throwing sand at her.3 But more important than this incidental use of the characters for chorus effects is the way both the music and the Musician, as an actual character in the play, function as chorus.4

The Sandbox, Albee's second one-act tragedy, was well received. And although it may be argued that its frequent revivals have resulted from its relative ease and cheapness of production, its popularity, in our opinion, is also due to its enduring merit as a work of art.

Notes and References
1. See Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper (New York: Harcourt, 1933), chapter 5, "The Tragic Fallacy," pp. 115-44.

2. Still using Aristotelian terms, I call the plot complex, not because it reverses itself but because it does not. The general line of the plot is unchanged from beginning to end--Grandma dies. But the plot is complex because it contains recognition, or discovery--a "change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined . . . for good or bad fortune." Poetics, 11:2 (Butcher translation). Grandma discovers that the handsome young man is the Angel of Death, and she is momentarily confused because, as such, he becomes her enemy (see page 157 of text). But this enmity (which was often the most important part of the emotional impact in older Greek tragedies--cf. Clytemnestra's recognition of Orestes in The Libation Bearers, for example--and which was rarely momentary) yields to resignation on her further discovery that the young man means to do her no harm, when, in fact, he gently kisses her, and she discovers dying is a surprisingly pleasant experience.

3. Paul Cubeta, Modern Drama for Analysis (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962), 3rd edition, p. 603, suggests that Mommy and Daddy in their sitting, waiting, mourning, and rejoicing activities resemble the chorus in Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.

4. See Flanagan, "Albee," for detailed discussion of this point. Flanagan, "Notes on the Performance of the Musical Score for The Sandbox, in Mayorga, ed., The Best Short Plays of 1959-60, pp. 69-70.

Rachid Amri
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