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The absurdist playwrights try to display to the audience the meaninglessness and sterility of modern life. They only picture the misery of man without any explanation. According to Ionesco, one of the key playwright of absurd Theater, "Absurd is which is devoid of purpose, cut off from his religious metaphysical and transcendental roots. Man is lost and all his actions become senseless, absurd and useless." The audience is not only made to think about the futility of life, but to experience it alongside.
Very initially, Albee in his play has shown the barrenness of modern life in a clear way by his stage direction. It begins by this sentence: "A bare stage with only the followingâ€¦" The emptiness of the stage stands for the meaningless and sterile life of modern man. The title of the play also connotes the barrenness of modern civilization. Sand standing for desert may implies the fruitless condition of modern man.
However, he is not satisfied with picturing Man as a miserable being and further in the course of the play he compares this pitiful creature to animals and worse than that to trash! When Grandma is telling about her life, the traces of this sub-human imagery are obvious: "They fixed a very nice place for me ... under the stove â€¦ gave me an army blanket â€¦ and my own dish â€¦ my very own dish!" Also the undistinguishable sounds articulated by her can be counted as animal-like groaning: "Daddy looks around at Grandma, who screams at him. Grandma: "GRAAAAAA!" Moreover, the part that Mommy and Daddy carry her over to the sandbox "and more or less dump her in" indicates the contemptuous condition of Man who is somehow compared to the unwanted waste material.
The disregarding attitude of modern man toward the values and conventions of social life is most shown through the characters' behavior towards Grandma. She can be considered as the emblem of morality, traditional way of life, metaphysics, or any aspect of life that has been marginalized or dishonored in the modern world. As an old person, Grandma is at the margins of human intercourse and is portrayed as a figure considered "obscene" in the social theater.
Claiming that they love Grandma, Mommy and Daddy have come to the beach to wait for the old woman's death. Death comes for her in the form of a young man, while they bicker endlessly and pay no attention to her suffering. "There is no respect around here" The sentence ,uttered by Grandma speaking to herself, might be the expression of absence of socially accepted values in the modern world.
The only trace of religious beliefs in the play can be the presence of The Young Man or as mentioned ironically in the stage direction The Angel of Death; "These calisthenics, employing the arms only, should suggest the beating and fluttering of wings. The Young Man is after all the Angel of Death". He is depicted as a shell, physically perfect but a void within. This picture is the emblem of absurdists view toward religious issues; they believe that Man is left alone in an alien, hostile world without any help and hope, and there is no value worthy of commitment. Regarding The Young Man specifically, the narrator uses an ironic tone describing him (He doesn't know his name, forgets his lines, and have no fixed identity) as if he mocks the traditional beliefs toward religious values. In the part that the Grandma's death is explained, this sarcastic view toward religious rituals is seen as well: "Grandma plays dead (!) â€¦ She is a little more than half buried in the sand; the toy shovel is in her hands which are crossed on her breast." Absurdist plays are often vey funny -sometimes insanely so- suggesting that laughter is the only response to the pain of life in a world devoid of hope and purpose.
Man's isolation and his uncertain condition of life is one of the main themes of absurdist plays. Edward Albee, as well as other playwrights attributed to this kind of theatre, displays the alienated human being and his psychological reality of mind in this play. Drown in their puzzlement, uncertainty and senility, the queer characters of 'The Sandbox", of whose past we do not know anything, are cut off from the rest of the world in an unknown and unnamed beach.
When it comes to characterization, absurdist playwrights create static, and not round, characters that don't look like the real human beings. Lacking individuality, the characters of this sort of plays become Everyman with whom the audience cannot identify with. They are isolated figures placed in an alienated world, with no logic behind their motivation and reactions, which are in a non-ending battle with each other, their inner and outer world. Descartes, the modern philosopher, asserted that:"Man in his essence is totally different from the things outside him." He believed that they are two essentially different substances .When Man realizes it, when his consciousness starts to wake up, when all the acts of life which flow mechanically stopped, absurdity starts.
The disharmony between man and the outer world is most displayed in the character of Daddy who is always whining that "it's so hot" or "I'm cold". Concerning Grandma, the sandbox she is placed in becomes her grave finally. The Young Man could be an example of suffering from inner conflicts; he is said to be The Angel of Death while he does calisthenics (!) and tells Grandma that he is an actor. Here the certainty of his identity is put under question, and as mentioned before mocked. In the end, when he wants to take the life of Grandma, he even forgets his lines telling that he is The Angel of Death.
Regarding the conflict between characters, we can focus on the relationship between Mommy and Grandma. Mommy disregards her mother, and in return Grandma throws sand at her. Moreover, the unaffectionate relationship of Mommy and Daddy is of great importance in Edward Albee's works because it suggests the notion of dominance and submission which is one of the common elements in his plays. The stereotypical female characters in his plays show his misogynistic attitude toward the female. Women are pictured as monstrous characters who are the cause of the male's misery. In this play Mommy is pictured as a domineering and controlling woman who has married Daddy for his money, and is the main cause of his unconfident and weak personality. 'Emasculation' is one of the significant themes used by Albee when he focuses on the relationship between female and male characters. Daddy is described as: "a small man, gray, thin" who is constantly dismissed and terrorized into obedience by his wife, as if exists only to affirm Mommy's ideas repeatedly saying "Whatever you say Mommy". He is a passive and subjugated character, devoid of his manhood whose all actions and speech are mercilessly controlled by his female counterpart.
The language used in absurdist plays is of high significance. The play relies on performance, disconnected phrases and wordless sounds. (Grandma's mumblings: "Ahhhhhhh! Ah-hhhhh! Graaaaaa!") The speech is deliberately confusing and not logical. The dialogues are filled with clichés, small talks, reparative phrases, even nonsense as if to tell us that language itself is empty and our attempts to communicate deep feelings is futile. Presented as repetitive, tiresome and meaningless, language is not considered as a media for communication but only a tool for concealing the facts or filling the gaps.
Daddy: "shall we talk to each other?" Mommy: "Well, you can talk if you wan to â€¦ if you can think of anything to say â€¦ if you can think of anything new." Daddy: "No â€¦ I suppose not." Mommy: " of course not!" One of the prominent traits of the absurdism movement is the lack of effective communication between the play's major characters; which represents the turmoil of the human condition. The techniques used in the language of the play point out the fact that this bitter result is derived from the inadequacy of language itself.
The silence, which is suggested by Mommy for several times, could be regarded as castration of language. Besides, we can count it as the silence of anticipation. All the characters of the absurdist play are waiting for something to happen. Mommy:"Just sit here â€¦ be very still â€¦ and wait."From the beginning of the play, the characters very consciously are waiting for the ending of Grandma's life.
The notion of pretence can also be discussed according to this play. Grandma plays dead, and Mommy pretends that she loves her mother, however she doesn't wait for her to die really! Actually they have buried her many times ago when they located her under the stove and behave her dishonorably. Speaking about The Young man, he is supposed to be The Angel of Death, but is an empty and unintelligent character in the readers' mind. He is not fearful and powerful as the reader expect, but only a dull person who smiles vacantly. Pretention of characters in this play may signifies the absurd condition of man who pretends living, however the fact is that he is dead and only imitates life.
The thematic process of "The Sandbox" is toward decadence and dying. What all the characters long for is to put an end to this condition; for instance Mommy and Daddy didn't wait for the real death of Grandma, and were satisfied when she played dead, as if they desired that moment for long time. Consequently we can say that the story is the process of death, not life. The play pictures the deteriorating movement of world toward a death-like destination, and maybe worse!
The question can be raised whether the ending of the play is optimistic or pessimistic. On the one hand, one can think it as a happy ending due to the easy death of Grandma, facing her by The Young Man's kiss on her forehead. Furthermore, considering the setting of the play, the beach and the sandbox she is placed in, one may assume death as Grangma's second childhood; as if she has been released of the bitter burden of life and now is like a child placed in playground.
On the other hand, it could be posed that the death come to the old woman was not only a desired and releasing one; but as empty and meaningless as her life was. The Young man who was "after all The Angel of Death" was not pictured as a powerful and frightful Angel, as the reader might expect, but a shallow and eccentric character who dose not know even his name. It shows the disastrous condition of man that even when s/he is disillusioned by the picture of death, welcomes it as if it is, although meaningless and void, better than the animalistic and humiliating life. Life has become that much unbearable and useless, that modern man take refuge to a more meaningless death.
Michael Adams, Barron's Book Notes, 1962 -Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee