The play opens with a young...
Edward Albee's play The Sandbox is, in a way, an allegory of itself. The play presents the death and burial of Grandma, but the play also symbolizes what Albee perceives as the superficial ritualization of what should be a meaningful and moving experience.
The play opens with a young man in a bathing suit standing in a large sandbox doing calisthenics. As noted in the stage directions, these calisthenics should involve his arms only and "should suggest the beating and fluttering of wings."
The Young Man is, after all, the Angel of Death.
Albee leaves no doubt about the symbolism of the Young Man, but this symbolism seems somewhat contradictory and ambiguous. The attractive, muscular Young Man with the "endearing smile" doing calisthenics in no way represents what most people would envision as an angel of death.
Mommy and Daddy enter the stage, and Mommy's first line establishes the artificial, allegorical premise of the play.
MOMMY. Well, here we are; this is the beach.
Clearly the setting is not a beach; it's a stage, on which is a large sandbox, complete with toy shovel and pail.
Mommy's line is almost Shakespearean in that it's meant to draw the audience into the artificial world of the play, in much the same way as Rosalind says, "Well, this is the forest of Arden" in As You Like It, while she stands in the middle of a bare stage in the Globe Theatre.
Mommy continues to set the scene by calling offstage for the Musician, who enters the stage and takes his place in a chair to the side of the stage, puts his music on the music stand, and awaits further instructions.
MOMMY. Are you ready, Daddy? Let’s go get Grandma.
Mommy tells the musician to begin playing, and she and Daddy then perform a symbolic, if somewhat absurd, funeral procession to musical accompaniment. Mommy and Daddy carry a still-alive Grandma onstage and unceremoniously drop her into the sandbox.
Mommy and Daddy then sit in chairs facing the audience, as if attending a funeral, while the Musician plays in the background, and Grandma sits in the sandbox. This staging is somewhat reminiscent of act 3 of Our Town, when Emily sits in a chair in the cemetery with the other deceased townspeople of Grover's Corners.
Grandma behaves like a child—throwing sand around with the toy shovel—except when she addresses the audience directly, which takes the play to another allegorical level.
As artificially constructed as the play has been to this point, the action was focused onstage, representationally. By speaking directly to the audience, Grandma removes the "fourth wall," and the play becomes audience-centered, or presentational.
Grandma seems to symbolize the circle of life: from childhood to old age to second childhood. Then again, she might be simply an eighty-six-year-old woman sitting in a sandbox waiting to die, where she has an opportunity to voice the theme of the play.
GRANDMA. There’s no respect around here.
Grandma talks with the Young Man, and the audience is shown another symbolic, metatheatrical level of the play. The personable Young Man with the "endearing smile" is from Southern California, and he's an actor. If the Young Man is an actor, then all of the other characters are being portrayed by actors. By revealing the characters as actors, Albee draws even more attention to the play as a play.
This effect is further enhanced when the stage goes dark, and all the characters are illuminated by spotlights. There is nothing more theatrical than spotlights. Every character exists in their own little world but within the larger world of the play.
Apparently, the Young Man, as the "Angel of Death," is simply an emissary of death, not death itself. Death is symbolized by an offstage rumbling which grows increasingly louder until it overtakes the onstage action, and the stage suddenly goes dark, except for the spotlight on the Young Man.
After a moment, the lights are restored.
DADDY. It's daylight!
Death has come and gone in the night. Grandma has apparently died, even though she's still talking. The funeral ritual is played out. Mommy and Daddy pay their last respects, congratulate themselves on a job well done, and cease mourning for Grandma almost immediately.
MOMMY. Well, Daddy … off we go.
DADDY. Brave Mommy!
MOMMY. Brave Daddy!
Still talking, Grandma finally realizes that she's dead, but even in the midst of Grandma's realization, Albee takes one more opportunity to point out the absurdity of the ritual by emphasizing the theatricality of Grandma's last moments.
GRANDMA. I … I can’t move.
YOUNG MAN. Uh … ma’am; I … I have a line here.
GRANDMA. Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie; you go right ahead.
YOUNG MAN. I am … uh.
GRANDMA. Take your time, dear.
YOUNG MAN. I am the Angel of Death. I am … uh … I am come for you.
The Young Man, as the Angel of Death, carries out the clichéd stage business of kissing Grandma on her forehead and putting his hands on Grandma's hands as the play ends.