Edward Albee wrote The Sandbox on commission from the Festival of Two Worlds at the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1959. Its first production took place in New York the following year. The Sandbox is linked to a longer play by Albee titled The American Dream, a play he had written earlier in his career. For The Sandbox, he plucked characters from his full-length work and created a 14-minute absurd meditation on death and grief.
The Sandbox is dedicated to Albee’s grandmother on his mother’s side, an influential figure in his life, and follows an abstracted depiction of the death of "Grandma," an older woman who, in her dotage, is cared for by "Mommy" and "Daddy." The "sandbox" of the title is a small playing area situated upstage, where a muscular young man does calisthenics. While he does not speak much in the play, we learn by the end that he is both a young aspiring actor in Southern California, and the "Angel of Death."
Self-referential components associated with postmodernism are used throughout the play, with actors inserting commentary on the events taking place and speaking directly to the audience and alluding to the theatricality of the space itself. The characters are aware that they are not in a realistic space, but instead inside a highly abstracted stage space, and allude to this knowledge throughout. The result is a kind of psychoanalytic dreamscape, one in which characters are defined and signified by their familial relationships or by their relationship to the stage. A musician accompanies the proceedings and Grandma makes a curiously affectionate connection with the Young Man, as he gently and indirectly ushers her towards death.
In spite of its distinctly absurdist nature, The Sandbox is considered one of Edward Albee’s most autobiographical works. The playwright himself continued to insist it was his finest play even after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became one of the defining stage dramas of the 1960s.