I have a deep bond with the literature that was recommended to me by the man I used to love. Some of the books he passed along I rejected out of hand—books such as Never Let Me Go and The Cement Garden and Child of God. Knee-jerk reactions to literature are one of my bad habits, then and now—but my beloved was patient with me. He enjoyed playing tricks on me, and he used tricks to encourage me to read. These tricks were clever and varied. It would begin with finding ways to put me in a story’s situation, such as that of Jenny in An Education. Or he would suggest that we watch a film adapted from a book he thought I should read, such as The Danish Girl. My beloved would sometimes make me terribly jealous by mentioning his female friends, who had read the books he liked.
I like best authors who are honest with their readers, so let me be honest with you. There were times when my jealousy got the best of me, and I became stubborn. And that is why I didn’t read Edward Albee’s The Sandbox until after my beloved had died, when one of my professors introduced it to our class as one of the most popular texts in 20th-century drama classes in Iran.
The play’s harsh portrayal of the American dream was the first and last reason for its popularity in our drama classes. These kinds of anti-American-dream texts could please the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, although if they had known that Albee was gay they would never have let professors teach it at all. Or, who knows, maybe they wouldn’t have cared, because the only thing that matters to the SCRC is criticizing the dreamland.
Albee’s The Sandbox can be considered something of a “lost text,” both because Albee died in September 2016 and because the play wasn’t ever well-received in the U.S. In 1960, the late New York Times theater critic Arthur Gelb dismissed the play as “most disappointing” and a “trifle.” In a 1966 interview, Albee said, “I’m terribly fond of The Sandbox. I think it’s an absolutely beautiful, lovely, perfect play.” The Sandbox was written in 1959 and was first produced the following year, offering harsh criticisms of capitalism and the breakdown of moral values among generations.
My reading of Edward Albee began one morning in my drama class, a couple months after my beloved’s death. As a depressed girl in those days, even a funny joke would make me cry. So reading The Sandbox was a tragic experience. The play is a black comedy about a middle-aged couple who take their mother to the beach to bury her alive. It borrows its characters from Albee’s earlier play, The American Dream. In my class, I was always chosen to recite the text. Reading The Sandbox out loud in my class felt like I could be any of the characters—Mommy, Daddy, and the poor Grandma. Oh, Grandma, poor Grandma! Albee dedicated the play to his own grandma.
Although The Sandbox was very obscure to me at first, his other works, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Play About the Baby, and The American Dream, were my favorites. The school of absurdist theater was one I had learned well, including works such as Jean Genet’s The Maids, Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe, Harold Pinter’s The Lover, and Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson. The last of these was highly influential on Albee’s plays, and I read somewhere that Albee had described Ionesco’s impact on both The American Dream and The Sandbox.
As I was reading it out loud in class, the atmosphere of the play and its minimalism reminded me of Beckett. The connections of characters, the irrational dialogue, and also the repetition of words made The Sandbox seem Pinteresque. Mommy and Daddy call each other by their given names. Mommy was more powerful than Daddy—even physically, she is bigger. The power of Mommy was undeniable. She was Grandma’s daughter but was very cruel to her; Mommy was willing to kill her. Daddy might be the most fragile man I’ve ever seen in a literary text, and he does his best to unconditionally obey Mommy. This gave me an image of some Iranian men, so it wasn’t just an American thing—it felt like something universal.
While reading the play, I never thought of American grandmothers; I thought of many Iranian grandmothers who shared Grandma’s fate. I attempted to imagine Iranian mommies and daddies trying to murder Iranian grandparents and found it tragically absurd. Grandma in the play could have been my own grandma, and I thought of her and her death.
Here’s what happened: She died at the age of 75, but the cause of her death was always vague to us. We were told that she died of a heart attack, but later on we realized she had a stroke and was taken to the hospital after 12 hours, which was very late and dangerous for someone of her age. After two days in the intensive care unit, she passed away. The doctors said she would have lived if she had been taken to the hospital sooner.
My grandma didn’t live alone. She lived with my wealthy aunt, the eldest child in their family. After my grandma’s death, some relatives, siblings, and also my parents stopped talking with my aunt because although she had discovered my grandma’s stroke early in the morning, she did not take her to the hospital. She claimed my grandma was too old and sick, and she couldn’t enjoy her life, and so it made no difference for her to live longer. I never understood her logic and so I stopped talking with my aunt as well, even though she had been like a mother in my life. She helped raised me, and it was hard to believe that the woman who combed my hair and taught me kindness and love was the one who killed my grandma.
In protest, I didn’t attend my grandma’s funeral. The loss was too big. Those days, I was with my beloved and our relationship was in its best shape. He did his best to help me recover from this trauma. It wasn’t easy. My beloved and I were philosophical about such issues and could talk about it for hours. There were questions which remained unanswered. We often had these discussions at Milad Tower in the west of Tehran. Milad Tower is the sixth-tallest tower in the world. It took almost a decade to construct, from 2000 to 2009, and it is considered a symbol of the new Tehran.
My beloved didn’t like Milad Tower. “See, Shohreh!” he said. “Our society is ruined by modernism. This tower has nothing to do with Tehran. It is very ugly. They say it is a symbol of modernity, but we have gotten very ugly things from modernity and this tower would be one of them.”
“Pseudo-modernity, sweetheart,” I said. “Our society is ruined by pseudo-modernity. We picked ugly things from modernity. We became ignorant of our traditions. Do civilized people let an old woman die of stroke just because she is too old and poor?”
My beloved told me it wasn’t my fault. We walked for a while and he gave me one of those starry looks and asked me, “Have you started the modern drama class? What did your professor recommend to read? Shohreh, please read The Sandbox.”
In the classroom, I paused in my reading. The professor asked me if I was tired of reading out loud. I started crying. I had nothing to say but I wished I had read it sooner. I shared the story with the class. My professor thought there was still hope when someone feels regret and cries. We talked about how the situation of The Sandbox was similar to what is happening in Iran today. One of the students believed that it wouldn’t always be the issue of money, and it could happen in upper classes, too. Others thought it was not only our society facing the trauma; it would happen in other developing societies, too. It would be a big and traumatic problem that any country would encounter.
I told my parents about the class discussion. They claimed that in the 1970s and 1980s, our society wasn’t like this. Postwar Iran quickly changed from a ruined country to a developing one. People moved from villages and small cities to the capital. City life and its problems appeared, such as people working two and sometimes three jobs, and bit by bit they got used to a lifestyle in which people don’t have that much time for each other and meet their relatives only once or twice per year. This could be true even of your own parents. Through all these changes, some valuable traditions were lost.
Albee was trying to criticize the America of 1959; ironically, he produced a better criticism of Iran today, where the older generation is always in danger of being buried in the sandboxes of forgotten values.
In this way, Albee is correct—The Sandbox is perfect. A successful piece of literature can be understood across borders and between societies, even when a work is “lost” in the home of its creator.