My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I know I said that I would read August Wilson’s Century Cycle in their chronological order, but everyone is talking about Fences because of the movie, which I have not seen, so I skipped ahead to that one, probably Wilson’s most famous and acclaimed play.
Daringly plotless, a pageant of character, Fences gives us a few months in the front yard and the later life of Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbage collector, former Negro Leagues baseball player, and ex-convict. The time is the late 1950s, and Maxson is effectively a man out of time, a talented athlete who was young too early for the integration of sports, and a patriarchal conservative who does not recognize and will not countenance the changing ethical climate of a liberalizing society. He is a tyrant to his sons—the adult Lyons, an unemployed musician, Troy’s son from his first marriage; and the teenaged Cory, a football player to whose athletic ambitions Troy refuses to give his consent; moreover, he is cheating on his devoted second wife, Rose. He is also an inconsistent caregiver to his brother, Gabriel, rendered mentally incapacitated in World War II.
The above is not to say that Troy lacks admirable characteristics, though: he fights for his rights at work when he insists that black garbage collectors should have the opportunity to drive the truck rather than just haul the refuse, and his insistence that Gabriel retain his freedom rather than be institutionalized has a nobility to it, even if the other characters and the audience suspect (and later events confirm) that he is more interested in how he can milk his brother’s condition for government benefits than he is concerned for his brother’s well-being. Troy has an undeniable grandeur—he boasts of battling with Death and bargaining with the Devil—but overall the play comes off as the critical exposure of a certain kind of man, one who recognizes everyone’s dependency and resentment but his own. The play’s title refers to a fence Troy is building throughout, and signifies his eventually defeated attempt to erect clear boundaries between his own proud self and the world, as well as his wife’s eventually defeated desire to gather her family inside the parameters of her love.
I do suspect Wilson wanted Troy and his values to be grander than the circumstances of the drama allow them to be—the absence from this play of the magical realism of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone or Gem of the Ocean, its deliberate grounding in Arthur Millerite realism, freights Wilson’s tragic hero with too many petty circumstances and petty behaviors to allow him the mythical weight of the vanishing patriarch. Troy’s adultery, while cruel to Rose, is imaginatively justified by Troy’s coming to associate his wife with the work he must do to maintain the family; in an amoral way, this is psychologically persuasive. But some of Troy’s other acts seem like they should be beneath a non-comic character. King Lear can be petty too, as when he banishes Kent, but would he sink so low as to have his mentally ill brother put away just for the benefits?
Still—here I disagree with the much-maligned Armond White—Fences is light-years beyond the melodramatic, didactic Death of a Salesman, perhaps the single most overrated work of American literature. Miller condescends to his characters—he is “trying to understand” the “white working class” like many a leftist before and after him—in a way very foreign to Wilson’s immersion in his characters’ reality. Miller has a character declare, “Attention must be paid,” while Wilson just pays attention.*
Wilson’s sense of dramatic poetry, his ability to command the stage—or the reader’s inner theater—with epic personages even as they converse about everyday life and in the vernacular is extraordinary; but I do think his gift lends itself best to dramatic modes other than strict realism and naturalism.
*The belated Popular Front aesthetics that made Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck such enormous presences in the education of several generations of American schoolchildren (including my own) is somewhat strange when you think about it, especially given the Cold War conservatism of much of the rest of the syllabus (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies). Steinbeck, though, had a visionary capacity beyond Miller’s; if some of his schoolroom chestnuts are a bit preachy and sentimental—Of Mice and Men, The Pearl—there is still The Grapes of Wrath, with its breadth of vision and its beautiful earthiness. Anyway, to the extent that Wilson is replacing Miller as the go-to post-Shakespearean dramatist in the classroom, I say it’s all to the good.