Fences is a tragic play by August Wilson, premiered in 1985. It tells of a black man in the 1950’s USA, Troy Maxson, and his relationships with his family and only friend, Bono. The play received critical acclaim, and, in 2013, a film adaptation. As a tragedy, Fences shows its central character’s downfall, caused by his flaws. This essay will examine some of the characters and themes of the play.
The entirety of the play takes place in front of Troy Maxson’s, the main character’s house. As he interacts with and eventually alienates his friend and family, the viewer learns more about the personal flaws — stubbornness, inflexibility, selfishness — which causes him to conflict with those who trust him. After he drives away his wife, brother, two sons, and only friend, he has one final bout with Death — whom he describes as a white, hooded figure — and dies. His broken family reunites for his funeral, and his brother, who believes himself to be Archangel Gabriel, blows his trumpet in an attempt to open the gates to Heaven.
Baseball is a significant theme in the play and serves as a central part of Troy’s character and history. His greatest regret is his failure to make it into the Major League despite allegedly being a sufficiently capable player. He blames systemic racism for it: “don’t come telling me I was too old. I just wasn’t the right color” (Wilson, 2017, p. 42). Baseball metaphors occupy a significant part of Troy’s vernacular, such as referring to mistakes as “strikes,” or his place in life as “standing on first [base].” Even the play’s title, Fences, is a reference to “swinging for the fences” in addition to the literal and metaphorical fences Troy builds that keep the other characters out — or in. However, there is an argument that “the entire social, racial, and political world view Troy derives from baseball is misguided” (Letzler, 2014, p. 302). Whether one agrees with this or not, America’s national pastime plays an integral part in the story.
As Troy has three children a significant part from each other, the difference between generations is put into perspective. It has been pointed out that these children were born “precisely seventeen years apart, represent Troy’s paternal responsibilities to three successive generations” (Nadel, 2018, p. 74). While his relationship with Raynell is understandably short, and Lyons’ story happens mostly off-stage, it is his lack of understanding and subsequent falling out with Cory that the viewers see unfold.
The play’s characters are defined by their relationship with Troy Maxston, each highlighting a different flaw in him. It is his stubbornness that drives away his middle son, Cory. He gets invited to college on a football scholarship, but Troy goes to significant lengths to prevent him from being accepted. He claims that the same racism that kept him out of the Major League will affect his son, as well. Even after being shown successful non-white athletes, he refuses to admit that times have changed and heed anyone’s experiences but his own. The play does not make it clear whether his fatherly protectiveness or jealousy cause that his son might succeed where he failed. In the end, the viewers see Cory making his way in life, having joined the US Marine Corps.
Lyons, representing the second generation of the Maxstons, followed a different path from Cory. While his father had dominated Cory’s life, Troy was absent for most of Lyons’ childhood and youth. Lyons also has a strong aspiration his father disapproves of: music. This disapproval is not as evident as with Cory, but Troy again refuses to acknowledge it, or see him perform when he joins a band. Their relationship seems to be purely transactional, as Lyons visits occasionally to borrow ten dollars. However, it also shows that Troy feels some obligation or duty towards his son since he lends him the money. Later, when Lyons establishes a source of income and tries to repay his debts, his father refuses to take it or not present at all. By the end, Lyons finds himself serving a prison sentence for fraud, but finds the people to form a band even there, and intends to continue his musical career after his release.
His wife Rose falls victim to his selfishness and unwillingness to let an opportunity pass. He appears bored and complacent with his family life, driving him to have an affair with another woman. Although Troy has difficulty justifying it, he feels no remorse for it, again falling back on his baseball metaphors: “after eighteen years I wanted to steal second” (Wilson, 2017, p. 73). Rose confides that she had also thought about an affair and reminds him that he is not “the only one who’s got wants and needs” (Wilson, 2017, p. 74). It falls on deaf ears as her husband, again, refuses to acknowledge anyone’s perspective but his own.
Troy’s relationship with Gabriel, his war veteran brother, is already deteriorating at the beginning of the play. Gabriel received a large pension from the government, which Troy spent to buy their house. This decision is initially justified since Gabe’s head injury left him “in no condition to manage that money” (Wilson, 2017, p. 31). However, he eventually desires a degree of independence and moves out, noting at every visit that “Troy’s mad at me” (Wilson, 2017, p. 28). Finally, Troy signs the papers that allow his brother to be institutionalized, claiming that he had signed nothing but a release form, but since he is illiterate, the authorities might have tricked him.
Fences uses its themes to connect with a broad audience. The play’s tragedy and Troy’s flaws are universal, not uniquely African-American or American in general. While racism plays a significant role in the main character’s worldview, the play, its events show that although it may not be gone entirely, things have improved over his lifetime. It is telling that when he speaks about his fight with Death, Troy describes a white-robed figure with a hood. This similarity has not gone unnoticed: “by depicting Death as a Klansman, Troy explicitly links his wrestling match to his struggles against racial injustice” (Davis, 2014, p. 57). Despite this view, other characters suggest that it was his advancing age that prevented him from furthering his baseball career, and no overt racism is shown in the play.
Fences is a modern drama, using the metaphor of baseball to show one man’s family destroyed through nobody’s faults but his own. He might have had the best intentions, but his stubbornness, short-sightedness and lack of empathy take the best of him in the end, costing him everyone he has loved. These flaws are universal, and the characters, including Troy, are presented as sympathetic and believable. The setting may be uniquely American, but under the surface, humans are still humans, and tragedy, drama, and Death spare no one.
Davis, A. R. (2014) ‘Wrestling Jacob in the Book of Genesis and August Wilson’s Fences‘, Literature and Theology, 29(1), pp. 47-65.
Letzler, D. (2014) ‘Walking around the Fences: Troy Maxson and the ideology of “going down swinging”’, African American Review, 47(2-3), pp. 301-312.
Nadel, A. (2018) The theatre of August Wilson. London: Bloomsbury.
Wilson, A. (2017) Fences. Available at: https://archive.org/details/WilsonFences/ (Accessed: 22 August 2019).