- Rescuing the Tragic Bully in August Wilson’s Fences
At the end of Fences (1985), the third entry in what would become August Wilson’s ten-play cycle dramatizing the African American experience during the twentieth century, Gabriel Maxson attempts to instruct Saint Peter to open the gates of heaven and receive the soul of his recently deceased older brother Troy, the play’s self-absorbed bully of a protagonist. The surviving Maxson sibling, a brain-damaged military veteran bearing a metal plate in his head, believes “with every fiber of his being” that he is actually his Christian namesake, the archangel Gabriel; but without a mouthpiece for his trumpet, Gabe fails in three attempts to produce sound through the instrument. Having waited some twenty-odd years for this moment, though, the character refuses to accept defeat. “He begins to dance,” writes Wilson. “A slow, strange dance, eerie and life-giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual.” Once Gabriel finishes, claim the stage directions, the gates of heaven open “as wide as God’s closet” to receive Troy’s spirit. “Hence, the menacing Troy has been forgiven,” observed Ladrica Menson-Furr, “and will find a home in the spiritual realm.”
By having a character summon a divine force to rescue the deceased protagonist—whether that force is truly Christian in nature or pagan and African as numerous Wilson scholars have contended—the playwright seems to break with Aristotelian tradition, which would normally oblige the protagonist to endure, unhappily ever after, the consequences of his own hubristic error. Yet in 1998, after seven of Wilson’s ten major works had been staged, Joan Herrington wrote, “Of all Wilson’s plays, Fences most closely follows orthodox western views of tragic form.” In 1996 Wilson himself told Carol Rosen that Fences was the most “conventional” of the plays he had drafted to that point—plays that included, in addition to Fences, the apprentice work Jitney (1982), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986), The Piano Lesson (1987), Two Trains Running (1990), and Seven Guitars (1995). With the exception of Fences, explained the playwright, these [End Page 648] works were ensemble pieces with “their own rules” or what he called “my own way of executing Aristotle’s Poetics. My interpretation of all that.” But clearly Fences does not solicitously observe Aristotle’s structural rules either: at play’s end, Troy Maxson is offered the same spiritual deliverance provided to the title character at the end of Oedipus at Colonus, a drama notable precisely for the sort of deus ex machina ending Aristotle counseled against.
If by the mid-1980s Wilson was creating characters who undergo self-inflicted crises in accordance with the classical Greek tradition, an African American counterforce, the blues, had much earlier seized hold of Wilson’s artistic imagination, conveying a sustaining power amid its mournful observations of black American life. This placed Wilson in a bind, for while Aristotle’s Poetics instructed that Troy Maxson must thwart his own good fortune, the songs of Bessie Smith and other blues artists implied that a black protagonist possessed the ability to endure. Wilson attempted in Fences to reconcile these two competing impulses by emulating the dramatic source Aristotle would probably have found least objectionable as a model for structural variation: the Sophoclean oeuvre itself, specifically one of the Theban plays. But, truth be told, these clashing imperatives produced a puzzling work in Fences, a play whose egotistical protagonist is rescued from a self-imposed state of dishonor for no clear reason other than his racial identity and the political implications of being black.
Sophocles certainly provided Wilson with a viable model for a protagonist’s spiritual deliverance. Robert Bagg, in the prefatory materials to his translation of the Theban plays, sets the scene for blind Oedipus’s liberation from his worldly suffering at the end of Oedipus at Colonus: “In the sacred grove of the Eumenides”—the former Furies, identified in the play as the Kindly Ones—“Oedipus will find the mercy, and in a sense the rebirth, Apollo promised him at Delphi—almost as an afterthought—when as a troubled young...