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August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ was first produced in 1985 at the Yale Repertory Theater and its significance lies not only in the fact that it established the playwright as a major figure in the history of recent modern plays but also as Ladrica Menson-furr puts it in her book, “August Wilson’s Fences”, “in proving that another African-American playwright could meet the challenge and compose a traditional drama-one that revolved around the actions of one character- and write both himself and a new African-American protagonist, Troy Maxson, into annals of American theater.”(p2) Menson-furr rates Troy Maxson equal to such timeless characters as Miller’s Willie Loman and Lorraine Hansberry’s Walter Lee Younger. Wilson’s ambition was to write plays about the experiences of the black in the United States for every decade of the 20th century and ‘Fences’ is in fact his middle child born in 1957. What differentiates Wilson’s work from the other plays of African-American writers is the three-dimensionality of his major character. Troy Maxson’s life is studied dexterously not only from the outside with the focus on the racist and political factors but also from the inner world of familial life and so we are faced with a drama about an Everyman, his success and failure, happiness and sadness and the very relationships that build up his life; his bonds with Rose his wife, Cory his son and Bono his friend.
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Throughout the play, Troy constantly refers back to the oppression and injustices that he has dealt with in his life, as a son, as an athlete, and as a worker. He tries to take back the power and control in his life. In the essay, “Developing Character:Fences,” Sandra Shannon says, ” These feelings of being passed over change Troy into a man obsessed with extorting from life an equal measure of what was robbed from him”. Because his father was cruel and unloving and because the opportunities in his life were never fulfilled, he tries to control all the things in his present life, yet through his effort, he ends up bringing others around him down,too. He is trying to make up for the oppression in his life, and he ends up oppressing others. Interestingly enough, even the victory in the debate with the union over the injustices towards the black garbage collectors and his promotion to a garbage truck driver does not seem to either satisfy him or present a future with more optimistic prospects. The proof is his pursuit of the affair with Alberta after his success at work and during the days of his estrangement from Rose and his son.
The attempt to clarify Troy’s behavior and his constant tendency towards immersing himself into the deception of the life of illusion leads one to the tales he says about his past, his preoccupation with Death, his conflicts with his father and most important of all what he seems unwilling to elaborate much on, his mother. From what he says to Lyons we understand that as a child and during the crucial pains of growing up in his adolescence he lacked the security and tenderness of his mother’s embrace. Talking about his parents’ relationship he says that:
“My daddy ain’t had them walking blues! What you talking about? He stayed right there with his family. But he was just as evil as he could be. My mama couldn’t stand him. Couldn’t stand that evilness. She run off when I was about eight. She sneaked off one night after he had gone to sleep. Told me she was coming back for me. I ain’t never seen her no more. All his women run off and left him. He wasn’t good for nobody.” (Act1, Scene4)
It seems highly unlikely that in such deprived familial backgrounds, Troy enjoyed a healthy and proper development through different phases of his childhood and adolescence. Although the mother left him when he was already young enough to manage himself on his own, the circumstances and father’s indifference and inability to establish a compassionate and caring connection with his son made the lack of mother’s presence and emotional support more tangible and highlighted. And the fact that she abandoned him under such unhealthy rule of the father depicts the maternal figure as unsympathetic and invalid. Considering the above and following Lacan’s psychoanalysis, one can conclude that Troy enjoy the privilege of having a normative psychological development and that being caught up in the symbolic state, he let go of his imaginary and made it subservient to all the rules of the father. Perhaps the most important rule that Troy adopted from his father was the necessity of leading a responsible life no matter how far that responsibility is devoid of genuine emotions and care for others and in fact he backs up his father regarding his conduct in this matter:
“How he gonna leave with eleven kids? And where he gonna go? He ain’t knew how to do nothing but farm. No, he was trapped and I think he knew it. But I’ll say this for himâ€¦ he felt a responsibility toward us. Maybe he ain’t treated us the way I felt he should haveâ€¦ but without that responsibility he could have walked off and left usâ€¦ make his own way.” (Act1, Scene4)
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Therefore, Troy’s childish dreams and fantasies were never fulfilled as the mother who stands for nature, love, selfless protection, bountiful benevolence, care and comfort turns out to be a big Lack in his life although he is ironically unaware of it and insists on sticking to the patriarchal doctrines which have deprived him of these needs. Interestingly enough, Troy suffers from the same impotency in establishing a fulfilling relationship with the opposite sex. His affair with Lyons’ mother was nothing more than mere lustful connection and was doomed from the very beginning, he is incapable of appreciating Rose’s unconditional love and protection and seeks peace and emotional settlement in his affair with Alberta. But that is terminated as well with Alberta’s death. So history is repeated and as all his father’s women “run off and left him”, in the real world he too is alienated from feminine consolation and chooses the bliss of illusions his mind’s imaginary world as a substitute. In the case of Cory, however, although he has inherited the same sense of responsibility and despite his internalization of the rules of the father and acknowledgement of patriarchy, he benefits from the ever-present love of Rose and teams up with his mother in opposition to Troy’s oppressive self- centered behavior. His process of growing up was a healthier and more normative one compared with that of his father and grandfather as he is the child of the time when the black society started to experience wider social chances and consequently felt less pressure in the familial domain as well.
“â€¦ I was scared of my daddy. When he commenced to whupping on me â€¦ quite naturally I run to get out of the way.(pause) Now I thought he was mad cause I ain’t done my work. But I see where he was chasing me off so he could have the gal for himself. When I see what the matter of it was, I lost all fear of my daddy. Right there is where I become a manâ€¦ at fourteen years of age. (pause) Now it was my turn to run him off.” (Act1, Scene4)
As Troy entered the symbolic stage of his development at a very early age, in the same manner he broke his bonds with his father at his early teens in order to build up his own individuality and identity. According to Lacanian pychoanalysis, the child fears the father as an agent of totality and power. Having let go of his maternal bounds, he tries to learn the language of the father for the double function of obeying as well as challenging his rules. Lacan believes that language shapes our identity as separate beings and molds our psyches. So while at the beginning Troy yielded to his father and acknowledged him as the symbol of authority in order not to be cast away, he resists him as the thing that blocks his sexual drives and consummation. In Lacan, the blockage is with regards to the father and son’s competition over the mother. In ‘Fences’, however, the mother is absent and has for long ceased to play a tangible part in Troy’s life and the clash between Troy and his father occurs over a girl they both desire to win. Troy remarks this is the moment he stood up against the oppressive conduct of his father to know himself, come to terms with his own identity, break up with identifying with the father and become a man. He says all he knew at the time was that , “the time had come for me to leave my daddy’s house. And right there the world suddenly got big. And it was a long time before I could cut it down to where I could handle it.” (Act1, Scene4) But opposite to his claim, he does not seem to have been able to handle it. Instead he chooses the illusory fulfilling affair with Alberta as an alternative to his suppressed dreams in the real world. The reason behind his inability is that he did not master the langue of the father as a child. He is uneducated and cannot read or write. He was disunited from his mother and so was not in unity with himself and trying to substitute this lack with other objet petit such as job, sex, family, children, he fails. But the biggest failure of all is the failure in acquisition of language properly and this leads to his embarrassing mistake which leads to Gabriel’s confinement in the asylum. This happens only because Troy signed papers granting permission for half of Gabe’s money from the government to go to Troy and half to the hospital. Moreover, his being illiterate leads to his incapacity in understanding the time he lives in. He constantly lives in the past and relives the injustices done to him in his youth everyday. So when Cory announces his wish to get the scholarship and go to college to play football, Troy refuses to sign the papers because he has not kept up with the changes the outside world and society had faced during all those years. Unlike Cory who is educated and can see and interpret matters with more wisdom, Troy lacks the great weapon of language in the battle for survival. This deficiency is manifested very early in the play in the conversation between the father and the son over the advances and successes of the black baseball players. Their talk solidifies their positions as two men separated by a generation but sharing common passion. While Cory sticks to the facts and ration in order to persuade his father, Troy’s responses are irrational and lack substance. He even tries to distort the facts for his own benefit which makes his talk sound childish at times. Troy and Cory’s incompatible perspectives and conflicting views of changing history manifest their differences. Troy’s hypocrisy favors his own vision of the oppressive world as he can shape it for securing his own status in it at the expense of holding back a promising future for his son.
Having quitted life long ago and retreating to the world of illusions, the main issue which constantly haunts Troy and which has always done so during his life is the idea of Death. The theme is established in the very first scene with Troy boasting to Bono about his numerous encounters with Death. He believes he is unconquerable and almost immortal. His attitude towards it is that of pride and he keeps referring to it again and again and when facing Alberta’s loss, he asserts that “ain’t nothing wrong with talking about death. That’s part of life. Everbody gonna die. You gonna die. I’m gonna die. Bono’s gonna die. Hell, we all gonna die.” (Act2, Scene2) As a matter of fact, it seems Death is something he craves for. What challenges him and at the same time attracts him. He equals death with life and vitality. It boasts of providing him with the opportunity to get rid of all his objet petit a, his disillusion and cracked identity in order to reach the union with the long-lost real source of wholeness. Thus while he is ever “vigilant” and wary of its presence, Troy seeks and welcomes the oneness and integrity of the maternal, dark side of his being, the Death.
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