Wilson's Metaphoric Use of Baseball

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Last Updated August 17, 2023.

The most prevalent image in August Wilson's Fences is baseball. It is the sport that defines Troy Maxson's life and provides the measure of his success. Indeed, Wilson has constructed the play into nine scenes—or innings—to emphasize the connection. According to Christine Birdwell in Aethlon, the innings correspond to the seasons of Troy's life. In some innings, Troy is the hero who wins for his team, his family. These are the innings defined by Troy's success: his early success as a great hitter for the Negro Leagues, his protest at work that wins him a promotion to driver, and his noble, responsible efforts to provide for his family. But some innings are losses for Troy (and his team): his misunderstandings and painful confrontations with his two sons, his institutionalizing of his brother Gabriel, his broken relationships with Rose and Bono, and the death of Alberta. In the ninth inmng, when Troy is dead, his family gathers in the yard to remember Troy's wins and losses.

Birdwell noted that Wilson does not provide much information about the Black baseball leagues in his play. The role baseball plays in framing Troy's strengths and weaknesses is more important than the history of the game itself. Instead, the emphasis is on characterization. The audience learns that Troy was a good hitter and that his home run average far exceeded those of many white players. Nevertheless, the Negro League was not a source of viable income for its players; Troy could not have bought his home without the additional money from Gabriel's disability checks. In one of his complaints about the color line in baseball, Troy observes that he "saw Josh Gibson's daughter yesterday. She was walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet." He then compares Gibson's child to the child of a white major league player, and declares "I bet you Selkirk's daughter ain't walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet." The reference is clear: Negro League players cannot make enough money to support their families. The injustice rankles Troy whose bitterness at the slight baseball has shown him is evident throughout the play.

Besides his thirty-year friendship with Bono, the fifteen years that he spent in prison provided Troy with another benefit. It demonstrated to him that he had a talent, one that set him apart from other men, one that proved his worth. But, as Birdwell noted, baseball also proved a disappointment. For Troy, "the triumphs of the past have become bitter betrayals, and baseball now means lost dreams. Baseball had defined Troy, had given him meaning and status; now it has left him with nothing tangible.''

Troy is so angry over his own lost opportunities that, by 1957, he cannot take pleasure in the fact that Black men are finally able to play major league ball. Integration means nothing to him because it came too late to benefit his life. He complains that "if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play." Ability and not color should determine who plays baseball, but Troy recognizes that justice has been missing for Black men. When he tries to explain his distrust of the white sports establishment to Cory, Troy observes that "the colored guy got to be twice as good [as the white player] before he get on the team." He also notes that although the leagues are now integrated, the Black players sit on the bench and are not used. Cory has no personal experience that corresponds to his father's. He has been playing football in high school and recruiters want him to play in college;...

(This entire section contains 1940 words.)

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he fails to see any lack of opportunity. Each man feels the other is blind to the truth, but both are centered in their own experience.

In a real sense, Troy has become blind to the changes of the past ten years, and this ignorance provokes him to deny Cory's chance at succeeding. Too often, fathers use sons to achieve the success they feel they have been denied. But Troy has no desire to live vicariously through his son. Finally, in the eighth inning/scene, their opposing positions result in a confrontation that turns violent. After having been told by his father that he is earning strikes, Cory grabs a baseball bat and advances with the intent of swinging at his father. This is the strike-out about which Troy has been warning his son. Cory swings twice and misses, but Troy is stronger and seizes the bat, denying his son the third swing that may have resulted in a strike-out— or a hit.

Birdwell observed that in this scene, "Wilson presents a reverse image of the traditional, treasured father-and-son backyard game depicted in films and on television. Instead father and son vie for the bat transformed into a weapon, and savage combat erupts." Baseball should provide fathers and sons with a bonding experience, with an opportunity for playful competition. But Cory cannot compete with Troy. Troy's need for control, a pattern he learned from his own brutal father, is too ingrained for him to soften his ways. Although he means the best for Cory, Troy's misdirected efforts result in the loss of his son. He will die without having ever seen Cory again.

The relationship that Troy forges with his wife, Rose, also proves to be limited by his experience in baseball. After eighteen years of marriage, Troy feels he needs to escape the confining walls of responsibility through an affair with another woman. The other woman, Alberta, is Troy's attempt to capture what has been lost, his youth. If Troy is now too old to play major league baseball, he is not too old to be attractive to other women. Birdwell insisted that Alberta "returns Troy to baseball's yesteryears, in which, according to Bono, 'a lot of them old gals was after [him],' when he 'had the pick of the litter.'"

While Troy might see another woman as a way to escape into the past, there is less opportunity for Rose to escape the pressures and responsibilities of life. The role women play in Fences is limited by the time period in which the play is set. In the 1950s, women were restrained by traditional roles and the division of private and public spheres. Men functioned in the public sphere; they left the home to go to jobs. In contrast, women primarily functioned in the private sphere of home and domestic chores. When Rose is confronted with Troy's infidelity, she may choose to remain in the marriage, but that choice does not signify that she is accepting or helpless. During her marriage, Rose has allowed Troy to fill her life. She tells Troy, "I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams... and I buried them inside you."

But Troy's betrayal forces Rose to reassess her position, according to Harry Elam in May All Your Fences Have Gates. This reassessment, noted Elam, means new avenues of freedom that "affirm rather than assault traditional gender limitations." Rose substitutes her church for her husband. When, at the end of the seventh inning/scene, Rose tells Troy that "this child got a mother. But you a womanless man," she is asserting her independence from her husband. Elam quoted Patricia Collins's argument that black women learn independence at church, but they also learn to subordinate their interests to the greater good of the African American community.

Rose has chosen to take the subservient role in marriage. She admits her complicity, but the audience is reminded that her options were few. Yet she is not an oppressed woman, and when Rose takes the infant Raynell and speaks the lines that end this scene, Elam noted that "the audience, particularly black female spectators, erupted with cheers and applause.'' Clearly, Rose is perceived by Black women as a strong female character and not an oppressed figure. As Sandra Shannon noted in an essay in May All Your Fences Have Gates, Rose "evolves from a long-suffering heroine to a fiercely independent woman." This evolution is what audiences are cheering.

With Fences, Wilson created a play that explores the barriers that confine Black people. The title serves as a metaphor for all the fences that imprison the Maxsons. The fence that surrounds the Maxson home is not the white picket fence of the 1950s American ideal. Their fence is not decor and it is not an enhancement—its purpose is strictly utilitarian. At the beginning of the play, Troy thinks he is building a fence to please Rose. She wants a fence that will keep all those she loves safe inside its walls. Later, after Alberta's death, Troy completes the fence to keep danger, and death, outside its walls.

For most of the play's action, though, Troy is in no hurry to complete Rose's fence, after all, he has spent time in prison with fences limiting his movements. And when he played baseball, he was never content to just hit a home ran into the stands; he felt that he had to transcend the boundaries of the stadium and hit a ball over the fence. For Troy, fences have been a restriction, and he's in no hurry to build another. Yet there are many fences in Troy's way that he cannot control or hit a ball over. The mental hospital where Troy confines Gabriel provides one such fence, while another kind of fence—one between the living and the dead—is erected when Alberta dies. It is this latter enclosure that finally creates a sense of urgency in Troy.

The fence Troy completes, however, will fail to keep Cory inside. Although Troy has attempted to confine Cory within his authority, his son does escape. Yet when he returns, the audience learns that Cory is now bound within the confines of a far more strict institution, the military. Cory has escaped from his father's authority only to end up bound in the rule of the Marine Corps. With the Vietnam War looming only a few years away, the boundary created by the military is an especially dangerous one for black males.

The fences that would keep Cory from reaching his goals are not unlike the fences that limit Rose. In the last scenes of the play when Rose finally asserts herself, she is really only exchanging Troy's fence for the one offered by the church. Religion provides its own fences and limitations, and for Rose, who chooses not to break free of the institution of marriage, the church offers a haven within its institutionalized walls. Even Gabriel who is allowed a temporary escape from the mental hospital, ends the play with an effort to create an opening in the fence so that Troy might enter heaven. But for Black people, the most difficult fence to scale, the one that restricts their achievements and steals opportunities, is the fence that whites erect to keep Black people in a place away from mainstream success. This is the fence that Wilson wants his audience to see. This is the fence against which Black people are forced to struggle.

In an interview that appeared in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, Wilson said that by the end of Fences, every character had been institutionalized, except Raynell; she is the hope of the future. Raynell stands within the confines of the fence that surrounds the yard, but the audience leaves with the perception that she will go beyond that barrier to achieve a better future than her father.

Source: Shen Metzger for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.Metzger is a professional writer with a specialty in drama.

Review of Fences

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Last Updated August 17, 2023.

August Wilson's Fences deals with a Black family living in "a North American industrial city'' in the late 1950s. The father, Troy Maxson, is a former star baseball player of the Negro leagues who was too old to get into the majors when they at last opened up to Black people after World War II. He resents the false promise that sports held for him, and blocks his own son's promising career as a football player.

Troy's life has been filled with disappointment, oppression, and just plain bad luck: Raised in the South in billet poverty, he today cannot even read. As a youth, he served time in the penitentiary as a result of a stabbing in a robbery he committed simply to get food. His brother received a head injury in the war that reduced him to a mental child, with only Troy to care for him. Troy holds down a job as a garbage collector, prevented by the color of his skin from getting promoted to driver. All these problems are "fences" that have held him in all his life.

Nevertheless, this is not a bitter play, but a warm and often comic view of Black life in America. Troy has a wonderful, loving wife, and a strong friendship with his longtime co-worker, Jim Bono. Troy's relationships with his son, with another son from a previous marriage, and with his brother Gabriel, who has a disability, are not always harmonious but are always based on deep and genuine feelings.

All the action of the play, in nine scenes spread over eight years, takes place in the Maxsons' backyard. Many of the scenes appear on the surface to be mere slices of life, with nothing much happening, yet, like Chekhov, Wilson always keeps the plot subtly moving forward. Troy jokes and tells stories, rails against the ballplayers of the day—Jackie Robinson is just lucky, there were Black teams he could not even have made in the old days—banter with his wife, argues with his sons and brother, and procrastinates over repairing the back fence, the visible manifestation of the symbol that unifies the play. As with Chekhov, major events take place offstage: we hear how Troy eventually gets a promotion by going to his union, and how he drifts into an affair with a young woman (never seen) that nearly wrecks his marriage, and leaves him and his wife with another child to raise when the woman dies in childbirth.

The rift between Troy and his son widens; blocked from going to college on a football scholarship, and disgusted with his father's infidelity, the boy confronts Troy in the only overtly physical scene in the play. In this classic father-son agon, each has an opportunity to kill the other but draws back. Tragedy averted, the son goes off to join the Marines, returning only for his father's funeral years later, confronting the many fences that have figured in their lives—"fences to keep people out, and fences to keep people in."

James Earl Jones was superb in the lead role. He still has the physical strength and agility he had twenty years ago in The Great White Hope, and although, like the character he played in Fences, he shows his age, he also convinced you of his underlying athletic ability, which is so important to the role. When Troy insisted that he "can hit forty-three home runs right now!", Jones made you believe it. He also skillfully used his well-known, resonant voice with wide variations and contrasts, giving a rich, musical quality to the many stories—the play is full of long, set speeches—which were also enhanced by his ability for both physical and vocal mimicry, as he imitated the many real and imaginary characters he described. Jones is a wonderfully precise actor; the performance was full of telling detail, such as the way he would swig at a bottle of gin he was sharing with his friends, managing a big, fast swallow while fastidiously keeping the bottle from touching his lips. The role won him a Tony Award for the best performance of the year on Broadway, and one should add that he was lucky, these days, to have a role worthy of his talents to perform there.

Jones was supported by an excellent cast, especially Mary Alice, who brought ease, charm, and poignancy to the role of his wife, and Frankie R. Faison, who turned the tricky role of the brother with a disability—which could easily have degenerated into something sentimental or, on the other hand, disgustingly clinical—into a performance that was deft and lyrical. Lloyd Richards directed with his usual skill and clarity, while James D. Sandefur designed the naturalistic yet evocative setting. The only flaw here was that, perhaps because it was in the inappropriate 46th Street Theatre, sightlines required the setting to be placed far downstage, which limited much of the blocking to one dimension.

Fences won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama which is well deserved. Some of its excellence, however, derives from its being part of a whole school of contemporary Black playwriting, by authors such as Lonne Elder III, Charles H. Fuller, Jr., and Leslie Lee. Many of their plays are better than anything written by fashionable white playwrights like Sam Shepard David Mamet or David Rabe yet they have received less attention and are less likely to appear in anthologies or college courses in contemporary American drama. Influenced by Ibsen and Chekhov, they realistically depict life in Black America with understatement, humor, and sadness. They also show the influence of jazz, especially the blues, whose lyrics combine comedy and pathos in giving voice to the problems of ordinary Black people. The intense personal relationships that are the glory of Black life are made vivid for all of us.

Source: Richard Hornby, review of Fences in the Hudson Review, Volume XL, no. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 470-72.

Review of Fences

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Last Updated August 17, 2023.

At the end of August Wilson's Fences, the Maxsons gather for the funeral of Troy, who has dominated the family and the play. His "mixed-up" brother Gabe, who had "half his head blown away" in World War II and who believes that he has been to heaven, unlimbers the trumpet he always carries "to tell St. Peter to open the gates." There is no mouthpiece, no trumpet blast. After three increasingly desperate tries, Gabe howls in anguish and frustration. Light pours across the scene. "That's the way that go!" he says, smiling his satisfaction.

That's not really the way that go, meaning the play as a whole, but the effectiveness of the final scene is a reminder that Wilson stretches the limits of the realistic form his play takes (as he mixed songs and dramatic scenes in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) and that the verisimilitude of his language cannot disguise the lyric qualities in his work. For the most part, Fences is a family play in an old American tradition—Awake and Sing!, Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun—in which the conflicts within the family are given definition by the social forces outside. Set in "a Northern American industrial city" (i.e., Wilson's Pittsburgh) in 1957, it uses the metaphor of the fence which Troy builds around his backyard as title to a play about the fences between husband and wife, father and son, Black and white.

Troy Maxson is a Black man in his early fifties, at once an authority figure and a garrulous, playful nice guy. James Earl Jones, in one of his best roles, joins the playwright in making Troy both attractive and threatening. Although he has the strength to buck the system, to get himself promoted from garbageman to driver, he sees the world in terms of his own past. He has become a variation on the tyrant father he ran away to escape. He has come to believe that a Black man's only choice is between jail, where he spent some youthful years, and a steady job; he cannot see that there might be other possibilities in the 1950s, roads that were not open thirty years earlier.

A central prop in Fences is the baseball that hangs on a rope from the tree in the yard. Troy's device for batting practice, is a constant reminder for him and for us of his greatest triumph and his greatest disappointment. Having learned to play baseball in prison, he went on to become a star in the Negro League but, despite his talent, the color line kept him out of the majors. Whether out of jealousy or to protect the young man, Troy refuses to sign the papers that would let his son go to college on a football scholarship, a destructive act that leads to a final confrontation between the two and a reenactment of the father-son conflict that sent Troy off on his own. He uses his sense of ownership and control (my house, my yard) not only to stifle his son's ambitions but to misuse his brother, whose disability payments bought the house, and his wife, whom he loves but to whom he brings the child of another woman. Sitting in the audience, one could sense who was on what side of which fence by the applause that accompanied the son's defiance and the wife's revolt, her acceptance of the child, and rejection of Troy as a husband. Troy fills the last scene even in his absence, and when his son, now a sergeant in the Marines, joins his half-sister in singing Troy's song about Blue that "good old dog,'' acceptance of and forgiveness for what Troy and his world had made of him prepare the way for Gabe's bringing the light. What remains is Troy's strength, his sense of duty, and his odd vulnerability. "That's the way that go!"

Source: Gerald Weales, review of Fences in the Commonweal, Volume CXTV, no. 10, May 22, 1987, pp. 320-21.


Critical Overview