Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1269

A Soldier’s Play explores the corrosive effects of racism by focusing on the tragedy of one man, Sergeant Vernon C. Waters. Although he has distinguished himself in World War I and has risen in the ranks by his own effort and against an entrenched racism, his vision of himself extends far beyond his own career. His action reflects another purpose, one grander than simple personal success: Waters has taken upon himself the role of savior of all African Americans in a racist society. Like Hamlet, Waters takes it upon himself to set things right. Waters’s sinister side, however, is that he attempts to eliminate any black he considers inferior. By dramatizing the story of Waters, Fuller creates a powerfully moving tragedy.

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Waters’s identity as tragic hero is revealed to the audience slowly, through Fuller’s use of the mystery plot vehicle. The investigating officer, Captain Richard Davenport, conducts a series of interviews in which characters summarize incidents involving Waters. Complicating the understanding of Waters is the fact that the soldiers interviewed themselves do not understand him. Wilkie, the first soldier interviewed, respects Waters because he earned his rank and is faithful to his wife and children; the second, Peterson, despises Waters because he sees him as a black bigot. The whites are even more divided on Waters: Captain Taylor thinks of him as a simpleton who does his job adequately, but the two bigots, Byrd and Wilcox, are threatened by his “uppityness.” Racial stereotypes continually interfere with the characters’ perceptions. The audience must infer Waters’s character with Davenport as the guide; Davenport acts as a chorus, explaining the action while being involved in it.

The actual Waters, as disclosed in composite, is a failed idealist, a messianic African American who wants the best for his race but is uncertain about how to achieve it. “I don’t intend to have our race cheated out of its place of honor and respect in this war,” he tells Wilkie. Waters’s tragedy is a consequence of his terrible miscalculation, his fateful error in judgment. Because he is convinced that “the only thing that can move the race is power,” and that empowerment means becoming white, he chooses to deny his own racial identity and emulate white racists. This choice, however, commits him to a power dynamics that conceives only of the oppressed and the oppressor. If he accepts the assumptions of black inferiority from a racist society, his purpose is doomed to failure. Unable to relate to his men as brothers, he transforms them into objects to be rescued; Waters willingly destroys their self-respect and integrity in order to save them. His vision is clouded by his purpose until the end of his life. His own words “They still hate you!” begin and end the play, testifying to his own recognition that he has failed both himself and his race.

Waters is a sympathetic character because he suffers deeply over the wrongs committed against him and his race. More sensitive than other characters, he has withheld his rage, choosing instead to direct it, he supposes, against a vicious system that denies him his humanity. Ironically, his actions redound against him and his men, for his efforts to inspire them to achievement only alienate them and make them despise him. Even more important, he is alienated from himself; as C. J. says, “I feel kinda sorry for him myself. Any man ain’t sure where he belongs must be in a whole lotta pain.” C. J., whom Waters victimizes relentlessly, knows Waters best of all. Waters tells C. J., “Them Nazis ain’t all crazy—a whole lot of people just can’t fit into where things seem to be goin’—like you, C. J. The black race can’t afford you no more.” His unconscious use of a mercantile vocabulary,...

(The entire section contains 2378 words.)

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