Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

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Talley’s Folly is a play about the primacy of human relationships and a celebration of romantic love. As Matt says at the opening, “This is a waltz, remember, one-two-three, one-two-three.” The audience is cast as willing participants, even advocates, in Matt’s ninety-seven-minute wooing of Sally Talley. When the two embrace at the end of the play, the audience realizes that, despite the fragile nature of communication, two people can find a way to form a lasting bond. One key to their union can be found in Sally’s family past. Her grandfather built the Victorian boathouse, the “folly” of the play’s title. The folly makes no money and does nothing to enhance the status of the Talley family, but the spirit of creativity and spontaneity celebrated by her grandfather’s folly casts its spell over the characters (and the audience as well) and sets the stage for Matt’s and Sally’s love.

The play also incorporates themes about the triumph of individualism over the narrow codes of Old World cultures, and the coming to terms with the end of an era. Matt’s immigrant experience has been decidedly atypical. He experienced at firsthand the deadly consequences of European nationalism before World War I. His family’s death at the hands of the French and the Germans, who later were enemies in World War I, reflects the insanity of a world in which all nations share complicity for destroying innocent lives. But the brutal reality of his past has not destroyed Matt’s spirit. He is a survivor. He is an expert in the affairs of money, he has a playful spirit and loves the inventiveness and spontaneity of language (he loves to mimic Humphrey Bogart), and he is interested in the American landscape.

Sally is much more bound to her culture and to her place than the uprooted Matt has been. Her life had been predicated on serving the goals of the conservative, southern aristocratic culture until her illness took away her usefulness to her family. Matt’s love for her affords her an escape from the oppressive judgment of her family and the limited parameters of her life in a traditional male-dominated society.

It is fitting that Sally and Matt come together on July 4, Independence Day. Here are two unlikely patriots. Matt is a pacifist; Sally was fired from teaching Sunday school and believes in unions (not a popular idea in their company town). In other words, both are free thinkers, individuals, and have strong values about honesty, hard work, and the rights of other individuals. Wilson implies that both characters represent American values that should be celebrated on Independence Day.

The couple’s interaction occurs at a turning point for American culture. 1944 represents the end of an era (the New Deal and World War II) when Americans were accustomed to shortages, dislocation, and lowered expectations. The future holds economic expansion, adjustment to new values, changes in family relationships, new attitudes in the work place. Matt and Sally will participate in many of these changes, and they will have an opportunity to nurture their own relationship free of the constraints and limitations of the old order.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144

Prejudice and Tolerance
One of the hurdles Sally and Matt have to overcome if they are to be a couple is the intolerance of those around them. Sally, although she is white, Methodist, wealthy, and reasonably attractive, does not fit in with her family or community because she does not embrace the capitalism that has secured her family’s fortune. She has been fired as a Sunday school teacher for encouraging her students to think positively about labor unions. Perhaps most scandalous to her family, Sally is still unmarried at thirty-one, and rather than being disgraced by this she has grown content to be alone. Because of the unwillingness of her family to embrace different ways of thinking, Sally’s only pleasures come outside her home, when she is at work or with friends. At home, she is lonely, an outcast.

But in the minds of Sally’s relatives, Matt’s eccentricities are far worse. He is older, he has a beard, he believes in socialism, he is an immigrant, and he is Jewish. While marriage between people of different religions is not uncommon today, during the 1940s it was practically unheard of, and Jews were excluded from many social interactions with Christians. When Matt comes to the door to ask Sally’s father for permission to marry her, it is only the second time he has met the family. A year ago he had dinner with them, and they immediately disliked him for his religion, his socialist ideas, and his beard. Without even asking what Matt wants on the night of Talley’s Folly, Buddy gets a shotgun and runs Matt off the property.

Matt has allowed himself to fall in love with Sally because she does not share the prejudices of her community. She loves Matt for himself and does not fear his religion, his accent, or his political beliefs. But if Sally is going to be with Matt, she will have to cut herself off from her family, for they will not consider permitting her to marry a Jew. To them the shame of her marrying a Jew would be greater than the shame of her remaining an ‘‘old maid.’’

Gender Roles
While Matt’s struggles have come from a political system that rejects him for his religion and his ideas, Sally’s greatest suffering is the result of her not fulfilling the narrowly defined role demanded of a woman. As the daughter of a successful capitalist family, she was expected to marry Harley Campbell, the son of another successful family. They did not love each other; Sally says, ‘‘It was more of a financial arrangement than anything.’’ Sally did not object to the role she was to play, but enjoyed being the ‘‘Golden Girl,’’ the head cheerleader engaged to the basketball star. It was not until she became ill and then infertile that she learned the truth: even her family did not love her for herself, but only for the gender role she could no longer play. Once she was ‘‘no longer of value to the merger,’’ even her father rejected her, looking at her in the hospital ‘‘like I was a broken swing.’’

In the decade since her broken engagement, Sally has tried to define a new role for herself. It is an uphill battle: even though she is an adult of thirtyone, her brother still feels he has a right and duty to approve of Sally’s choice of a man. But she has a job she enjoys, she knows how to change a tire, and she has worked to be content as a single woman. She smokes cigarettes and does not cook. She encourages socialist ideas, even though she knows that ‘‘unmarried daughters are supposed to help the menfolks keep the social status quo.’’ By the time she meets Matt, he can see that she ‘‘actually thinks of herself as a human being rather than a featherbed.’’ Married to Matt, Sally will not have pressure to become a mother or to fit into any other traditional female role.

Family
More than anything else, Matt and Sally are longing for a family, although it will be a new kind of family. Matt’s parents and sister were tortured and killed in Europe for political reasons. He escaped to America with the help of an uncle, but does not seem to have a relationship with that uncle now. He is alone. Ironically, Sally, who shares a house with three generations of Talleys, is also alone. She draws no comfort from her family, who have rejected her because of her political beliefs and because she has let them all down by not marrying Harley Campbell.

For both characters, the loss of family is their deepest sorrow, and both Matt and Sally have resigned themselves to never being part of a family again. Matt’s experiences have convinced him that it would be wrong to father a child, and he is sure no woman would marry a man who has made that decision. Sally is physically unable to bear children, and she is sure no man would want to marry an infertile woman. What the two realize at the end of the play is that they are perfectly suited to each other, and that two people can be a family.

Capitalism and Socialism
An important theme in much of Lanford Wilson’s work is the nature of work and profit. The Talley family has acquired its wealth by owning a large portion of a garment factory that now has a large contract to make army uniforms. For Wilson, the money they have accumulated is twice tainted: they are profiting from a war in which many thousands are dying, and they are profiting from the hard work of the laborers who do not earn decent wages and whom they will not permit to unionize. The Talleys do not produce anything of value with their own hands, and for Matt and Sally and Wilson this is an ignoble way to earn money.

Sally’s Uncle Whistler did make things with his own hands, including the boathouse where the play takes place. ‘‘He made toys. Tap-dancing babies and whirligigs. He got pleasure out of making things for people.’’ According to Sally, ‘‘He was the healthiest member of the family.’’ Sally has chosen to follow Uncle Whistler’s example. Although she could live off her family’s wealth, she works as a nurse’s aide in a hospital, providing a real service for wounded soldiers. Sally disapproves of her family’s way of earning money and even encourages the students in her Sunday School class to push for labor unions in her family’s factory. The fact that Sally and Matt share a disdain for capitalism makes them, in Wilson’s eye, not only well-suited for each other, but also morally superior to the others.

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