Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 675

The overriding theme of Two Trains Running is the bitter economic reality of urban life and the need to preserve African American culture amid such conditions. For Wilson, the primary means of maintaining and celebrating African American culture is the blues. Calling it “a philosophical system,” Wilson claims that, with the blues, “You get the ideas and attitudes of the people as part of the oral tradition.” Understanding the importance of the African American musical heritage is crucial to any analysis of Wilson’s drama. Not only is the title taken from an old jazz tune, but the narrative structure itself is also derived from the blues. The pace of the play is slow and its tone melancholy; the drama is language-oriented, not action-driven. As part of the blues and the oral tradition, such characters as Memphis, Holloway, Wolf, and Sterling become storytellers—storytelling being both an act of memory and a means of communion in this otherwise fragmented urban landscape.

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In keeping with Wilson’s belief that the great migration of southern blacks to the North was a mistake, the play explores a powerful economic theme: specifically, a series of broken or unfulfilled contracts, with African Americans on the losing end. Most important is the clause that the city government tries to use to deprive Memphis of a fair price and his claim that he has a clause of his own. The play’s exposition, however, reveals an earlier contract dispute: Memphis lost his farm because the deed stated that the discovery of water on the land would nullify the sale. In addition, there is the contract dispute that left Hambone unpaid. Holloway succinctly articulates the problem: “If it wasn’t for you the white man would be poor. . . . He give you three dollars a day for six months and he got him a railroad for the next hundred years. All you got is six months’ worth of three dollars a day.” These broken or unfulfilled contracts imply a flawed social contract. In other words, manumission did not end economic slavery for African Americans.

Two Trains Running is noteworthy for its episodic structure and for the ensemble quality of its characters. Wilson, though, exploits the symbolic nature of two figures both to unify the drama and to explore the African American experience. The first such figure, Hambone, is an African American everyman, one who dies without receiving his just reward. Though it is true that his dialogue is limited to only a few lines, he is arguably the most important person in the play. Hambone is more than just a cardboard character; as a dramatic device, he is the catalyst who generates the storytelling and the economic discussions in this memory play. For example, it is only after observing Hambone’s daily ritual that Memphis tells of his life in Jackson and Holloway gives his discourse on economic slavery.

In addition, both Memphis and Sterling resemble Hambone in that they, too, are waiting for what is rightfully theirs. Like Hambone, Memphis claims that whites have not paid him his due. Though Memphis ironically rejects Hambone throughout the play, in the final scene Memphis imitates him, demonstrating the correspondence between the two. Sterling, moreover, shares with Hambone a passion for chants and recognizes the fact that Hambone’s sense of purpose gives him an advantage. His daring theft of the ham at the end is an effective dramatic device that confirms his identification with Hambone.

Though Aunt Ester never appears onstage, her role as the unseen prophetess is central to Wilson’s explorations of economic reality and of African American culture. As Holloway notes, Aunt Ester gives her clients something more valuable than money: tradition. She is the spiritual antidote to the economic enslavement of the community. She is allegedly 349...

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  • Characters
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