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Playwright August Wilson won two Pulitzers in his illustrious career. In The Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson wrote a series of plays each depicting a different decade in the lives of African-Americans living in the United States. Of these, Fences, takes place in the 1950s and features the problems not only of the African-American experience, but also the situation of societal oppression indicative of that period. At the heart of the play is protagonist Troy Maxson. His actions result in comedy and tragedy for all of the characters around him, making him the center of this universe that Wilson has created, representing the tumultuous time period in which the play takes place. August Wilson has stated that the character is based upon his own step-father, David Bedford providing the story with an autobiographical context. Wilson uses his own perception of his step-father in order to illustrate a story about the difficulties of the older regime in trying to adapt to the changing personal and political landscape of the 1950s which would culminate into the 1960s.
Both Troy Maxson and David Bedford had once been talented young athletes. Neither was able to attend college because of personal responsibilities and was resentful about it. Both men then turned to crime in order to support themselves. Maxson and Bedford committed homicide and consequently served lengthy prison sentences. The last thing that the men have in common is that after they were married, the pledged to give up their lives of crime and created new lives for themselves. Through the course of the play, Troy Maxson shows himself to be a man consumed by his own desires. "Fences is the odd man out because it's about one individual and everything focuses around him" (Bryer 208). If this is indeed based upon Wilson's own step-father, then this is not a complimentary comparison.
The title Fences is a direct reference to the perpetually incomplete structure in Troy's front yard. The fence is only partially erected, the remaining tools and boards within reach but never used. In the play, August Wilson writes a conversation between Troy and his friend Bono who says, "Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in" (61). The fence is designed to separate neighbor from neighbor and to protect the Maxson's home from the outside world. Troy's belief in the possible definitions and symbols of the fence is identified early on when, upon hearing of his mistress's death, makes a speech against Death. He says:
Alright…Mr. Death. See now…I'm gonna tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna take and build me a fence around this yard. See? I'm gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side. See? You stay over there until you're ready for me. Then you come on. Bring your army. Bring your sickle (Wilson 77).
In her book August Wilson: A Case Study, author Marilyn Elkins states that there is a secondary consideration to the symbolism of the fences. They are "the fences society builds up around us and those we construct, willingly or unwillingly, around ourselves" (82). However, Troy has not been able or motivated enough to finish the fence, leaving his home and family open to a myriad of influences from the outside world. Similar to the fence is the wooden porch which requires a paint job. The fence and porch are symptomatic of the crumbling marriage between Troy Maxson and wife Rose (Nadel 86). The couple has been together for eighteen years but infidelity and constant betrayal have led to a slowly-spreading dysfunction.
For both David Bedford and Troy Maxson, athletics were an important part of their identity in their youth. Troy's baseball bat is an emblem of his lost youth and what could have been had the fates not been against him. He feels bitterness towards the likes of Jackie Robinson, African-Americans who were able to transcend the color barrier between the white and Negro leagues. Maxson was never able to accomplish this, even though he was reportedly a great player. His interest in baseball began while he was imprisoned for armed robbery, looking for something good to focus on while incarcerated. It is also emblematic of Troy's constant need to define his masculinity. Feeling emasculated by a primarily white society, Troy turns to baseball, a highly masculinized sport where male strength and skill is expected and glorified. His "preoccupation with images associated with the traditionally masculine, extremely competitive sport robs him of the candor necessary to handle the delicate relationships in his life" (Clark 210). Baseball, the national pastime is both the emblem of hyper masculinity and also "America's pastime." By participating in the game he believes that he is becoming part of the American heritage and thus a part of the social majority.
This disappointment about baseball glory had the greatest impact in Troy's life, indicated by the fact that he constantly explains life in terms of baseball analogies. Instead of learning from his experiences, Troy instead blames the world around him and the society of the United States of America in particular for everything that has disappointed him in his life. Literary analyst Keith Clark writes: "Troy is dogged by what he sees as America's failure to grant him the rights and privileges that should accrue to native sons. His physical wound becomes an insignia -- a tangible reminder of the fusillade of social and bodily blows fired at him" (207). Through the character of Troy Maxson author Wilson explores the problem of African-Americans in America who, rather than try to raise themselves up off of the ground and elevate themselves into a higher class of society, they rail against the nationalized racism inherent in America. "Rather than depicting Troy as his spokesman or black male Everyvictim, & #8230;Wilson's characterization exposes the inherent flaw in fixating on racism as well as some black men's misguided desire to conform to a socially sanctioned script of maleness" (Clark 208).
Troy Maxson suffers from an inferiority complex. He is completely unfulfilled in his life and with his employment, his relationship, and his place in society. Instead of trying to elevate himself above the mire, he blames the system and the racism of the majority of the population around him. In order to make himself feel better about his low position in society, Troy tries to exert his power over the other individuals around him, particularly his son and his wife. One such example is the fact that Troy refuses to let his son Cory play football even though the boy shows a talent for the sport. So embittered is Troy against the sports world because of what happened to him during his baseball years, that he refuses to allow Cory to accept a football scholarship to go to college. Wilson wrote: "You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can't nobody take away from you" (35). Even though accepting the scholarship will allow Cory to get an education and one day compete in the real world along with the white majority, Troy forbids his son to play football and would relegate him to a life fixing cars or working at the supermarket.
The other example concerns Troy and his wife Rose. His demand for superiority is evident in the way he talks to her, such as dismissing her from a conversation by stating, "What you worried about what we getting into for? This is men talk, woman" (Wilson 41). Unable to gain power against males who are his equal socially, Troy has an affair with a woman…[continue]
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