Fences (The Century Cycle #6), by August Wilson
I must admit that this is the first play I have read by the author that I have actually heard of, thanks to its somewhat recent film adaptation (that I have not seen). I must admit that while this play is certainly a great one, it fills me with a high degree of mixed emotions, and likely did with the author as well. The complexity of a play like this one is the recognition that fathers have responsibilities to their children and to their wives, and this play deals with that responsibility in a nuanced way. Rather than posit an ideal situation or wallow in a completely dysfunctional situation, the author has presented the viewer or reader with a complex and nuanced reality that shows its protagonist, Troy Maxson, as a genuine and true father in a particular way that also points out how it is that fathers and sons and fathers and wives end up being estranged from each other and struggling to relate. Troy is by no means a perfect person (more on that below) but he is a decent person for the most part, and that essential decency is what makes him a powerful influence in this play and in his community.
The play itself is a two-act play where there are different conflicts going on. The first act mostly focuses on the conflict between Troy Maxson and his son, where the young man struggles to understand the depth of responsibility that his father has in taking care of his children. And there are plenty of children to take care of, by at least three different women, and we see the tragic nature of that and some implicit understanding that Troy spent enough time in jail for some sort of criminal offense that he was unable to do a good job at setting a good example for his eldest son from his first marriage and his growing estrangement from his wife leads him to ask her to take care of a child he had by another woman (spoiler alert). If he ends up dying somewhat lonely and embittered, he was also someone who lived a generally honorable light and did well by his children, at least as well as he could have done. And he ends up being the sort of character that one can see drawn from life, someone who actually could exist, and certainly a worthy father figure.
What is it that makes fathers and sons have a hard time relating to each other? For many sons, growing up into a man seems to involve some sort of rejection of one’s fathers. Given the contradictory and immensely difficult standards that fathers have to live up to, it is likely that they will fail, and perhaps fail badly, in some way. Some fathers provide a good material life for their children but have problems emotionally relating to their wives or those children. Some fathers have acquired bad habits that lead them to be viewed as subjects of ridicule or hypocrisy by children who are unaware that they too will become hypocrites if they are not already there (as they usually are). Still other fathers are somewhat brusque and hard to get to know, and children are seldom in a place to understand and appreciate the complexity of their children, not with the huge shadow that they have to live under with regards to those parents. In portraying a powerful black father, Wilson pays homage to his own stepfather and to the difficulties families have to face given the complexities of life and relationships in this and other generations.