Fences

by: August Wilson

Gabriel Maxson

GABRIEL: Troy’s mad at me. . . . I just moved over to Miss Pearl’s to keep out from in your way. I ain’t mean no harm by it. . . . You ain’t mad at me, is you? . . . Got me two rooms. In the basement. Got my own door too. Wanna see my key?

Mentally damaged by a war injury and previously in a hospital, Troy’s brother Gabriel lived with the Maxsons for many years but recently moved. Gabriel admits that he worries that Troy resents his move—having Gabriel in his house put Troy in control of the money Gabriel received for his injury. Now that Gabriel has moved out, Troy may feel in a worse position financially. Troy never admits to being mad at Gabriel, but Gabriel’s belief may be more sensitivity than paranoia because Rose also believes Troy feels mad.

GABRIEL: Did you know when I was in heaven . . . every morning me and St. Peter would sit down by the gate and eat some big fat biscuits? Oh, yeah! We had us a good time. We’d sit there and eat us them biscuits and then St. Peter would go off to sleep and tell me to wake him up when it’s time to open the gates for the judgment.

Gabriel, Troy’s brother, was severely injured during World War II and now believes that he is the archangel Gabriel. He believes that he spent time in heaven, possibly the result of time in a coma after the injury. He carries a trumpet in order to be prepared to open the gates of heaven when necessary. Gabriel is clearly deluded, but his delusions are generally benign, and his family goes along with his fantasies.

TROY: Don’t nobody wanna be locked up, Rose. What you wanna lock him up for? Man go over there and fight the war . . . messin’ around with them Japs, get half his head blown off . . . and they give him a lousy three thousand dollars. And I had to swoop down on that.

After Rose suggested that since Gabriel has not been eating lately, he should be in the hospital where he would be looked after, Troy disagrees. As Troy points out, Gabriel received his injury fighting the war, and though he did receive a small payment, Gabriel himself couldn’t look after the money. Gabriel already lives a diminished life. To Troy, an ex-convict himself, putting Gabriel into a hospital seems like an additional undeserved punishment.

GABRIEL: Oh, I been chasing hellhounds and waiting on the time to tell St. Peter to open the gates. . . . The devil’s strong. The devil ain’t no pushover. Hellhounds snipping away at everybody’s heels. But I got my trumpet waiting on the judgment time.

Gabriel’s delusions apparently have a dark as well as a bright side. He remembers being in heaven, but here on earth he sees dark dangers, for himself and others. He believes his duty, as an angel, is to protect people from evil. Gabriel’s determination to actively fight what he sees as real dangers may bring him into conflict with strangers who will not appreciate his efforts on their behalf.

TROY: I went down there and got him out. Cost me fifty dollars. Say he was disturbing the peace. Judge set up a hearing for him in three weeks. Say to show cause why he shouldn’t be re-committed. . . . Some kids were teasing him and he run them off home. Say he was howling and carrying on. Some folks seen him and called the police. That’s all it was. . . . Told [the judge] I’d look after him. It didn’t make no sense to recommit the man. He stuck out his big greasy palm and told me to give him fifty dollars and take him on home.

Due to a combination of his own delusions and some unkind children teasing him, Gabriel was arrested for disturbing the peace, and Troy bailed him out. Troy explains that the authorities see Gabriel’s behavior as good reason for committing him to a hospital, but Troy disagrees, saying “he don’t bother nobody.” However, Gabriel’s mental health may be further deteriorating. Readers may note that the text implies that Gabriel has never been arrested before this event.

GABRIEL: Say, Rose . . . you know I was chasing hellhounds and them bad mens come and get me and take me away. Troy helped me. He come down there and told them they better let me go before he beat them up. Yeah, he did!

Gabriel shows that he misunderstands what happened when he got arrested. Troy did help him, not by threatening the police but by bailing him out. Gabriel relates this story in the middle of Rose and Troy’s fight over Troy’s infidelity. Gabriel seems to have no idea that their intense conversation is taking place, but he easily picks up on others’ moods. Asserting his brother’s heroism at this moment may be his way of putting a word in for Troy.

ROSE: Well, you ought to know. They went over to Miss Pearl’s and got Gabe today. She said you told them to go ahead and lock him up. . . . I saw it right there on the papers. . . . It said you told them to take him. . . . Say the government send part of his check to the hospital and the other part to you.

Rose reveals that she knows the real reason why Gabriel has been recommitted. Although Troy always insisted that Gabriel should remain free to wander, as he was not doing himself or anyone else any harm, Troy sent Gabriel away, but perhaps not intentionally. Troy insists he did not know what was on the paper he signed because he is illiterate. Gabriel has no agency over his own fate. His life seems particularly tragic because of its randomness.

GABRIEL: Hey Rose. It’s time. It’s time to tell St. Peter to open the gates. Troy, you ready? You ready, Troy, I’m gonna tell St. Peter to open the gates. You get ready now. (Gabriel, with great fanfare, braces himself to blow. The trumpet is without a mouthpiece. He puts the end of it into his mouth and blows with great force, like a man who has been waiting some twenty-odd years for this single moment. No sound comes out of the trumpet. . . . There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves him bare and exposed to a frightful realization[.])

Gabriel, believing himself to be the angel Gabriel, feels excited to open heaven’s gates with his trumpet for his brother, Troy. Unfortunately, the trumpet makes no sound, and Gabriel seems to be briefly exposed to and aware of the reality that he is powerless. However, Gabriel quickly overcomes this hurdle. He resorts to a song and dance of his own invention, and in his mind, he succeeds in opening the heavenly gates.