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Fences

August Wilson

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How does Troy's character change over the course of the play?

Troy Maxson transforms into a lonely, unloved, fearful man from his original position as the center of attention in his family and social world. Though he constantly tries to escape his life, Troy Maxson tries to engage life and challenge Death because he believes in himself and his convictions, however illusionary they may be. Troy begins by confronting his employees about their discriminatory practices, he boasts to his best friend Bono and family member that he is not afraid of death and he keeps a secret that he thinks he can get away with about his affair with Alberta. When Troy demands respect from his son, Cory, he gets it and when he teases his other son Lyons, Troy feels bigger and better. Shown through the three Fridays interspersed in Fences, Troy rapidly descends into a lonely, friendless and loveless life when his fears, his anger and his secrets get the better of him, causing his loved ones to lose their respect for him and to change their life so that they do not depend on his presence anymore. Troy forfeits his role of loving and devoted husband, generous and responsible parent and loyal, honest and inspiring friend. Troy goes from juggling two relationships with women to having none. Troy calls the risky action of having an affair with Alberta, "stealing second." If that is how Troy plays ball at the beginning of the play, then one could say he ends the play as a benchwarmer.

Are Troy's problems self-created or out of his control?

In some ways, Troy had no control over his disappointments. Troy's self-doubts are rooted in his disappointing life and the hardships he endured while providing for himself and his family. Troy's demise is a combination of his own actions coming back to haunt him, a racist society and bad luck. Troy was born into a large, poor family with only an abusive, but hardworking father as a caretaker. He did not have any resources when he had to leave his father's house and he ended up in jail because he committed petty crimes to survive. In jail, Troy learned baseball and discovered he could play in the Negro Leagues as one of the best home-run hitters. But when Troy was at his prime, the professional well-paying Major Leagues closed their doors to black players. Unable to support his family, Troy becomes an employee of the sanitation department, working hard for many years without a promotion because of discrimination in the union's hiring practices.

However, Troy's affair with Alberta, his denial of Cory's promising future and his complaint against his union all represent choices Troy actively makes without hindrance, for better and for worse. Troy's act of signing the papers that sent Gabe away to the mental hospital combines both types of Troy's problems. It is a fateful and actively chosen problem. Troy does commit the act of signing Gabe away, but because he cannot read, Troy made the decision in ignorance. As the play progresses, Troy can no longer justify his behavior and his secrets and misdeeds get the better of him. The roles he once played with friends and family as a figurehead and role model, unravel because of the poor choices he made with the obstacles he faced.

Discuss the significance of the title, Fences, as it relates to characters and themes of the play.

Bono explains to Cory and Troy the reason for Rose's request for them to build a fence as an outside observer. Bono observes that Rose wants them to build the fence because she wants her loved ones kept close to her. Bono also explains that some people build fences to push people away. Bono is the only one who knows about Troy's affair with Alberta, which he believes will destroy the bonds of the Maxson family. Bono turns the action of building the fence into a metaphor of behavior that defines the central conflict of the play. Troy pushes Cory and Rose away while Rose and Cory try to live up to Troy's expectations and meet his demands. Wilson's writing emphasizes the Maxson family's roots in slavery with symbols, themes and storytelling. Wilson's title, Fences stands for larger boundaries than the ones created physically and emotionally in the Maxson household. The symbol of the fence also alludes to geographical boundaries and legal boundaries. Troy's last name attests to this as an amalgamation of the Mason-Dixon line that, starting in 1820, was the term used to describe the imaginary line separating the slave states from the free states. The title, Fences refers to the choices Wilson's characters make with their lives in their fair or unfair treatment of others.

What elements does Wilson employ to give the audience a sense that time has passed and characters have changed during the course of the play?

How does Fences fulfill Wilson's description of the style as a "blues aesthetic?"

Is Troy a tragic figure, a hero, a villain or a combination of these types? Is he a sympathetic character?

How does Wilson create the time period of the play with his language? Could the play take place in a different decade? Why or why not?

In many American plays, blacks play only minor roles or are only mentioned in passing by the main characters. Wilson reverses this by only referring to white characters but never having them appear on stage. What effect does this have on the play? How does their absence and presence inform the characters' world? Would the play be more effective or less effective if the white characters mentioned in the play were more present? Provide textual evidence to support your answer.

What is the play's attitude towards women? How might a female playwright tell the story of Fences differently than August Wilson? What themes or issues might be raised in a play about blacks in the 1950's that Wilson does not address? Do Rose and the women mentioned in the play typify roles of the 1950's or defy them? What attributes or actions of the female characters support your interpretation?

Some critics of August Wilson complain that "nothing happens" in his plays, meaning the plot is too subtle to be dramatic. Write a review of Fences arguing against this assertion and proving that it is a dramatic work. Back up your opinion with textual support.

Compare and contrast Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman with Fences. Compare and contrast the roles of fate vs. personal actions in the story of Willie Loman and Troy Maxson.

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