My notes on Fences, gleaned from commentaries about it and some of my own interpretations:
Sam Bankhead, who with Josh Gibson’s son went to work in 1952 for the Pittsburgh sanitation department in the Hill District, a man who was said to be bitter because his career in the Negro leagues, talented as he was, never led to a major league position, was said by some to be the model for Troy Maxson, although Samuel Freedman—in his introduction to Fences, says it was step-father David Bedford, who wanted a football scholarship to medical school but turned to crime to pay when he couldn’t raise the cash, and possibly Charley Burley, the prizefighter turned garbage man across the street, who were likely models—Bankhead played with Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige for the Pittsburg Crawford’s in the 1940s.
In 1957, the first year in which Fences is set, Althea Gibson became the first black pro tennis player to win the Wimbledon, so Cory had reason to hope. In Pittsburg, the Lower Hill District had just been demolished in 1956 to build the new civic arena, and the exodus from that area of 8,000 displaced families was underway.
Orville Faubus resisted efforts to integrate Central High School in Arkansas leading to violent confrontations and the first major civil rights bill was signed into law by Dwight Eisenhower. Gabriel, Troy’s mad brother who thinks he’s already dead and who believes he’s the Archangel Gabriel, serves in the play as a messenger of St. Peter—and tells Troy his name is definitely “in the book”—he believes his brother is a good man and he’s either Wilson’s voice of judgement on that subject or he’s a poor fool preyed upon by his brother. Accompanied by the Gabriel hellhounds (British or Celtic) who presage death, and maybe echoing the Greek idea of chorus in this tragedy, he finally dances off at the conclusion after he blows his silent horn and confronts the ineffable.
Troy himself is, like the city, surrounded by walls to keep vulnerability out and he builds a fence to keep death away from his family, saying “you ain’t gonna’ sneak up on me no more,” reminding me of the stealthy attack on the ancient city perpetrated by Sparta.
While Troy’s father behaves as cruelly as Wilson and his sister have suggested that Wilson’s white father did, Wilson’s white father abandoned their family and mother Daisy Wilson, who PBS said walked most of the way to Pittsburg from rural North Carolina, following her mother, in 1937, became its mainstay.
Troy, who describes a similar long walk, never abandons his family although he judged and criticized Rose, Cory and Lyons, and took advantage of and cheated Gabriel. Tragedy in the play (Hamartea, the fatal flaw of a tragic hero) has to do with Troy’s rigidity and behavioral hubris—he holds everyone else up to higher standards than he is willing to demand of himself—sees them as flawed but himself, in his bitterness and self-pity, as deserving the pleasure he enjoys with Alberta and the use he makes of Gabriel’s money.
Aristotle saw the tragic flaw as intended to arouse pity and fear in an audience so we can learn to avoid the same flaw in ourselves.
Bono’s name suggests Bono Vox, a voice for good; and Rose’s, a rosy outcome, or the expression in Isaiah “ The desert shall bloom like the rose,” which reflects her speech about the inability of their relationship to bloom in Troy’s barrenness.
Cory—a cauldron, a seething pool, comes from French (or Latin) word for heart, and likely reflects his heat and passion.
Lyons? Lying or lion-hearted?
In Act 2 Scene 1 page 68– Troy attempts to justify his infidelity to Rose —by claiming “I done give you everything I got”—but did he, in reality? He gave Rose only that rocky ground in which to nurture the seed she planted.
To Cory, he gives stern admonitions: don’t you strike out! Baseball is a game of rules—it even has a pen, albeit not a penitentiary—and it has players who try to advance—or to steal—bases. Love and commitment and altruism are not so much baseball algorithms as obligation and performance and reward; Troy learned those from the penitentiary and, undoubtedly, in the bullpen. He didn’t learn to plant gardens or to nurture them. But for a tragic hero who was not himself modeled love or emotional commitment as a child (mom ran away, dad tried to provide but brutalized his son for disobeying), it provided rules for interacting with other men.
It’s human nature to try to correct what we perceive our parents did to us, and it is hard truth that we often make new troubles for our own children doing so. Troy reflects, “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t known my daddy” in the speech describing the parental behavior that shaped the end of his childhood. Troy refuses to sign the football recruitment papers for Cory, blaming him for lying about his job, but we don’t know whether fear or anger, jealousy or rigidity motivates him.
Then Troy steals Gabe’s money by committing him, and Alberta dies in childbirth. Troy gives that Mr. Death speech page 72–I’m building me a fence—no more sneaking up on me —in response to Augusta’s death, and he sings to Rose when he returns with infant Raynell some lines from Please Mr. Engineer—a walking blues song performed by Blind Willie McTell among others—a plaint of homelessness and an oblique threat he’d have to leave if she wouldn’t take the baby. He apologizes—and in a dignified way—but all along the self-pity he’s used to justify his behaviors has modeled an approach to life that Cory, furious at his father’s overt behaviors, is nonetheless taking to heart.
Cory leaves and the time changes to 1965—and Troy’s death.
In 1965–the year Wilson chose for the second part of the play, a maelstrom of potential influences on that choice converged. The first 3000 Marines marched into Viet Nam (Cory, now a Marine corporal who cannot yet know the potential danger ahead, wonders whether he’ll make a career of the Marines or if he’s had enough); Malcolm X is assassinated in February, a man whose speeches and cadences and at least part of his philosophy Wilson admired; in March, Bloody Sunday occurred in Selma on the Edmund Pettus bridge and in the streets and jail, and on 3/25 MLK led the historic march from Montgomery to Selma—in May, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and the Moynihan Report about the disintegration of the Negro family (which Moynihan recognized began with segregation and Jim Crow’s effects on black families but believed was related to one-parent mother-led homes) was completed the same year.
Interestingly, in the period just before Fences was actually written, Ken Auletta in 1982 wrote The Underclass, a book affirming Moynahan’s views about the female-headed household as a major contributor to the worst poverty and criminality in the very poor black American underclass. He was not writing about most families or the black mainstream, but his book reignited the controversies the Moynihan report had engendered.
Fences was initially presented as a staged reading at the National Playwright’s Conference in 1983. That same year The Times and a Baltimore paper ran two important series on the black family, raising the issues Moynihan had described and the criticism that report and the Auletta book raised among black nationalists, feminists and others who disagreed with its conclusions.
The part of Fences dealing with Troy’s death and funeral occurred in the midst of those events, and the story does reflect them obliquely. Rose is now the single mother of a seven or eight year old girl; Cory may be facing Viet Nam; Lyons is in prison and Gabriel still hospitalized. Rose’s speech advising Cory to own who he has become and cut the shadow of his father down to size is followed by Cory and Raynell’s rendition of Troy’s song about Blue, which now has another verse presented, which becomes becomes a tribute to Troy, whom they’re readying to bury—Blue treed a possum on a limb (and Troy whacked at a baseball hanging from a limb). Blue laid down and died like a man….and so did Troy.
You could even argue that all Troy’s bitterness and self-pity is a form of the Blues, which is why the Blue Dog song seems to elucidate his qualities—loyalty, doggedness at Labor. Gabriel blows that soundless—to us, but maybe not to St. Peter—horn for the gates of heaven to open, apparently sees a vision which renders him mute, and he begins to dance—maybe the French medieval Dance Macabre—or the Greek funeral dance summoning all people to the grave—suggesting the universality of death, and echoing the end of the tragic hero and the resolution of the play.