some afterthoughts on King Hedley II (5.11.2019)

A few things we spoke about in our group discussion Friday are worth recapitulating here.

Did Ruby intentionally kill King at the end? The thought completely escaped my reading, but when we discussed it I had to give it some consideration. Ruby was about to begin a “new” life in her prospective marriage with Elmore. Elmore’s revelation to King that Leroy, not Hedley, was his father was a slight fly in the ointment that Ruby should have disclosed much earlier, but she chose not to and it really wasn’t a show stopper. Interestingly, King and Elmore in their final confrontation had both gone to the brink, to the edge of causing each other harm, but both backed away in a sort of truce of mutual forgiveness (“The Keys to the Mountain,” as Stool Pigeon proclaimed following the confrontation). When Elmore lowered his gun and the sound of discharging it into the ground reached Ruby, she screams out, “Elmore!,” her first concern, perhaps. Ruby fires her pistol and King shouts, “Mama!” It would be the only time in the play King acknowledges Ruby as his mother. But it would be too late. The fired bullet hits King in the throat, killing him.

The question remains, did she mean to do it? Mister calls King’s name three times and rushes over to him. Tonya says twice, “Call 911.” Elmore goes over to King to be by his side. Where is Ruby while all this is going on? Sitting on the ground singing Red Sails in the Sunset. Strange. Strange, indeed. The play ends and we are left to try to figure it out.

Tonya’s monologue on abortion is the the longest in the play. Abortion can be a touchy subject but the fact that it occupies so much real estate in the play forces us to face it squarely. Tonya’s defense is persuasive (to everybody except King) and equally compelling. Abortions are legal after Roe v. Wade, accessible, and relatively inexpensive. By all measures, it is a convenient option for Tonya for all the reasons she so eloquently states

But historical numbers and trends tell a slightly different story, one to which August Wilson calls our attention. In the aggregate, CDC reports 45,789,558 abortions performed in the U.S. between 1970 and 2015 (California, Maryland and New Hampshire do not report abortions to CDC, so this is by definition an undercount). In 2013, CDC reported 134,814 (37.3%) white, 128,682 (35.6%) black, and 68,761 (19.0) (Hispanic) abortions performed (same under-reporting applies, but overall percentages have been trending lower for whites and higher for blacks and Hispanics over the past few years).

Hedley explains at the end of Act 2 Scene 3 what, to him, is the significance of this pregnancy: “That’s why I need this baby, not ’cause I took something out of the world, but because I wanna put something in it. Let everybody know I was here. You got King Hedley II and then you got King Hedley III. Got rocky dirt. Got glass and bottless. But it still deserves to live. Even if you do have to call the undertaker. Even if somebody come along and pull it out by the root. It still deserve to live. It still deserves that chance.”

King and Elmore discuss the murders they committed as a sort of badge of honor. The first mention of honor and dignity, having it and keeping it, comes at the end of Act 1. King talks about being born with honor and dignity and Elmore says the way to keep your dignity is to make your own rules. Elmore says in Act 2 Scene 2, “See, when you pull that trigger you done something. You done something more than most other people. You know more about life ’cause you done been to that part of it. Most people don’t get over on that side . . . that part of life. They live on the safe side, But see . . . you done been God. Death is something he do.”

Finally, we didn’t give much attention to Elmore’s admission in Act 1 Scene 3 that he is dying slowly from some terminal ailment. He tells Ruby, “The doctor say this thing is killing me by degreees and ain’t but so many degrees left. I’m dying on my feet.” A long pause follows.

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