I’ve enjoyed this semester, not least because, for the first time since 2004, I’ve been called on to teach a general survey of literature, in this case Emmanuel College’s English 200 class. The sort of class is not uncommon at small colleges: all students of all majors take it, and the instructor has a good deal of freedom to pick texts, arrange them, and evaluate students based on a mix of papers and exams. In other words, it’s about the closest thing to a blank slate that exists in the English-teaching business.
In my own class I decided to arrange the class neither chronologically nor by genre but by four big ideas, and the running thesis of the class has been that certain human realities are in themselves so complex that talking about them in social-scientific or philosophical or even theological terms is going to miss some of the texture and complication and therefore the humanity of those realities. So in the course of fifteen weeks our class got together twice a week to read love-texts, sin-texts, death-texts, and race-texts.
August Wilson’s Fences, of course, is the perfect wrap-up to such a semester–Wilson is rightly known as a playwright who captures the life of real human beings in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the twentieth century, and his characters really unfold wonderfully some of the social realities of being Black in the United States, being mortals fated to die and defined by death, being sinners in a world where sins have uneven consequences, and being capable of and sometimes doomed by love. And the best thing about teaching this text at the end of the Fall 2010 semester was watching my Christian college students visibly upset by the fact that Troy Maxson, a sinner who betrays the woman he loves, goes to heaven at the end of the play.
(Sorry about the spoilers, folks. More are coming.)
Troy Maxson is undeniably the center of this play, and the line of actors taking his role testifies to its power: among others, James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, and recently Denzel Washington have auditioned to be Troy. When other characters give speeches filling in the past, it’s always the part of the past that involves Troy. He’s on the stage for every scene except the last, his own funeral (and we’ll get to that), and his inability to live out his own rigid sense of Stoic duty is the motor that drives the plot forward. As he lays out his own past over the course of the play (of course his own speeches are about the past as it concerns Troy Maxson), the audience discovers that his own childhood ended on the day when he lost respect for his own father’s authority; that he moved from North Carolina to Pittsburgh only to find no work except for criminals; that he turned to professional sports when his criminal career nearly ended his life; and that he fell in with the sanitation workers’ union in the years after his baseball career ended.
The scene that caught my attention this go-round (my own first return to the play-text since I read it as a sophomore in college) was the bizarre stage-direction at the play’s end. As the final scene (the only one where Troy doesn’t have the lion’s share of the lines) opens, Troy has just died, and seven years have passed since the penultimate scene. Troy’s middle child Cory, back in town from serving with the Marine Corps (the play never says Vietnam, but that’s my guess), refuses to attend the funeral of a man who intimidated him as a child, kept him from pursuing his dreams of playing college football as a high school senior, and ran around on his mother (Troy’s wife). Troy’s daughter with “the other woman” (who died in childbirth), Raynell, is seven years old and living with the humiliated Rose when the funeral happens. Rose, the ever-enduring wife of the philanderer Troy Maxson (and the closest character to a Christ-figure in the play), confronts Cory, making him realize that, no matter what evil Troy has wrought in the young man’s life, he’s always going to have just one father, and that one father is always going to be Troy Maxson. The penultimate “moment” and the last one where characters’ words is most important involves Cory and Raynell, children of the same father by different mothers (Troy’s first child was by a third woman still), singing together the song Troy used to sing about his old Carolina hunting dog.
That the final moment in the script involves stage directions rather than characters’ lines offends my Shakespearean sensibilities, but the stage direction is striking nonetheless. Troy’s brother Gabriel, whose brain injury sustained in World War II has rendered him unable to work and a nuisance to the neighborhood (he runs around for the duration of the play thinking that he’s the Archangel Gabriel and on one occasion getting arrested for making too much noise chasing off hellhounds), has the last lines and, more importantly, the last dance:
GABRIEL: Hey, Rose. It’s time. It’s time to tell St. Peter to open up 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. He braces himself and blows again with the same result. A third time he blows. There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves him bare and exposed to a frightful realization. It is a trauma that a sane and normal mind would be unable to understand. He begins to dance. A slow, strange dance, eerie and lifegiving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual. LYONS attempts to embrace him. GABRIEL pushes LYONS away. He begins to howl in what is an attempt at song, or perhaps a song turning back into itself in an attempt at speech. He finishes his dance and the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God’s closet.] That’s the way that go!
First of all, since I’ve never seen Fences on the stage or screen, I have no idea how in the world anyone would stage that. Second, I was never aware until I read this play that God had a closet in the first place. But neither of those matter–what struck me as I planned my lesson was that Wilson here is doing a divine bed-trick, the sort that Dante pulls on Guido da Montefeltro (he thinks he’s going to Purgatory but ends up, at the last minute, going to Hell) and later that Goethe pulls with his version of Faust (he thinks he’s going to Hell, but angels snatch him away to Heaven). But Wilson is not content with the single reversal–he brings Gabriel onstage to blow his trumpet, faking towards heaven, then has Gabriel’s trumpet fail, double-clutching towards Hell before finishing up with Gabriel’s dance to send Troy Maxson straight through the Heavenly gates. The audience, pleased at first that Gabriel finally gets to usher Troy through the gates of Heaven as he’s always wanted to do, must make peace with the fact that Gabriel is going to be disappointed but that Troy is going to get what’s coming, only to discover that Gabriel’s strange dance brings forth divine favor after all. Again, I’ve got no idea how a director would do this visually, but in terms of the play-text, it’s the two fake throws that really make the opening of Heaven’s gate hit hard.
The reaction in my class was striking if not surprising. I’d spent the first part of class building up the compound sins of Troy Maxson, his squelching one son’s dreams of being a musician because Troy considers honest wage-labor superior to the nightclub scene (that son, Lyons, ends up doing time for petty theft in the intervening seven years), then crushing the next son’s dreams of going to college for fear that the world of college sports would treat the young Black athlete as it treated so many old Black athletes, discarding them when their bodies wore out without so much as a dollar, much less a college degree, to show for it (that son ends up in the Marines and probably in Vietnam). Then, as the second act opens, he proves himself not only self-righteous and fearful but hypocritical, running around with Alberta and getting her pregnant as he follows precisely the impulses towards transcendence that he will not allow in his sons. When he tells his wife, he gushes on and on about needing to feel alive and loving life when he’s around Alberta, the very things that run counter to the Stoic’s responsibility and duty that he prides himself upon and which he brutally instills in his boys. When I asked the class what they thought of Troy Maxson by the end of act two, the faces told me plenty before any student made any remark: this cat was scum, a hypocrite, a philanderer, and a destroyer of families. And when I asked them whether they thought Troy’s attempt at self-justification counted for anything, whether they thought he deserved to feel alive, I could actually feel the laser beams coming from my students’ eyes at the very suggestion.
I should also note that, in a class of sixteen, there are three young men on the roll, and one of them was not in class that morning. And the other two had the good sense to keep their mouths shut while I was digging this hole.
So when I had the class spend the last several minutes on this final stage direction (which, predictably, they had skimmed rather than read and had entirely missed the opening of Heaven’s gate), I couldn’t have done a better job preparing a room full of method-actors to play the roles of Pharisees. People were scowling, shaking their heads, muttering, and all sorts of things when I declared (with the proper bombastic glee, of course) that a sinner had been forgiven, and even if they didn’t like it, Fences had sent him to Heaven.
I realize this is a whole mess of plot summary for a relatively brief payoff, but this was the sort of moment that makes teaching English worth my time. I’m sure these students had heard from a dozen preachers that forgiveness is something that offends “the religious,” and I’m sure that some of them had made that statement themselves. But this was a moment when a really good play script had done the mimetic work that Aristotle saw in the best tragedies: because the betrayal and the fear and the envy and the hypocrisy came at them so quickly, because they had been exposed to a lifetime’s worth of vice in just sixty pages of text, this play actually made them experience what it means to be the older brother watching the father celebrate the prodigal, to be the unforgiving servant who throws a small-time debtor in jail just after celebrating his own forgiveness of debt. They knew full well that Troy Maxson’s attempts at self-justification were as rubbish, and they couldn’t emotionally handle the possibility that a higher authority had, seemingly arbitrarily, decided to forgive him. The moment was utterly senseless, and although I imagine all of them would agree to the statement that their own sins are horrible before Heaven, I think this moment really made them confront just how awful redemption is.
I’m certain that, a couple months from now, when they’re off doing their major classes, most of my students from English 200 will join in the chorus of those who mock the “useless” and “pointless” English classes they “had to take,” but right now, I think I’ll trade that scorn for the moment when forgiveness finally offended some of them.
That’s the way that go.