It is easy to make the case that August Wilson’s play Fences is a tragedy and that Troy Maxson is its tragic protagonist. Few comedies end with a funeral, and there is no denying that Troy’s character and life are the stuff of tragedy. But Wilson’s vision is much larger than Troy’s heroic side, his deeds and omissions. Troy, for all his strengths, is flawed humanity in need of grace and forgiveness. Such grace and forgiveness are the spirit of true comedy, and a case can be made for viewing Fences as a comedy or, perhaps, a metacomedy.
The term is taken from Christopher Isherwood, who took it from Gerald Heard: I think the full horror of life must be depicted, but in the end there should be a comedy which is beyond both comedy and tragedy. The thing Gerald Heard calls ‘metacomedy’ . . .
(421). Metacomedy, then, is a vision that transcends the immediately comic or tragic. It is not evasive and it has room for pain, for heartache, for alienation, even for death, because it affirms the values of mercy, forgiveness, and sacrifice, which adversity callsforth. For a religious person, metacomedy is what Christopher Fry called a narrow escape into faith and a belief in a universal cause for delight (17). Fry’s metaphor for life is a book of alternating pages of tragedy and comedy.
As we read (that is, live) the book, we are anxious about what the last page will be. The comic vision holds that on the last page all will be resolved in laughter (17). The essence, therefore, of metacomedy is hope, and Fences is a lesson in hope. First there is hope for a better future for African Americans and by extension, for all humankind. If we view Troy’s earthly life as an autonomous whole, we are looking at an ultimately tragic book of life. But if we view Troy’s life as a page in an ongoing saga,perhaps we can see it not only as a prelude to a happier time but as a success story of itself.
George Meredith advises us that to love comedy we must know human beings well enough not to expect too much of them though you may still hope for good (325). What should a realist expect of Troy Maxson, who was abandoned by his mother at age eight, fled a brutal, lustful father at age fourteen, began to steal for a living, and served fifteen years on a murder charge? One can only hope for some measure of good, and Troy exceeds a realist’s expectations. He holds a steady but disagreeable job as a garbage collector, supports a wife and son, stays sober six days a week, wins his own private civil-rights battle to become a driver, and remains faithful to Rose for eighteen years before he falls. Moreover, August Wilson presents us with a multigenerational vision in which our sense of waste is more than balanced by an infusion of hope. Fences is about the always imperfect quest for true manhood.
Troy’s father was less of a true man than Troy, but he was a worker and a provider. Troy, even as a runaway, carried with him his father’s virtues along with a considerable lessening of the father’s harshness and promiscuity. To Troy’s credit he can appreciate his father’s legacy and forgive his evil side: But I’ll say this for him . . .
he felt a responsibility toward us. . . . he could have walked off and left us . .
. made his own way(716). It is Troy’s capacity for gratitude and forgiveness that his son Cory must internalize on the morning of Troy’s funeral. After a seven-year absence, the young man has returned in his marine uniform, proudly wearing his corporal’s stripes.
There is an aura of maturity about him but also a lingering bitterness–he refuses to attend his father’s funeral. Troy’s mother, Rose, articulates the deep truth that Cory does not want to face. Rose. You just like him. You got him in you good. Cory.
Don’t tell me that, Mama. Rose. You Troy Maxson all over again. Cory. I don’t want to be Troy Maxson. I want to be me.
Rose. You can’t be nobody .