Pictured: James Earl Jones in the Broadway production of “Fences”
What plays should be considered culturally required reading? What plays that once might have held that honor no longer stack up? In this new series, Cavan Hallman explores touchstone works of theater and their place in today’s world.
Observers like to claim that The Theatre is emitting its final odious death wheeze, an ossified creature suited for the Museum of Natural History, at best, or the dung heap, at worst. Ironically, the so-called elites who clamor to declare their most-ardent support of the listing corpse of The Theatre, are the ones who sound the death knell loudest.
A noisy bunch they are.
However, that same audience is often unaware that the warning signs of theatre’s death go back at least to Aristotle, whose “Poetics” serves as an ersatz rulebook for the last four thousand years of Western drama.
The game has been dying from the opening tip, and that may be just one reason why drama is a very human sport.
The contradiction above implies a cycle, and it’s time for a new theatrical cycle to get kick-started. In an American theatre that values equity, diversity and inclusion, our collective point of theatrical reference must reflect that ethic.
“Fences” must become the new model for theatrical excellence. It deserves the same ubiquity currently afforded that old chestnut about the Prince of Denmark, the Melancholy Dane—perhaps these nicknames merit description, but it is more likely an explanation would be more insulting than illuminating.
“Fences” is the new “Hamlet.”
I don’t question the presence of either of theses plays on The List, but I do question the subtle List-behind-The-List, a very small List numbering one.
Can “Hamlet” truly be the greatest play of all time, and more importantly, is it the greatest play for Our Time?
August Wilson’s contemporary drama about the Maxon clan deserves the position of most esteemed play because the quality of the writing is not only of the highest caliber, but also because it more closely resembles the language of modern theatre. Making this text our iconic point of shared reference presents a vision of theatre that lives in the present, without sacrificing quality of language, Aristotelian mechanics, or the opportunity to explore a play with the same academic rigor afforded the work of Shakespeare.
For years Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” has served as the lingua franca, an example for all things theatrical in the same way that all things tyrannical and evil are compared to Hitler. These are the easiest metaphors for the uncomplicated mind, and have seeped into our collective conscious to the extent that a reader of plays or history can make comparisons confidently without ever having seen the play or cracked the spine of a history book.
The everyone-read-it-in-high-school-ubiquity of “Hamlet” is inseparable from its status as the pinnacle of playwriting.
For the sake of this argument, I’d like to raise the very reasonable counter-argument: Why do we even have to pick a “best” play?
We don’t, obviously.
But let’s think about a world that increasingly devalues education in general, and specifically arts education. It’s a distant dystopian fantasy world, but I’m sure you can imagine such a scenario.
In a made-up-science-fiction world of the future there might be a young student with a high school diploma that has only encountered a single play in her entire life, probably in an English class.
What should her desert island play have been?
As of today, it was probably “Hamlet.”
Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy is familiar, I’m sure. However, in case your senior prom was in the distant past, a refresher: “Hamlet” the play picks up shortly after the death of old Hamlet, King Hamlet, of Denmark. His son, Hamlet, has returned from university to find that not only is his father, Hamlet, dead, but Hamlet is given reason to believe that the king, Hamlet, was murdered by the uncle, not named Hamlet, that just married Hamlet’s mother. These suspicions are raised by the ghost of the murdered royal. The plot is not dissimilar from a telenovela. If it were a telenovela, there is but one thing we can be certain of — the program would be named “Hamlet.
The protagonist weighs his options for vengeance carefully, pondering the meaning of life in poetry and probing into questionable corners of madness. He disrupts affairs at court as he attempts to tease the truth from his uncle (still not named Hamlet). He battles wits. He woos. He accidentally murders the father of the woman he loves. It is swashbuckling and philosophical, and while I will gladly agree with every theatre scholar of all time that “Hamlet” is an excellent play, I believe the time has come for a much newer play to have its four hundred years in the spotlight.
“Fences” debuted on Broadway in March of 1987, a starring vehicle for James Earl Jones, the towering basso profundo most commonly known for voicing the role of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films.
He is Luke’s father…
And a question of paternity also perturbs the Maxon family in August Wilson’s Tony and Pulitzer-winning script. Set in Pittsburgh in 1957, the Jones character of Troy is a former star of the Negro baseball leagues. Troy rants about stifled dreams of athletic glory during his weekly drinking sessions with Bono, an Irish musician with a fondness for fashion-forward eyewear.
Or Bono works in trash collection alongside Troy.
Hard to recall; so many plays that run together.
It’s sitting on the Maxons’ front porch, staring at an incomplete wooden fence, that Troy’s cabinet of demons is slowly revealed. He’s an ex-con. He is the product of a brutally abusive home. And he is cheating on his wife. This powder-keg is lit when Cory, Troy’s teenage son with Rose, begins to challenge his father’s authority. Troy does not take kindly to the provocation, and it doesn’t help that Cory’s excellence on the football field reminds Troy too clearly of his own former glory. The Maxon family is forced to deal with the results of Troy’s infidelity, and the inescapable threat of violence between father and son.
Somehow, amidst all of these struggles, August Wilson always manages to write in notes of forgiveness and grace. Troy’s mentally disabled brother, Gabriel, wounded by a piece of shrapnel and convinced that he is a messenger of God, is always treated with love and complexity. Rose eventually raises Troy’s orphaned daughter as her own. And at the conclusion of a play that certainly uses poetic language but more typically presents as a realistic drama, the conventions of that real world are stripped down for a moment of spiritual magic, the stage directions demanding that the gates of heaven open themselves in response to a trumpet’s call.
“Fences” is moving and mysterious and human and metaphysical and it might be without a damn fault.
This play will be the new standard.
The first traditionalist argument in favor of keeping “Hamlet” in its place as the focal point of theatrical education would be an argument for the script’s unsurpassed excellence. This argument can be easily deflated by painting a simple analogy with the artistic medium that most closely resembles the theatre: film.
For the sake of argument, it’s worth suggesting that “Citizen Kane” holds a similar position as the de facto example of cinematic excellence that “Hamlet” holds in the theatre. Besides their constant references in both scholastic settings and in artistic practice, they are both also high-profile works of art largely associated with the brilliance of a single artist, with Orson Welles often held up to be a Shakespearean master in the world of film.
Now imagine the howling gales of laughter that would meet any serious film scholar making the argument that “Citizen Kane” would be best appreciated if the film was presented without its closing scene. As ridiculous as that seems, it is such a common practice in producing “Hamlet” to excise the character of Fortinbras that when his scenes remain intact, the conqueror’s presence is greeted with surprise.
Repeat: It’s a surprise when Fortinbras shows up.
And the character has the final f@#$ing lines of the show!
But hey, everyone who knows anything about anything knows that the way a story ends is of relatively little importance.
“Hamlet” is almost never presented in its entirety. Lines, scenes, characters and sub-plots are tossed aside willy-nilly by directors in service of myriad artistic and logistical impulses. Wholesale alterations are made to suit diverse interpretations that often have the most tenuous relationship to the source text, or directors and producers slice away at the script in order to make it more easily understood, or more easily tolerated by a modern audience with a collectively brief attention span. Justification after justification emerges from risk-averse purse-string guardians unwilling to challenge the gluteal endurance of their fickle and fragile audience.
It seems very few people have actually seen “Hamlet.” Most have witnessed adaptations with varying degrees of fidelity.
If a text is perfect, then it should be perfect in its entirety.
And perfection is a high bar, but maybe that should be demanded of a script that is going to be held above all others.
The great novels are not reduced to just their best sentences. The great songs are not judged by their best eight bars. There is no scene or character who could be removed from “Fences” without doing irreparable damage to the meaning and quality of the text. Even the smallest character, in both stature and stage time, Raynelle, the small orphaned offspring that Rose Maxon adopts on behalf of her adulterous husband and his deceased mistress, can not be removed.
“Fences” is deeply invested in the investigation of cycles of pain, both the pain inflicted on black bodies by the literal and historical injuries of systemic racism, and domestic pain that black families have shared with each other as a result of these wounds. The presence of a new generation, the one represented by Raynelle, is just as necessary in “Fences” as is the long monologue that Troy shares about his abusive father. All sides of the cycle have to be visible in order for Wilson to accurately paint his portrait of a cyclical struggle. The completion of the cycle is absolutely essential for Wilson to create a satisfyingly cathartic release when Gabriel’s broken horn calls out to Heaven. Raynelle’s elimination would be disastrous.
If high school English teachers are instructing their students that a composition must be lean and free of extraneous padding, then I believe our “perfect” play ought to be likewise a Swiss watch of essential moments, perfectly timed to one another. By insisting on performing abridged versions of “Hamlet,” artists constantly make the case that the script is a problem that must be fixed not through action and theatrical invention, but by an editor’s red pen.
So many people like to blame the current (false) death of Theatre on film and television, and an abridged “Hamlet” is the absolute worst way to make a case for the vitality of the stage.
The stage and screen are easily contrasted by an alleged authorial respect in the theatre; playwrights retain copyright while screenwriters’ works are cut and pasted together at the whims of Big Studio MBA’s — at least that’s the narrative. How massively dumb it is that theatremakers shoot that ethic in the foot by making the most famous play one that accustoms an audience to an experience in which the words are but minor obstacles on the director’s path to artistic expression?
“Cut, baby, cut!”
An argument could be made that most people get to know “Hamlet” in a classroom, readers get the whole “Hamlet.” But that line of thinking only serves to diminish Theatre in a different way.
Theatre is meant to be performed (is the most obvious statement of all time).
Even if we generously entertain the idea that its literary merits alone are enough to keep “Hamlet” at the top — a very bold statement indeed, that READING “Hamlet” is more valuable than SEEING “Any Other Play,” doesn’t the typical interaction between Shakespeare’s reader and the page look more like homework than something to inspire passion? To understand the play you need either a dictionary, or an edition littered with footnotes and parentheticals detailing the many overlooked and forgotten historical references and outdated language.
So much is made of Shakespeare’s poetry, his use of iambic pentameter, but most readers are unable to simultaneously capture both the rhythm and meaning of his writing. They are completely removed from the experience of seeing a play in real time, the experience of theatre. If we are to idealize the theatrical experience, should it resemble a studious afternoon in the library?
Making “Fences” our ideal sends a message that great plays exist outside of antiquity. That they are accessible. They are a thing to be understood.
Also, it’s not as if “Fences” is a slouch when it comes to literary merit.
Let’s look at one way the two plays are more alike than different: their shared use of metadramatic techniques.
Both authors refer to classical subjects and use classical allusions. This gives their works a patina of respectability. They endow their commercial works in a medium, theatre, that often is deemed trivial, superficial, or irrelevant, with the spirit of historically recognized greatness. The clearest example of this can be seen in Wilson’s character names — “Troy,” you know, like the Battle of…
The technique of role-playing is where both authors place a preponderance of metadramatic attention. This ground is already well studied in “Hamlet” as scholars have pored over the details: Hamlet’s interactions with the Players; the long-standing questions about whether or not the Prince’s madness is real or just play-acting; and there is the suggestion that Hamlet fails to kill Claudius at the most opportune occasion (as the usurper-King prays, alone) because Hamlet as actor requires an audience for his deed.
In “Fences,” Wilson goes even further, making role-play integral to the major dramatic action.
A well-established method of dramatic analysis assumes that narrative begins with a world at stasis, and then that stasis is interrupted. The play completes when a new stasis has been achieved.
“Fences” is propelled by the interruption of Cory’s maturation. The teenage son of Troy and his wife, Rose, Cory’s impending manhood is a challenge to Troy’s patriarchal dominance. It is not Troy’s adultery that kills what tenderness could still exist between the man and his family. Troy is unable to bend to Rose’s will, unable to do the one thing that would save his marriage, precisely because this crisis comes at the same time he is being challenged by the willful young Cory, the child eager to assert his masculinity.
Reading “Fences” this way also answers one of the most rightfully asserted challenges to the play’s structural greatness. That question is: If an ideal Aristotelian play represents the unified action of a single protagonist against an obstacle, or series thereof, then what do we make of a play whose protagonist is completely absent from the play’s resolution?
The question is eliminated entirely if the protagonist is actually present.
Cory Maxon, the teenage son, is the actual shadow protagonist of “Fences.” It is his initial assertion of will against his father, the challenge to his father’s dominance, that sets the play in motion. The confrontations between father and son resonate as the two men struggle over who will play which role in the family’s hierarchy. Unfortunately, the only other candidate for that role is a black housewife in 1950’s America. The odds are stacked too high against Rose.
Cory is the protagonist, and it is not until he returns in his Marine uniform (his character’s new costume) that the cycle can reach its climax.
Wilson’s exhaustive exploration in “Fences” of the intersection of role and character both internally to the world of the script, and in his vivid externalized characterization (the play we see, is there any doubt that Troy and Rose and Lyons and Cory are great Characters?), the author defines himself a metatheatrical master, much like Shakespeare.
And perhaps that’s the wrong reading of “Fences.” I’m willing to take that chance.
The bigger point is that “Fences” is great enough of a play to not only survive, but to thrive under the kind of academic scrutiny and practical misinterpretation afforded “Hamlet.”
I’m ready to see “Fences” done poorly.
I’m ready to see the whole Wilson canon performed endlessly in Bad Idea productions, traversing spectrums of thought and skill. One of the easiest ways to define your theatrical values is by seeing plays and productions you hate — the Away Values helping you understand your Towards.
Bring on a hundred terrible productions of “Fences” and we can all become experts together.
“Hamlet” defenders will have other reasons for resistance.
Some will argue that “Fences” is incapable of reaching a level of universality, and therefore unfit for a position as universal ideal, because it specifically addresses the black experience.
And that argument would be racist.
There is little universal about the experiences of a 15th century Danish prince contemplating a murderous revenge against his uncle.
None of those things describe me.
But, Hamlet’s a white dude, so… Check! Universality Achieved.
There will be the argument that our distance from “Hamlet” allows educators, students, and producers greater license for intellectual exploration, with an emphasis on the many annual productions of “Hamlet” with non-native casting, chock full of anachronistic settings, and with any other possible form of artistic liberty taken.
The person who makes this argument is making a case for a conceptual theatre, a theatre that values the interpretations of a director over the intentions of an author. This is what leads to the high school production of “Julius Caesar” that is done in zoot suits and with other trappings of the 1940’s because “guys are gangsters” or some other lazy imposition.
I’m not here to rant against directorial creativity, but if a piece of theatre has a script then that script should be treated with respect. The conceptual director’s argument for retaining “Hamlet” as the theatrical ideal would reduce to the assertion that the older play makes for the best blank slate.
What that director misunderstands is that the best blank slate is actually a blank slate itself. This is another argument for “Hamlet” primacy that actually diminishes the text’s value.
“Hamlet” can not be the greatest play and the blankest play at the same time — words don’t usually work that way.
The argument that “Hamlet” contains more opportunities for innovative interpretation than “Fences” runs into another obstacle if we take into account a suggestion by acclaimed Broadway actor Andre de Shields. He makes a stirring case for engagement with Wilson’s text as a study in radical empathy.
He is a black actor who wants to see non-black actors performing Wilson’s work, not satisfied with an audience that is constituted of passive readers and watchers. He told the “New Haven Register,” ‘If you had to speak that language and live those lines eight times a week, with an audience in front of you totally gobsmacked, that would make a change. And there are actors who want to do it.’
Of course there are actors who would want to do it, and it would be not only appropriate, but necessary to question those actors’ motivations.
A well-meaning exercise in cultural understanding could easily be overtaken by privilege and vanity, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Tootsie,” stealing opportunities and agency from the disenfranchised and underrepresented. And Hoffman’s great, but that character is basically a jerk, so watch out.
But de Shields has a much more optimistic view of such an experiment.
“We got over the issue of white directors directing August Wilson,” he said. “The world didn’t come to an end when Bartlett Sher directed ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.’ Once we got beyond the pushback, we would have another generation of people coming back to August Wilson to become enlightened all over again.”
It’s hard to imagine in a scarcity economy that such an outlandish take on color-conscious casting wouldn’t harm visibility and career prospects of the already disadvantaged people of color in the theatre industry, but as “Fences” reaches “Hamlet”-level popularity, these are the kind of issues the Theatre will have the chance to address.
That all being said, the assumption that a strategy of imposed interpretation is necessary or fruitful will still have to be examined. Since the time of the first true director, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, the goal of production has been to fully realize the vision of the dramatist, and “Fences” is a superior alternative to “Hamlet” when it comes to the task of understanding authorial intent.
There are major differences between the Quarto One, Quarto Two, and Folio versions of “Hamlet.” These differences include a title change. Fortunately, just like endings, almost all writers agree that a title is meaningless.
Historians can’t agree upon the title of the “Greatest Play of All Time!”
“Fences” just has the problem of being confused with a mid-90’s Tom Skerritt show.
That would be “Picket Fences.”
“Fences” has clarity where Shakespeare’s intent will always be muddy. The unending slog of history ensures that even the most historically accurate re-creation of “Hamlet” will include approximations. Shakespeare’s conditions will never be mimicked, no matter how much attention is paid to Original Practices. However, the conditions of producing theatre are largely unchanged from the date that Wilson’s opus premiered on Broadway and technology has preserved much of Wilson’s work in performance for further observation and study, captured while the author was alive.
Let’s take the tech argument even further and consider that, in a world where movies are readily available and the movies are ruled by adaptations, there will always be students who will watch the movie instead.
“Hamlet” has made it to the screen several times, with notable showings by Sir Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson’s hair, and Kenneth Branagh. Branagh’s version, running four hours and two minutes, made plenty of news within the theatrical community for following through on the promise to be the first uncut version of the text on the screen.
However, uncut is quite different from unedited, and Branagh reassigned lines from character to character, to say nothing of his transposition of time period.
It can be said with authority that Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” has never been captured on film as a transcription of Shakespeare’s intent, in fact nothing has come close.
The film adaptation of “Fences” came out in 2016, receiving deserved acclaim. Viola Davis’ long-due Academy Award for General Bad-Assery was even presented under the guise of a Best Supporting Actress statue for her performance as Rose Maxon. The screenplay was written by Wilson himself, ensuring beyond doubt that the film is as close to an expression of the author’s intent as possible.
No matter the medium that one encounters the two texts, “Fences” beats “Hamlet” as a piece that merits and sustains serious examination into the art of playwriting.
Perhaps the entire Shakespearean canon should be migrated to a more specific section of theatrical idealization. The niche of adaptation suits Shakespeare perfectly. So many of Shakespeare’s plays are already adaptations; “Hamlet” comes from “Hamnet”; many of the comedies are gussied-up translations of Plautus’ old Roman texts. And the world of adaptations inspired by “Hamlet” alone includes works as disparate as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and ”The Lion King.”
“Hamlet” can become the foundation for all of adaptation studies.
Big names are already engaged in the shift. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival recently started a multi-year project, hiring major Broadway writers to “translate” each of Shakespeare’s major works into modern English. The American Shakespeare Center, another regional producer, announced two annual prizes of $25,000 each for plays written as companion pieces to Shakespeare’s classics.
As exciting as it must be for scholars to contemplate these new creative takes on Shakespeare’s works, doesn’t it speak volumes about the waning relevance of this material that the primary method for its largest proponent theatres in maintaining audience interest is to present work that significantly alters Shakespeare’s originals?
The time has come to replace “Hamlet” as the theatrical standard-bearer, and “Fences” is the answer.
American audiences are ready for a theatre that transcends the level of an arduous piece of Required Reading from a high school English class. A non-elitist, welcoming, representative, equal and diverse American theatre is ready for a standard that is written in our language, modern English, wrought in a masterful poetic vernacular by playwright August Wilson. The resistance to this alteration of theatrical discourse is the result of a frothy mixture of intellectual sloth and institutional racism. Both of these conditions should be attacked with vigor, and one small battle capable of being won is to elevate “Fences” to the status it deserves.
The List (1995) — “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare; “Fences” by August Wilson
The List (2017) — “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare; “Fences” by August Wilson, but let’s get serious about it: “Fences,” “Fences,” all-the-time “Fences”
Read other editions of Required Reading here.