Fathers’ fault lines: August Wilson’s “Fences” and Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” – young apples distance themselves from the paternal tree

Fathers’ fault lines: August Wilson’s “Fences” and Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” – young apples distance themselves from the paternal tree
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“How come you ain’t never liked me?”

“Liked you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you?....”

August Wilson’s portrayal of a father’s sense of duty

In Fences, which opened on Broadway in 1987, playwright August Wilson has 53-year-old Troy Maxson rebuke his 17-year-old son, Cory: Is there any mandate that a father must like his son? Intimidated, Cory can only answer, “None.”

Defiantly and heatedly, Troy continues his challenges and receives responses that carry the defeat Troy desired from his son. That defeat is made all the more vanquishing with the required addition of “sir” to be attached to each of the boy’s extracted admissions.

“Don’t you eat every day?”


“You eat every day.”


“Got a roof over your head.”


“Got clothes on your back.”


Troy barks that he provides those things not because he likes the boy, but because that’s his job, it’s his responsibility, his duty, to furnish them. But the reader and the playgoer are given to understand that Troy Maxson has a very skewed and tainted sense of duty. That “duty” (to feed his first wife and their son, back in the mid-late 1920s) had Troy justify his increasing life of crime, which earned him prison time.

A number of the inmate-students who took a literature-and-film course I taught in a prison classroom (as part of a community college outreach program) identified with that particular sense of duty. And yet, in their five-minute in-front-of-class “reviews” of the play (to earn public-speaking public-presentation credits), few were inclined to pardon Troy Maxson.

In their views, Troy’s sense of responsibility did not enter the sphere of genuine care, but was only what he had convinced himself was right and just – in a world that he maintained had not done right and just by him. The inmate-students know that world, and that blame. Still, they found Troy’s extremely self-centered sense of grievance and injustice unappealing, for that bitterness has him impose grief on those to whom he accords his version of “duty.”

The disdain for Troy works, for it has us see the play’s other characters all the more favorably, or sympathetically.

What a child owes a father – What a father owes a child

Later on in the play, Cory displays what Troy takes as growing and intolerable disrespect. In another attempt to put the boy in his place, Troy throws up to Cory the debt that the boy has not appreciated: “I guess you got someplace to sleep and something to put in your belly….”

By circumstances (Troy’s extramarital indulgences), Cory has become emboldened: “You talk about what you did for me…. what’d you ever give me?”

Troy retorts: “Them feet and bones! That pumping heart…. I give you more than anybody else is ever gonna give you.” In further self-justification, Troy had declared that he gave the boy and the boy’s mother (Rose, Troy’s second wife) everything including the lint from his pockets.

Cory is finally able to say what he has come to realize: “You ain’t never gave me nothing! You ain’t never done nothing but hold me back!....”

What Troy gave his son was fear. Cory is finally able to say what he had long felt: “Every time I heard your footsteps in the house, I wondered, all the time, ‘what’s Papa gonna say if I do this?’ …. ‘what’s he gonna say if I do that?’….”

Like father, like son? What’s inherited?

At the age of fourteen (in 1918), Troy Maxson had enough of his father’s beatings, which followed “whuppings” his father administered with leather straps taken from a mule’s harness. Young Troy fled north and struggled, building up disappointments and resentments. He doesn’t beat Cory, but he threatens. And he delivers disappointment of his own making by denying the boy (a high-school football talent) the opportunity to take that talent on to college.

Embittered and cynical, Troy insists on narrowing Cory’s prospects – for his own damn good:

“… work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use.” Sound advice in some circumstances, yes, but utterly thwarting as to Cory.

It’s 1957, and running around with a football does not count as something useful – commercially viable. Rose – patient, forbearing, tolerant, loving and wise – tries to get Troy to appreciate that “times have changed.” Sadly, for his first son and then for Cory, Troy’s resentments and bitterness are locked in.

The 2016 film

Though retired from teaching, I would encourage in-prison educators to try to play the DVD in their classrooms. In my experience, such screenings required gaining the trust and confidence of the prison’s facilities crew, and a look-the-other-way patrol of corrections officers who were somewhat sympathetic to the predicaments, needs, and hopes of the inmate-students.

The reading of the play was facilitated by taking a liberty – a small “crime”: In Heaven, Mr. Wilson, forgive me thou copyright-protected work, for I have photocopied.

No need for such photocopying now. The motion picture rendition is faithful to the staging, and wholly faithful to the text, which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play.

Perhaps the film was denied the Oscar for best adapted screenplay because the script so closely followed the play. The “fault” lies with August Wilson, who completed the screenplay just prior to his death. That his stage play translated so very well to the motion picture set might have been seen as a bit of genius. Not enough Academy voters came to that view.

If Wilson had lived to see the film, he couldn’t help but be impressed with the performances. What stands out for me is the scene in which Troy’s very likable rubbish-hauling garbage-truck partner takes him aside to caution about the home-wrecking likely to result from Troy’s straying and infidelity; from his neglecting Rose, his devoted wife of eighteen years.

In the scene that follows, in which Troy tries to justify to Rose (and himself) his ongoing extramarital dalliance and his new fatherhood, the dialogue delivers what had to be so hard to put into words. Rose’s reactions, delivered by Viola Davis, garnered Davis the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.

True to the stage play, Cory returns home – after six years. The occasion: Troy’s funeral. And true to the play, Cory is reserved, but impressive in dress uniform; he’s a decorated corporal in the United States Marines.

True to the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, Cory is always faithful to Rose, and to other family members to whom Troy extended his very contained and self-righteous sense of duty.

We know what Cory thinks of Troy; we are somewhat surprised by Rose’s defense of Troy. We recall all Troy’s “gin talk” about “wrassling” with the devil and his fearless confrontations with mister death. For all his bluster, we wonder if Troy might be impressed by the young Marine and the bravery it took for him to breakaway. We wonder what Troy might think of the boy he fathered, but who he almost destroyed in his version of fatherhood. We wonder what Troy might think of Cory’s sense of duty.

Arthur Miller’s portrayal of a father’s sense of duty

In All My Sons, the father (Joe Keller), who owned and controlled the business of a manufacturing plant that turned out airplane engines for the Army Air Force during World War II, “destroys” both his sons. His perfidy – his treacherous evading responsibility – caused the actual death of twenty-one other sons; AAF pilots whose planes crashed due to the defective engines knowingly shipped by Joe Keller’s plant.

The play, which opened on Broadway in 1947, is a vehicle for Arthur Miller’s socio-political-economic views. The son who would reluctantly take over the business is estranged from his father’s profit motives, which are pursued at the expense of decency and honesty. This son (Chris) has been plagued by misgivings, and by suppressed suspicions about his father’s rectitude. Revelations of past dishonesty and betrayal will drive this son from the investiture. He will decline to inherit the business that has survived and prospered through duplicity, and criminal conduct.

Joe Keller insists that Chris be more enthusiastic about the business that has been nurtured for him to take over:

“… what the hell did I work for? That’s only for you, Chris, the whole shootin’-match is for you!”

And to that son, later on in the play, the father insists, “It’s good money, there’s nothing wrong with that money.”

But Joe Keller amassed that money, built the whole shootin’-match, by virtue of a lie. He managed to get himself exonerated by a criminal court: During the most crucial day of the plant’s World War II production, he played sick and stayed at home while his hapless partner on the shop floor frantically called to report that all they had to deliver to the Army Air Force that morning were engines whose cylinder heads were cracked beyond repair.

Though Joe Keller managed to get himself ruled not guilty, he was anything but innocent. His own boastfulness and a slip of the tongue unravel the lie.

A letter that had not been shared for over three years leads to the climax, but why that letter had not been shared before seems inexplicable. Also hard to accept are the credulity, inattention, and neglect on the part of the hapless partner’s son and daughter.

The hapless partner’s son has just come from the prison and his first visit to the incarcerated father, who he (and his sister) had all but abandoned. He reports that his father “would like to take every man who made money in the war and put him up against a wall.” Chris replies, “He’ll need a lot of bullets.” The hapless partner’s son responds, “And he’d better not get any.”

Many of the inmate-students who took my in-prison Literature-and-Film course had had some up-close-and-personal experience with bullets, and blame. And many (perhaps, most; maybe all) felt they had distanced themselves from family members and other loved ones in ways that might be beyond reclamation. And some, who felt wronged by the criminal justice system (scapegoated like Joe Keller’s partner who wound up taking the rap) also worried constantly about forever being abandoned by family members.

The motion picture incarnation

A DVD of the 1948 motion picture adaptation of the play (which featured Edward G. Robinson as Joe Keller and Burt Lancaster as Chris Keller), provided the inmate-students with grist for our essay-writing mill.

The review of the film published in the New York Herald Tribune (March 29, 1948), found fault – noting “plot contrivances” and “the specious climax.”

That review also condemned the film for irrelevance: A year after the play won the Drama Critics award, “the motion-picture presentation of All My Sons is merely a bit more dated.”

Gotta disagree with that assessment.

In the hope of generating some compare-and-contrast discussions in a prison classroom, I distributed a set of questions which seemed to make the case for the play’s relevance. Here are two sets of those questions – and a sample of responses:

· If you were a prosecutor, how would you prosecute the CEOs of any company that manufactured and knowingly shipped defective armor, which jeopardized the safety of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? If you were a juror, or a judge, what punishments might you consider?

One student suggested that the culprits be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan clad in the very defective armor they had knowingly shipped. While several voiced approval of that “sentence,” one student thought that the culprits and their family members should have to patrol “a hot zone,” in the very vulnerable vehicles the executives (the culprits) had knowingly shipped.

· The body armor furnished to some of the troops in Iraq was found to be less than fully protective. The personnel carriers and other transport vehicles in Iraq were not armored adequately in the first years of the war. Troops were more vulnerable than they should have been. If you were offered the option of serving out your sentence in a combat unit in Iraq or Afghanistan, rather than in prison, would armor be an issue for you?

Sensing that this prompt could be expanded upon, I asked the inmates whether they would be willing to volunteer for combat if the Department of Defense would “waive” current service-eligibility requirements and disqualifiers – and agree that the remainder of the inmates’ respective sentences be served in military service.

I wondered how patrols outside the wire, recon missions, and searches in hostile alleyways would compare with the inmates’ exploits (their “combat”) on the outside, in the “battlefields” and “war zones” of their civilian turf. I wondered whether they would trade the confines, deprivations, and hazards of incarceration for time in a far-off “hot zone.”

Some were opposed to U. S. involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some contended that while they had created “insecurity” in their “hoodland,” their absence had not improved matters in their home conflict zones. If given a reprieve of some sort, they wanted to serve in the actual blocks and alleyways of their personal homeland.

But there were those who spoke about signing on if the government (following the granting of “moral waivers”) would guarantee to take financial care of those they had already left behind as a result of felonies; those they might leave behind permanently, in service to their country.

It came down to a sense of duty – what those inmates (many of them fathers) would do to support their home forces. Not surprisingly, all the inmates had been told they owed a debt to society. As students, these sons and fathers worked at articulating what they owed those who had cared for them, and who still cared about them.

Those inmates wanted to pay a debt to their loved ones. Even if given the chance, they wondered if military service, that assumption of duty, might come too late – or become a life-ending conviction.

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