by Nicole Motahari
The plays Rockaby by Samuel Beckett and Fences by August Wilson both utilize violence to their advantage. Samuel Beckett’s use of violence is a muted, almost undetectable method that focuses on the lack of any obvious violence, whereas Wilson emphasizes multiple forms of violence in an effort to provide an underlying tension throughout the play, until it builds up to the jarring climax.
Beckett’s Rockaby focuses on an old woman, highly reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Miss Haversham. The woman rarely speaks is accompanied by a recording of her own voice, eerily speaking at a steady monotone. She rocks back and forth in a rocking chair that seems to have a life of its own. The chair is mechanized, moving without the help of the Woman, creating the illusion of being a living entity on its own. Beckett’s use of phrases such as “inward curving arms to suggest an embrace” (Beckett 22) in the stage directions/character descriptions, give animation to the rocking chair, suggesting it as a place of comfort and respite, holding her as a mother or a lover would.
Throughout the play, very quietly, the rocking chair seems to sap the energy quietly from the woman, as we can see in the way that the way she says “More” soften each time, until during part four, the woman dies, but the chair keeps on rocking, slowly, methodically. The emphasis on “Time She stopped” (Beckett 9) is violent in and of itself. The harsh consonant sounds in the phrase highlight a vehemence in the woman, only seen in this line- while one can argue that her exclamation of “More” has some strength behind it, that argument is invalidated by the increasing softness of her voice, which again points out the lack of overt violence in the play.
However, there is a silent tension, akin to the tension felt in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ that makes the reader/viewer feel as though Beckett is building up to a horrifying pinnacle. The synchronized rocking and the voice come together to provide an ominous atmosphere, a sense of waiting. The autonomous rocking back and forth is ghostly and it is even suggested that the chair is still inhabited by the ghost of the woman’s lunatic mother, “where mother sat… sat and rocked…dead one night in the rocker” (Becket 20, 21).
There is no harshness to the madness, the mother was “gone off her head, but harmless,” which again points to a lack of brutality, just stating a fact. All she did was sit in her best black, as her daughter is doing now, waiting to die. There’s a sense of waiting in the whole play, emphasized by the mechanical objects, and how monotonous they are. The voice from the recorder is the woman’s, but it is a constant drone with no inflection (Billie Whitelaw achieved this by literally practicing with a metronome). Both the chair and the recording continue on, even after the woman’s death, implying that they are still waiting for someone else to come and take the woman’s place, as she took her mother’s place.
Furthermore, even the death in the play has a noticeable lack of violence. The woman’s eyes simply close, and in death, she looks almost like a young woman again, for Beckett did state in the directions that the current woman in the chair is “prematurely old” (Beckett 21). Death in Rockaby is very much characterized as the “close of the long day” (Beckett 18) and the woman’s “closing… famished eyes” (Beckett 19) shut very gently as though she had “let the blind down” (Beckett 20). The woman seems world-weary in the same way that August Wilson’s Troy is world- weary. They are old before their time, prematurely aged by broken hope and faded dreams.
When the woman dies, she is sitting in “the old rocker, mother rocker” (Beckett 17) and she is held by the curved arms of the chair that represents her mother. Beckett has the voice at this point saying “went down… into the old rocker, those arms as last…rocked with closed eyes (Beckett 18), famished eyes,” and it creates this image of the daughter, young once more embraced by her mother as she rocks with “closed eyes…famished eyes” and the reader gets this idea that she went into that rocking chair as if to die in the arms of her mother, and when she dies, the woman “stopped time she went down…right down was her other own living soul” (Beckett 19), which can be interpreted as the mother. The woman has died, and the voice is actually describing her peaceful journey down into the Underworld, down into the arms of her mother.
The quiet lack of violence in Rockaby offsets the loud angry violence in August Wilson’s Fences. In both of these plays, there is a character that is mentally unstable. In Fences, we have Gabriel, and we have the mother in Rockaby. However, the methods of madness, so to speak are very different. Gabriel was shot in the head during the war, and was rendered mentally impaired, and it is insinuated that the mother in Rockaby simply slipped into senility. Gabriel’s madness, while he is not harmful to himself, was brought about rather violently, while in Rockaby, the madness is smoothly eased in, with barely noticeable sorrow. Gabriel “believes with every fiber of his being that he is the Archangel Gabriel”.
That point ties into how death is viewed by both plays. In Rockaby, the woman in the rocking chair dies, and in Fences, Troy dies, but in the former, death is not something to be feared, and the rocking chair that symbolizes her mother, also represents death in that it embraces her, carrying her from one life to the next, as a mother does by giving birth, pulling the child into this world. In Fences, the equivalent of the rocking chair is the fence; however, the purpose behind it is very different than the chair’s easy transition. The fence is built as a mode of defense, a fence between Troy and Death.
Troy views the fence as a shield, and only when he is broken by Cory, does he finally give up, taking the bat up as a chip on his shoulder and beginning to “taunt Death”( Wilson 89), saying “It’s between you and me now… I be ready for you…but I ain’t going to be easy” (Wilson 89). This pitiful scene is after the breaking climax of the battle between Cory and Troy when Cory cannot bring himself to beat his father with the bat. For Troy, Death is not something to be welcomed as a “close of a long day” (Beckett 19). It is something to be feared and fought, something violent and terrible. August Wilson emphasizes this violence to show Troy’s temperament as a hot headed man, who, though he means well, is harsh because life has been harsh to him.
The relationship between Cory and Troy is extremely tense because life has been harsh to Troy. He means well, but because of his overprotectiveness, he distances himself emotionally from Cory, creating a tension between the two of them, that eventually breaks them both. Because Troy’s dreams were snatched from him, he spends all this time searching for his youth again, trying to recapture the glory, and his attitude towards life. He has married Rose, who is ten years his junior, yet still chases after Alberta, trying to act like a man half his age. Part of his not allowing Cory to join the football team is because he’s afraid his son will suffer the same disappointment he did, but another large part of it could be that he is jealous of his son’s success, and cannot bear to see Cory succeed where he himself failed. The fight between Cory and Troy in Act 2 is the violence of jealousy and hatred finally breaking out of these two men.
In both plays, there is a strong focus on the roles of parental figures. The mother in Rockaby is never seen, but, as stated before, we are told that she has gone mad by the time of her death. In Fences, Gabriel is the obvious example of madness, but by the end of the play, Troy exhibits some ‘Willy Lowman-esque’ signs of madness, especially during and after the rousing combat scene with Cory. During Troy’s monologue, he mocks Death, baiting it in his madness and violently swinging the bat around, as though he were hitting that “fastball” (Wilson 89) and hitting old age and dying as far away as possible from himself, despite the fact that in his frenzy, he is playing into his fears, bringing the end closer than he could imagine, even as his fight with Cory symbolizes his wrestle with Death. Troy has never been an affectionate father, as shown in the ‘Why Don’t You Like Me?’ speech on page 14. The woman’s mother is slightly more endearing, despite her insanity, because the woman is so eager to see her again, and the rocking chair’s arms (which represent the mother’s arms) curl around the woman like a comforting embrace. The very violence that Troy embodies ruins his relationships with everyone in the play, whereas the mother’s lack of violence in Rockaby gives her a softer, more relatable character.
Beckett and Wilson utilize violence and the lack thereof to create different atmospheres and personalities for the parental figures in their plays. The mother in Rockaby is never officially seen, but is embodied by the rocking chair. The blatant lack of outright violence provides a chilling atmosphere that leaves the playgoers in a constant state of suspense, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. In Fences, violence is used for the same purpose- to build up tension until it reaches the powerful climax. Both authors have a delicacy and finesse with which they treat the topic with, using death and violence to further enhance their plays.