The Sins of Our Fathers: Fathers and Sons in the Western Dramatic Canon (Web Exclusive)
“When the sins of our fathers visit us
We do not have to play host.
We can banish them with forgiveness
As God, in His Largeness and Laws.”
-August Wilson, Epigraph to Fences
Is there anything more inherently dramatic than the challenging relationship between father and son?
In a heteronormative patriarchal society, the father figure is widely seen as the head of a household. There comes a unique moment in a family’s timeline when a child reaches the age where they no longer need to rely on their parents in the same way – they may become something more akin to their parents’ peer, and for the first time have the real option to give their own desires and dreams greater precedence than their parents’ hopes for them. This indefinable moment creates a cascade of shifts, and dynamics must be re-negotiated, especially in the relationship between father and son.
The father – who wants the best for his family and hopes to live up to his responsibility to them but is perhaps afraid of the competition his son poses as a representative of the next generation of men. His son can symbolize a threat to his livelihood, can be a mirror forcing him to face his own mortality. The son – who is urged on hopefully by his father’s example, but also possibly by a fear of not measuring up to his idea of his father, or to his father’s idea of him. This is the kind of multilayed tension on which great dramas are built.
If we search back through the dustiest annals of dramatic history to find the most effective and oft-used tropes, this dynamic likely comes out on top, alongside the union between lovers whose families disapprove and the complications caused by spousal infidelity, real or suspect.
This paternal rivalry traces all the way back to Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex: the eponymous originator of Freud’s Oedipal complex, this play traces the downfall of King Oedipus, who is ordered by an oracle to find the murderer of the previous king, Laius, to end a plague that has settled on the kingdom. In true whodunit fashion, the play careens toward Oedipus’s ruin as he learns not only that it was he himself who killed Laius, but that Laius was in fact his father and that his wife Jocasta, Laius’s widow, is actually Oedipus’s own mother. Oedipus blinds himself, tortured by the revelation that he quite literally became his father’s replacement.
Fast forward a couple thousand years, and we come to what is possibly the best known play in the Western canon. Yes. Hamlet. William Shakespeare’s longest play on the stage, and arguably longest-lasting play in our cultural consciousness, Hamlet too springs forth from the dynamic between father and son. At the center of the drama is Hamlet’s turmoil over losing his father, the responsibility of what his father’s ghost has laid on him, and his consequent spiral into questioning his own identity. Will Hamlet have loyalty to father’s ghost? Will he seek revenge on his father’s behalf and kill his father’s would-be replacement, Claudius? Seven soliloquies later, and we have the answers to these questions along with the defining entry in the list of father-son plays for the next four hundred years.
American playwrights have produced their fair share of entries as well. Perhaps most famous is the work of Arthur Miller, who used the father-son conflict as a wellspring for many of his plays, saying, “In writing of the father-son relationship and of the son’s search for his relatedness there was a fullness of feeling I had never known before; a crescendo was struck with a force I could almost touch.” Miller had a difficult relationship with his own father, describing their interactions as “two searchlights on different islands.” This translated into All My Sons, where disillusionment and the destruction of Chris’s image of his father Joe Keller is the catalyst for the destruction of Joe himself, and Death of a Salesman, where the relationship between Willy Loman and his son Biff is once again the play’s most pivotal one.
Although it has fewer ghosts and far less horrifying sexual politics than some of these other classics, August Wilson’s Fences is also solidly situated within this tradition. The main character Troy, former home run king of the Negro Leagues who was prevented by prejudice from reaching his full potential and playing in the integrated major leagues, stands steadfast against becoming like his own father, who beat Troy nearly to death when he was fourteen. As Troy struggles to maintain his own truth, his own dreams in a life based on responsibility and duty, he also understands how being trapped as his father was – left by all his women, and responsible for eleven children – can make a man evil. He does his best to do right by his own son Cory, who has the same athletic talent as his father—athletic talent that led Troy to have dreams of grandeur which were utterly, devastatingly dashed. He does everything possible to keep Cory away from sports to escape what he sees as inevitable heartbreak, while Cory believes that Troy is merely afraid of the competition he poses, afraid that Cory will be more successful at sports than Troy was. Though Fences deals very specifically with an African-American family in the 1950s, molded by the forces of racism, at the core is the timeless, universal motif of tension between father and son.
Why has the destructive parent-child dynamic been so prolific in drama? Perhaps because it is something that touches nearly every family in some form. Perhaps because it is a method of examining the social system, with the father as the wage-earner (historically) bringing the external world into the home. Perhaps because it is a microcosm for a larger struggle against authority. No matter the reason, this trope endures, creating some of the most memorable and powerful works in the Western theatrical canon.
Top right: Laurence Olivier in the 1948 film version of Hamlet
Center left: (Left to right) Actors Kevin Anderson, Brian Dennehy, and Ted Koch as Willy Loman and his sons in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman
Bottom: (Left to right) Actors Charlie Robinson, Kathryn Hunter-Williams, and Yaegel Welch as Troy, Rose, and Cory in a production of Fences at Playmakers Rep in 2010