“Now See if You Can Understand That!”: Miscommunication in Fences and Anna Christie

An essay on August Wilson & Eugene O’Neill

by Kane Prestenback | return to list of publications

“What we call relationships, conversations, contacts, are nothing but long chains of misunderstandings” (Tzanne 1). Extensive communications and language studies have examined cross-cultural miscommunication in relation to cultural background, linguistic knowledge, and the dynamic progression of social encounters. Playwrights utilize these sociolinguistic and pragmatic elements of miscommunication to generate conflict and further character development. In Fences, August Wilson’s characters fail to communicate with each other while seeking to better communicate their claim to humanity. Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie emphasizes the ambiguity that results from miscommunication and the devastating price of deception and misperception. Wilson and O’Neill’s characters are involved in symbolic chains of misunderstanding that indicate the paradoxical opportunity and failure of human miscommunication and demonstrate its impact on society’s supposedly insurmountable hurdles.

What we call relationships, conversations, contacts, are nothing but long chains of misunderstandings.

Angeliki Tzanne

Communication failures play an inherent role in establishing the difficulties embodied by the characters in Fences. In verbal communication research, miscommunication has been “blamed for a host of negative short- and long-term effects on communication, from creating momentary discomfort to damaging interpersonal relationships” (Paxton et al. 613). The playwright demonstrates that Troy is guilty of damaging and deceptive communication with the first spoken words of the play; Bono denounces, “Troy, you ought to stop that lying!” (Wilson 1157). Troy’s longwinded stories establish his tendency to embellish and falsify, and his trustworthiness is summarily challenged. By exploiting the storytelling narrative, Troy “has the advantages of separation and self-evasion” (Bese 141). Rose attests, “Every time Troy tell that story he find different ways to tell it. Different things to make up about it… Troy be talking that stuff and half the time don’t even know what he be talking about” (Wilson 1160).

Troy’s audacious self-assertions are contrasted with Gabriel’s inability to truly speak for himself, reportedly due to being “mixed up from that metal plate he got in his head, as Troy ineloquently puts it (1164). Gabriel first appears “[carrying] an old trumpet tied around his waist and believes with every fiber of his being that he is the Archangel Gabriel” (1163). He represents the “invisible,” voiceless people “whose personal narratives failed to confirm [the established] hegemonic discourse… [and] fell outside of history” (Nadel 95). Rose laments, “Seem like something ought to be done to help him” (Wilson 1164). In a particularly telling exchange, Gabriel interrupts an argument between Rose and Troy:

TROY. Rose . . . it's just . . .
ROSE. Ain't nothing you can say, Troy. Ain't no way of explaining that…
GABRIEL. Say, Rose . . . you know I was chasing hell-hounds and them bad mens come and get me and take me away. Troy helped me. He come down there and told them they better let me go before he beat them up. Yeah, he did!
ROSE. You go on and get you a piece of watermelon, Gabe. Them bad mens is gone now.
GABRIEL. Okay, Rose.  (1173)

Rose is unable to continue her admonishment of Troy’s actions while Gabriel offers examples of Troy’s perceived heroism. Communication is halted between Troy and Rose at the most inconvenient moment, and they are unable to interfere with the illusion that Gabriel has developed of his older brother.

Troy and Cory’s relationship is also represented through differing generational perspectives that result in destructive misunderstanding. Troy cannot accept that “times have changed a lot” (1159). Troy throws out contradictory facts to every one of Cory’s assertions about ethnological advancement in the game of baseball. Despite Cory’s reasoned assurances, Troy admonishes Cory for “telling me you done quit your job” (1165). Troy refuses to accept any alternative perspective, choosing instead to blatantly ignore alternatives to his understanding of the world. He states, “I don’t care what nobody else say. I’m the boss . . . you understand? I’m the boss around here. I do the only saying what counts,” effectively closing off the line of communication to assert his arguably biased viewpoint (1166).

In contrast, O’Neill’s Anna Christie frames miscommunication as the result of repeated accidental and intentional misrepresentation and the misunderstandings associated with inaccurate preconceptions. The playwright indicates the negative effects associated with miscommunication, “where their repeated occurrence creates feelings of frustration, resentment and anger” (Tzanne 1). O’Neill alerts the audience to the thematic importance of misinterpretation during the opening stage directions, referring to the minor character of Johnny-The-Priest as “pale, thin, clean-shaven face, mild blue eyes and white hair, a cassock would seem more suited to him than the apron he wears… But beneath all his mildness one senses the man behind the mask—cynical, callous, hard as nails” (O’Neill 1.1).

Through Chris’s superstitions about the persistence and destructive tendency of the fog on the water, the playwright introduces an ever-present metaphor that relates to the lack of clarity and hindrances to communication present in the play. This metaphorical fog clouds many of the characters’ interactions, beginning with Chris’s idealization of Anna as a “fine, good, strong gel, pooty like hell” and Anna’s inaccurate expectations of Chris as a “yanitor of some building here now – used to be a sailor” (1.1). O’Neill’s characters abjectly repudiate each other’s unacceptable aspects and “as it is beyond assimilation or comprehension, [it] is cast off” (Weegman 137). They neglect to fully correct each other’s misconceptions, and even when they do attempt to clarify their incorrect assumptions, their preconceived ideals get in the way:

ANNA. Funny I don't know nothing about sea talk – but those cousins was always talking crops and that stuff. Gee, wasn't I sick of it – and of them!
CHRIS. You don't like live on farm, Anna?
ANNA. I've told you a hundred times I hated it. [Decidedly.] I'd rather have one drop of ocean than all the farms in the world! Honest! And you wouldn't like a farm, neither. Here's where you belong. (O’Neill 2.1)

Anna continues to conceal the particular facts about her past as Burke makes similar idealized assumptions about Anna, stating “Then you think a girl the like of yourself might maybe not mind the past at all but only be seeing the good herself put in me?” (2.1). Their preconceived ideas and intentional deceptions set the table for what ultimately leads to their frequent failures in communication and the miscomprehensions that will continue to fog their understanding of each other.

The communication failures of Wilson’s characters are eventually resolved, leading to a subversion of the negative perspective typically associated with miscommunication and misunderstanding. Verbal communication research suggests “the possibility that miscommunication may sometimes provide a stepping stone for improved communication” (Paxton et al. 614). In this sense, “miscommunication is considered not only as a defect or a mismatch, but also as a plus and as a powerful device in the hands of the communicators” (Anolli et al. v). For all of Troy’s bullheaded stubbornness, the ultimate purpose of his longwinded storytelling and uncompromising absolutism is realized in the positive progress and opportunity available to the Maxson’s at the end of the play. Given the circumstances, Troy tries to get his point across, stating, “You’re not listening to me. I’m trying the best I can to explain it to you” (Wilson 1174). The playwright looks past his tragic bully’s “reprehensible deeds and omissions and settles ultimately on a figure of flawed humanity in need of grace and forgiveness” (Weber 655). Troy’s unspoken aspirations for the positive capability he sees in his family is revealed after Cory has ended up as a military corporal, despite how tough Troy seemed to be on Cory. Bono admits, “Your daddy knew you had it in you. He used to tell me all the time” (Wilson 1179). Rose clarifies, “Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t… and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was… but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm” (1180). She concludes by acknowledging Raynell as a new opportunity that has come out of the series of misunderstandings and miscommunication with Troy. She says, “I’d been blessed to relive a part of my life… I’m gonna do her just like your daddy did you… I’m gonna give her the best of what’s in me” (1180). The playwright indicates that Raynell is both “the manifestation of Troy’s past infidelities” and “the signifier of his redemption” (Elam 296).

The final moments of the play provide the clearest example of virtuous opportunity rising out of misunderstanding and miscommunication. Gabriel arrives at Troy’s funeral prepared to blow his trumpet and announce to St. Peter that it is time to open the gates to heaven for Troy. Failing to produce any sound from the trumpet, he begins “a dance of atavistic signature and ritual” that “links Gabriel, Troy, the entire Maxson family to their African roots” (Wilson 1181; Elam 287). Though he has been marginalized throughout much of the play, he becomes a central figure in the dramatic resolution and confrontation of the play’s social issues (Elam 288). Gabriel “asserts and demonstrates that the order of things – the relationship of figurative to literal – should be reversed,” as he concludes, “And that’s the way that go!” (Nadel 94; Wilson 1181). Though Gabriel’s horn does not blow, this formerly inarticulate character communicates the actions that set the stage for “the hot winds of change” to begin “to blow full” (Wilson 1157).

In Anna Christie, miscommunication leads instead to further ambiguity and the perpetuation of the individual’s incapability or unwillingness to understand. Starting with one character’s suppression or intentional deception and the other’s naïve or benighted misunderstandings, these characters move toward being defiantly obtuse and blatantly ignorant to hold on to those initial perceptions and prolong their communication failures. Chris and Burke demonstrate this defiance during an argument concerning the incongruity in each other’s individual knowledge and misperception of Anna:

BURKE. And I'm telling you she'll not. She knows I'm loving her, and she loves me the same, and I know it.
CHRIS. Ho-ho! She only have fun. She make big fool of you, dat's all!
BURKE. [Unshaken – pleasantly.] That's a lie in your throat, divil mend you!
CHRIS. No, it ain't lie. She tal me yust before she go out she never marry fallar like you.
BURKE. I'll not believe it. (O’Neill 3.1)

Later, Burke perfectly exemplifies the pitiable effects of misperception, as O’Neill describes him in stage directions as “too in the seventh heaven of bliss to get any correct interpretation of her word” (3.1). But Anna does not believe that she has given Burke any false information. O’Neill’s audience is “situated to appreciate the hypocrisy of Mat and Chris’s indignation when they discover Anna’s past” (Westgate 69). Burke perceives Anna as “a dacent girl” incongruous with “quare, rough talk,” while Anna objects to Burke’s misperception, saying, “Decent?” Who told you I was?” (O’Neill 3.1). Despite Burke’s earlier promises, Anna’s revelation leads Burke to rail against the incongruity. The clarity he receives conflicts with his prior understanding of the order of things and results in tragic conflict. Though Anna has told him everything, Burke continues to misconstrue her statements by applying his own warped perspective:

BURKE. And I suppose 'tis the same lies you told them all before that you told to me?
ANNA. [Indignantly.] That's a lie! I never did!
BURKE. [Miserably.] You'd be saying that, anyway. (4.1)

Burke is unwilling to accept the reality of Anna’s statement because of his perception of her miscommunications. In the end, Burke agonizingly reframes his perspective to accept Anna’s love for him, though even that comes at the expense of immense moral suffering; Burke contemplates the validity of Anna’s communication and debates “if [an] oath is no proper oath at all” (4.1).

Anna, Burke, and Chris are supposedly “all fixed now,” and they contemplate their future together (4.1). But the playwright alludes to a more ambiguous outcome, noting that “as soon as [Anna] is gone Burke relapses into an attitude of gloomy thought” (4.1). O’Neill himself explains, “Three characters have been revealed in all their intrinsic verity, under the acid test of a fateful crisis in their lives. They have solved this crisis for the moment as best they may, in accordance with the will that is in each of them. The curtain falls. Behind it their lives go on” (qtd. in Wynstra 1). The basis for their continued stability is admittedly thinly drawn; their preconceptions continue to fog their uncommunicated inner thoughts.

The great paradox of human miscommunication enables Wilson and O’Neill to explore differing outcomes as their characters attempt to overcome personal and collective obstacles and move toward greater understanding of each other and humanity. Though initially marred by historical inequities, Wilson’s characters reveal the possibilities borne out of miscommunication as it manifests in a rightful claim to humanity. O’Neill’s characters similarly envision new possibilities after ultimately reaching a kind of understanding, though the path forward remains ambiguous, dissolute, and ironically isolated. In either case, miscommunication is the pivotal factor in each character’s development, as essential to their interactions as any other form of communication. While miscommunication eventually leads these characters to new possibilities and greater understanding, unresolved questions and issues linger, inferring a perpetual inability to escape the negative effects of miscommunication. Is this bright new understanding of the world sustainable, or is the permanent ambiguity and devastation of miscommunication inevitable? As Anna wearily concedes, “Maybe – and maybe not” (O’Neill 3.1).

Works Cited

Anolli, Luigi, et al. Say Not to Say: New Perspectives on Miscommunication. IOS Press, 2002.

Bese, Ahmet. “Storytelling and Subjectivity in the Selected Dramas of August Wilson and David Rabe.” Old Stories, New Readings: The Transforming Power of American Drama, edited by Miriam López-Rodríguez et al., Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015, pp. 141–50. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2015382262&site=eds-live.

Elam, Harry J., Jr. “Of Angels and Transcendence: An Analysis of Fences by August Wilson and Roosters by Milcha Sanchez-Scott.” Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 1995, pp. 287–300. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1995062088&site=eds-live.

Nadel, Alan. “Boundaries, Logistics, and Identity: The Property of Metaphor in Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, edited by Alan Nadel, University of Iowa Press, 1994, pp. 86–104. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1994020456&site=eds-live.

O’Neill, Eugene. Anna Christie. Project Gutenberg, June 4, 2009, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4025/4025-h/4025-h.htm. Accessed 26 Jan. 2023.

Paxton, Alexandra, et al. “Predictions of Miscommunication in Verbal Communication During Collaborative Joint Action.” Journal of Speech, Language & Hearing Research, vol. 64, no. 2, Feb. 2021, pp. 613–27. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.ezproxy2.lsua.edu/10.1044/2020_JSLHR-20-00137.

Tzanne, Angeliki. Talking at Cross-Purposes : The Dynamics of Miscommunication. John Benjamins Publishing Co, 2000. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=253444&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Weber, Myles. “Rescuing the Tragic Bully in August Wilson’s Fences.” Southern Review, vol. 50, no. 4, Sept. 2014, pp. 648–74. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f6h&AN=99097043&site=eds-live.

Weegmann, Martin. “‘We’re All Poor Nuts and Things Happen, and We Just Get Mixed in Wrong, That’s All’ Lessons for Psychotherapy from Eugene O’Neill’s Play, Anna Christie.” Psychodynamic Practice, vol. 22, no. 2, May 2016, pp. 131–41. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.ezproxy2.lsua.edu/10.1080/14753634.2016.1195279.

Westgate, J. Chris. “Staging the ‘Poor, Wicked Lot’: O’Neill’s Rebuttal to Fallen Woman Plays.” The Eugene O’Neill Review, vol. 28, 2006, pp. 62–79. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2006531726&site=eds-live.

Wilson, August. Fences. 1985.https://1.cdn.edl.io/rUzV7KfcgBULacgPnyGrv3JG01V5RRXDt
QPImjYrRqKSYb06.pdf. Accessed 2 Feb. 2023.

Wynstra, Beth. “‘It Sounds Wonderful, Doesn’t It?’” Eugene O’Neill Review (Pennsylvania State University Press), vol. 35, no. 1, Mar. 2014, pp. 1–14. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.ezproxy2.lsua.edu/10.5325/eugeoneirevi.35.1.000.