The Stonemason, a five-act play, is Cormac McCarthy’s first published excursion into the realm of drama even though he had written the screenplay to The Gardener’s Son fifteen years earlier. In fact, The Stonemason had been written, several years prior to its publication, as part of a dramatic series sponsored by the National Theater in Washington, D.C. For various reasons, however, it was never actually produced.
[Editor's note: since the writing of this précis, The Stonemason has been publicly performed, albeit in an abridged form. For more on the play's first performance, see Edwin T. Arnold's article (PDF) in The Cormac McCarthy Journal.]
This play focuses on the tribulations of the Telfair family over a three year period. The story is presented through the eyes of Ben Telfair, a 32 year old third generation stonemason who uses a series of monologues to provide an extended and frequently convoluted commentary on the events taking place on stage and off. The Telfairs seem a solid, hard-working and rather successful middle-class black family living in Louisville, Kentucky in the early 1970s. Oddly enough, except for one or two passing references to social issues, the issue of race is hardly relevant to the play’s plot.
Ben has recently abandoned his University studies in psychology to continue the family tradition of stonemasonry. He is strongly attached to his 100 year old grandfather, Papaw, who believes in the old-fashioned family values of honesty, integrity, and hard work, the values Ben intends to ingrain in his own life. Ben’s wife, Maven, is an attractive and honest woman who wants to become a lawyer. Ben’s mother, Mama, is an almost archetypal motherly figure: taking care of everybody in her family, big and small; worrying about her loved ones; trying to fix everybody’s problems.
While Ben is apparently intended to be the protagonist, the events in the life of other family members provide the real dramatic vehicle for the play. Ben’s older sister, Carlotta, preoccupied by her failed marriage, neglects her 15 year old son, Soldier, who becomes involved in crime and drugs and eventually runs away from home. Soldier returns three years later only to die from drug addiction. Ben’s father, Big Ben, on the surface a successful owner of the stonemason business, is actually going through some unidentified financial problems which eventually lead to his suicide. The deaths of Soldier and Big Ben profoundly affect the life of the Telfair family.
Dramatically, the play develops very slowly. As written, there are actually two Bens—the deus ex machina who lectures or describes events from a podium and the character who appears in the action of the story. Almost two acts are taken up to provide background information, a prelude to the most interesting, emotionally charged events which take place later in the play. Meanwhile, Ben’s lengthy monologues and Papaw’s lessons in stonemasonry, which are developed more like novelistic narrative than dramatic dialogue, quickly become detached from the play’s action. As a result, potentially more interesting characters with real problems, such as Big Ben and Soldier, are not sufficiently developed. The same can be said about Maven, a rather plain, one-dimensional character serving as a simple extension of Ben’s figure; little is made of the contrast between her desire for a professional education and Ben’s abandonment of his own. Ben’s function as a one-man chorus, a narrator and commentator to the events taking place on stage, makes the protagonist a distracting moralistic voice, which threatens to render the play static and verbose, often sapping the dramatic tension necessary to sustain an audience’s attention. It remains to be seen whether clever staging and direction can overcome the potential problems inherent in the play’s structure as it is written.
The preceding précis is Copyright © 1997 by Sam Marinov.