“Exploring likeness and difference between generations in “The Stonemason”

The Stonemason was published in 1994 by Cormac McCarthy.  The play is a five-act play with the reputation as being un-performable. It is thought that the Stonemason is such a dramatic play with such a compound narrative structure, that it cannot be reproduced on stage. (Priola; Luce 8)  For instance, the story line looks at the types of social issues for African American’s, drug abuse, marital infidelity, and suicide (Arnold 8).  The play is set in Louisville, Kentucky during the 1970s.  The play is centered on inter-generational hopes, battles, and losses.  The story in the play is shown through the eyes of a 32 year old third generation stonemason named Ben Telfair.  Ben and his family are displayed as a concrete, hard-working and successful middle-class black family.  (Priola)  There are for generations displayed within Ben’s family, each with its own struggle to keep legacies. One of the themes in the play is the troublesome male-controlled struggle between Ben and his devotion to his 100 year old grandfather, Papaw. First, there is Papaw, the oldest male in the family, representing the oldest generation.  Then there is Big Ben, Papaw’s son, who rejects Papaw’s legacy.  Third, there is Ben who rejoices in the name of his grandfather and his grandfather’s legacy.  Fourth, the youngest, Soldier, who strives to betray his father and any legacy associated with him.  (Walsh   295) It is therefore, the generational likenesses and differences amongst the characters displayed in this play that cause such dramatics and struggle.

In the play, Ben left college to continue with the family tradition of stonemasonry.  As mentioned previously, Ben loved and was devoted to his grandfather Papaw.  Papaw’s character, is 100 years old, and considered old-fashioned, honest and full of integrity.  Ben strives to achieve the same type of character and to continue his legacy; however, the generational differences make it difficult.  For instance, Papaw knows the ancient trade of masonry; he is not up to date with the current trade and the changes that masonry has achieved during the 20th century.  He continually remarks on history and his dreams to Ben.  He even describes how he knew his destiny at 12 years of age, “I seen the way my path had to go if I was ever to become the type of man I had it in my heart to be… I never looked back.  Never looked back (McCarthy 49-50)”.  Ben wants to be just like Papaw; however, he is not facing the changing world either.  He is stuck in the past, a different generation.  Although their hearts are the same between the grandfather and grandson, the times are different and masonry isn’t the same.  Regardless, Ben wants to be like Papaw and he strives to Papaw’s true calling of masonry and is without a doubt devoted to continuing Papaw’s legacy. “But that the craft of stonemasonry should be allowed to vanish from this world is just not negotiable for me.  Somewhere there is someone who wants to know” (McCarthy 91).  Ben listens to his grandfather’s antics about stonemasonry his entire life and fulfills his grandfather’s willingness to show someone, because like Papaw, Ben has a strong work ethic and a determination not to fail at his dream.

It is also interesting to know that Ben, being from a different generation and being able to go to college, that he left the opportunity.  For instance, here is a black man with the opportunity to complete graduate school in psychology and have a highly respected career.  He drops that to continue his grandfather’s legacy in stonemasonry.  If Ben were from his grandfather’s generation, the opportunity for a black man to become a psychologist would have been unheard of.  Therefore, I think that Ben was so relished in his grandfather’s beliefs that he dropped any type of goals and success for that.  In the play, it is stated, “I knew that when I told him I was studying psychology he had little notion of what that meant… It was only when I came home after my first year of graduate school that I realized my grandfather  knew things other people did not and I began to clear my of some of the debris that had accumulated there and I did not go back to school…I swore then I’d cleave to that old man like a bride.  I swore he’d take nothing to his grave (McCarthy 11)”.

Generational differences are also recognized when Carlotta, Big Ben’s daughter or Ben’s sister speaks with the mother about woman’s rights and careers. (Canfield 13)  You see how the mother, being from Big Ben’s generation, does not support her daughters’ notion about going out and getting a career.  Carlotta states, “You think men are born with rights that women don’t have.  That they can come and go like migratory birds and it perfectly natural.  Mama responds, “It is natural.  Tyrin to change nature.  Women has babies.  You can’t get around that.  That’s the plan the good Lord laid down and you won’t change it.  You can make up your own plan if you want to, and you can read it in ruin.  Carlotta responds to Mama “Well, it wasn’t the good Lord’s plan that I ever heard of for men to be gone all hours of the day and night” (McCarthy 44-45).

We see the generational differences in the characters again between Mamma and Maven.  Maven wants to become a woman lawyer and she proceeds to tell her that she is going to have to deal with prejudice regardless of how hard she works. Mama states, “I heard of negro lawyers I heard of women lawyers but I sure aint heard of women lawyers but I sure aint never heard of no negro woman lawyer. Not in Louisville Kentucky I aint (McCarthy 43)”.  This play was set in the 1970s, so we know that “Mama” is still getting used to equality and education among the black community in the United States.  Although set in the 1970s, the play in no way suggests that such instances of bigotry and oppression are a thing of the past, and the contemporary forms of prejudice and disempowerment the family confront are perhaps even more insidious. Big Ben has to knowingly underbid on jobs for his construction company, as this is the only way that an African American owned and run company will be awarded them, whereas Mama suggests that Maven will encounter prejudice despite her hard work and impeccable academic credentials: “I heard of negro lawyers and I heard of women lawyers but I sure aint never heard of no negro woman lawyer. Not in Louisville Kentucky I aint” (McCarthy 43).

We then see the likeness of the generations within the Telfairs through Big Ben.  The play does not go into bigotry or African American prejudices in American during certain time periods; however, it is suggested through the play’ characters that they have experienced prejudices.  For instance, Big Ben owns his own construction company. For his father, Papaw, this has to be a huge difference from his day, where black men would never have owned their own construction company.  Big Ben, however, even though had surpassed his own father, in regard to business success; he has to knowingly underbid jobs in order to get a job being a black man.  This is something in which all of the generations in this play can all understand and perhaps experienced sometime during their life, especially being black men. (Walsh 296)

In addition to the likeness of the generations through Big Ben, we see the generational likeness through Soldier, Maven’s son.  Throughout the play, Soldier is without a father a rebels against his family.  He gets into drugs and trouble.  Ben sends him money and hides his whereabouts from his sister.  Maven dies of an overdose with the money Ben gave him.  This ultimately ruins his relationship with his sister.  (Canfield 15) This is not something that changes through generations.  Ben was not honest with his sister and this put a fracture on their relationship and would have put a fracture on any relationship in any time period.  Trust and honesty throughout this story, play an important role in the relationships of the characters.  Through each generation, there is a relationship formed whether good or bad, and each relationship has a tremendous effect on the outcome of their lives.

Works Cited

Arnold, E. Stonemans Evening.  Retrieved on January 13, 2012 from:

Canfield, JD. Oedipal Complexities in Cormac McCarthy’s The Stonemason and The

Gardener’s Son. Retrieved on January 13, 2012 from:

Luce, Dianne C. Cormac McCarthy’s First Screenplay: ‘The Gardener’s

Son.’” Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy. Ed. Edwin T. Arnold and

Luce. Rev. ed. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 71-


McCarthy, Cormac.  The Stonemason: A Play in Five Acts. 1994; New York: Vintage

International-Random House, 1995.

Priola, M. The Stonemason (1994).   Retrieved on January 13, 2012


Walsh, J. Chapter 8. The Stonemason: In the Wake of the Sun: Navigating the Southern Works of

Cormac McCarthy.  Retrieved on January 13, 2012 from: