Mr. Burns, a Pre-Halloween Play
Shortly after an unspecified apocalyptic event, a group of survivors gather together and begin to attempt to recount the episode “Cape Feare” of the television show THE SIMPSONS. The second act picks up with the same group seven years later, who have now formed a theatrical troupe that specializes in performing SIMPSONS episodes, with commercials and all. The final act is set an additional 75 years in the future. The same episode of THE SIMPSONS, now a familiar mythos, has been reworked into a musical pageant, with the story, characters, and morals repurposed to fit the artistic and dramatic needs of a culture still reeling from destruction of civilization and the near-extinction of humanity decades earlier. (WIKIPEDIA)
Anne Washburn’s MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY premiered in May 2012. A subsequent 2014 Drama League Award nominee for Outstanding Production of a Broadway or Off-Broadway Play, it opened last night, Friday, at the Wells-Metz Theatre on the Indiana University campus, Bloomington Indiana. It is an odd play, receiving extremely mixed reviews and with a third act that is more musical than drama. It also mixes metaphors even within THE SIMPSONS, the “Cape Feare” episode being the one where Sideshow Bob is paroled from prison, then attempts to kill Bart in revenge despite the Simpsons having their names changed by the FBI and hiding out on a houseboat — except in Act 3, when the houseboat is released into the river, the villain has morphed into Mr. Burns, one-time producer of nuclear generated power.
In fact, as the synopsis above does not say, the notion of loss of electricity and the failure of nuclear power plants being closely intertwined with whatever the original calamity was pervades the dramatic part of the play. And the musical part, as revealed as Act 3 ends, is assisted by restored electrical power provided by human generation — at least in the performance here — giving the ending not only an air of hope, but one of triumph. Thus, to me, it seemed to be less a musical pageant than a post-modern version of a miracle play, à la the Middle Ages, complete with the murdered Homer and Marge (the one through hate and other love via a now-toxic Mr. Burns) and Lisa reappearing with angel wings, albeit of a bedraggled sort.
Then a second thing that struck me, although it may be just me as a writer, was an argument within the company during Act II, having to do with acting out characters’ motivations. That is, all still recognize at this time that THE SIMPSONS is just a cartoon, but one of the actresses insists that there’s more, that the reason it’s funny lies in its holding up a mirror to reality, to which it is countered that, no, it’s funny because as a cartoon it has no consequences. “You want reality? Out there is reality!” Thus THE SIMPSONS really acts as an escape.
I don’t know the answer — I think it may be both. Or maybe the viewer (or reader) may take it, THE SIMPSONS, the play, the story, the art, to either illuminate or deny depending on his/her own needs? I claim myself to be an Aristotelian — ars gratia artis — but allow my audience to be Platonic. If you need a moral, hopefully I’ve provided you one to find, but you’re invited to just enjoy my work for its own sake. In the case of MR. BURNS, however, in view of Act 3 I think there is to be a message, that human will may triumph over the worst adversity (Bart knows that he’s supposed to die, but points out that in his entire life he has never done what people tell him he’s supposed to do) if we’ll just let it.