Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Bart calls Australia to find out if their toilets flush backwards and ends up causing an international incident? How about the one where Homer becomes town crier in the celebration of Jebediah Springfield, but ultimately helps Lisa prove that the city’s founder was a ruthless pirate? Or that pig flying through the air? “It’s just a little airborne: it’s still good, it’s still good!”
Or maybe none of this rings a bell: you’ve never watched The Simpsons and never quite understood the attraction. Fair enough, but I’m betting there is some other piece of culture—be it television, film, music, fashion, theater, or so on—that has etched itself as a happy memory into your psyche. While for a generation of 30-somethings that cultural artifact is The Simpsons, culture has provided us with any number of avenues for such remembrance.
And so while Anne Washburn’s wonderfully inventive new play Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, now running at Playwright’s Horizons, examines The Simpsons as a powerful cultural force, its larger concerns are for how culture and art serves to enrich our lives with the seemingly trivial. When nearly all else falls away, the play suggests, memories of the experiences that brought us joy will remain.
As the play opens, three friends sit around a fire recounting The Simpsons’ “Cape Feare” episode where Sideshow Bob pursues the family onto their witness protection houseboat in the latest chapter of his plot to murder Bart. They do not have much else to do after all, as they are living in the aftermath of a nuclear meltdown. Power plants have exploded, the grid has gone down completely, people have died, families have been torn asunder, and the fight for survival is underway.
But the memories of The Simpsons have remained. To an extent, anyway.
All the enjoyment a Simpsons buff will get out of mentally joining the nostalgic recreation of “Cape Feare” during the play’s first act will surely be accompanied by the powerful urge to join in if only to fill in blanks and correct the faulty memories. For, we meet these characters at a time when memories of the world before meltdown are already beginning to fade. Details are sketchy, and they have no resource other than memory to consult. They try their collaborative best, but it seems clear that certain elements of the past have been blotted out beyond recovery.
Ultimately, Mr. Burns reveals itself to be far more interested in the struggle between memory and its slipping away than in the subject of The Simpsons. The television show is a place holder, a remnant from when life retained a sense of normalcy, however that had been arbitrarily defined. For these characters, The Simpsons is something from their happier past onto which they can grasp for temporary repose from their much more difficult current lives.
Mr. Burns spans more than eighty years, moving through its three acts further into the future of a culture still trying to right itself after meltdown. As the play progresses, we see characters and conditions evolve, but the memory of “Cape Feare,” their prized cultural artifact, remains central to their perseverance. Like a game of telephone over many decades, the memory of the episode and the series evolves unpredictably, but the post-meltdown culture’s commitment to preserving culture and finding repose through art remains consistent.
As Mr. Burns’s characters are never entirely certain of the makeup of their world, so too is the play’s audience at all times alienated from full understanding of the tensions and dynamics of the play. Questions are regularly raised without ever being answered, and characters are constantly acting within framework or under the pressure of some force known to all of them but not us. They begin to make sense of their world, that is, but don’t bother to explain it to us. The effect can be jarring—our instinct, I think, is to expect a reveal, or at least an explanation of what is driving the play’s tensions—but little about a post-meltdown society is ever entirely clear, and so the play seems coyly interested in evoking and cultivating its characters’ uncertainty in its audience.
The play’s final two acts are a fun and at times hilarious comment on our society’s seemingly insatiable need for performance and for art. For thousands of years in pre-electric societies, communities gathered for ritual and performance, and Mr. Burns reminds us that such spectacle is not mere entertainment, but a basic human instinct. To watch this cast masterfully perform a medley of contemporary pop hits is a delight, but the play suggests that the song and dance performs a more basic human function for its characters than simple spectacle for us.
That episode where Marge is cast as Blanche DuBois in the community production of Streetcar? Hilarious, right? Of course, but recall also the point that Marge and Homer learned a great deal about their relationship through the process of performance. Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play posits similarly that cultural products like art and performance remain basic human needs that—like Twinkies, cockroaches, and probably Blinky the fish—will survive well beyond nuclear fallout.