First, here is a link to the full-length film adaptation: https://youtu.be/E8dUHxdeowE
And here is a link to the playlist: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi
I think this particular film adaptation is very important to the overall body of Wilson’s work because Wilson himself was on the set, directing, changing text positions, and creating new scenes in the film not possible in the stage production. We see an example of his standards for future film adaptations of his plays.
For this week’s review, I want to take a closer look, based on the play text, at how Sutter died. My opening hypothesis is that Boy Willie and Lymon actually did kill Sutter and dump his body down the well. At the end I want to explore the symbolism and metaphor of death in a well.
We know that Lymon is “on the lam” for a different reason. He was arrested for vagrancy, fined and sentenced to 30 days. Mr Stovall (where have we heard that name before?) pays his fine and contracts him to labor for a year to pay back the investment. Not wanting to work for Stovall, Lymon escapes and drives to Pittsburgh with Boy Willie. Of course he does not intend to return. He is, in effect, a fugitive.
Boy Willie is different. He flees with Lymon, but he has committed no crime that we know of. But we know he has a record and previously spent three years incarcerated on Parchman Farm.
The subject first comes up early in Act 1, Scene 1. Boy Willie tells Doaker and Berniece that he and Lymon are celebrating the death of Sutter at the hand of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. Doaker asks for details. Boy Willie immediately provides his alibi (without actually being asked): “About three weeks ago. Me and Lymon was over in Stoner County when we heard about it. We laughed.” Then he provides an interesting detail: “A great big old three-hundred-and-forty pound man gonna fall down his well.” When Doaker prompts Boy Willie about his unsolicited alibi, Boy Willie tells what is obviously a contrived story about working for Lymon’s cousin, then quickly changes the subject to the watermelons they have hauled to Pittsburgh to sell.
Smelling a rat, Berniece asks three times about how they acquired the truck (the getaway vehicle). Three times. Boy Willie claims Lymon bought the truck from Henry Porter, the name, by the way, of a British writer who served for 25 years as an editor at Vanity Fair. But that’s another story.
Berniece smells another rat about the truck and posits that Lymon may have stolen the truck. Again, Lymon doesn’t intend to return South, and later suggests he may sell the truck. But back to the murder mystery.
Later in the same scene, Sutter’s ghost makes his first appearance. Berniece sees the ghost, wearing a blue suit (strange for farming) and claims the ghost was calling Boy Willie’s name.
OK. Sideboard. Remember in Ma Rainey? After Levee’s mother was gang-raped, Levee’s father went out on a vendetta to kill the rapists. He killed four of them before he was himself tracked down. The revenge motive. Boy Willie’s father was killed when the sheriff and several men (including Sutter) set the box car on fire as he attempted to flee the scene of his crime, stealing a piano. One by one, all the people involved in that murder were killed by falling into a well, allegedly the actions of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. But we know there is no such thing as ghosts. End sideboard.
Then, out of nowhere, in a seeming non sequiter, Lymon asks Berniece a question about Sutter’s ghost, “Did he have on a hat?” At that point, we know Lymon was at least at the scene of the crime.
Doaker has some great lines, both about his personal philosophy and about the history of the piano and the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. After the second appearance of Sutter’s ghost, Lymon and Boy Willie reveal how Berniece’s husband, Crawley, really died. Berniece rejects the story and instead blames Boy Willie.
Moving forward, early in Act 2, Scene 5, Boy Willie makes an interesting revelation. Speaking about a puppy he had when he was a child, Boy Willie riffs on his own stoicism, sounding a bit like Troy Maxson in Fences and Herald Loomis in Joe Turner reciting his lack of fear of death. When he took the dead puppy to the church after much prayer over it’s dead little body, and learning that praying in the church could not restore life to the puppy, Boy Willie proclaimed “Well, ain’t nothing precious,” and goes out and kills a cat in retribution. Later he says “That’s what I learned when I killed that cat. I got the power of death too. I can command him. I can call him up. The white man don’t like to see that. He don’t like for you to stand up and look him straight in the eye and say, I got it too.””
Yep. Boy Willie did it. In fact, he may actually be a serial killer, as earlier, when Wining Boy asked him how many men the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog had killed, he claimed “Must be about nine or ten, eleven or twelve. I don’t know.” Boy Willis may be a true psychopath.
OK, this may all be a stretch.
Now. Death by the well. I have seen a few wells. Out in what we used to call “the country,” every house had its own well. Some had pumps to bring well water into the house, but some hauled water out using buckets. We used to drink the well water from the bucket, using a steel ladle. Such memories. That well water was so cold and so sweet. Now, the well was surrounded by a type of housing that was built higher that we were tall, to keep children from falling down the well. Still it happened sometime. My father used to lift me up so I could see down into the well. I always wanted to see stuff as a little boy. If the sun was just right you could see the surface of the water and if the sun was just right, you could see your reflection on the water. You may see where I’m going with this.
“Narcissus, a beautiful youth, son of the god of the river Cephisus and the nymph Liriope, was born at Thespis of Boeotia in ancient Greece. He saw the reflection of his image in the clear waters of a fountain, and became enamored of it, thinking it to be the nymph of the place. His fruitless attempts to approach this beautiful object so provoked him that he grew desperate and killed himself. His blood was changed into a flower, which still bears his name.” — Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary
Is it a stretch to consider that August Wilson may have expropriated the Narcissus myth to make a statement about human nature? There’s probably more to discuss. If you look closely at the Bearden painting from which Wilson found inspiration to write the play, there is a curious black mirror on top of the piano. Just saying.
Finally, and unrelated consciously to August Wilson, I wrote a poem about Narcissus some years ago. May I share it with you?
We stare into our computer screens –
it’s retina display, of course – clearer
than one’s reflection on a still pond.
The image we see of ourselves is sharp
and well defined – in Facebook and Twitter
and Instagram, and all the rest,
even in the poetry we write and post.
We fall in love with that image,
that reflection we see. We worship
the likeness we have created, validated
by likes and shares from all our imaginary
friends. We think we are godly, all knowing.
We believe we now know all of beauty.
Entranced, we cannot move away
to eat or sleep or love. We waste away.
We die. A drooping daffodil marks the time
and space, a date stamp of our delusion.
Finally, a link to my consolidated notes on The Piano Lesson: https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/musings-on-wilsons-the-piano-lesson
Post discussion notes.
There seems to be a consensus that female characters are not as fully developed as male characters are. That surprises me because it seems a lot of space is dedicated to Berniece’s development track. Only a few people bought my theory that Boy Willie was a closet psychopath and serial killer. Well, I said it was a stretch. And I only got a couple of nods on my myth-of-Narcissus theory. C’est la vie!
Lots of discussion on Boy Willie and Berniece filled the space. Their relationship to each other, their relative positions vis-a-vis the piano, and the development of their characters throughout the play were discussion points. We agreed to a parallel between the “seance” in The Piano Lesson and the “Juba” in Joe Turner. Also, the lyrics to Berta, Berta gave us insight into the inner motivations of Herald Loomis in Joe Turner. Comparisons were made Zora Hurston’s Spunk and Toni Morrison’s Guitar in Song of Solomon (I’ll have to look these up).
Our discussion about the disposition of the family heirloom became a brief chat about erasure/cancel culture. I mentioned the current debate about changing the name of a DC high school from it’s original namesake, President Woodrow Wilson because of his racist practices that particularly affected DC blacks. Ed mentioned the name change of a law school in California for genocidal practices of its namesake, Serranus Clinton Hastings. I think the equating of selling the piano, which is both a family heirloom as well as an archive of the family’s history is a worthy discussion connected to The Piano Lesson. Related, I mentioned an op-ed I wrote several months ago about removing statues from the Capitol Rotunda was not well-received by readers of the Washington Post.
There will be more tomorrow when I watch the recorded video.
Post-post notes. The Piano Lesson really lends itself to what we have discussed earlier as a Dantean analysis (as mentioned last week, I am engaged in a daily reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy and I can’t seem to prevent it from spilling over into Wilson’s work, and vice versa. Might open up some new possibilities). In Dante’s world, literature is analyzed on four levels or layers or using four approaches – the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and the spiritual/mystical. Shall we proceed?
The literal, for The Piano Lesson, is easy. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy farmland and Berniece wants to keep the piano as a family heirloom. at the moral level it begins to get bit hazy. As stolen property, Sutter’s ghost has the strongest claim, perhaps. Beyond that, however, I think Boy Willie has the strongest claim in his plan to sell the piano and share the proceeds equally with his sister. At the allegorical level, the piano has acquired family heirloom status, preserving the history of the family as a record, and as a container for the family’s collective hopes and aspirations. The Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, I say in a previous post. So Berniece has the strongest claim. At the spiritual/mystical level, Berniece’s final emergence as the high priestess of the spirit of the piano, calling on the ancestors and receiving their affirmative response, awards the piano to Berniece. And that’s how it all ends. Boy Willie returns to Mississippi, Berniece keeps the piano, and Sutter’s ghost departs the house (we hope!).
What about August Wilson the poet vs August Wilson the pilgrim in the play?