pre-class notes for The Piano Lesson (3.28.2019)

I enjoy slightly retelling the stories in these August Wilson plays. It somehow helps me understand them better. My favorite thing is renaming each play. For example, I renamed Gem of the Ocean “The Adventures of Citizen Barlow.” The rename for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is “The Return of Deacon Herald Loomis,” though it could also named “Bynum Walker’s Fulfillment. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was easy, “It’s All About Levee,” though “August Wilson on Playwriting and Play Production” is running a tight second and may win the race overall. The renaming of this week’s play, The Piano Lesson, is a bit complex, but I think I have figured it out: “Sutter’s Ghost in the Archive.” Let me explain.

The repeated appearance of Sutter’s ghost and the whole yarn about the Ghost of the Yellow Dog are vital elements in the unfolding of the play’s various plots. Every time Boy Wille and Lymon try to move the piano, they hear the sounds of Sutter’s ghost. Berniece sees Sutter’s ghost at the top of teh stairwell, holding his head. Doaker sees the ghost but remains silent about it. Maretha sees the ghost upstairs and is traumatized. Avery fails at expelling the ghost from the house, Boy Willie has an actual physical altercation with the ghost and gets thrown down the stairs (better than the well, I’d say!), and ultimately, Berniece returns to playing the piano, calls on all the ancestors (a la Toledo’s African conceptualization) and succeeds in driving the ghost of Sutter out of the house.The Ghost of the Yellow Dog story is significant because it is a ghost that kills Sutter, resulting from the burning of a railroad car by several men (including Sutter) that contained Papa Boy Charles and four hoboes. Papa Boy Charles stole the piano from the Sutter house. Each of the men involved in the railroad car burning (and subsequent murders) dies a horrible death (a la Milton Green killing each of the men involved in the rape of Levee’s mother), and each death is in turn blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.

Altogether, this represents Borgesian magical realism at its finest, one of Wilson’s top influences. I mentioned magical realism in an earlier post, a story of fantasy within a story of realism. Borges himself referred to it as “the contamination of reality by dream.” It serves as motive force for internally pushing the plot forward, but it also tells its own story.

It’s 5:55 and I need to get ready for a 6:55 departure to work. Tonight I’ll finish with the explanation of “The Archive.”

OK. The Archive. One normally thinks of archives in terms of written records, and normally, these days though it hasn’t always been, on paper. Let me change your thinking. The piano is a worthy museum piece, with the carvings and all, an artifact, but it wouldn’t normally be thought of as an archive. But this piano has carvings that represent several generations fo the Charles family, births, marriages, transactions, deaths, etc. Those representations qualify it to be an archive itself, the images mere surrogates of actual events in the lives of actual people. Doaker and Wining Boy tell Boy Charles, “Bernice is not going to sell that piano,” because they know she recognizes the power of the record, of the representation.

I wrote in an earlier set of notes, “The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the origin myth story. The Holy Grail because it carried the “blood” of Berniece’s mother who so laboriously kept it sparkling and polished and it represents the “secret” of what happened to the family unit in slavery. It’s the Ark of the Covenant because it represents the “chest” that contains the archive of the family history through the generations.

“Finally, what is the Lesson? I propose the lesson is that heritage and a family history of struggle and overcoming trump everything else. Money can’t buy it, not can it be traded for money. But you have to honor it, preserve it, celebrate it, and add to it with the achievements of each generation. Without the last piece, the life affirming and life-sustaining temple of our familiar becomes just a tomb of memories, a curious artifact of the past.

Here is a link to the YouTube playlist:

Notes from Session #2:

Notes from Session #1:

Supplementary notes that Carole Horn and I collaborated on in the 2nd session:

3 thoughts on “pre-class notes for The Piano Lesson (3.28.2019)

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