some post-Seven Guitars thoughts (4.6.2019)

A couple of quick bookmarks to insert before moving on from Seven Guitars.

I haven’t seen it mentioned in the body of literature, but August Wilson often makes a point to applaud literacy, reading and writing, and to decry, if not condemn, illiteracy. This may seem an almost obvious position for a playwright to take, and it may appear that literacy is an automatic “state” to assume in an industrialized democracy like the United States. But a quick look at the statistics tells a different story and highlights the importance Wilson places on literacy in character and plot development.

In Fences, for example, Troy cannot read or write. Could that be the real reason why he wasn’t able to transfer to white league professional baseball? We don’t know and Wilson doesn’t tell us. In Seven Guitars, Floyd is illiterate and it is the cause of many of his woes. He can’t get his daily compensation because he couldn’t read to know to keep a certain letter. He failed to negotiate a deal for royalties on his first hit because he didn’t understand the process or the business itself of recording. He is a veteran of WW2, but he didn’t acquire any transferable skills from his army hitch because he couldn’t read, he couldn’t acquire information from texts. His misfortunes, it may be argued, stem more from illiteracy than from poverty, or racial discrimination, or any other cause.

We get the impression from The Piano Lesson that Boy Willie was functionally illiterate. He could farm, but there was nothing he could do, by his own admission, in the city (where literacy skills are required). Boy Willie thought it absurd that Maretha could only play what was written on the paper. In Ma Rainey, Levee was illiterate, though he could read and write music. In the end, he kills the only band member who could read and write, Toledo, acting out a rage he couldn’t contain from failing to get a side deal on some music he had written. I’ll have to go back and review Joe Turner and Gem but I am almost certain there are some references to literacy.

OK, that’s bookmark #1. Here is bookmark #2.

I think August Wilson was an archivist par excellence. He gave a lot of credit to libraries, and specifically to public libraries, but his talent was in creating and storing records, records of human life in each 10 year period of the 20th century. Seven Guitars is full of lists of things pertinent to life in the 1940’s. In The Piano Lesson the piano is itself an archive, a storage of family events across the years. Ma Rainey introduces us to “the record” and the recording process, a store of information that is transportable and reproducible. On and on.

These are two “properties” of Wilson’s writing that I hope to develop more fully in the days and weeks ahead.

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