Some notes on The Piano Lesson 04.05.2020

Toni Morrison’s Foreword

Toni Morrison’s foreword, first of all, left me breathless. Too bad it was not included in her last collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard. In the foreword she writes,

“It was in reading the text that I was struck by the beauty and accuracy of August Wilson’s language, as well as the richness waiting to be mined from the interstices between performance and text, between stage and the readerly imagination.”

She goes on to point out the “narrative threads” that figure most prominently the the unravelling of the plays central plot, the life of the truck that Boy Willie and Lymon arrive in and constantly go back to throughout the play, and the fear (and suspense) that animate the play.

The truck barely makes it to Pittsburgh with breakdowns, loss of breaks, failure of the radiator, etc., then throughout the play it reminds us that although the truck provides mobility, it only barely does so. There are the watermelon selling escapades (an inside joke) off the back of the truck, and there is Grace as a willing passenger for both Boy Willie (one night) and Lymon (another day). Ultimately the truck is to be the vehicle that takes the piano to its new owner (although it never happens) and alternately, the vehicle that Lymon uses to resettle in Pittsburgh since Boy Willie aims to return by train.

I’ll stop here so as not to spoil for you the reading. If anybody doesn’t have the version that has the Morrison foreword, I’ll send it out separately.


The weird end of the play.

A mixture of weird events marks the end of the play, presenting what is bound to be a super challenge for any stage director. In a few pages at the end of Act 2 Scene 5, we go from Boy Willie’s wrestling with Sutter’s ghost, to Avery’s failed attempt to bless the house, to Berniece’s calling on the ancestors as she plays the piano which finally puts the ghost’s expressions to rest. There is a type of time collapse that takes place that can only be attributed to and explained by Borgesian magical realism.

We have mentioned that Wilson cites his top influences as the 4 B’s, Baraka, Bearden, Borges, and the Blues. On the surface, we are aware of Bearden’s immediate influence. His collage, The Piano Lesson, provides the primary inspiration for the play. We find in Borges magical realism a possible explanation for the appearance and reappearance of Sutter’s Ghost as well as the rapid recovery from an intense spiritual experience at the very end of the play.

This passage comes from an earlier blog post.

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 the 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.


Wilson addresses issues in The Piano Lesson in several interviews. He refers to Boy Willie as the heroic figure in the play, yet he calls his character development static as opposed to dynamic: Boy Willie enters with a firm plan, reflected, not coincidentally, in the play’s epigraph, lyrics to a blues song by Skip James that becomes a sort of mantra that Boy Willie recites throughout the play. He lets on in conversations that he admires Boy Willie’s intention to return to the south and buy land, farm that land, and secure financial independence. Yet he says Berniece is the star of the play and that the play is about Berniece, not Boy Willie. It is Berniece’s character that develops and evolved, and at the end she breaks through and does what she must to quiet Sutter’s ghost. He mentions that in the first write, he gave Berniece some very “feminist” lines that were eventually removed as it would have been out of place for 1936. When Wilson is asked whether or not Berniece and Avery eventually get married, he expresses doubt, explaining that Avery’s accomodationist tendencies are unlike character traits of other men in her life, her father, her first husband and her brother, for example.

Wilson refers to The Piano Lesson as his best play.


The relationship between Boy Willie and Beniece

There are several clues in the play that give us important information about the brother sister relation. A few facts are important. Berniece is five years older than Boy Willie. Following the murder of their father, Papa Boy Charles, their mother was essentially so emotionally impaired (there are subtle hints of this) that she was no longer able to effectively parent her children and Berniece more or less took over at Boy Willie’s mother figure. This became very apparent in the scene where Maretha is having her hair ironed and Boy Willie criticizes the way Berniece speaks to her daughter (as if she may have spoken to him like that in his childhood (my interpretation)). This tension overrides their relationship throughout the play.


Finally the question of the hour. Does Lymon sleep with Berniece?

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During our group discussion we talked about how the idea to divide the proceeds from the sale of the piano was a concept that seemed to have evolved during the course of the play. Someone mentioned that in the case of a dispute like this over jointly held family property, the proper recourse would have been to sell the property and split the proceeds across the heirs or family members with a claim on the property. When Boy Willie first arrived, he was dead set on selling the piano and taking the proceeds to buy the property down south. Later on he modified his position to share the proceeds with Berniece, half and half.

Another discussion we had was the three part or tripartite religious spiritualism that ranged from the otherworldliness of magical realism, to elements of African spirituality, to more traditional Christianity and how issues and events moved back and forth on that spectrum, perhaps positing that the African Spiritualism in the middle was somehow the golden mean. Avery, then, represented the traditional Christian faith, Berniece ended up representing the African spirituality, and Boy Willie wrestling with Sutter’s ghost represented the Borgesian magical realism and otherworldliness clearly distinct from anything else mentioned.

Session #3 post-class notes 3.30.2019

Session #3 pre-class notes 3.28.2019

Session #2 notes

Session #1 notes