A family history entwined with the legacy of slavery. Black urban poverty in 1930’s Pittsburg. Criminality and working class aspirations. Intersectionality and the patriarchy of the poor. August Wilson’s Piano Lesson is an issue play, and winner of the Pulizer prize. Does this relentlessly grim parlour drama descend into stereotyped kitsch, or lend it’s denigrated characters a nobility transcending their circumstances?
Download: Episode 13 – The Piano Lesson
‘Reading Plays‘ is a discussion show, featuring Gareth Stack and James Van De Waal. Each week we do a close reading of a modern play, discussing it’s merits, themes, issues raised, and so on. You can play along by reading or watching a production of the play before you listen to the show.
The Title: The Piano Lesson
Title taken from the Matisse painting, which in turn depicts a painting of woman on a high stool looking down on a child learning piano. The painting contrasts the soft image of the child with the harsh painted viewer and a stiff sculpture in the foreground, evoking ‘sensuality and hard work’.
The title obviously also refers to the fable like nature of the narrative, which contrasts elements of social realism with an extremely broad tone, reminiscent of the Uncle Remus stories of the African American South.
Similarity to Brian Friel
The Piano Lesson is thematically reminiscent of Brian Friel in the Irish context. Like much of Friel’s work, it’s a historical drama about the dignity and indignity of working class people. Again, like Friel, Wilson seems concerned with the power of education and the legacy of colonialism. As well as the desire for land as route to respectability – colliding with modernity and the rise of the city.
“You’d be surprised how many people trying to go North get on a train going West. They think the train’s supposed to go where they going rather than where it’s going… If everybody stay in one place I believe this would be a better world.” (Doaker).
Both playwrights are concerned with the value of land: Land as a continual form of oppression, and as a possibility of reparation.
Numerology and the role of three
The number three is used repeatedly in the play. Lymon’s truck broke down three times. It’s been three years since Boy Willie has seen his sister. Crawley was 3 times 7 (a southern term for 21, i.e.: a grown up), at the time of his death. Bernice’s husband died three years ago. Sutter died three weeks ago. There were 3 hobos and 3 doors in Avery’s dream. We speculate that these may be references both to the frequent two on one interactions in the play, and to the oedipal triad evoked by the many missing fathers in the play.
Literal Deux et Machina
Sutter’s ghost and it’s connection to the piano is an example of magical realism animism and the storytelling of subjugated people.
This ties into the fusions of spiritualism and evangelical religion: As a way out of the mental trap of poverty and violence.
The ‘Ghosts of Yellow Dog’: The story of the purchase, carving and theft of the piano and murder that followed. The ghosts provide a manner of redressing injustice from the afterlife.
But spirituality also represents the danger of that connection to past. E.g.: Berniece’s mother whispering to the piano.
The argument over the value of the piano is one of economics and utility vs family and history. Berniece is aware of the human cost of the piano, and it’s importance as a symbol in the cycle of violence.
The constant absence of dead or fled fathers, and the broken family at the heart of the story, are contrasted with the power of family, religion and community, to stand against poverty, facilitating a foothold in communities.
In the world of the play, the history of slavery is almost a living memory. The character’s family (whose surname we never hear), were literally owned by the Sutter family. Repeatedly we hear of brutal white punishment of minor crimes. E.g.: Crawley (benieces husband) killed for stealing wood. E.g.: ‘Boy Charles’ (Father of berniece / boy willy) burned alive for stealing piano. Thus the legacy of slavery continues in the intergenerational transmission of violence and criminality.
Aspiration and class conflict
At one point in the play, Bernie leaves Maretha at the ‘settlement house’.
These were mixed income housing and social services for social improvement. A paternalistic 19th C British movement to reduce social exclusion. In the US settlement houses were less charitable and more service orientated.
Here they represent an avenue for internalised racism. Berniece tells Maretha ‘Don’t be going down there showing your colour’.
The ambitions of Avery, an elevator operator seeking to gain respectability through his ministry; are contrasted with noble, almost class conflict driven ‘hustler’ archetype of Boy Willie.
The plays characters (particularly Boy Willie), make constant use of racial epithets like ‘nigger’.
Berniece straightens her daughter Maretha’s hair with hot grease & tells her if she were a boy she wouldn’t have to. Boy Willie gives out to Berniece for her child rearing technique and neglect in not telling Mareta the history of the piano. He’s not going to be like his father, who had no access to land and worked all his life for someone else. For him land represents parity with white people, respectability. For Berniece – she has to be realistic about her lowly status.
Intersectionality / Patriarchy
The conflict between Berniece and Boy Willy demonstrates the repression of women in poor African American communities at this point in history. The bullying nature of Boy Willie’s entry into the house. His patriarchal refusal of Berniece’s request to leave – and assumption of ownership of piano. No man ultimately defends Berniece, not Lymon nor Doaker nor Avery. But it’s her peaceful appeal to their ancestors that ultimately saves the day.
Other examples: Wining Boy slept with Lymon’s mother in return for helping to get his father out of jail. This wasn’t compulsion exactly, but it was certainly exploitation.
The Use of women by Lymon & Boy Willie. E.g.: Boy Willie’s pursuit of Grace (irony) ‘My grandaddy used to take women on the back of horses’. Both see women as a comfort and an object. While Lymon claims a desire for a more meaningful relationship he in a sense betrays his moment with Berniece by chasing Grace at the end of the play.
The Hustler archetype
Wining Boy & Boy Willy.
Both desire to get theirs in the face of unfair world, although Wining boy is ‘burnt out’ from the fast life. Wining boy suggests that the difference between white and black is white have ability to bend the law to their will.
Boy willy – initially seems like manipulative trickster. Later we see that, at least in his own mind, he is a class warrior.
Towards the end of the play Berniece threatens him with a gun. But he’s not scared of dying. He relates the story of trying to raise his dog from the dead and killing a cat when Jesus wouldn’t bring him back. The event taught him learned he has the power of death too. “Nigger that ain’t afraid to die is the worse kind of nigger for the white man”.
Songs of the oppressed
Several songs are sung by the men in the play. Most notably, the prison song sun by all the men (all of whom served time at the same forced labour farm). ‘O’Berta’ is about telling your love to move on while you’re imprisoned, which ties into the theme of the legacy of slavery in the breakup of families. And it’s connection to urban poverty.