This post is a hybrid of sorts: part review, part advertisement, and part reflection.
Advertising their production of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play (2012), Houston’s Obsidian Theater asks: “How does ‘The Simpsons’ become almost a religion, 75 years after a global catastrophe?” An intriguing new play, Mr. Burns considers the role of theatre following a societal collapse, pondering what will be salvaged from the ashes and how will those living afterwards reimagine and reform culture. The play follows survivors of a nuclear holocaust first attempting to remember an episode of The Simpsons; the group of survivors then forms together as a traveling theatre troupe offering a full repertoire of Simpsons’ episodes—admission for only the cost of batteries, diet cokes, or lines from lost episodes. The final act, taking place 75 years after the initial action, presents The Simpsons (and an amalgamation of other cultural artifacts ranging from Martin Scorsese’s films to Brittany Spears’ songs) as a neo-Greek epic tragedy. The lowbrow trappings of contemporary consumption become the threads of the brave new world’s mythology. Perhaps this does not become a new religion in this post-electric world but it clearly becomes a new foundational narrative—an origin story and new cultural touchstone for the generations following. Obsidian’s production runs through November 18, 2017, and I highly recommend either viewing a performance or reading the play.
It is by lucky happenstance Obsidian’s production is running currently; this summer when I was creating my syllabus for Playwriting, I thought Mr. Burns would be a nice end to our semester. We marched through American modern drama to the post-dramatic, experimental forms of performance studies. Generally speaking, students did not struggle as the plays became stranger. Before coming to my class, most of them had cut their teeth on Beckett, Pinter, and the late century turn to “experimental theatre.” Before Mr. Burns, we read Charles Mee’s Bobrauschenbergamerica—a theatrical collage of images of 20th century Americana: three romances, a truck driver, a homeless man, why the chicken crosses the road jokes, a mother hanging laundry and post-Einsteinian theories of relativity. The play presents these images outside of a traditional narrative structure and enacts Robert Rauschenberg’s collage style of presentation. In the simplest terms: my students understand or are not shocked by the weird. Over 100 years since Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, nearly sixty years after Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Washburn’s Mr. Burns should not unnerve but there’s something oddly pernicious about that third act.
The entire play, to some extent, takes Roy Scranton at his word in his Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene. If indeed our civilization is dying and awaiting that final death blow, we won’t necessarily be here to negotiate, curate, guard, present what is and isn’t worth saving in the new post-eclectic, post-petrol, post-nuclear world. And here’s the rub: my students wanted to maintain a distinct difference between Mee’s Bobrauschenbergamerica and the third act of Washburn’s Mr. Burns. The collage of Americana ought to beat out Mr. Burns and Bart Simpson battling it out with lyrics from Eminem and Britney Spears, or so they hoped. It gets worse.
It is easy to understand why Obsidian would use the term “religion”—theatre and its narratives form the basis for so much of how the West thinks and reflects on itself. But if we take the third act of Mr. Burns seriously, rather than finding the “Oedipus Complex,” a post-petrol Freud might well be saying, “Ah, yes, my patient exhibits an attachment to the figure of Mr. Burns.” And that would make sense, particularly given that the figure of Mr. Burns doubles as the power plant in Springfield. The society following this one may well have a host of issues and complexes in relation to power and energy. We may all end as the protagonist in Eugene O’Neil’s Dynamo (1929)–a disillusioned son who declares electricity the new god and the dynamo his mother. (Spoiler: if you hug a dynamo, even if you call it mother, it will still kill you).
All this to say, the more I work with Mr. Burns, the more complex the text becomes and I highly recommend using it as a teaching tool. It moves beyond pondering the apocalypse and presents a society that begins anew—and fortunately (or unfortunately) some of our artistic choices may well out last the radiation.
Joe Carson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Rice University, and his dissertation, “Savage Arcadia: The American Romance in the Anthropocene,” traces episodes of American Romance novel alongside histories of environmental change. In addition to working on the novel, Joe teaches experimental and modern American drama, and he is currently working on a research project on environmental history in the works of Tennessee Williams.