Anne Washburn on Mr. Burns
This play comes from an idea which had been knocking around in my head for years: I wanted to take a pop culture narrative and see what it meant, and how it changed, after the fall of Civilization. Really just because I was curious; I write plays because that part of my brain is more entertaining to me than this part of my brain.
I knew I wanted to start with an act of recollection, with a group of survivors trying to piece together a TV episode. And to do that, I wanted to work with a group of actors; remembering is complicated; I could make remembering up, but it would never be as rich and complex as the real thing.
In 2008, Steve Cosson of The Civilians, an investigative theater group of which I am a member, approached me about applying for a NYSCA commission grant and I suggested this project – which had now somehow become about The Simpsons. I can’t remember how I landed on The Simpsons, although I’m pretty sure it was a light decision; as I remember it, Friends, Cheers, Seinfeld, were all in the mix—any show with a large and dedicated viewership.
I consider myself a Simpsons fan, but in the loose sense of the word. I really began watching it largely in reruns, when I began my long post-college career as a temp. I would come home fried from the reception desk, or the filing, or the data entry, and cook noodles, watch re-runs, despair. The Simpsons was a brilliant little glimmer in that time. I didn’t think to take it seriously, but I always admired it, and it always made me laugh.
It now seems like a really fortunate choice: if any show has the bones for post-apocalyptic survival, it’s The Simpsons. So many people enjoy remembering it: retelling it, quoting it, doing the voices, the gestures; even a terribly reduced population should be able to do a reliable job of putting it back together. And the characters, when you think about them, are durable archetypes—Bart is a Trickster, Homer the Holy Fool, Marge, I suppose, is a kind of long-suffering Madonna, and then the inhabitants of Springfield are an almost endlessly rich supply of human (and non-human) personalities.
That summer, Clubbed Thumb—a downtown theater company—had gotten hold of a free rehearsal space they were loaning out—a disused bank vault in a sub basement deep under Wall Street. We met there, far underground and out of cell phone range, in a room with thick, thick doors and those wheel handles, under a range of flickering fluorescent lights, and asked a group of Civilians actors to remember Simpsons episodes as best they could. We also asked them to be mindful of the necessities of storytelling; if they couldn’t remember a detail, or a plot segue, they should—as one would, in the wild, in front of a small audience—make something up. The episode they remembered most vividly was “Cape Feare,” a parody of the Scorsese remake of the film Cape Fear, with Robert De Niro playing the role originated by Robert Mitchum. The resulting narrative, which I pieced together from several attempts, is... fairly accurate, and I used it as the starting point of the play.
When people ask me what this play is about—and I will be honest, I hate that question; if a play can be summed up in one word or phrase it probably isn’t worth the time—I usually say it’s about storytelling. Which is true. But there are all kinds of storytelling. There are stories we create from the air, for fun, and there are the stories which are meant to be acts of remembering. Our culture—national, family, peer, personal—is defined, not so much by what has happened to us, but by how we remember it, and the story we create from that memory. And since we don’t really create stories from the air—since all stories, no matter how fanciful, are in some way constructed from our experiences, real or imagined—all storytelling is a remaking of our past in order to create our future.