Tim Sanford on Mr. Burns
Culture mongers relentlessly peddle dystopic futurist scenarios in TV and movies. Despite all evidence we might be sated with zombie/vampire/invading alien/oncoming asteroid/catastrophic climate change/magnetic pole inversion/nuclear meltdown disaster epics, the shows keep coming. Most of these would fall decidedly into the bottom left “Lowbrow/Despicable” quadrant of New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix (except maybe The Walking Dead, which nudges just slightly into the Lowbrow/Brilliant quadrant). Anne Washburn’s ridiculously inspired Mr. Burns shoots straight into my personal “Highbrow/Brilliant” by riffing on one entirely plausible disaster scenario, the disintegration of our electric grid, and turning it inside out. It reminds me of how I felt when I first read Christopher Durang’s seminal Betty’s Summer Vacation, which took the ’90s obsession with trash culture (remember Lorena Bobbitt and the Menendez brothers?) and exploded it to smithereens by inhabiting it so blithely. I had no idea how much I needed Durang's play until I read it. I felt the same way about Anne’s play.
Mr. Burns’s charms lay in the fact that it doesn’t seem like a disaster story at all. That doesn’t mean that as we glean what has happened to our world we don’t get a chill from its creepy prescience. And it is all the creepier because it doesn’t feel like Anne’s purpose in writing it has been to creep us out. It’s not a narrative for thrill-seekers. It doesn’t transform its characters into action heroes. The people we meet in the play just seem like people. We meet them telling stories around a campfire, trying to recreate a favorite TV show. Gradually we realize they have no choice. Without electricity there’s no TV or stereo anymore, and that means returning to the ancient art of storytelling. As the play unfolds over the years, the storytelling becomes an important cornerstone in a new barter economy. And yes, The Simpsons lies at the heart of this storytelling, and that brings a certain whimsy to the enterprise. But what is surprising and subversive and ultimately idealistic about the play is that the importance of the disaster context here is simply to raise the stakes of the story. That’s what I mean about turning it inside out: Anne’s premise posits sweetly and fiercely that in our time of greatest duress, our stories—our art—become more important than ever, literally the key to our survival.
I don’t mean to make it seem so highfalutin. File this away and just go for the ride. There’s no question that a primary purpose of the retelling game the characters perform at the top is just for a little much needed comic relief. There’s nothing wrong with art as entertainment. Good plays should always be part “play.”
But the reason it grows in importance is that it serves as a shared story. I can still remember in the sixth grade recounting the plots of the latest Flintstones episode at lunchtime with my friends. Partly, we were just reliving the pleasure, but we were also showing off and making each other laugh. That’s how the recounting in Mr. Burns starts. But over time it evolves. And evolves. And evolves. It becomes epic and primal. And I suspect after you see it, it will stay with you for a long long time.
Mr. Burns was created out of the collective research and development of the invaluable theater troupe The Civilians (as was the wonderful Maple and Vine from a couple of seasons ago). We are fortunate that most of the original company members that inspired Anne’s play will perform in our production. I’m sure their long history with the play will deepen your experience.