Something menacing always seems to be lurking at the edge of an Anne Washburn play, while at its center leaps a vivid engagement—crisp and crackling—with the unintelligible.
So it’s fitting that her newest piece, Mr. Burns, starts around a campfire, where a handful of characters occupy themselves with the communal activity of recollecting an episode of a TV show—the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons, to be precise. In the choice of topic, there is perhaps a mild amount of pleasurable freaking oneself out that comes with telling stories around a fire. But more notable is the characters’ real relish in the act of recollecting. Every retrieved bit, or line, is a gem that gives the group noticeable comfort and cheer. Sure, one of the characters is hunkered down in the woods, withdrawn and alert. But there is “stream cooled” beer. What could be wrong?
Yet soon a broader picture begins to leach its way in: nuclear fallout, fires, and viral epidemics have swept through America, electronic repositories have failed. We have landed, mid-apocalypse, in the “post-electric” age. With sudden shock, the real terror hits us: the rebuilding of our entire civilization may very well rest in the shaky, slightly inebriated minds of these hapless survivors. And the only pillar of our cultural capital to survive may very well be The Simpsons.
The genesis for Act One of Mr. Burns came from a 2008 workshop with NYC theater troupe the Civilians, in which Washburn and director Steve Cosson hunkered down in an abandoned bank vault (a donated rehearsal space) with actors who were tasked with recalling episodes of The Simpsons. Much of the flailing, groping, sometimes hilarious recollections of Act One came verbatim from this session. The one episode they could remember most fully just happened to be the “Cape Feare” episode.
“It came to seem like a really lucky choice,” Washburn says. “It’s a frenzied retelling of two movies [J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 version, and Scorcese’s 1991 remake], both of which have at their heart a really primal fear: of an inexorably evil man who sets out, pretty much unstoppably, to destroy an entire family and the authorities are powerless to resist. It’s the kind of nightmare which I think would seem relevant in a time of anarchy.”
As Mr. Burns unfolds, we see multiple generations grapple to recollect and reconstruct The Simpsons; though they strive for accuracy, in the telling and retelling, they inevitably create a story for their own times. The opportunity to explore this transformation through a culture falling apart and piecing itself together again, is precisely what drew Washburn to the material. As with much of her work, it’s not the facts that seem to compel her, so much as the witnessing of the way that people recall these facts, how they emerge from the rock tumbler of our brains.
An avid and generous collaborator, Washburn is one of the most original and clear-voiced writers I know. Using verbatim dialogue from actors’ recollections may sound dry, yet the bits that Anne salvages are often the scattered, make-shift, compellingly human and unformed thoughts that defy sound bites and cohesive logic, presented in a style that is very much her own. Anyone can look up a known fact on an iPad (unless of course, we’re post-electric, heh heh heh), but the way in which we remember is so particular to the individual, the results so quirky and unpredictable.
The unintelligible is ever alluring to Washburn. She has a way of respecting mis-speak and inaccuracy, dancing around and framing it in her work in a way that at once intrigues and provokes. Take her 2004 play, The Ladies, also a Civilians collaboration, in which she brings together four dictators’ wives (Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceaușescu, Eva Perón, and Madame Mao). In the generation of this play, she and director Anne Kaufmann asked each of their actresses to quickly read a short biography of each woman, and then recall it in a terrifyingly brief period of time. The verbatim results are woven into her play, but they also serve as a launch point for Washburn’s own deftly juxtaposed dialogue.
From The Ladies:
LADY (NINA)Here. We have these biscuits.
LADY (STRIAR)I like what you’ve done with your infrastructure.
LADY (NINA)Thank you. Would you like to try on my lipstick? I think the shade would be more flattering on you than it is on me. If it looks better on you then you can keep it.
LADY (STRIAR)Thank you. I like these biscuits.
LADY (NINA)Thank you. They are made from the people. (Mini beat.) Did I say that correctly?
IMELDA sings from offstage
Or, take her play The Internationalist, the inaugural production of the lauded, now imploded theater collective 13P, subsequently produced Off-Broadway by the Vineyard Theater. In this, Washburn creates a whole new language, to mimic the bewilderment of being an American on business in a strange land. In doing so, she somehow captures how language functions beyond precise words and meanings. She often does so with a wonderful coyness:
From The Internationalist:
LOWELLHmmm. And is that interesting here, to be foreign?
(Sara laughs.)You know, the accent, is that mysterious.
SARABut we’re speaking English so you don’t have an accent. If you were trying to speak my language—people are always more appealing when they’re unintelligible.
(He starts to laugh.)
LOWELL(He thinks it’s an artful mispeak.)That’s witty.
SARAYes, I know.
(She calls out)yald ain tant amora koi psam psitay ald imitricikts dor ald tioforian korim tic. Seldis umicktrig orit inial tse hambit orderist il rarin di dam tid norris dimit ona alagoric toyfay int timit oil ald harrick mono borin tam pist i sawan taiya t’noiding lola ka dita hiya fimolla naid he tiad ald terrim kimal doi pimmick ori horind dalna imp porrie gala hondick tibald timiharu. Ai be a toman idat tora abala mot.
(She looks back at him.)I ordered us drinks.
Visions of the apocalypse are like visions of utopia—they reflect the waking reality, sleeping fears, and active fantasies of the creator. In this case, that would be Washburn. Leave it to a playwright to envision the post-apocalyptic world as a place where theater returns to the center of culture: a hearth around which people can gather and indulge in their fears in the safety of a community. (Washburn is no stranger to the Greek drama and its function—her “transadaption” of Orestes, like Mr. Burns, debuted in Washington, D.C., in 2010.)
In Act Two of Mr. Burns, which takes place seven years after Armageddon, or rather seven years into the “post-electric” age, when all technology has failed, the players from Act One gather together to stage episodes of The Simpsons for live audiences, performing live commercials and competing with other theatrical troupes for original material. And in Act Three, set 75 years later, the telling of The Simpsons has morphed into “a hybrid form which draws from music videos as well as musicals,” explains Washburn: “I think when a people are trying to tell stories which trouble them they first reach for music.”
I ask Washburn about how having Bart as the protagonist of her ultimate retelling of the “Cape Feare” episode influences the story. “In the movies it’s Gregory Peck/Nick Nolte who is the target, Mitchum/DeNiro tries to destroy his family in order to make him feel powerless; it’s his masculine competence, which the movie feels is the very core of his being, which is really under attack,” says Washburn. “In the series Bart is the protagonist and it’s very much about authority figures not taking his fears seriously, not being able to protect him; he isn’t able to take Sideshow Bob on directly; he survives by stalling him until he can be rescued, almost by accident, by the Springfield police department.”
Without giving away too much, how does the play’s final rendition of the episode vary from the originals? “The change in the play is that it’s a world where there is no Springfield police department,” she says. “In the Cape Fear movies the father is able to protect his family when he throws aside his civilized values and abilities, and engages the villain on his own primal terms; Bart can’t take this villain on; in some ways the play is about what strategies you develop in a world where you are truly helpless.”
From Act Two, Mr. Burns:
QUINCYI hear they’ve got a stash of lithiums, and 10 of those super powerful camping flashlights, and they’re going to do a dusk to dark showing of “A Streetcar Named Marge,” with a spotlight finale at the end.
A bit of a pause.
JENNYThey can’t keep that up for long.
MARIALong enough though, right?
MATTIt still kills me they’ve got “Streetcar.”
QUINCYOur commercials are excellent though.
MARIAOur commercials are great.
The N.Y.C. premiere of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, directed by Steve Cosson, music by Michael Friedman, runs August 23 - October 6 on the Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street, Manhattan). Featuring Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer R. Morris, Colleen Werthmann, and Sam Breslin Wright. For tickets and futher info, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.
EMILY DEVOTI is a playwright and the Theater Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. Her play The Upstart will be presented by the Irish Arts Center on September 11 at 6 P.M. To reserve (free) tickets, visit: www.irishartscenter.org/literature/playworks or call 866-811-4111.