Ann WashBurn’s “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play”

The world has ended. No one knows why. Bodies line the streets. Cities are not safe, or have burned. Then a final blow to civilisation: the electrical grids fail. As the power goes out and the world slips into darkness, so too the future of humanity…

A Post Apocalypse world is dark, bloody, and terrifying. It is not funny. What are the Simpsons doing here?

Like this:

act 1

6 mostly-strangers sit around a campfire. They are not starving. They appear to have shelter. And what happens to human beings when they have food to eat and a place to sleep? They get bored. If you’re fed and have somewhere to sleep, try just sitting for a day doing nothing. Right? Boring.

We’re informed with a sign at the beginning of the play the time is “3 months after”. And while we are never told explicitly after what, it seems the new world is measuring day 0 from the moment the lights went out. And these┬ástrangers, like humans have done since we climbed down from the trees in Africa, are telling each other stories to pass the time. In particular, they are reconstructing a Simpsons episode, “Cape Feare” (Season 5, Episode 2). If you haven’t already seen it, watch this episode before seeing the play.

The Simpson recreation is interrupted by an outsider. But, unlike most TV dramas, he turns out to be no threat, just another person lost at the end of the world. He even helps the group remember some lines from the show.

Breaking up the cooperative effort to recount the episode scene by scene, line by line, the darkness of their new world creeps into the story, breaking the narrative and slipping from laughter of a remembered past to a future where the diesel generators of nuclear power plants are finally running out of fuel, and the meltdowns are starting*. A fear as palpable as radiation is undetectable is the undercurrent of the first act, which seems to be over as soon as it begins. Such as it is, it seems, with all good entertainment.

act 2

A sign announces “7 months later.” Our Simpson’s reenact-ors have become something like a travelling theatre troop, in competition with other groups also putting on Simpsons shows. They purchase lines and bits of plot from people they meet, and a kind of copyright system has developed where troops have to purchase all the lines and plots of an episode before they can play it, at which point it becomes their property. Instead of merely re-telling an episode, the characters act it out live, throwing in dance-filled commercials between the Simpson episode acts. But the spectre of radiation and the violence of the remains of a society coming apart (no doubt what could be scavenged at this point has been scavenged and resources are becoming scarce). Paranoia and fear of ever-more desperate people bring the re-enactors to question if they should even be doing what they are doing. One of them has a panic attack, wondering if a sore throat and headache are signs of radiation poisoning. Act 2 ends in a sudden attack: muzzle-flashes and gunfire and screams turn to silence and darkness…

act 3

The sign announces “83 years” later. Before us is a modern version of a very ancient play, the Greek Tragedy. Actors don masks. The Simpsons have been elevated to Gods, and Mr. Burns, the maniacal tyrant whose poorly-run nuclear power plant cast a constant shadow over the city of Springfield, has been elevated to a God, casting a shadow over the world.

The last act is mesmerizing. If you know anything about ancient Greek tragedy you will see it here. The chorus. The everyman. The hope. The Simpsons all die. Everyone but Bart. But in the end his foibles become his strengths. The darkness is defeated. Burns is cast out. And humanity goes on.

See this play.

 

*Whenever I watch post-apocalyptic movies or tv programs, or read post-apocalyptic books, I hear a voice in the back of my head, like that grandmother in the Wendy’s commercial from the 80s: “Where’s the radiation?”. Every. Single. Nuclear. Reactor. Goes. BOOM. Every one of them melts down weeks after the power goes out. That’s a fact, Jack. Kudos to the Ann Washburn for making this point.

Nuclear reactor sites in the US

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