‘As a post-apocalyptic imagining of a US “bombed back to the Stone Age” by its own energy industry, it expresses the dread that pierced the brittle armour of western invulnerability when the proxy wars finally came home’: Alison Croggon on Lightning Jar’s Mr Burns
When Anne Washburn wrote Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play in 2012, she said it was her response to 9/11. 2012 already seems like another age, let alone the 2001 attack: over the past two decades, events seem to have accelerated into an on-rushing sense of doom. But it’s fair to say that 9/11 was a hinge, a palpable quake in global politics that shifted the tectonic plates. And we’re still feeling the aftershocks.
It’s kind of fascinating to watch this play now. It has finally, courtesy of Lightning Jar, an enterprising independent theatre that specialises in classy productions of international plays that are overlooked by the main stage theatres, made its way to Melbourne. Perhaps we ought to be grateful that Mr Burns wasn’t picked up by the MTC, despite successful seasons in Adelaide and Sydney: under John Kachoyan’s direction, Lightning Jar gives us a well-judged and lucid production that winds up to a superb third act.
How precisely is Mr Burns a response to 9/11? I guess, as a post-apocalyptic imagining of a US “bombed back to the Stone Age” (as US hawks were fond of saying about Iraq) by its own energy industry, it expresses the dread that pierced the brittle armour of western invulnerability when the proxy wars finally came home. Through its three acts, we follow the evolution of storytelling after a holocaust that’s caused when all the nuclear power plants in the US blow up in a chain reaction, wiping out most of the population. As the title suggests, the central story is The Simpsons; specifically the classic Cape Feare episode from season 5.
It’s a clever set up, because, like Bugs Bunny before it, the Simpsons is packed with allusions to popular and high culture: an entire generation was introduced to figures like Tennessee Williams, Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman through Simpsons parodies. This episode, for example, references Cape Fear itself, Charles Laughton’s groundbreaking film The Night of the Hunter and Gilbert and Sullivan, all of which get wound through the play’s transformations.
In the first act, eight survivors gather around a camp fire weeks after the original disaster and, in order to comfort themselves and pass the time, collectively attempt to recall the details of the episode. In the second act, seven years later, they have become a troupe of travelling players, touring the country with their theatrical recaps of Simpsons episodes, popular songs and advertisements from a vanished US. The first two acts are basically set ups for the tour de force of act three, 75 years later, in which the bare bones of Sideshow Bob’s pursuit of Bart is transformed into a kind of tragic opera, a cross between classical Greek theatre and a morality play.
Mr Burns is, in many ways, a specifically US play (but as we’re effectively a US colony, Australians don’t have any trouble understanding it). For one thing, as a play about the mechanisms of storytelling, it has no references outside its own culture: there’s no sense of Black or Native American stories in this world, let alone from anywhere else. If it’s a response to 9/11, it’s a parable about how the US blew itself up: there’s nothing that imagines how the event played through and changed global relations, no references to the xenophobia and racism that drove (and drives) so much of what went before and after.
The Simpsons itself is a dark parody of the classic family sitcom, in which the idealised nuclear family encounters various problems that are always resolved through wise paternalistic intervention. Homer himself – whom Washburn consciously invokes as an avatar of his classical Greek namesake – is a pisstake of the American patriarch, selfish, infantile and indolent. The conceit of its recreation in Mr Burns – especially in the first two acts – is primarily an act of nostalgia. Paradoxically, it’s an attempt to recapture something that is forever gone and which, more complexly, never existed in the first place; an abiding notion of American innocence.
In the second act, the travelling performers recreate middle-class US life through low-tech performance. Watching in 2019, it struck me how the apocalyptic imagination has shifted to the accelerating reality of climate change, which has pushed implacably into motion by a single generation of carefree materialism. The unquestioned nostalgia for this materialism in this post-electricity age almost shocked me. Part of me thought, even now, human beings have learned nothing…and maybe that’s the truth.
The first two acts were hard going for me. The writing is good in the detail, with swift and clear characterisations and –importantly – skilful worldbuilding; but it’s hampered by longwinded dramaturgy. Too many scenes or moments are simply overwritten, circling around the same idea long after we’ve already got the picture, which slows everything down. However, the short third act makes up for any previous ennui: it’s superbly and surprisingly rendered.
The real point of this show is about how storytelling evolves; the use of The Simpsons is almost incidental. We watch as archetypal elements, passed on through oral tradition, transform into hieratic, even sacred, public commemorations of important communal stories. Lightning Jar’s high quality production is intelligently directed and performed, and features a brilliant ensemble cast. As skilled singers, they perfectly render Michael Friedman’s witty score, which is as full of allusions as the play itself. It’s hard to pick standouts, but Dylan Watson is particularly enjoyable to watch.
Sophie Woodward’s dystopian DIY design, revealed by Richard Vabre’s post-electric lighting design, is particularly well suited to the sense of found space at fortyfivedownstairs. As it’s part of the 2019 VCE Drama playlist, on the night I went the theatre was packed to the rafters with teenagers, who were inexorably drawn in through the first two acts to full-on enthusiasm in the final act. They were an excellent audience to watch this show with, electrifying the energy in this low-tech space. Its current season is sold out, but fortyfivedownstairs has just announced a return season in May. Hop to it!