Is it tragic that tens of millions of people’s entire conception of Gilbert & Sullivan comes from a minute or so of silliness on a Simpsons episode? Or is it laudable that The Simpsons, once our culture’s smartest pop phenomenon, at least managed to set down even that much of “For He Is an Englishman” into the junkshop museum that is the American rerun? It’s from such cultural-studies quandaries that the daring, marvelous, meta-apocalyptic comedy/drama/musical/whatnot Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play springs forth.
Here’s an end-times tale that at first seems simple, familiar, but distinguished with a compelling naturalism rare for such pulpy material: Life in America as we know it has ended, millions have died, and scrappy bands of survivors gather together and work to keep the pilot light of our society from snuffing out. As the show—a triumph written by Anne Washburn and directed by Steve Cosson—opens, we see weary, ragged Americans sitting around a campfire, sharing their stories. Except the story is not their own—it’s an episode of The Simpsons, which Matt (Matthew Maher), Jenny (Jennifer R. Morris), and Susannah (Susannah Flood) are attempting to recall, beat for beat and joke for joke, from memory. Getting it right—and laughing again—means the world to them.
Before heading out to the Playwrights Horizon Theatre, it’s not a bad idea to watch that episode, the one where Sideshow Bob attempts to gut Bart Simpson on a houseboat but gets distracted by Bart’s invitation to sing the complete score of The H.M.S. Pinafore. (“I shall send you to heaven before I send you to hell!” Bob vows.) But you don’t have to—although you will miss what exactly is so delightful about the appearance of a couple of prop rakes.
The only thing you have to know, beforehand, is that any given episode of The Simpsons‘ first eight or so seasons has been rewatched and quoted with such fervor so many times by so many people that they could, unlike Friends or Cheers or M*A*S*H, become some talismanic artifact whose specifics could be re-constructed with a feat of collective memory. Hell, on the subscription card for the late, great Might magazine, back in the late 1990s, one perk readers could purchase was the chance to reminiscence about favorite Simpsons moments with Might interns, most of whom now run U.S. publishing.
What’s fascinating here is not the show that the characters are remembering but all the earlier culture that was mashed into that show—those scraps of Gilbert & Sullivan, the musical score of Cape Fear the movie that Simpsons episode was parodying, the “Love” and “Hate” tattooed onto the knuckles of Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. Sometimes these prove elusive, or come out a little off. But once the details are out in the air, agreed upon by the group, they become the new reality—the same way that your memory of an experience is more true to you than the experience itself. The ritualized TV talk around that campfire quickly accumulates into something resembling a new oral story culture. All this is performed with bull-session artlessness—many cast members have been with the show since its early, experimental beginnings, when Washburn set them to the task, in 2008, of trying to remember their favorite Simpsons episode.
Getting any more specific would spoil some of the show’s surprises. Its very shape is fascinating and hilarious—and best seen without advance knowledge. So, consider yourself warned: From here on out, I’ll be discussing everything that comes after that campfire scene.
With each of its three acts, Mr. Burns grows grander and surges forward in time. The second, set seven years after the first, concerns a theater troupe in this ravaged future rehearsing their production of that same Simpsons episode. Here, the longing for shared experience has been fully formalized. The troupe—all energetic multi-talents, singing, dancing, and playing both Simpsons and survivors—now travels about performing a small repertory of episodes, complete with ad breaks, a capella medleys of pre-crash pop hits, and prop rakes strewn about the set for Sideshow Bob to step on. (That one gag, on the original show, inspired a full Harper’s essay from Charles Bock last year.)
Like Might imagined, Simpsons lines have become something like currency, and the troupe pays crowd members who can chip in with a lost one-liner. The more accurate the show, the better, as other troupes are working the same nostalgia circuit. What we see of the show is funny and somewhat heartbreaking: We get a not-quite-right comedy scene of Homer failing to apprehend his new witness-protection name; we see a long commercial-like scene where the troupe tantalizes its audience with memories of Chablis, showers, and Diet Coke. “The point of a commercial is to create a reality which is welcoming, not challenging,” the onstage director explains. Life outside is punishing: Food is scarce, nuclear plants have melted down, and people, we hear, are getting desperate, But actors are still actors—one, Gibson (Gibson Frazier), carps that the current repertoire only has one show in which he gets to play his best role, Mr. Burns.
That complaint flowers in the spectacular third act, set 75 years later. Washburn, Cosson, and composer Michael Friedman have imagined a full-fledged futurist theater where the Simpsons have become something like commedia dell’arte characters, masked stock types singing and dancing in an absurd and beautiful hip-hop/operetta mash-up of Gilbert & Sullivan, pop songs from the second act, the score of Cape Fear, the history of the apocalypse, and even stray remarks from characters way back in that campfire scene. The odd lark of a Fox TV comedy ending with snatches of The H.M.S. Pinafore here becomes the basis for an entire theatrical tradition.
This conclusion is all performance, the staged finale of a late-21st-century production of that Simpsons episode, with Bart trussed up on that houseboat and Sideshow Bob nowhere around—time and cultural need have revised the story. Instead, the TV family faces an even greater villain. Stranger still, they’ve survived a shift in genre—this is violent melodrama, tinged with Jacobean revenge tragedy and the kind of living-with-loss self-help narratives that would resonate in a population that has managed to continue after the world was broken.
While there are laughs, the spirit of this lengthy, challenging, dazzling ending is neither comic anarchy nor postmodern gamesmanship. Instead, with songs of horror and resilience, Washburn reminds us of the ways stories survive and adapt with us, how their specifics and lessons change to the society that tells them, how their meaning is inconstant but our need for that meaning, whatever it happens to be at a given time, is pure and permanent. Over the course of Mr. Burns, these pop memories—already borrowed from earlier pop memories, the original Cape Fear and its 1991 remake—become occasions for group remembrance, then theater and lingua franca, and at last ritualized art both fresh and ancient but always engaged with its age’s great moral questions and—not incidentally—demonstrates the power and primacy of theater itself. Maybe, long before Sophocles, Oedipus started as a dirty joke.
The stories we tell ourselves, the jokes we repeat, the TV in which we pickle—all that shapes us, the show insists, and none of it need be the dead end we might fear. From hell, Mr. Burns sends us to heaven.