THE END, whether it is near or not, is certainly upon us: The contemporary American imagination is seized by the terror that we—here, now—are civilization’s last sigh. Film, television, and literature are of course the most prolific purveyors of sensational apocalyptic visions, offering an array of endings to suit every demographic. (It is of no comfort to observe that in our politically fractured, post-Empire America, one of the few unifying sentiments is an impending sense of doom.) We may be besieged by flesh-eating zombies, obliterated by a rogue asteroid, enslaved by alien invaders, wiped out by a pandemic, or meet our maker by way of an as yet unimagined horror: All remains to be seen. In Susan Sontag’s essay on science fiction, “The Imagination of Disaster,” she remarks that its narratives reflect “the deepest anxieties about contemporary existence.” Noting as well the narcissism that propels a culture to project itself as the final word, perhaps the apocalypse—with its punitive destruction of all that has come before, and its future of no future—can also be read as an anxious vision, a tantrum of sorts, of a society suffering from a systemic lack of imagination?
This and other questions lurk inside of Anne Washburn’s inspired and invigorating tale of post-apocalypse America, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, currently in production at Playwrights Horizons under the astute direction of Steve Cosson, and performed by the gifted ensemble of Matthew Maher, Colleen Werthmann, Sam Breslin Wright, Susannah Flood, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer R. Morris, Gibson Frazier, and Nedra McClyde. Washburn summons an eschatological vision as an occasion to ask (and I quote), “What would happen to a pop culture narrative pushed past the fall of civilization?” In answer, she weaves a resonant and richly layered play for our post-appropriation era, one brimming with ideas about all the ways in which we Americans write our own fate.
The play opens on a group of five people gathered around a fire on an autumn evening, some of whom pass the time trying to recall the beats and lines of The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare” (1993). As we learn, the episode follows the story of Sideshow Bob as he tries to kill Bart, and is a parody of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), which is itself a remake of the original 1962 film directed by J. Lee Thompson (and, I might add, based on a novel by John D. MacDonald). They take turns offering up what they remember, filling in the gaps of the story and doing imprecise impressions of Mr. Burns’s signature “Excellent,” until a noise is heard, guns are drawn, and what we thought was just Gen X patter—nostalgic if entertaining filler—is revealed to be a lifeline holding this group together in the aftermath of a pandemic.
In the second act, which takes place seven years later, we return to our group of survivors, now a touring theater company entertaining ravaged America with a staged version of “Cape Feare” as well as other episodes of The Simpsons complete with live commercials and a musical medley titled, “Chart Hits.” (It has to be said that Michael Friedman’s deft musical mashups are pure joy.) The episodes they perform have been cobbled together from memory—theirs, as well as those they buy from the general public, oral history evolved into crowdsourcing. For the final act, Washburn whisks us seventy-five years into the future to see the terrible but triumphant end to their little play.
One of the work’s many achievements is the unbalancing act Washburn sustains throughout. As an example, she pointedly refuses the high culture / lowbrow ranking that would typically cripple the power of such an appropriation. When one of the troupe members (Susannah) suggests that they amp the realism in the play of “Cape Feare,” her colleague Quincy reminds her, “This is a cartoon. That’s what we’re doing. A cartoon.” Their disagreement continues: “We have an opportunity here to provide meaning,” Susannah explains, to which Quincy, exasperated and exhausted, replies, “Things aren’t funny when they’re true, they’re awful. Meaning is everywhere. We get Meaning for free, whether we like it or not. Meaningless Entertainment, on the other hand, is actually really hard.”
The sly contradiction of a play as full of meaning and as entertaining as Mr. Burns is that as we delight in tracking the clever evolution of “Cape Feare” to survive beyond the world of its original production, we simultaneously applaud the failure of humanity to produce a pioneering vision for itself—to tell itself a new story. Rather, it’s as though we’re bearing witness to the animation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together from exhumed bits and parts to create a wobbly life out of old materials. Walking along Forty-Second Street to get to the theater in a (nearly) post-Bloomberg New York, one is bombarded by signs blazing on behalf of revivals, rehashes, and remakes. Such is our dispiriting time, when so much of American culture seems a cannibalization of itself. In this landscape, Mr. Burns is welcome reassurance that all the talk about the end of culture might only be causing unnecessary anxiety—an irrational fear that those in the future will finally dismiss as a story we told ourselves once upon a time.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play runs through Sunday, October 20th at Playwrights Horizons.
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.