In The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, in what ways do different characters' attitudes toward the piano reveal their feelings about the past?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The attitude towards the piano becomes the central issue of the play.  Wilson constructs the characters to represent the thematic understanding of a painful past and its connection to an uncertain present and future.  On one hand, Boy Willie Charles' attitude towards the piano is one of utility.  He believes that it can and should be sold as it will have material value in the present tense.  He understands the need to operate within the "here" and "now."  History and the experience of consciousness is seen in a contingent condition.  There is little else that can be explored in this light.  Even his warning to Berniece at the end reflects something of the temporal lens with which he views both the piano and being, in general:

Hey Berniece . . . if you and Maretha don’t keep playing on that piano . . . ain’t no telling . . . me and Sutter both liable to be back.

For Boy Willie, the piano's value has an eternally present tense value.  Even after the mystical experience and climax of the drama, his words still construct a reality where the utility of the present is foremost in his own mind.

This attitude of pragmatism is not seen in Berniece.  She operates in a much more complex understanding of the piano.  She recognizes it as more than simple an object of present tense value.  She does not see it in a contingent frame of reference.  She is willing to concede that it has power and relevance beyond the temporal.  Yet, she struggles to define what this exactly is.  In this, she demonstrates a condition of confusion and apprehension about what was and what can be.  The piano is something of value, but its pain and the narrative of suffering embedded within it prevents her from fully embracing it.  Only at the end, when she recognizes that she must confront the demons and pain of her past in order to put it to rest in the hopes of a better present and future, does the piano become something that links past, present, and future for her.  Berniece's willingness to confront the past and understand it in order for a condition of redemption is representative of how the past has to be seen in the context of what is and what can be.  In this, Wilson constructs Berniece's character to represent the ambiguity and complexity towards a past of painful experiences.


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