Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson won a Pulitzer Prize before opening on Broadway, an honor that is indicative of the almost unanimous praise critics showered upon the play. Yet the drama still attracted its fair share of negative criticism, some of which came from privileged onlookers who had witnessed its...

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August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson won a Pulitzer Prize before opening on Broadway, an honor that is indicative of the almost unanimous praise critics showered upon the play. Yet the drama still attracted its fair share of negative criticism, some of which came from privileged onlookers who had witnessed its transformation over three years of extensive workshopping. Wth the exception of these few hostile voices, however, most critics greeted the play with strong applause.

William A. Henry III, writing for Time, stated that the play was Wilson’s ‘‘richest yet,’’ a sentiment echoed by many other critics, including the New York Post’s Clive Barnes, who called it ‘‘the fourth, best, and most immediate in the series of plays exploring the Afro-American experience during this century.’’ However, one or two critics failed to join this chorus of approval. Robert Brustein, a prominent director and reviewer for the New Republic, issued a damning attack of the play, arguing in detail that it was ‘‘the most poorly composed of Wilson’s four produced works.’’ John Simon, writing in New York, joined Brustein when he complained that the play was an unwieldy mixture of farce, drama, and Broadway musical. Simon’s attack was deemed by many as unwarranted, since laughter and tragedy walk hand in hand in many of the great tragedies (such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth).

Henry, in his largely positive review of the play, did acknowledge that Wilson had blurred genre boundaries by mixing tales of the supernatural with ‘‘kitchen-sink realism.’’ This, in fact, was an element of the play to which many critics had a mixed response. Was it necessary, they asked, to hear the sound of a toilet flushing off-stage, or to watch Berniece washing with ‘‘real’’ water in a sink? Wilson’s decision to mix genres irritated Brustein and Simon in particular: Brustein called the supernaturalism ‘‘ludicrous’’ and ‘‘forced,’’ while Simon asked, ‘‘why, in this day and age, bring in ghosts at all?’’

Looking at the larger critical picture, however, these critics seemed to have missed the point: Wilson’s mixing of genres is natural for a playwright who seeks to represent dual cultural traditions in one form and on one stage, and his inclusion of a supernatural sub-plot reflects African-American culture in the 1930s, not white American culture in the 1980s. Indeed, Michael Morales, in May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, argued that the supernatural element of the play is crucial to Wilson’s representation of African-American history.

Many critics were fascinated, and rightly so, by the play’s central symbol, the piano. Barnes called the musical instrument ‘‘a living symbol of the family’s past—its slavery and its escape, its blood and its tears. . . . The piano is . . . an heirloom of tragic memory and meaning.’’ Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, discussed the piano’s symbolism in detail. He emphasized the instrument’s bountiful but painful heritage: ‘‘Sculptured into its rich wood are totemic human figures whose knifedrawn features suggest both the pride of African culture and the grotesque scars of slavery.’’ ‘‘The siblings at center stage’’ inherit both ‘‘the pride and scars,’’ and the piano is their key to their reconciliation with their family history and their identity as African-Americans. Time’s Henry concluded his evaluation of the play by stating, simply and powerfully, ‘‘the musical instrument of the title is the most potent symbol in American drama since Laura Wingfield’s glass menagerie’’—a reference to Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie.

The most negative criticism came from critics who suggested that Wilson’s success depended on his ability ‘‘to stimulate the guilt glands of liberal white audiences.’’ The New Republic’s Brustein dismissed Wilson’s previous plays and added that he found little ‘‘power or poetry’’ in The Piano Lesson. Brustein felt that any comparisons between Wilson and Shakespeare or O’Neill were ridiculous. Wilson had ‘‘limited himself’’ to exploring ‘‘the black experience’’ whereas O’Neill ‘‘wrote about the human experience.’’

Not satisfied with producing this nonsensical and rather insulting distinction between general human experience and black experience, Brustein continued in a similar vein: ‘‘Still, enough radical vapor floats over the bourgeois bolster and upholstered couches [of the play] to stimulate the guilt glands of liberal white audiences. Unable to reform the past, we sometimes pay for the sins of history and our society through artistic reparations in a cultural equivalent of affirmative action.’’ Brustein’s statements suggest, falsely, that white audiences lack the ability to appreciate artistic representations of experience other than their own and also ignore the black audience attending Wilson’s plays; moreover, his statements suggest that he has misinterpreted the reconciliatory message of the play’s ending.

Simon displayed a similar hostility to Wilson’s success in his review of the play. He attacked it for having too many sub-plots, for mixing genres, and for being repetitive: ‘‘it is sincere but overcrowded, overzealous, and, without quite knowing where it is headed, repeats everything three or four times.’’ But he saved his most damning criticism for his last lines. Simon argued that the play was essentially a product of ‘‘two years of testing and rewriting at five leading university and commercial theaters’’: in short, that it owed as much to the skills of professional theatre craftspeople as it did to Wilson himself. ‘‘Less favored, nonminority practitioners,’’ he claimed, would not have enjoyed such help.

Simon and Brustein’s attacks on Wilson’s talent and on the merits of The Piano Lesson are not typical of the overall criticism of the play, but they do represent the kinds of criticism, illogical though they may seem, that Wilson, as an African-American playwright writing about African-American experience, has had to face. Most critics, however, are not encumbered by such blinkers. They can appreciate that Wilson, far from wanting to stick to strict definitions of what constitutes a ‘‘proper’’ realist play or ‘‘real’’ human experience, is an artist interested in inventing new forms and voices as much as he is in connecting to voices and traditions from the past.

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