Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 372
August Wilson’s play Seven Guitars, set in 1948, is part of the playwright’s Pittsburgh Cycle, which explores African American life in Pittsburgh decade by decade.
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The play is structured within the frame of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton’s funeral, which opens and closes the drama. The bulk of the story is told as a flashback to a few weeks earlier. Floyd has just returned from serving a 90-day jail sentence he received right after returning to Pittsburgh from Chicago. He has recorded a hit record and wants to take his girlfriend Vera back to Chicago with him. He is held back by his inability to purchase his guitar back from a pawn shop. In a dark scene that foreshadows Floyd’s death, a rooster crows, and Hedley describes to the group of friends in the yard that he sees roosters as similar to black men in Chicago. Then, he gets the rooster and kills it in front of everyone.
In Act 2, it is a few days later, and Ruby (the niece of Louise, Vera’s upstairs neighbor) visits with Hedley while he makes chicken sandwiches in the yard. Ruby is in Pittsburgh because she is pregnant. Her boyfriend is in prison for killing another man he thought she was involved with. Hedley sings a song by Buddy Bolden. He reveals that his father told him in a dream that this famous trumpet player would bring him money to buy a plantation.
Meanwhile, Floyd has a few unsuccessful attempts to get back his guitar from the pawn shop but is determined to get it back and make it to Chicago. The next evening, Floyd buries something in the yard and shows Vera new things he has purchased. She agrees to marry him and go to Chicago. The group of friends read about a robbery that is later revealed to have been carried out by Floyd. When Hedley sees Floyd with his money, he believes it is Buddy there to give him the money his father promised. When Floyd refuses to hand over the money, Hedley kills him, cutting his throat with a machete.
The play closes back at Floyd’s funeral. Those present do not know it is Hedley who killed their friend.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
The play opens with five friends—Canewell, Vera, Red Carter, Hedley, and Louise—gathered in the backyard of a Pittsburgh house. They have just returned from the cemetery where they paid their final respects to their friend Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, mysteriously murdered at thirty-five. It is 1948.
Ironically, his death occurs at precisely the time that his first blues records is fast becoming a hit. The scene is somber until Louise, Floyd’s landlady, erupts with a ribald song, which imparts a joviality to what had been a sad event.
As the play develops, Floyd’s assembled friends recount memories of him and, in a series of flashbacks through which much of the play is revealed, elements of their lives and of Floyd’s are presented and assessed.
Some of the people who attended the funeral swear that they saw angels at the cemetery. Vera insists that she saw six angels, one for each of the mourners and one for Floyd. Louise doubts the presence of angels at Floyd’s funeral, but hers is a minority opinion.
Wilson uses the angels to represent the roles that Floyd’s friends played in his life and the role Floyd played in the lives of his friends who are assembled in his memory. Wilson points to the exploitation that African Americans suffer at the hands of white society. Floyd has been exploited, but now that success is palpable, he will not be alive to enjoy it.
Part of the success of Seven Guitars is attributable to Wilson’s intimate knowledge and understanding of African American society. In one of the flashbacks, Wilson reveals to the audience that Vera and Floyd were once lovers but that their romance was tempestuous. Floyd, in his frequent trips to Chicago, had become involved with Pearl Brown, the knowledge of which drives a wedge between him and Vera.
Floyd attempts to remove this wedge by sending Vera a love letter. Not trusting himself to write a sufficiently beguiling letter to her, however, he turns to a friend at the workhouse who specializes in writing letters for others. He pays him fifty cents to produce a letter that he hopes will bring about a reconciliation with Vera.
Floyd, who has been in the workhouse, has kept records of what will be owed him upon his release for the work he did there. He hopes to start a new life with the paltry sum that he is owed. He dreams of getting out of pawn the electric guitar that he hocked earlier. Upon his release, he finds that the documentation he needs to receive what is due him has disappeared and that the payment date to redeem his guitar has passed.
Floyd’s situation is comparable to that of playwright Jonathan Larson, whose play Rent (1996), having been rejected by several producers, was finally accepted for a production at a 150-seat Off-Broadway theater. During rehearsals, Larson complained of chest pains and, twenty-four hours before Rent’s premiere, died of an aortic aneurysm. His play was highly successful and was moved to Broadway for a long run. Larson’s situation was in the forefront of Wilson’s mind as he wrote Seven Guitars.