11.07.2019 in Literature

The Piano Lesson

The Piano lesson, a play by August Wilson (a renowned African American playwright) richly explores the black cultural experiences. The play background is set up in Pittsburg during the Great Depression of 1936. Central to the play is an ancient piano placed in Doaker Charles house.  Doaker is a 47 year old rail-road cook living with his niece Berniece and Berniece’s daughter Maretha. As the play begins, Berniece’s brother Boy Willie and his friend Lymon arrive in the weird morning hours from Mississippi. Mississippi is in the South where Charles family worked as slaves before they moved to Pittsburg in the North. The main motive of the visit is to take the ancient family piano for sale. Boy Willie intends to use the money to purchase Sutter’s land.

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Boy Willie’ move to take the piano rekindles the ancient memories of slavery. Berniece is moved to tears when she remembers how her grandmother was sold as a slave in exchange for the piano.  Act II scene 5, (centre of focus in this essay) starts with bitter exchange of words between Berniece and Boy Willie. Berniece is forced to go for a pistol to stop Boy Willie from moving the piano. At this point, a Christian who had been invited to bless the house arrives with the bible. Boy Wining, a family member also arrives drunk and insists on playing the piano. It is at this point that Sutter’s ghost visits the house. Boy Willie attempts to fight Sutter’s ghost but in vain as the ghost fights back. Aware of the danger that her brother is in, Berniece plays the piano while invoking her ancestral spirits. What follows is the approaching sound of train which repulses Sutter’s ghost. This is a symbolic show of the Ghost of the Yellow Dog defeating the White Ghost. Boy Willie having witnessed this decides not to sell the piano.  He instructs Berniece and Maretha to continue playing the piano as he leaves for the next train to the South.


Act II Scene 5 of the play commences with similar stalemate that is demonstrated at the beginning of the play. Throughout the play to the last scene, Wilson has done little development to capture the attention of the audiences. The piano, which has raised stakes among the characters, is still on its original position. In order to demonstrate the strength of the piano as the central player in the drama, a change in the setting of the piano is recommended. A real fight for the piano is only demonstrated by violent struggle for the piano by the two warring parties. Doaker being the owner of the house and the father figure is supposed to guard the piano than taking a neutral position in the fight for the piano. 

The major themes demonstrated by this play are black music, migration, spirits, identity and history. The arrangement of the stage should therefore be in a manner that builds these themes. A number of August Wilson critics have cited the length of the play as one of the issues that makes the play ineffective. John Simon (New York) complained that the long duration of the play renders it unclear to the audiences. Scene 5 can be simplified by shortening its duration and reducing the number of characters.

What is the significance of incorporating the supernatural elements in the play? As much as the play depicts the ancient happenings, its performance in the late 20th century renders use of spirits backward. If the intended use of the spirits is to demonstrate how the African American has overcome racism, it is better demonstrated on stage through dialogue. Critics such as Robert Brustein (The lesson of ‘The Piano Lesson’ Publication) reveal that fight against racism is not well demonstrated in the play by use of ghosts. Well organized arguments among the characters could be effective in exposing this issue.  According to Robert, the appearance of ghosts and spirits in any realistic play simply signifies the incapability of the director to handle the material. In order to make the play interesting and easy to grasp, the number of sub plots in the play should be reduced.  Over repetition witnessed in scene 5 contributes to unnecessary length of the play. 

Wilson attempts to demonstrate that in African American community, no one is meant to fight sole battles.  In scene five, there is the presence of the entire family to prove this point.  The family fiercely fights Sutter’s ghost until they win the battle.  The family members in form of ghosts are a clear demonstration of the regard for the individual roots. Failure to present Sutter’s ghost and his family makes the play to fall short of the intended message. The best stage play could have had Sutter’s ghost and the family as well to demonstrate how community spirit can defeat any obstacle on its way. The plurality of the Sutter’s ghost is meant to demonstrate the magnitude of obstacle faced by the African Americans.

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