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The Piano Lesson

August Wilson

Act III, Scenes 3 and 4

Act II, Scenes 1 and 2

Act II, Scene 5

Summary

Scene 3

Several hours later, Boy Willie enters the darkened house with Grace, a local girl he picked up, in tow. Though the darkness and lack of a bed make Grace reluctant to stay, they begin to kiss on the couch. In their anxiety, they knock over a lamp. Berniece comes down the stairs and orders them out. Unwilling to stay where she is not wanted, Grace takes Willie back to her own flat.

As Berniece is making tea, there is a knock at the door. Lymon has returned looking for Willie. He tried to go to a picture show with Grace's friend, Dolly, but ended up leaving her after she had a few drinks at his expense. Initially Grace had shown interest in him, but Willie got to her first.

They discuss Lymon's plans to stay in Pittsburgh. Berniece expresses her disapproval of the local saloons. Lymon defends their women patrons, as most of them are just lonely. As for himself, he is tired of one-night stands, dreaming of finding the right woman. He wants to find a job and set himself to provide for a wife. He wonders why Berniece is not married and encourages her to become Avery's wife.

They chat further. Lymon compliments Berniece's nightgown and prepares for bed. Musing on Wining Boy's supposed magic suit, he withdraws a bottle of perfume from his coat pocket and gives it to Berniece. He anoints her and they kiss. Berniece exits up the stairs. Lymon strokes his suit lovingly, sure of its magic.

Scene 4

Late next morning, Boy Willie rushes in, waking Lymon from the couch—apparently he has not spent the night with Berniece. He left Grace's last night when her old lover, Leroy, swung by. Willie has called the buyer about the piano, though perhaps did not convince him to pay as much as he would have. The two attempt to move the piano. Sutter's ghost is heard, but the two do not notice it.

Suddenly Doaker enters and orders them to stop and wait for Berniece to come home. The two men continue their efforts but to no avail. Ultimately they exit to fetch some rope and a makeshift dolly, Willie pledging to sell the piano no matter what.

Analysis

Scene 3 juxtaposes two contrasting seductions: one between Boy Willie and Grace and another between Berniece and Lymon. While the play poses the first as a fumbling one-night stand, it invites us to consider the second "magical." To be more precise, we could perhaps consider "magical" in the sense of metamorphosis. The first transformation occurs in an earlier scene, when Lymon dons Wining Boy's charmed suit, a suit that ostensibly makes him irresistible to his object of seduction. This suit is a magical costume, transforming him from county bumpkin to a man of the city. Perhaps implicit in this costume change is a fantasy of maturation, Lymon becoming the gentleman who stands in stark contrast to the crude and boyish Willie.

Less explicitly, Berniece undergoes her own transformation as well. With the kiss, Berniece emerges from her grief over Crawley and it is now possible for her to take new love objects. She becomes an erotic figure, for the first time in the play, under Lymon's gaze, his compliments and gift addressing her as a sexual being. With this transformation in mind, note Lymon's enumeration of women's garments, what one could describe as the "signifiers" of femininity. For example, he compliments Berniece, telling her that fancy nightclothes make women's skin "look real pretty." He remarks on the local woman: "Got them high heels. I like that. Make them look like they real precious." These fetish objects eroticize the female body and define the feminine. Over and against the scene previous with Avery, where Berniece appears in danger of "closing up," the enumeration of these signifiers that lead up to the climatic kiss returns Berniece to her femininity.

As this scene is certainly the most erotic in the play, a few questions remain, such as why Lymon and Berniece apparently do not consummate their game of seduction. We wonder whether the play resists consummation for fear of compromising Berniece's unyielding integrity, and whether the play insists on Lymon's virtue. We also wonder why this scene occurs, as neither character has shown interest in the other up until this point.

We can only speculate as to Berniece's motivations as this scene overwhelmingly features Lymon in the confessional mode. At the outset of the play, Wilson characterizing Lymon with a certain "disarming straightforwardness." Certainly his confessions to Berniece, which are free of Boy Willie's bravado and Wining Boy's posturing, exemplify his candid nature. Lymon wants a lover who recognizes him, who understands that they are unique in the world, and will explore how the two of them "fit together." He is tired of one-night stands, sadly relating the time he spent the night with the prettiest woman he had ever seen but failed to ever look at her. Dreaming only of finding the "right woman," Lymon yearns for the fantasy of mutual recognition and compatibility that love can offer.

Scene 4 is largely an interlude, prefiguring the play's supernatural denouement in the following scene. Attempting to move the piano, Boy Willie and Lymon wake Sutter's ghost. We wonder if a supernatural force keeps the piano in place. Doaker forcefully intervenes, unwilling to let Willie run off with the piano without Berniece's consent. The stage is set for a final confrontation.

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