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The Piano Lesson

August Wilson

Act II, Scene 5—Part II

Act II, Scene 5

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

The two young men begin to move the piano. Berniece exits up the stairs. She reappears with Crawley's gun. Doaker and Avery urge the siblings to talk things through. Hesitant at first, Lymon eventually decides to continue helping Willie. Berniece orders Maretha out of the room.

Suddenly a drunken Wining Boy enters, rambling about some fellow named Patchneck Red. Comically breaking the tension of the scene, he attempts to fish a drink out of Boy Willie's coat and sits down to play a song he wrote in memory of Cleotha. Willie attempts to dislodge him, and Wining Boy defensively spreads his arms over the piano.

A knock at the door follows, and Grace enters. She and Lymon have a date for the picture show. Suddenly everyone but Grace can sense Sutter's presence. Grace soon notices it as well and exits, and Lymon follows her.

Sutter's presence reasserts itself, and Avery moves to bless the piano using a candle and a bottle of water. He begins his prayers, sprinkling water and reading from the bible. Boy Willie intercedes: "All this old preaching stuff. hell, just tell him to leave." As Avery attempts to drive out the ghost, Willie flings a pot of water around the room, working himself into a frenzy: "Hey Sutter! Sutter! Get your ass out of this house!"

He charges up the stairs. The sound of Sutter's ghost is heard, and an unseen force drives Willie back and chokes him. He charges back up the stairs, and the two engage in a life-and-death struggle. Ultimately Avery is stunned into silence; Doaker and Wining Boy gape in disbelief.

Suddenly, "from somewhere old," Berniece realizes what she must do. She begins to play a song on the piano, both a "commandment and a plea," an "exorcism and a dressing for battle," a "rustle of wind blowing across two continents." "I want you to help me" she sings, naming her ancestors. The sound of a train approaching is heard, and the noise upstairs subsides. Willie taunts Sutter, and Berniece thanks her family's ghosts.

A calm comes over the house, and Maretha and Willie reappear, the latter pausing to watch his sister at the piano. He asks Wining Boy is he is ready to catch the train back south. Maretha embraces her uncle and Willie offers his goodbye to his sister: "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." Bernice says, "Thank you," and the lights go down to black.

Analysis

The second half of Scene 5 begins with a "pseudo-climax," Berniece holding her brother at gunpoint when he and Lymon attempt to move the piano. Sutter's ghost reasserts itself. Almost immediately, however, a drunken Wining Boy enters, comically defusing the tension of the scene. A marked shift in tone follows, Wining Boy playing a song for his beloved Cleotha and then desperately stretching himself across the piano. This address to the dead prefigures the ceremony about to ensue.

Indeed, the final climatic confrontation of the play does not occur between the two siblings but between the living and the dead. The members of the household lock themselves in a battle against Sutter's ghost. Sutter's exorcism involves the work of three characters—Avery, Boy Willie, and Berniece—and the blending of the family's various cultural inheiritances, such as Christianity, folk superstition, and African mysticism. As the preacher, Avery invokes the authority of God to cast Sutter out. Miming Avery's exorcism, his taunting cries and imitation of the holy water rendering it grotesque, Boy Willie dispenses with divine intermediaries and, as if a character from a folk tale, confronts the ghost himself. This struggle seems allegorical if not archetypal in nature. Note that Willie's last remark to Berniece ("me and Sutter liable to be back") suggests that they stage an old battle. Certainly Sutter's ghost evokes that of his grandfather, the slave master Robert Sutter. Similarly, Boy Willie functions here as a sort of revenant, embodying his own ancestors. As we have noted throughout the play, his namesake, and constant references to his paternal legacy make him the heir and incarnation of the familial spirits. Read allegorically, Willie and Sutter engage in a battle between the Sutters and Charles, white and black that stretches across the time.

Serving as the priestess of this ceremony, Berniece ultimately ensures the household's victory by resuming the childhood role she described earlier. Though her call in song, the dead will return to assist the living and cast out the ghosts of the master's family. Her song buttresses both Avery and Willie's efforts, involving both an exorcism and a dressing for battle. Notably, Wilson underlines the necessity of this resurrection. The song is a commandment and a plea, an injunction and an entreaty for help. Moreover, all the ghosts must rise: if Berniece's playing animates the figures on the piano, the sound of the train certainly refers to a visitation from the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.

The inexorability of Berniece's call lies in its source: the "somewhere old" inside of her, some imagined place of origin that, for Wilson, harkens back to Africa. The living draw strength from the ghosts of the past, in a sense returning to their origins, and the ghosts respond to the living because they speak from that very originary place. Mystically, Berniece speaks from the family's place of origin and addresses the family's spirits from the present to take strength from that original place. The logic of this fantasy is circular, referring to the uninterrupted circuit this ceremony establishes across time, space and the grave. Notably, the woman functions as the means by which to reach and speak from the imagined origin.

This ritual appears to resolve the central conflict of the play: the question of what to do with one's legacy. The specter of the white man has been cast out, and Willie can leave in peace. He does, however, leave the women of the household with a charge: if they do not continue playing the piano, he and Sutter are liable to return. In other words, they will resume the old battle between white and black. Thus again the maternal line is left with the responsibility of maintaining the connection to the family's origins, a connection that will ostensibly keep the ghost of the master at bay. Though the conclusion of the play is supposedly cathartic, those of us who have attended to the ways its characters are haunted by past traumas may wonder if the question of using one's legacy is answered so simply.

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