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The Piano Lesson

August Wilson

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

What is the thematic significance of the final exorcism? Discuss the roles each character plays in casting out Sutter's ghost.

The exorcism involves the work of three characters—Avery, Boy Willie, and Berniece, as well as the blending of the family's various cultural inheritances, such as Christianity, folk superstition, and African mysticism. As the preacher, Avery invokes the authority of Christianity to cast Sutter out. Miming Avery's exorcism, Boy Willie dispenses with divine intermediaries and, as if a hero from a folk tale, confronts the ghost himself. Indeed, this battle functions allegorically, Willie and Sutter engaging in a battle between white and black that stretches across time.

Resuming the role she played in childhood role, Berniece serves as the ceremony's priestess. Though her call, the dead will return to assist the living. Her song encompasses both Avery and Willie's efforts, involving both an exorcism and a dressing for battle. Notably, it comes "from somewhere old," emerging from some an imagined place of origin, and thus the invocation of Africa as well. The woman functions as the link to the imagined home place.

Thematically, 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. By resuming her childhood role as medium to her ancestral spirits, Berniece can use her legacy anew. Willie underscores the importance of this work by leaving 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, he and Sutter will be able to resume the old battle between the Charles and the Sutters, the white and black. Thus, the maternal line is left with the responsibility of maintaining the family's connection with its origins.

Music is a crucial element of this play as is the trope of the piano lesson. Choose and discuss one example of the use of music in the play.

For Wilson, the "piano lesson" allegorizes the lesson on legacy and its uses. We can consider the profusion of music in the play as pedagogical exercises on the Charles family legacy. A number of the play's songs function as "documents," evoking particular moments in the family history—the Parchman Prison Farm song is an prime example. A subtler example of music serving as a sort of history lesson is the epigraph from blues musician Skip James: "Gin my cotton/ Sell my seed/ Buy my baby/ Everything she need." On the manifest level, these lyrics refer to Boy Willie's entrepreneurial dreams. He recites similar lines to Doaker and Lymon when describing his plans to start a farm. By dint of a double entendre, however, these lines also become a cryptogram, or piece of writing in secret characters, for the past traumas. The two middle lines ("Sell my seed/ Buy my baby") certainly evoke the memory of slavery and the traffic in human flesh, the trauma at the heart of the piano's history.

Discuss the role of magic in Berniece and Lymon's seduction.

The explicitly magical object in Berniece and Lymon's seduction is the suit. Wining Boy sells Lymon the magic suit as a sort of legacy, passing on the success he once had with the ladies. It is not for nothing that we learn in the scene of its sale that Wining Boy was almost Lymon's father, as he declares, "Two strokes back and I would have been his daddy!" Wining Boy promises that the suit will make Lymon a new man, irresistible to the ladies. In this sense, the suit's magic is that of transformation or metamorphosis. The suit transforms Lymon from county bumpkin to a man of the city. Perhaps implicit in this costume change is also a fantasy of maturation, Lymon becoming the gentleman who stands in stark contrast to the crude and boyish Willie.

This magic takes its effect that evening in a scene involving two seductions: one between Boy Willie and Grace, and the other between Lymon and Berniece. The first functions to a great extent as foil the latter. In his first extended dialogue in the play, a transformed Lymon confesses his desire to find love, enchanting a Berniece who appears in this point in mourning for her dead husband Crawley. Though Lymon is the more clearly transformed player here, Berniece undergoes her own metamorphosis as well. Under Lymon's gaze, Berniece becomes an erotic figure for the first time in the play, Lymon compliments and gift addressing her as a sexual being. With the kiss, she emerges from her grief and she is now able to sexually objectify a new man.

Suggested Essay Topics

The Piano Lesson relies more on reportage and storytelling than action. Discuss the role of storytelling in the play? You may want to focus on two or three stories for comparison.

What are some differences between the roles of men and women in this play? You may want to isolate a few characters for analysis. You also may want to consider their role in the plot, their qualities, their speech, etc.

What is the significance of the railroad in this play? Consider, for example, Doaker's reflections on railroad travelers, his traveling song, the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, etc.

What is the significance of Avery's dream? Consider in particular his use of allegory.

The Piano Lesson is often a humorous play. Discuss one example of the comic in the play. Upon what literary devices does it rely? What is its thematic significance?

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