First, a bit of background…
(On Wednesday 30th July I attended a roundtable-style discussion on Anne Washburn’s/Robert Icke’s Mr. Burns at the Almeida Theatre. The event was hosted by theatre-critic Maddy Costa and the Almeida Theatre and was the latest in a series of seminar-style talks intended to sustain a dialogue around particularly noteworthy productions. (The previous instalment focused on Nick Payne/Carrie Cracknell’s Blurred Lines (Temporary Theatre, NT, 2014), so I guess we can take ‘noteworthy’ here to mean stuff that is particularly prescient, and in the case of Mr. Burns, theatrically bold and critically-contentious).
For those who may have been living under a rock for the past month or so, Mr. Burns is *the* water-cooler play of the moment (kind of). It’s at once a heady celebration of storytelling, a meditation on the evolution of narrative, a post-apocalyptic (sorry, “post-electric”, this is important!) vision of the future and a cultural mash-up of everything from The Simpsons to Gilbert and Sullivan.
The following constitutes a mixture of commentary and reflection on some key talking-points. I haven’t attempted to cover absolutely everything (the talk went on for nearly three-hours) and neither have I included any actual transcript (I only recorded an hour or so of discussion). My hope is that this piece (the first of two documenting the event) will distill, in as clear a way as possible, some of the more interesting and untapped elements of the discussion, Maybe it will even provide a jumping-off point for further dialogue around the play.
N.B: I have done my best to remember names and credit those whose contributions I touch upon in this article. If there are any inaccuracies, please do follow up with me and I’ll make amendments as necessary.
The first of several topics that the group discussed throughout the nearly three-hour discussion (three hours!) was Washburn’s use of character and the extent to which the play ‘succeeded’ or ‘failed’ to emotionally engage the audience. Empathy was a word that frequently resurfaced; for some, there was a distinct lack of emotional richness to the characters and this prevented the audience from engaging with the performance. For others, this apparent lack of empathy was either a moot point or a veritable strength of Washburn’s writing.
Before I move on to whether I think Mr. Burns does or doesn’t do the whole empathy thing, it’s worth picking over the terms of the proposition. For me, notions of emphatic involvement are fraught with all sorts of unhelpful assumptions that require closer examination. For those who took issue with the apparently underdeveloped aspects of Washburn’s characters, it was the absence of context that was to blame. The criticism being that Washburn failed to provide the audience with sufficient information pertaining to the personal histories of those on-stage; subordinating character to the intellectual argument of the play. Suffice to say, I disagree with this premise and the extent to which it can be seen as a ‘failure’ on Washburn’s part. Still, it remained a bone of contention nonetheless for those who wanted further detail in terms of characters and their environments.
Do we not risk overestimating the importance of empathy? Must we continue insisting that our individual feelings align with the emotional-state of the characters in order to properly engage with the performance? Does a play like Mr. Burns not become *something else entirely* by shoehorning in more backstory? Moreover, it strikes me as I write this now that empathy is absolutely a part of the world Washburn puts on stage. The difference, I think, is in the execution. Neither Washburn’s text, nor Icke’s production or the actors’ performances exploit our emphatic involvement in purely emotional terms. Emotion isn’t transmitted as a means of besieging the audience with ‘sentiment’ (yuck!); we may only learn provisional details about the characters past lives, but we absolutely experience their self-reliance, their communal feeling, their sense of collective purpose and understanding. And anyway, doesn’t the nature of storytelling preclude some degree of emphatic involvement by its very nature? Stories are told, re-told, changed-up, passed on and accrue meaning that reflect the evolving needs of the storytellers. Empathy in Mr. Burns isn’t a cheap conjuring trick for getting the audience on side; instead, it is dramatised as a cornerstone to the group’s survival without relying on the need for emotional acting or clumsy asides to provide backstory.
Samantha Ellis went on to smartly suggest that we should view the characters in Mr Burns as a ‘collective protagonist’, which prompted a discussion on the subject of community and the “post-electric”/post-apocalyptic context of Washburn’s play. The most interesting contribution on this subject came from Megan Vaughan and Lydia Johnson in their suggestion of a heretofore unexplored feminist reading of Washburn’s ‘post-electric’/post-apocalyptic’ scenario. The central argument of Megan and Lydia’s premise (I think) is that post-apocalyptic narratives written by men tend to reflect a kind of reactionary-primevalism; in these scenarios, men get to be ‘men’ – building fires, hunting food and fighting on behalf of their kin. In such stories, a levelling disaster sets civilisation back a peg or two and the fallout provides the context in which men are allowed to return to their ‘true selves’, free from complication and empowered by their mission to re-populate and re-organise civilisation. Meanwhile, the women in these stories invariably return to whatever bland domestic chores society has seen fit for them under the guise of a voluntary return to ‘the natural order’ of things. Patriarchy by way of the apocalypse.
By comparison, post-apocalyptic narratives written by women may actually work in opposition to the male wish-fulfilment scenario. For example, in Washburn’s narrative, notions of heroic-individualism are definitely secondary to the collective needs of the group – with this being particularly resonant in the group dynamics displayed in Act II. We also discussed the more measured nature Washburn’s “post-electric” vision, in which essential amenities have survived and not every human bar the hero have reverted to a wild, pre-civilised state of unrest – a familiar trope in conventional post-apocalyptic narratives. (Though Washburn doesn’t entirely dispense with the formula – as revealed in the denouement of Act II. Also, the fact Washburn specifies “post-electric” is important, suggesting not a return to a pre-civilised age, but a more measured reversal of technological progress that circumvents this tendency to fetishise a return to antiquity).
Part 2 will be a longer piece focusing on issues raised around Cultural Value and Context and Meaning, and will address those aspects of the production discussed by critics etc.