- August Wilson’s Lazarus Complex
Although King Hedley II is the eighth play in the August Wilson cycle, it is the only play that Wilson intentionally created as a sequel to a previous play. King Hedley II repeats scenes, characters and actions—preparation of a sacrificial animal, ritual murder, burial of the seed, robbing of a store—that Wilson’s audience first came upon in Seven Guitars (1995). The core event of both plays centers around a violent confrontation that results in the death of one of the antagonists. In Seven Guitars, this violence culminates in a fatal encounter between a blues performer by the name of Floyd Barton and a West Indian immigrant named King Hedley, whose delusional paranoia induces him to murder. In King Hedley II, the son of King Hedley feels compelled to repeat his father’s violent actions as the sole means of inheriting his legacy. Instead of a beneficent patrimony, King Hedley II inherits this trauma as the deep truth of his own existence. The “only thing I know about the play,” Wilson remarked in an interview about this baneful repetition, is that “his father killed a man. He killed a man. His surrogate father killed a man. He killed a man, and he has a seventeen-year-old son who’s getting ready to kill a man.”1
All of Wilson’s plays were staged before the concerned regard of a blues community. The term blues refers to a contradictory, fluid, and mobile cultural and musical formation that has historically assumed multiple incarnations. In associating the blues with the repository of cultural resources and life-forms through which the alternative social formations represented within his plays emerged into material existence, Wilson construed the blues community as at once the setting, the ideal audience, and the social effect of his dramatic productions.
August Wilson’s blues describe a verbal art form in which African oral traditions are combined with Western literate forms to foster a communal taste for irreconcilable complexities. The call-and-response structure underpinning the blues effects a nonhierarchical equivalence between the individual performer’s interior expression and the response of the blues community, [End Page 1] which fosters the individual’s consciousness of dependence on the blues community for a sense of belonging. Indeed, there is a sense in which the “I” does not exist except in its function as a participant in this dialogic musical structure. Because the subject of the blues is constituted through the dialogue between the individual blues performer and the blues community, this subject does not exist unless it is understood as somehow in expectation of a response.
Irreducibly intersubjective, the blues performed within Wilson’s plays are socially rather than individually oriented. As a consequence of their orientation, the blues do not bolster the individual performer’s ego. They instead associate the fantasy of the individual’s self-sufficiency with the scapegoating mechanism constitutive of the exclusionary social order. The blues comprise the medium through which the figures the social order has identified as scapegoats return in the transposed form of the nonidentificatory movement in between the interlocutory position of the “you” calling and the “you” responding. In the blues, the scapegoated “I” becomes part of a collective blue “you,” whose identity oscillates between comic and tragic identifications.2
Wilson considered the blues a way to cultivate a sensibility that flourished within a social formation whose members did not depend on the scapegoat mechanism to sustain social order. In place of the ritual alienation of iniquities from the self to the scapegoat, disturbing social problems were shared by all members of this alternative social order. The blues community of Seven Guitars exemplified this process by their transmutation of the violent encounter between Hedley and Floyd into an object lesson in folk wisdom, into the subject of everyday gossip and rumor, and into the raw material for the surviving characters’ blues performances. But the protagonist in King Hedley II became subsumed within a vertiginous cycle of violence that threatened to swallow up the entire community. Wilson conveyed the potentially catastrophic consequences of King Hedley II ’s way of inheriting his destructive patrimony by having...