- Apocalypse Masque:Post-Electric Theatricality in Mr. Burns
What remains of the truth if we gauge a fact by our ability to reproduce, archive, and communicate it technologically? How does narrative reproduce itself after the death of the technology that was its body? What is the ghostly afterlife of its form, the social haunting of its structures? And why do narrative truths haunt? Why do stories outlive their forms, their bodies, passed between people who can barely remember their originals, like Hamlet striving to put his family, his father, together again? Re-member. Me.
These questions of the role of narrative haunting, of revivification, of zombie narrative, are at the heart of American playwright Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. Developed by The Civilians, a New York-based "investigative" company that
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[End Page 19] experiments with combining the seemingly antithetical forms of verbatim, improvisatory, and musical theatre, Mr. Burns began its life in 2012 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, before travelling to its co-producer, New York's Playwrights Horizons. The Canadian premiere of the play was directed in 2015 by Mitchell Cushman and Simon Bloom, staged by immersive theatre company Outside the March in Toronto's oldest cinema, a space they 'retold' as the "Historic Aztec Theatre." I first encountered the script in a glossy, mythic production at London's Almeida Theatre, a European premiere that became the most controversial production of the summer, polarizing critics and spectators alike with its combination of pop culture expertise and layered avantgarde iconography. It's a tale of narrative transmission, of the way an iconic story survives its original form, recreating and evolving its mythologies through stages of storytelling, commercial theatre, and, finally, ritual performance.
The apocalyptic narrative of Mr. Burns, which takes place in an only foggily identifiable part of New England after the nearfuture collapse of the electrical grid, evokes the frayed tension of The Walking Dead. Washburn posits a world in apocalyptic shadow, a post-electric America in which wanderers gather around campfires to trade lists of lost loved ones and whatever tales they can remember from the defunct world of television. In fact, the play opens with a speaker wearing a Walking Dead T-shirt in the Outside the March production. The cinematic and televisual mythos of the play is even more pervasive and structural in this production, given the filmic resonances of its setting.
The play is a triptych of futures. The opening act takes place around the fire, a scene anthropologists such as Polly W. Wiessner tell us saw the birth and expansion of narrative as a social form. "Facial expressions—flickering with the flames—are either softened, or in the case of fear or anguish, accentuated," Wiessner writes about ritual storytelling, "Whereas time structures interactions by day because of economic exigencies, by night social interactions structure time and often continue until relationships are right" (14027). This labour of darkness and firelight, she argues, is the work of cultural transmission. Gossip becomes myth, and the universe is constructed along narrative frameworks, extending from the firelight's circle: "[W]hat larger projects are realized by firelight in a society without electronics or the printed word? How are institutions generated, regulated, and transmitted in firelit hours? How do night conversations convey the 'big picture'?" (14029). The Outside the March production takes our immersion into this nighttime labour seriously, plunging its audience into complete darkness midway through a comical house management speech about the apocalyptic inaccessibility of cellphones for the duration of the play. From this darkness, a long pause and, then, a flashlight. The play is determinedly post-electric: the production uses no plug-in electronics for its duration.
Out of the darkness, Washburn's storytellers, casually armed to the teeth and lit flickeringly from one side, attempt to piece together their memories of a favourite Simpsons episode. The effect recalls the firelight stagings of Nova Scotian company Two Planks and a Passion, who light a nightly bonfire for a portion of
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