The Piano Lesson is a play that was written by August Wilson in 1990 with its main theme being a family legacy. It is set during the dark days of the Great Depression in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wilson managed to encompass and deliver the main problems of the American society during the Great Depression, namely, the appreciation of cultural heritage by African-Americans. The play proved to be extremely successful to the public and has granted Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize in 1990 (Finlon par.5).
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In order to better understand the context of the story, it would be wise to consider the time setting of The Piano Lesson. The play is set in 1936, during the second wave of the New Deal introduced by the President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The New Deal was a government program designed to mitigate the pernicious effects of the Great Depression, which affected all of the Americans in a terrible way. People were dying from hunger and were wearing newspapers in order to warm themselves. Thousands of people were unemployed and striking in a demand for receiving their jobs back. Farmers could not make anything for a living because of the ridiculously low prices for crops (Oakes 728).
These are just a few examples of what damage the Great Depression has caused to the national economy of the US. Despite the fact that the play is set during the New Deal, the ruinous effect of the Great Depression was still felt by many US citizens. It should also be noted that during that time many black people were massively leaving the South in order to escape poverty and racial discrimination. Wilson chose the play to be set in Pittsburgh for a particular reason; the city meant a lot to him and many African-Americans as they were trying to find jobs in factories of northern towns like Pittsburgh. The author intended to show the discrepancies in race relationship between the North and the South of the USA and the overall of the Great Migration in the play.
Two main questions that The Piano Lesson resolves around are “What do you do with your legacy?” and “How do you best put it to use?” (Nadel 105). Berniece and Boy Willie are the two characters of the play that are struggling to come to a mutual agreement regarding the fate of their family piano. The piano itself serves as the embodiment of African-American cultural heritage. Wilson transfers his thoughts about the rightness of black people’s decision to abandon their roots into the struggle that Berniece and Boy Willie face in the play:
“We were land-based agrarian people from Africa. We were uprooted from Africa, and we spent 200 years developing our culture as black Americans. And then we left the South. We uprooted ourselves and attempted to transplant this culture to the pavements of the industrialized North. And it was a transplant that did not take. I think if we had stayed in the South, we would have been a stronger people. And because the connection between the South of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s has been broken, it’s very difficult to understand who we are.” (Cashman 27).
Berniece is trying to save the cultural heritage of their family while Boy Willie intends to sell the piano in order to retrieve the land his ancestors previously worked on. Boy Willie is depicted as an impulsive man who sees only the practical use of the family artifact. His denial for leaving the piano more than likely relates to his ambitions for living “at the top of the life” (Snodgrass 58), which essentially can be regarded as his striving for being equal to white men. This struggle for equality is displayed when Boy Willie continuously gets up after being thrown multiple times by the ghost of Sutter. As the ghost is always seen at the top of the stairs during the play, it serves as a symbolic representation of white people supremacy in the world. The difference between Berniece’s and Boy Willie’s visions of the piano is the key problem of the story.
Berniece treats the piano as an artifact and the family heirloom while Boy Willie only sees the profit he can gain from selling the piano. It should be noted, however, that there are several contradictory elements in The Piano Lesson. For instance, despite Berniece’s views on the matter, she never really plays it and tries to hide its bloody history from her daughter. At the same time, Boy Willie sees his intention to sell the piano as passing its history to the future generations. Another very interesting fact is that, just like his great grandfather, Boy Willie had the idea of leaving his mark on the world’s history. Strangely, he wants to achieve this by selling the very thing his great grandfather once left his mark on. The problem of property and ownership that arises in the play is also interpreted differently by all characters and makes us think about whether the piano is really a property if no one can lay a claim to it.
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The history of August Wilson, his life experiences and the process of becoming a playwright left an obvious print on the composition of The Piano Lesson. Wilson was born in a poor family in Pittsburgh, where his grandmother moved to from North Caroline in a hope for finding a better life. His father was absent during his childhood; therefore, he was raised by his mother in a poor apartment with mostly black people being their neighbors. Wilson encountered many cases of discrimination during his younger years, especially in high school, where one of the teachers accused Wilson of plagiarism because he could not believe a black man could have written such a good paper.
The conflict forced Wilson to drop from school, but despite the harsh conditions, he proceeded to educate himself and soon became one of the most prominent playwrights of his time. Having tasted the “better life” of living in Pittsburgh, it is natural that almost all of his plays would contain his own standings on the matter of the Great Migration, its causes, and consequences, and The Piano Lesson is no exception to this. By introducing characters like Boy Willie, who tries to avoid his traumatic past, August Wilson questions the decision of many African-Americans that left South in search for a better life and provides food for thoughts regarding the future of their cultural heritage. Even though The Piano Lesson was set more than 70 years ago, the racial issue still exists even now, and this play might shed some light on the core problems of racial intolerance.
Cashman, Sean Dennis. African-Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights, 1900-1990. New York: New York UP, 1991. Print.
Finlon, Patrick. August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Masterpiece ‘The Piano Lesson’ Starts. 2014. Web.
Nadel, Alan. May All Your Fences Have Gates Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. Iowa City, IA: U of Iowa, 1994. Print.
Oakes, James, Michael McGerr, Jan Ellen Lewis, Nick Cullather, Jeanne Boydston, Mark Summers and Camilla Townsend. “The Great Depression and the New Deal.” Of the People: A History of the United States. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. 719-743. Print.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. August Wilson: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004. Print.