“Mr. Burns” at Theater Wit: This Century’s Dennis the Menace

I have never been so upset in a theatre as I was during the first act of Anne Washburn’s “post-electric” play Mr. Burns, currently in an extended run at Theater Wit in Chicago: The end of the world has apparently come and gone, and a group of weary survivors huddle around a campfire as one of them attempts to recreate from memory the 1994 Simpsons episode “Cape Feare,” an episode-length parody of the 1961 film Cape Fear (and its 1992 remake), with Sideshow Bob in the Robert Mitchum/Robert De Niro role. He starts at the beginning of the episode, misremembering details and lines in an accurate depiction of how a normal person might recall a twenty-year-old cartoon.

In this one instance, however, I am no normal person. There was a time in my life when I would have ranked “Cape Feare” as my favorite Simpsons episode of all time, which is to say, my favorite television episode of all time. I’ve probably seen it more than two dozen times over the last twenty years, and its particulars are seared into my memory in a way that made the characters’ insistance that, for example, Sideshow Bob’s letters are written in ketchup rather than blood, or remembering a reference to John Elway as O.J. Simpson instead, so very frustrating that I nearly started talking back to the actors.

I have no idea how this first scene plays to an audience less intimate with the episode in question, and while Washburn has constructed her play to be about more than this one single pop culture moment, she did not choose this episode lightly, or by accident. “Cape Feare” is a short episode, only about 19 minutes long, and while detailed movie parodies had been in The Simpsons’ wheelhouse from the very beginning, this was the first full-on spoof outside of the annual Halloween episodes, and as such it requires minimal investment in the characters in order to work. The situation drives itself; all you might need to know is that Sideshow Bob is in prison because of Bart, and the plot takes care of the rest. You do not need to be a regular viewer to understand it and laugh at it.

But then again, this is The Simpsons we’re talking about, and so while you may not need to know everything about Our Favorite Family to enjoy this episode, here is a non-comprehensive, from-memory list of the things you would need to be familiar with in order to fully experience the comedy in this episode only, beyond the general plot mechanics of Cape Fear, presented in order of episode appearance:

Conan O’Brien’s (then) new late night talk show; Arnold Schwarzenegger and his family’s Nazi ties; the general reputation of the Fox network circa 1994; the trope of a letter being read in the voice of the person who wrote it; the supression of communication in third-world dictatorships; Dennis the Menace; Matlock and its frequent casting of former TV stars; Linda Lavin; panda smuggling; A Nightmare on Elm Street; Lizzie Borden; the quaint humor of Reader’s Digest; the ubiquity of early Simpsons merchandise featuring Bart saying “[various catchphrases], man!”; 1980s exercise videos aimed at women; Adolf Hitler and his speaking of German; Jim Varney’s Ernest character and his series of worsening movies; the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair; the general reputation of the Denver Broncos circa 1994; the stereotype of a Victorian cockney chimneysweep; Gilbert and Sullivan operettas; Hannibal crossing the alps; the Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises; the stale crooning of Steve and Edie.

And on top of all that are the constant visual flourishes that make the episode so much more than a Seth MacFarlane-style catch-the-reference machine: The accusatory finger, distorted by the high-angle “camera,” of McBain as he declares that his audience is all homosexuals; Homer’s giant cigar in the “Ernest” scene, which he apparently picked up at the Knoxville World’s Fair and waited more than a decade to smoke; Bart’s jittering legs as he tells his parents that Sideshow Bob threatened to kill him; and of course, the rakes. Always and forever, the rakes.

It’s a relentless episode, and while it may not have the heart or the bite of classics like “Last Exit to Springfield” or “Marge vs. the Monorail,” it’s the closest the show has ever come to the madcap elastic universe of a Looney Tunes short. It’s an unfiltered dose of the show’s hyperactive-nerd sensibility, its omnivorous consumption of high and low culture. At the start of the 1990s, The Simpsons was denounced by parents’ groups, religious leaders, and even the President for daring to have a ten-year-old cartoon boy say hell and damn on television. By the start of the 2000s, the show would be taught in graduate courses and held up as one of the few shows in television to sincerely depict American spiritual life. We speak its language, knowingly or not, from “D’oh!” (an exclamation that actor Dan Castellaneta borrowed from Laurel and Hardy supporting player James Finlayson) to “Meh” (originally denoting the indifferent attitude of Bart and Lisa’s “MTV Generation”) to “Worst [Something] Ever” (from the obese mouth of Comic Book Guy, a noxious indictment of the show’s obsessive and hypercritical internet fanbase). With its kaleidoscopic wit, vast sea of cultural references, and endless repetitions through syndication, DVDs, and memes, The Simpsons makes sense as the thing not just to survive Washburn’s end of the world, but to act as the ur-text for a people slowly rebuilding their cultural mythos.

The only problem is, we’re really bad at that rebuilding. Washburn and director Jeremy Wechsler may see this work as a fundamentally optimistic story of Art Above All (if Wechsler’s handwritten post-show thank you note is any indication), but it comes wrapped in a deeply grim (and dim) view of a human race ruined by the 20th century.

The survivors of Act One carry notepads with them with the names of people they have met. As a new man joins the campfire, they all compare notes. Intentionally or not, this is reminiscent of the old fantasy trope of knights and nomads declaring their lineage as means of introduction, or how everyone in a Western has heard of some outlaw and recognizes him by face. Here, however, no one remembers anything, and a name that sparks recognition in one survivor turns out to be someone they don’t know.

Act Two is seven year later, as out Survivors have coalesced into a kind of medieval theatre troupe, refining the oral tradition of the first act into a traveling “Cape Feare” passion play, complete with approximations of commercials for no products in particular, and a medley of pop songs. Their costumes of Marge, Homer, and the rest are handmade using the same leftover cultural detritus (laundry baskets, volleyballs) that they are presenting as entertainment, all the while competing for jokes and lines of dialogue with other traveling troupes, and dodging the violence of the, well, medieval world that has rebuilt around them.

And in Act Three…we’ll get to that.

The bits of the Survivors’ show we see in Act Two is still more or less an accurate depiction of “Cape Feare.” Some of Act One’s misrememberings have solidified–Terror Lake has become Terror River, no matter how much it might drive you (me) crazy. The scene of Homer with the two FBI agents, discussing the family’s new life in Witness Protection, has more than a little Mulder-and-Scully feel, as if somewhere down the line this FBI scene got jumbled up with memories of not just The X-Files but the X-Files-parodying episode “The Springfield Files.” The fake commercial is driven by vague memories of Diet Coke and chablis. As a progression of the first act, this makes sense, but then again, this has only been eight years since the lights went out. In eight years without hearing Beyonce, would we really remember her song as “Every Single Lady,” as performed in the troupe’s musical number? Washburn would have us believe so, which, as wider implications go, leaves us with two equally disturbing choices: That human memory has always been deeply fallible, and that our epics which pre-date mechanical reproduction, from the Iliad to the Bible to anything purporting to be ancient history, are so unreliable as to be useless; or, that the 20th century luxuries of electricity, recording, and mass reproduction have ruined our ability to hold anything in our heads for more than a minute, leaving humanity as a bunch of fickle mush-heads, and the myths meant to sustain us are now as vulnerable as the words in a game of telephone (purple monkey dishwasher).

Washburn seems to advocate the latter, as the play is haunted by another “innovation” of the 20th century. The Survivors spend Act One not only worried about their loved ones left behind, but the clouds of radiation poisoning wide swaths of the country. The lack of electricity has caused our nuclear plants to melt down and spew forth eternal devastation; what was built to serve a benevolent future has delivered a future of a different kind. Come to think of it, Homer Simpson worked at a nuclear plant…which brings us to Act Three.

Washburn provides no context to what we see in Act Three, other than to state that is seventy-five years after the events of Act Two. Free of any other framing device, we are treated (and it is a treat, easily the high point of the show) to “Cape Feare” as theatrical pageant. A masked chorus takes us through the reprocessing of history as myth: rather than fleeing a revenge-minded Sideshow Bob to Terror River (ugh), the Simpson family is now cast as refugees of When the Lights Went Out and the Plants Melted Down, and Bart faces off against the monstrous nuclear magnate Mr. Burns. The pageant’s version of the episode in fact has no Sideshow Bob at all; his wild hair and rakes have been forgotten, and his booming baritone and violent bent have been subsumed into a version of Mr. Burns which bears more resemblance to The Joker and Darth Vader than our favorite rich old man–he even swordfights with Bart and sends boxes magically flying through the air. He also murders the rest of the Simpson family–even Maggie–before Bart defeats him.

The laughs in the play often come from the distance between what the characters can recall of a thing and what we know to be accurate (“Every Single Lady,” etc.). Little bits of mistakes and odd business make their way from that campfire to the Pageant; the phrase “feets don’t fail me now” is oddly durable across the decades, as is the persistent belief that, at the climax of the episode, Bart faces alligators on one side of the houseboat and piranhas on the other. (It’s electric eels, not piranhas.) If the future’s New Oral Tradition is a sad game of Telephone, then Act Three is its ridiculous culmination, in which the pageant is an idiot’s celebration, so removed from its source that it is literally meaningless.

Or maybe it’s not. There’s a different possibility built into Washburn’s scenario and her refusal to define Act Three. If there are survivors of the end of the world, then it is up to them to rebuilt society and its forms–government, crime, art. From the oral traditions of a campfire to a traveling show with the aim of economic success to…the postmodern, dare we say? The extreme time jump between the second and third acts invites us to take the pageant as an evolved version of the traveling show, which was an evolved version of the fireside tale. In the earlier cases, we saw that the survivors were attempting to tell the story as accurately as they can remember, but eighty years later, can we take the pageant at face value? Or could it be that Act Three’s society has made its own deconstruction of the “Cape Feare” myth, knowingly throwing together disparate influences into an artful remix, much like we see today in shows such as Christine Evans’ Trojan Barbie, Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood…or even that old cartoon show The Thompsons.

Washburn won’t confirm the world we find ourselves in. It’s our job to define the art, as it always is. But if she and her collaborators see Mr. Burns as fundamentally optimistic, it means that the world keeps moving, and that we won’t get dumber if the lights go out. TV may have rotted our brains and nuclear poison may kill all our loved ones. The 20th century may one day be seen as an abhorrent blip, a moment of explosive brightness too much to contain and doomed to end in violence. That it gave us The Simpsons may be cold comfort, but then again, we can’t choose our legacy and we can’t ordain what the future will find important, much as we’d like. If the future decides that it’s piranhas and not electric eels, then one day the future will be right. Until then, to quote an ancient poem, Bake him away, toys.


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