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In the drama, “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson written in 1945, it showed the difficulties in releasing the past and moving forward in one’s life. It also centered on the conflicts between brother and sister over differences in values and beliefs. For example, the brother, Boy Willie, wanted to sell the family piano so he can buy his own land to farm and start a new life for himself. However, he was confronted by his sister, Berniece, who did not want to sell the piano due to it’s rich and painful past that it represented. Therefore, the theme in “The Piano Lesson” shows the complexity of African-American attitudes toward the past and black heritage compared to plans for the future. In addition, “The Piano Lesson” is both unique to the dilemma of African-Americans during the time and universal in its depiction of the human condition, which I will further explain later in this paper.
The two main characters in this play were Berniece and Boy Willie with the rest of the family as supporting characters. Berniece was very withdrawn and held a lot of pain inside after the death of both her mother and husband. “She is still in mourning for her husband.” (1335) Boy Willie, on the other hand, was a loud and stubborn man who had his mind set on selling the family piano from the onset of the play and nothing or no one was going to change his mind. “He is a brash and impulsive, talkative, and somewhat crude in speech and manner.” (1334) These characteristics of the two main characters refer back to the theme of this play by illustrating the attitudes of African-Americans towards the past, present and future. Boy Willie doesn’t want the past to hold him back in society and thus wants to sell a part of the past (the family piano) to enrich his future. Berniece, however, is still carrying the past (old baggage) around and that past is holding her back both economically and in her love life.
The setting of this drama took place in the 1940s in the home of Doaker Charles, Berniece’s and Boy Willie’s uncle. It was through Doaker Charles’ storytelling that revealed the true reason why Berniece did not want to sell the piano. Berniece did not want to sell the piano because her father died over it and her mother used to clean the piano by rubbing it until she bleed. Also, the piano has totems carved on the legs and other areas by a slave ancestor that told the whole family history of Boy Willie and Berniece. More revelations of their family history are told by the rambling, traveling, drinking man nicked named Wining Boy. He tells of a sordid relationship with Lymon’s mother and brings news about home, which is Mississippi. The setting of this play further complicated the situation due to the storytelling of Doaker Charles and Wining Boy. Through the storytelling of Doaker Charles and Wining Boy, we find out why it is so important to keep the piano in the family and not sell it. The family piano has a long family history, a history that influenced the present and to sell it would be like selling a part of your past; a part of your heritage; a part of your soul.
“The Piano Lesson” had such writing elements as symbols. For instance, throughout the whole play, the piano played an important and central symbol. The piano symbolized Berniece’s and Boy Willie’s ancestral family tree with the cravings on the piano legs and other areas of the piano which in-turn represented African-American past (slavery) and at the same time it represented the future in Berniece’s daughter, Maretha, who also loved to play on the piano.
A part of the story that I found confusing and paradoxical was Berniece’s attitude towards her daughter, Maretha, playing the family piano and yet will not tell her of it’s past. Berniece also sends her to a private school often chastising her not to show her color there. According to Berniece, she didn’t want to burden her daughter with the past.
I got Maretha playing on it. She don’t know nothing about it. Let her go on and be a schoolteacher or something. She don’t have to carry all of that with her. She got a chance I didn’t have. I ain’t gonna burden her with that piano.” (1367)
With this quote from Berniece, it was like she wanted her daughter to be all that she can be without the knowledge of the piano’s history and thus causing further confusion and sense of responsibility of keeping the family heritage of the piano alive. She wanted her daughter to have a normal life without the burden of knowing the full story behind the family piano’s past. This way of thinking for Berniece further proves my point in my theme that there is a sense of complexity of African-American attitudes towards the past, present and future. If the family piano is such an important part of this family’s history, the story behind the piano should be told to Berniece’s daughter to further keep the heritage alive and not let it disappear from history. In addition to the paradoxical attitude towards her daughter, Berniece was also confused herself with the challenge of raising her daughter alone after the loss of her husband and pursued by the ambitious Reverend Avery and then later by the misplaced soul, Lymon. Berniece’s future in love ends ambivalently. Even though Berniece’s husband has been dead for three years, she is still not ready to commit to neither another long-term relationship nor marriage. This lack of commitment can be seen in the following passage from Berniece: “I know how long Crawley’s been dead. You ain’t got to tell me that. I just ain’t ready to get married right now.” (1366)
At the end of the play, Boy Willie and Berniece finally came to terms with the ghosts of the past, which were compelling them to take their stands about the piano. Some family members, especially Boy Willie, challenged the use of the ghost returning to haunt the family. For instance, Boy Willie came to terms with the ghosts of the past and the piano by realizing the true value of the piano wasn’t monetary but was emotional and decided not to pursue the idea of selling the family piano. Berniece, however, came to terms with the ghosts of the past and the piano by suddenly playing on the piano after closing the piano doors behind her and not played ever since the death of her mother. According to Berniece, “When my mama died I shut the top on that piano and I ain’t never opened it since.” (1367)
In conclusion, the piano serves as a metaphor for the legacy of the past (slavery) that has brought these characters to this point in life. What they do with that legacy is that point of the story. The attitudes presented by the two main characters of this play (Berniece and Boy Willie) demonstrate the complex thinking of African-Americans depicted in this dramatic play. For example, Berniece wants to carry the burden of her painful past with her yet she doesn’t want to pass the history and the history of the family piano down to her daughter. Boy Willie, however, wants to release the past and sell the family piano so he can have a new start in life and thus forget the painful past. Further, “The Piano Lesson” is both unique to the plight of African-Americans and universal in its depiction of the human condition. The sibling rivalry, past history versus present time and future, storytelling and gender relationships all cross both unique and universal boundaries. To illustrate, even in today’s society there are sibling rivalry that pit brother against sister, brother against brother or sister against sister together to the point of bitter battle. In addition, there are still people in today’s society that have difficulties in resolving painful past experiences with the present and future. In regards to gender relationships, there are still a lot of mysteries in the realm of love between two people. Therefore, even though the theme of this play surrounds itself around African-Americans, the situation can easily be applied to all races and time periods.
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