As I began reading Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns I found myself to be very confused. I could not figure out who these characters were, why they were sitting around a fire, and more importantly why they were trying to recall the lines from an old Simpsons episode named Cape Fear? Why is this specific Simpsons episode important enough to be the centerpiece for an entire production? As I continued reading into the second and third acts of the play, I found my answer. I concluded that there actually was nothing extremely special about this particular Simpsons episode. The episode was only used by the playwright to portray a much larger message: The evolution of theatre. This evolution was shown in steps each displayed by the three different acts in the play. The first act featured theatre as a type of storytelling (or ritual) and a very basic social gathering. In post-apocalyptic times the characters of the play recalled the Simpsons episode only as a memory. In the second act of the play (seven years later) the group of amateur storytellers was now a complete acting troupe traveling and rehearsing for shows they put on for audiences. Finally, the third scene (75 years later) displays a rendition of Cape Fear, but the play is now being performed by a professional group who sings and makes the play into a major production. Washburn shows her take on the evolution of theatre by portraying the same story originally told by a camp fire and finally being told in the form of a major production.
In the introduction and chapter 1 of Phillip Zarrilli’s Theatre Histories: An Introduction, Zarrilli attempts to uncover how “humans developed the unique ability for symbolic communication” (Zarrilli 4). He states that the earliest forms of communication were strictly non verbal, for example, hunting, dancing, and music. Over the years as oral language developed, cultural rituals began to “interact with the new forms of dramatic performance” (Zarrilli 31). Zarrilli’s explanation of the evolution of human communication and rituals mirrors Washburn’s portrayal of the evolution of theatre. For example, since the final production in Mr. Burns evolved from camp fire activities, it supports the notion that “theatre was born out of ritual” Zarrilli 31).
After reading Mr. Burns and the chapter’s in Zarrilli’s book I have a few major questions. First, is theatre an art form that naturally evolved over time (by the means of human evolution) or is it a conscious creation of human beings? Also, since we know how theatre has evolved in the past, how do we think theatre will evolve in the future?