Last fall, as he prepared to direct “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” at UC-San Diego, Jack Reuler asked a friend for a list of “Simpsons” episodes that seemed essential to understand the first family of Springfield.
Reuler watched Kodos and Kang hijack the 1996 presidential election in “Citizen Kang,” fell in love with “The Curse of the Flying Hellfish” and breezed through “A Streetcar Named Marge” and dozens of others — including “Cape Feare,” which borrows from two suspense movies and a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.
That last episode was the most important to Reuler. In writing “Mr. Burns,” playwright Anne Washburn used “Cape Feare” as a MacGuffin — a device that takes on inflated importance in the telling of a deeper story, in this case how survivors of disaster remember their devastated culture.
“Mr. Burns” jumped into the theater consciousness for its invocation of that beloved and cheeky TV cartoon and for its exploration of how art is preserved. A co-production by ACT-San Francisco and the Guthrie Theater, directed by Mark Rucker, opens in Minneapolis this weekend.
So did Reuler find his 40-show “Simpsons” marathon worth the effort — even though Washburn admits that rabid fans of the show might be disappointed in the play?
“Completely,” Reuler said. “It helps you understand the context, what certain lines of dialogue imply or what they lead to. You know the history of characters, why they say what they say.”
Washburn’s play assumes that an unnamed calamity has rocked civilization. Survivors huddled around a campfire recall the Simpsons’ “Cape Feare” — similar to how we imagine prehistoric people might have told stories from their past, or how modern-day campers might fill an evening of beer in the woods.
Certainly you recall the “Cape Feare” episode. It follows the plot of the 1991 and 1962 suspense films. A convict bent on revenge terrorizes a family, the action culminating on a houseboat floating down a river.
In the Simpsons’ case, Sideshow Bob is paroled from prison and continues his pursuit to kill Bart Simpson. On the houseboat, Bart begs for time and suggests that Sideshow Bob sing “HMS Pinafore” because he has such a beautiful voice. (“Guilty as charged,” Bob says. “I shall send you to heaven before I send you to hell. And a 1 and a 2 … ”)
The second act of Washburn’s play skips ahead seven years and this campfire group now tours a theatrical show using “Simpsons” episodes, complete with commercials.
Jump ahead 75 years in the third act, and a different troupe performs “Cape Feare” and the characters have become archetypes.
“The first act emphasizes preserving the culture as it was,” Washburn said. “Seven years later, they are focused on exactitude, art as ritual and tradition.”
Similar in form to many “Simpsons” episodes, the third act turns into a full blown musical that takes on some of the expression of classical drama. The actors wear masks to represent Homer, Marge, Mr. Burns, Bart and the rest.
“Not that the third act is Greek tragedy,” said Washburn. “But that’s how those plays were built, with melodrama, music, dancing, everything you want from entertainment.”
There is a line sung by a character playing a character who is playing Bart Simpson that suggests the tension between history’s constant journey forward and the human quest to preserve cultural deposits:
“No one looking after me; just shadows and their history; there’s nothing for me up ahead; the river curves and then I’m dead; but I believe I’m going to stick around for another second or two.”
To accomplish the halting, stammering dialogue of the first act — which mimics real-life conversation — Washburn took actors into a bank vault and recorded them essentially trying to remember and re-tell the “Cape Feare” episode.
“It’s edited, but every moment in the first act — it’s them,” she said.
Consuming culture for 26 years
Washburn admits she “wouldn’t hold my own against a serious fan” in a Simpsons trivia contest, but she claims great respect for the show. The success of “Mr. Burns” surprised her.
“I thought it was a fun idea and it would be an engaging, fun show that 50 people could see,” she said. “It’s a weird play and I didn’t think for a moment this success would happen.”
“The Simpsons” has been devouring pop culture for its own purposes since 1990. For example, “A Fish Called Selma” — itself a parody of the film “A Fish Called Wanda” — opened with a reference to “The Muppets,” lampooned TV’s “Entertainment Tonight,” included a character named MacArthur Parker and featured a stage musical of “The Planet of the Apes” with the song “Dr. Zaius,” fashioned on “Rock Me Amadeus.” For good measure, the writers throw in a DeLorean and a biosphere.
“You can look at the show historically and see the history, culture, politics, sports that we reference,” said Rob LaZebnik, who has written for the show since Season 11. “This was an earthshaking show that no one had seen the likes of, and it’s fed a generation of comedy writers. Simon Rich [novelist and writer of the new FXX series ‘Man Seeking Woman’] said everyone who is writing now grew up watching ‘The Simpsons.’ That has changed the landscape of what we write.”
Comfort in ritual
Among the underpinnings of Washburn’s play is the comfort that culture and ritual afford after catastrophe strikes. Washburn observed this after Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City. People spoke in a ritualized manner, she said.
“There was an etiquette of when you talked about it, what questions you asked, the way you talked about the event,” she said. “No one diverged from that. The instinct is there to create structures. Art and culture are instinct.”
Whether “The Simpsons” qualifies as good culture or bad culture is fodder for a roundtable discussion on “Eye on Springfield” with Kent Brockman. Undeniably, though, it recollects its time period both as a shaping force and a reflection. You don’t have to be a Professor Brainiac (as Homer would say) to figure that out.