Three years ago, playwright Anne Washburn shut a bunch of actors in a room and made them try to recount episodes of The Simpsons from memory. The result was a play about a postapocalyptic and post-electricity America, where stories about The Simpsons were handed down from generation to generation, becoming a new mythology for a new world.
One of the actors, it turned out, was an amateur Simpsons scholar. He particularly recalled one episode, which parodied the thriller film Cape Fear. The plot of that episode, briefly: Sideshow Bob (who wants to murder Bart) gets paroled, the Simpsons enter the witness-protection program as "The Thompsons," Sideshow Bob finds them on their witness-protection houseboat, and Bart engineers their escape by getting Bob to sing every song in Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore. (Sideshow Bob is homicidal, but he's a theater dork—and, like any good theater dork, he will perform anything to anyone at any time if he's asked.) The boat passes a police picnic just in time for a deus ex machina resolution: The cops nab Bob, the Simpsons walk away unharmed, and all is right with the world.
But all is wrong with the world of Washburn's play, Mr. Burns. It begins with a campfire scene that's slightly off. Three people (one man, two women) sit together, painstakingly recounting the Cape Fear episode of The Simpsons. They go through it line by line, scene by scene, in oddly obsessive detail, laughing a little too hard at the jokes and getting a little too frustrated when they can't remember certain details. Meanwhile, two people sit upstage—one on a bucket, one on a stump—tense and watchful. One of them has a rifle at his side.
I'm not supposed to review Mr. Burns, since it was just a one-weekend workshop reading—one of many that happen at regional theaters across the country, which spend tens of thousands of dollars every year coaxing new plays to life. (The playwright, Washburn, is a member of the Civilians, a New York–based company.) The Seattle Repertory Theatre—which budgets around $125,000 for new-play development each year—offered to workshop Mr. Burns, which will premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC, next year. But even though this production of Mr. Burns was just a reading, let me take a moment to praise actor Charles Leggett, who played one of the watchers-into-the-night during the campfire scene. Though he had few lines, his eyes, posture, and deep voice made every gesture and every word count.
Leggett hears something in the brush, tells everyone to shut up, and an interloper arrives. He's questioned and frisked at gunpoint, then welcomed. Only then do we realize the scale of whatever disaster these characters are dealing with. The interloper and his hosts get out their notebooks with lists of people they're looking for: Don Ingrassia, Stu Ingrassia, Janet DePaul, Colin DePaul, Elizabeth DePaul, Cameron DePaul, and many more. Obviously, something huge and terrible has happened. These characters are just one of many small, loose confederations spread across the country—and perhaps the world—hiding out with guns and food, entertaining each other with stories from remotely remembered television programs, waiting for relief.
This juxtaposition between The Simpsons and global catastrophe goes on for three acts, which stretch from the present-day disaster to 75 years in the future. In the second act, the same characters are rehearsing the Cape Fear episode to perform it in exchange for bacon, money, bullets, and whatever else they need in the new economy. In the third act, the characters (new ones, as all the old ones are dead) perform a grim, Wagnerian, quasi-religious opera loosely based on the same episode. The stage directions at the top of act three (the current stage directions, anyway, since Mr. Burns is still a work in progress) read:
75 years later. A proscenium arch, weathered and aged, with Simpsons characters carved into the side of it. Actors are all in yellowface, wearing gloves with only four fingers. They are ranged, except for Sam, across the lip of the stage. Behind them a small "house" cutout, like the cabin on a houseboat. Thunder. They sing a slightly eerie and way more complex variant of the Simpsons theme song. ALL: "Dum dum dum... the Thompsons..."
And the passion play of Bart and Sideshow Bob, trying to outwit each other on the houseboat, begins—except, as the story has been handed down to a new generation, Bob has been replaced with Mr. Burns, the man who runs the nuclear facility in this new mythology, a stentorian father of disaster. The conceit of Mr. Burns—a single episode of The Simpsons growing from light entertainment into an epic, given the proper cultural/material conditions—is simultaneously cheeky, touching, and sad. Did the Iliad come from such circumstantial, vicious origins? Or the Oresteia? Or the Bible? Or everything we call culture?
This article has been updated since its original publication.