Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play begins in the midst of a nuclear fallout. Something's gone wrong with reactors across the country. Most people have either died or gone missing, and now the ones who remain are trying to figure out how to organize themselves into a society.
In the first scene, survivors take solace in one of life's worst forms of entertainment: sitting around a campfire and poorly summarizing a half-remembered episode of The Simpsons. The play then travels forward in time, and our campfire group transforms into one of many traveling circuses, all of which are engaged in a fierce competition to perform the most popular version of the surviving Simpsons episode. Our group cleverly weaves personal histories, historical events, and the few remaining pop-culture references (lots of stuff that speaks to the theme of "survival") into the Simpsons story. We then jump a few more generations into the future, where the episode has morphed into a ritualistic ancient-Greek musical-drama-opera thing about the eternal battle between love and hate.
All the actors have their moments, but no single performance rises above the others. That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Erik Gratton has a great Homer impression, Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako shines as Colleen the circus ringleader, and both Bhama Roget as Bart and Adam Standley as Mr. Burns embody their characters powerfully and accurately.
The play dramatizes the way the cultural sausage gets made. Playwright Anne Washburn makes compelling drama of this conceit, and she seems to be arguing that, over the course of time, texts meant primarily for entertainment become the intellectual and spiritual foundations for entire civilizations.
After watching the play, I felt a strong urge to test Washburn's thesis against what we know of the Bible, an anthology that's had a pretty profound effect on Western Civ. So I called up Dr. Robyn Walsh, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. After I summarized Mr. Burns for her, she said: "Yeah, that's how Christianity started."
Walsh described an ancient literary marketplace teeming with writers. Messiah stories were hot. The synoptic gospels as we know them began as "competing narratives that got ironed out in the public sphere, and some were more aesthetically successful than others," Walsh said. Some (Matthew, Mark, Luke) got canonized, some—the ones that were "a little freaky" (one had Mary escaping rapacious devils by transforming into a tree)—didn't.
These writers, like the postapocalyptic circus performers in Mr. Burns, were in it for the money, and so they followed the genre conventions of their day. "In antiquity, biographies weren't supposed to be true," Walsh told me. "They were supposed to teach you a lesson, but they were primarily designed to entertain."
Though some messiah stories became more popular than others, "it's an accident which ones survived," Walsh said. History isn't a meritocracy. The gospels we have now aren't necessarily "the best" of the Christ narratives. Some mixture of chance, political expediency (for example, the Nicene Creed), and human fetishization of history pushed these stories into the future: "If something's old, we privilege it, think it's more original, even if it's invented out of thin air." In the context of the play, "Cape Feare" isn't necessarily "the best" episode of The Simpsons, it's just the one that popped into the heads of people trying to get through the night. It also happens to be the one that got remembered, chopped up with clever pop-cultural references and historical events, and made into the meat of high art.