“Civilisations always collapse. We’re sort of banking on this one going on for ever, but they always fall apart.”
American playwright Anne Washburn, 46, sits prim and upright in an armchair and explains, quite calmly, that we’re all doomed. Not today, perhaps, probably not tomorrow either, but at some point, the way of life we know and love will likely be wiped out. Excellent.
Washburn isn’t preaching about climate change or our need for new antibiotics. Instead, she’s interested in what becomes of The Simpsons, America’s longest-running scripted TV show, afterwards. “What would happen if you took a TV show and pushed it past the apocalypse?” she asks in her clipped Californian twang. “How would it change? How would it grow? What would the need for it be and how would that change it?”
In other words, what happens when, without electricity, television shows become part of an oral tradition, liable to distort and evolve through Chinese whispers? That’s the question behind Washburn’s Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which is now getting its British premiere at the Almeida theatre in London.
It’s already been a huge hit in America. “When was the last time you met a play so smart it made your head spin?” asked the New York Times critic Ben Brantley after the premiere last September. The script sparked an immediate bidding war between British theatres, and on his very first day as an Almeida associate artist, director Robert Icke was plonked on a plane to New York and charged with securing the rights. With good reason: Rupert Goold has described it as “the perfect text” for his plans at the Almeida, twisting pop culture into searching social questions.
Set in a crippled America – its population largely obliterated by a virus, its infrastructure ruined by nuclear meltdown – Mr Burns returns to the same Simpsons storyline three times, tracking its permutations as society gradually reorders itself. What starts as a campfire distraction becomes something far more pragmatic and cathartic. It picks at the reason stories exist and at the arbitrary distinction between high and low culture. “The protagonist of the play is the story,” explains Icke. “That’s the thing that develops and changes.” The play is utterly its own thing. “You can’t go, ‘Oh, it’s like Closer but with transsexuals’ or whatever.”
“I didn’t think I was ever going to write it,” says Washburn. The idea seemed too vast and totally unsuited to the stage. Instead, it was “a fun little game to play on the Subway”. She’d imagine warped versions of primetime television shows, reframed for a broken, post-urban society. “I wasn’t thinking about The Simpsons at that time. It could have been anything: Friends, Cheers, anything people were fond of.”
As Washburn envisaged them, each programme took on a different function post-civilisation. So The West Wing might express “this intense longing for organised democracy,” while Friends becomes about “the porn of people having nothing to do with their time but hang out”. No time for coffee in Central Perk when there’s firewood to gather and food to find. In fact, no coffee for coffee either; certainly no Central Perk.
When Washburn finally won a commission, she gathered a group of actors for a workshop, hoping to capture the language and rhythms of collective memory. Their rehearsal space was fittingly apocalyptic: a disused bank vault beneath Wall Street. “There was no cellphone service,” she remembers, “and just one creepy little light flickering overhead.”
Asked to retell an episode of The Simpsons as a group, the actors picked “Cape Feare” – the one in which Sideshow Bob (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) is released from prison and sets out to kill Bart as revenge. You know, the one with the recurring gag where rakes keep hitting him in the face: Thwack. “Urghhhh.” Thwack. “Urghhh.” Thwack etc.
It turned out to be “the perfect episode” for Washburn’s purposes. “Cape Feare” is a spoof of the Martin Scorsese movie Cape Fear, itself a remake of the 1962 original starring Gregory Peck, which was based on John D MacDonald’s novel The Executioners in the first place. As Icke points out: “By the time you meet the story in the Simpsons episode, it’s already done four separate degrees of cultural transmission.” Matt Groening’s writers spliced in most of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and diced up allusions to Pyscho, Night of the Hunter and Friday the 13th for good measure.
However, Washburn suspects that there’s a reason that episode sticks in the mind so strongly. “There’s something deeply primal about it,” she says of Cape Fear’s plot: dangerous ex-con seeks revenge on decent lawyer; kills his dog, kills his deputy, almost kills his daughter. Unable to prove anything, lawyer acts to defend his family. “The Simpsons version is even scarier, because it’s a kid and he keeps saying, ‘Someone’s trying to kill me. Someone’s trying to kill me.’”
Hence, its pertinence for a society of survivors in the wake of a catastrophe. Washburn likens the process to Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. “That was him talking about his parents’ Holocaust experience 40 years afterwards and the only way he could do it was to portray them as mice.” In the same way, the Simpsons episode becomes a repository for society’s anxieties and open wounds. As it does, it swells into a new mongrel form: “Part Passion play, part Victorian melodrama, all mashed up with music videos and other cultural memories.”
“Art always comes from somewhere,” says Icke, adding that the secret to staging Mr Burns is specificity. Washburn agrees: “You have to think of it from their point of view: What are the needs of that time? What do things mean to them and why? What are their resources for making it?” The way the story is told gives you clues about the society telling it and watching it.
The company have been tracking the timeline of society’s breakdown and Washburn cites Alan Wiseman’s book The World without Us, which imagines human extinction. When do the animals come back? What happens to power plants? How long until skyscrapers topple? For Icke, the key is the loss of data and digitised knowledge: “Nobody knows anything” – be it nuclear fallout procedures or Simpsons punchlines – “Rumour and guesswork become fact.”
This is why Icke, who also co-wrote and co-directed 1984, which is currently running in the West End, sees dystopia as culturally important. “People assume it’s a different world. It’s not. You have to ask, ‘What’s the same? What’s fundamental?’ There’s nothing like seeing the shattered remnants of our society to focus the mind on that society as it exists right now.”
One can also ask of Mr Burns the same question it asks of The Simpsons: What’s really beneath the surface? Why does it exist? Washburn only spotted one possibility quite recently: “To me, it’s really sort of a 9/11 play.”
‘Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play’, Almeida Theatre, London, N1 (020 7359 4404; almeida.co.uk) to 26 July