Friday, July 18, 2014

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (15)

In Thomas M. Disch's The Genocides, where a kind of alien Japanese knotweed turns Earth a vast monoculture of itself, a ragged group of survivors reminisce about favourite movies and movie stars and other fragments of the common culture that once helped to bind civilisation together. Anne Washburn's Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play, takes that idea in a different direction, exploring the unreliability of memory and the power and mutability of story.

There are three acts, episodic glimpses of life after the fall set years apart. In the first, a ragged group of survivors of a recent and comprehensive plague sit around a camp fire, trying to recall an episode of The Simpsons, 'Cape Feare' (the one where Bart's nemesis, Sideshow Bob, combines the roles of Roberts Mitchum and De Niro).  In the second, seven years later, the group have become travelling players, putting on live action reconstructions of Simpsons episodes and 'commercials' that recall the unregarded luxuries (ice, Diet Coke, baths) of their lost world. And in the third, seventy-five years after the fall, their descendants stage a spectacle in which a trickster/devil figure, Mr Burns, comes for Bart Simpson's life.

The first and second acts were both a bit too long: the first lost dramatic tension when characters took turns to recite lists of their missing; the second overextended its exposition of the play's themes and ended with a bit of cliched melodrama, although its portrayal of the dynamics of a troupe of actors was funny and affectionate.  But the last act, a full-blown musical, was astonishing, carpentered from the scraps of the Simpsons, pop songs, hip-hop, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Night of the Hunter and much else that littered the first two acts, and staged with spectacular brio. A genuine transformation of pop culture into a rich and strange theatrical ritual about loss and rebirth. It was too long too, but I didn't care.


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