Sparky Anderson once said, “People who live in the past generally are afraid to compete in the present. I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” The characters of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson are living in the past and can be seen afraid to move onto the present. August Wilson shows this fear through the characters inability to move on from what has already happened. He uses the themes of violence and supernatural, as well as the symbol of the piano to show the history of the family and how they are stuck in the past.
The main symbol of the play is the piano. In August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson two main characters, Berniece and her older brother Boy Willie, fight over the sale of the family piano. Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh to sell the family piano to have enough funds to purchase a piece of land. He dreams of funds to purchase a piece of land. He dreams of owning his own land so that he will finally own his own crops. He is tired of working on the land of others. However, when he arrives he is quickly met with opposition from his sister, Berniece, who is dead set against selling the piano. Even though she sees the piano as holding the history of the family, she also sees the blood that was spilled to obtain it. In The Piano Lesson, Berniece says, “Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money” (Wilson 50). Berniece does not believe there is ever going to be a price for the piano, because the story the piano holds is priceless.
Berniece’s ancestors were slaves and had been owned by Robert Sutter. In August Wilson: A Literary Companion, Mary Ellen Snodgrass writes, “as though trading livestock or inanimate property, Sutter swapped slaves for a piano as an anniversary present for his wife Ophelia” (155). Sutter did not have the money he needed to pay for the piano. However, Sutter did own plenty of slaves that would serve as the same thing. So to pay for the piano, he broke apart of family of slaves he owned just to get what he wanted. Ophelia would later regret the transaction and demand that her husband return the piano to get the slaves back. However, Joel Nolander, the man who sold the piano, would not agree. Snodgrass writes, “To appease Ophelia, who pined for Berniece, Willie Boy carved the piano legs with the family’s history in a montage of scenes comprising of a slave narrative celebrating the life of his scattered clan” (155). Years later when the family was free of slavery, Papa Boy Charles went to reclaim the piano from the Sutter’s. He believed that as long as the Sutter’s were in possession of the piano, his family would never truly be free. Papa Boy Charles successfully took the piano, but was murdered along with a box full of others in a fire.
Berniece watched as her Mother polished that piano every day of her life. Her family may have gained back their freedom and their family history, but Bernice’s mother lost her husband. Berniece only ever saw that piano as covered in blood. In the play Berniece tells Avery,
I was only playing it for her. When my daddy died seem like all her life went into that piano. She used to have me playing on it… had Miss Eula come in and teach me… say when I played it she could hear my daddy talking to her. I used to think them pictures came alive and walked through the house. Sometime late at night I could hear my mama talking to them. I was that wasn’t gonna happen to me. I don’t play that piano cause I don’t want to wake them spirits. The never be walking around this house. (Wilson 70)
Bernice does not want to feel the way that her Mother did about the piano. She thinks that if she plays the piano, then the ghosts that her Mother used to see would haunt her as well. She does not want that for her daughter either. She does not tell her daughter, Maretha, about the origins of the piano. Willie Boy will comment towards the end of the play that Berniece should tell her daughter the story so that Maretha can be proud of the family she came from. He believes that Maretha will not know her place in the world until she knows of her past. Berniece cannot understand how Boy Willie cannot see the loss that they suffered to gain that piano. Specifically because Boy Willie is so adamant towards the end of the play that their Father and Uncles retrieved the piano should be celebrated to the fullest. She cannot understand how he can easily sell the piano yet wants to celebrate its existence. As Snodgrass states in her book about the piano, “to Berniece, it is an artifact, a priceless family icon. To Boy Willie, it is a useless object that he wants to liquidate into dollars” (154).
There are three instances in the play in which the piano ties into the theme of violence. The first time comes when Berniece reminds Boy Willie that she blames him for the death of her husband. In the play Berniece states, “If it wasn’t for you Crawley would still be alive” (Wilson 15). Boy Willie quickly defends himself, claiming that Crawley had gotten himself killed. If Crawley hadn’t been there, Boy Willie and Lymon would have just run away instead of trying to sell that wood. The reason that Crawley was killed was he started to shoot at the white men. The second instance is when Boy Willie attempts to move the piano out of the house. Berniece goes up to her bedroom and retrieves the pistols that her late husband, Crawley, had left her. She threatens to use them on Boy Willie if he tries to remove the piano.The third instance that is mentioned is the death of Papa Boy Charles. It is still uncertain as to who murdered him, but the culprits are thought to have ties to the Sutter family. The killing was thought to be a revenge for Papa Boy Charles and his brothers for stealing the piano for the family. He was burned in a box car of the Yellow Dog railroad. This would set of a slew of other deaths that would be blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog Railroad. Sutter’s death would be blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog railroad and is one example of the reference to the supernatural world that August Wilson uses.
Throughout the play there are many other references to the supernatural world. The supernatural is the third and final theme. In the beginning of the play, Berniece claims that she saw the ghost of Sutter. She believes that he is haunting Boy Willie. She does not believe that it had been the Ghost of the Yellow Dog, but instead she believes that it was her brother who pushed Sutter into the well. Berniece believes that the quicker she gets her older brother to sell the watermelons and leave, the quicker the ghost of Sutter will leave. Berniece is not the only one to see Sutter’s ghost either. Her daughter, Maretha, sees his ghost as well and refuses to sleep upstairs until he is gone. Boy Willie does not want to believe that it is true. He believes that his sister is making it up when Berniece claims she saw Sutter’s ghost. In the play Boy Willie says, “Sutter couldn’t find his way from Big Sandy to Little Sandy. How he gonna find his way all the way up here to Pittsburgh” (Wilson 14). Boy Willie goes on to say that Sutter never left “Marlin County” when he was alive and there was no reason he’d come up to Pittsburgh now that he was dead.
The Charles family was afraid to move on from the past. Berniece was afraid to play the piano because she did not want to end up like her Mother. She did not want to have her life revolve around the piano, but in a way her life still did revolve around the piano. She would not allow herself to be happy with Avery. It was not until Boy Willie appeared in town to sell the piano, bringing with him the ghost of Sutter, that the family was forced to deal with what happened in the past and how to move on. I would like to believe that with the end of the play, Berniece and her brother were finally able to come to an understanding of one another. I’d like to believe that instead of selling the piano, that they cherish the memories it holds, but move forward with their lives. However, it is hard to believe that the topic of selling the piano will never come up again. I am positive that Boy Willie will attempt to sell the piano again and his sister will attempt to stop him. It may not escalate to what it had in the play itself, but the need to move ahead for Boy Willie doesn’t just disappear like that either. He’ll want to sell the piano to help him get ahead in life.
Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Plume, 1990. Print.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. August Wilson: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2004. Print.