Music and Heritage in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
Music plays both an obvious and a subtle role in the action of August Wilson’s play, The Piano Lesson. The most obvious part is because of the piano itself. The piano is a part of the Charles family history. It was bought by the Sutter family during the time that the Charles family was owned as slaves by the Sutters. Robert Sutter bought the piano for his wife by trading two slaves for it; however, his wife, who plays the piano, decides she wants her slaves back because she misses them. Since the Sutters are unable to get the slaves back, Mr. Sutter hires the great-grandfather of Boy Willie and Berniece to carve pictures of the slaves he traded away into the wood of the piano so she can have both the piano and her slaves. He carves his entire family’s history into the piano.
This family history of the Charles family carved into the piano links them to the Sutters and to the piano. Later, through a theft when the piano comes into the Charles family’s possession, it seems to become haunted by the past history of the Sutter and the Charles families. Part of the action of the play occurs because this weight of the past keeps Berniece from playing the piano. However, it seems there is a ghost that plays the piano. Doaker claims he has heard the piano playing by itself, because he saw the keys moving by themselves playing in a style that Berniece never plays, so he knew it was not her. This ghostly music adds to the idea that there is unfinished business surrounding the piano, its history, what it means to the family, and why Berniece will not permit the piano to be sold.
Another function of music in the play is to bring characters together. Music is something the characters obviously enjoy, and they sing together. It is a way in which they relate to each other. This is a big contrast to the way in which an instrument, the piano, appears to divide them. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy Sutter’s land, but Berniece is not able to let the instrument be sold even though she refuses to play it. The music of the piano illustrates the division between how these two characters want to handle the past.
Heritage, family values, and traditions play an important role in the action of The Piano Lesson. Berniece sees her heritage in the piano, although she doesn’t play it. She makes sure her daughter is learning how to play it, just as she learned to play it when she was younger. She wants to keep this piano, with its deeper meanings, in the family, but she wants to keep the negative associations she has with it locked away. She tries to do this by not playing the piano herself. For Boy Willie, the piano represents a way to reclaim part of his heritage that he believes was taken from him. To him, it is doing justice to sell it so he can buy the land that belongs to a family that formerly enslaved his own. Boy Willie is inspired to action by his heritage, while Berniece is inspired to keep the piano as a reminder of the past, even if she prefers not to face it. However, their different ideas about what the past means, how it should be honored, and how to approach the future come into conflict because of Boy Willie’s desire to sell the piano and Berniece’s desire to keep it. This conflict over heritage is based on their basic values of how to deal with past wrongs today. The presence of the ghost represents the significance of this past; it haunts them all. Only by coming to terms with the past and with each other in the present do they find a resolution.
Race and gender are significant factors in Shakespeare’s Othello. The title character, Othello, is an honored General in Venice. However, he is different from his peers because he is a “Moor,” a black man. Race is a factor that causes prejudice against Othello, although he also has power, privilege, and respect because of his accomplishments. In imagining how Othello’s race affected what happened to him, it can be considered whether or not the action of the play would have occurred as it did if he were not of a different race than the other characters. Iago may not have so easily persuaded Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, that Othello “stole” his daughter if Othello was not of a different race. He may not have convinced Roderigo that Roderigo still had a chance with Desdemona if Roderigo did not believe that Othello did not deserve her.
Prejudice against those of darker skin is demonstrated even by those who choose to see Othello as an honorable man. For example, the Duke of Venice tells Brabantio that Othello is “far more fair than black.” To paraphrase this, he is saying that even though Othello has dark skin, he is still a noble person. This assumes that some people have the belief that dark skin signifies a lesser or evil person. Iago reveals his belief about people of other races when he says in a soliloquy that “The Moor already changes with my poison: Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.” The use of the word “their” shows Iago’s assumption that people with darker skin are all susceptible behaving in undesirable manners, even though it is actually he who arranges all of the misperceptions leading to the tragic deaths of Othello, Desdemona, his wife, and himself. The audience watching the play will find it likely that people can harbor racial hatred and feel suspicion based on race. This allows Iago to pursue his plot.
Gender in Othello plays a similar role as race. If men did not harbor beliefs about women, like that they are weak, harlots, and deceptive, Iago could not fuel Othello’s suspicion of Desdemona. As with racial prejudice, gender inequality leads to women being seen as a lesser, weaker class of human than men. Iago’s wife, Emilia, takes this for granted when she tells Desdemona, “’Tis not a year or two shows us a man: They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; To eat us hungerly, and when they are full, They belch us.” That women are used by men is unsurprising to her. This basic suspicion about women is something the audience will find credible for the play’s characters to believe, again permitting Iago to proceed with his plot against Othello.
Women are shown as people who must obey men; in the beginning, Desdemona tells her father, “And so much duty as my mother show’d To you, preferring you before her father, So much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor my lord.” Although her father is not happy about it, he accepts that Desdemona will now have “duty” to Othello as his wife. At the end of the play, after Othello has killed Desdemona, Emilia says, “Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak: ‘Tis proper I obey him, but not now.” She means that only this extenuating circumstance is one that can cause her to disobey her husband. Communication between men and women appears to lack; the fact that Emilia did not know why Iago wanted Desdemona’s handkerchief is an example of this. Her obedience to him in getting the handkerchief in the first place shows her blind trust and obedience. It’s not meant to be a general comment on women’s characters, but more so on the ill effects of blind trust and duty. However, without the societal expectations of duty from women, none of the action in the play could have happened. It was much easier for Iago to concoct his plot because Desdemona and his own wife were present in Cyprus, and he does not hesitate to use their sheltered positions for his own ends.