A Piano’s Cost
In The Piano Lesson, August Wilson portrays the life of a 30’s family in a dilemma over selling an ancestral piano for money to buy land those ancestors worked as slaves. The piano teaches many lessons, among the most important is that you must hold on to your heritage over everything else, even economic betterment.
The Piano Lesson speaks of some basic lessons of African-American culture. Wilson felt a duty toward his African’s slave past. In this way his play teaches duty toward respecting your heritage, which in the tradition of great literature, is just as relevant today as in 1930. The older generation in the play, Doaker, represents a time farther back in American history and attests to the past. He tells Lymen, a friend of the family, about the piano saying ” it was the story of our whole family” (p.45). Doakers job in the play is to carry the background story of the bloodstained piano to the viewer. He is also a reminder to respect the past and a realization that our past is not that far in back of us.
Another way this play teaches duty toward heritage is it’s assertion that you cannot escape racism by pretending it’s non-existence, and that the ghosts of slavery’s past will follow you unless you hold them up. This was demonstrated in the conclusion of the play when Bernice faces her denial of the piano and “realizes what she must do” and exercises Sutters ghost by “beginning to play”(106). When Bernice plays the piano she is showing a respect for her family’s history and moves past her denial and the ghost’s power over the family.
Another basic lesson of the play is that family is important and to sick together in hard times. This family is scattered around the United States. Cousins, and uncles have not seen each other for years. In fact when Boy Willie wants to see Bernice who “its been three years since I seen her”(p.3), her response is that he disturbed her sleep saying,”its five o’clock in the morning an you come in here with all this noise” (p4). The family is not close, with issues of violence, death and the past separating them. In the end of the play, when Boy Willie and Bernice are fully intent on killing each other over the piano, Wilson again uses Doaker to keep the peace. Testifying that “one of them ought to respect the other one’s wishes”(p98) and staying “around here and keep you all from killing one another”(p90). Doaker is a mediating force in the play and is representative of a need in the African-American culture to sit down and discuss issues before violence erupts. Wilson uses Doaker to say Black culture needs more family orientated togetherness and a better resolution to problems.
Wilson also incorporates some essential social lessons into the play, saying that the pattern of violence in African -American males must be stopped, and that black women should occupy a better role in black culture. The role of women denying custom and refusing to accept males’ violence is exemplified in Bernice. She refuses to get married even though Avery , a preacher, is a suitable mate and courting her. She is steady in her view of her self worth and tells Avery “you trying to tell me a woman can’t be nothing without a man everyone telling me I can’t be a woman unless I got a man”(p67). Bernice revokes societies expectations of woman and refuses to play the game of a lonely woman finding men in bars, such as Grace dose, and instead focuses her energy on her daughter and providing a good life her. Bernice protects her daughter as much as she can and hopes she’ll “be a schoolteacher or something”(p70). The violence of the piano’s past and the futility of male violence are exemplified in this passage where Bernice says;
“You always talking about your daddy but you never stopped to look at what his foolishness cost your mamma. Seventeen years’ worth of cold nights and an empty bed. For what? For a piano? For a piece of wood? To get even with somebody? I look at you and you’re all the same. You, Papa Boy Charles, Wining Boy, Doaker, Crawley you’re all alike. All this thieving and killing and thieving and killing. I ain’t never seen it come to nothing It don’t never stop”(p52).
This passage is a heartfelt cry from all women who are stuck in a cycle of watching their men being killed or thrown in jail. The prominence of futile violence and of men being absent from the family structure, through death, jail, or abandoning the wife and children, is a problem in African-American culture. Wilson’s lesson addressees this problem and says that men need to be more responsible for their actions, and must begin to think with their heads and concider the consequences of their actions. Referring back to the quote, men like Boy Willie needs to take into account the effect men’s foolish violence effect women. Boy Willie only thought of his father’s death and his pain, not the consequences of his actions that had to be faced by his mother.
However, the most important aspect of the lesson the piano teaches is that the economic opportunity the piano could give is not as important as its symbolic significance to the family. The two opposing forces in the play are represented in Bernice, who wants to keep the piano, and Boy Willie, who wants to use the money to buy Sutters land. The symbolic significance of the piano is the pain of slavery and separation that went into its carvings. The carving are given such power that Bernice says “I used to think them pictures came alive and walked through the house”(p70). The meaning to the family of the carvings, which is what makes the piano valuable, is the representation of their ancestors pain. The piano represents the whole of African-American experience in history. By stealing back the piano from Sutter, the family was taking back its power and freeing themselves from the mental bondage of slavery. Doaker says it best, “it was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it he had us we was still in slavery”(p45).
At the conciliation of the play Boy Willie relents and lets Bernice keep the piano. By doing this he is saying that the history and power of the piano are more important than acquiring Sutters land. The family as a whole realizes that the importance of the piano would mean nothing to the new owner and it’s significance cannot be lost to the family without destroying the trials of Mama Bernice, Mama Esther, Papa Boy Charles and Mama Ola and others who slaved for that piano. The characters realize that to sell the piano would be to desecrate its memory and the meaning it holds for the family. Bernice has a stirring passage in trying to convince Boy Willie to keep the piano. She says “money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money. It won’t go with the buyer. It’ll shrivel and shrink to know that you ain’t taken on to it. But it won’t go with the buyer”(p50). The characters realize the piano is priceless.
Furthermore individual characters learn different lessons from the piano, with the main lesson being for Bernice and Boy Willie. At the conclusion Bernice comes to terms with the ghosts inside herself. She had previously completely rejected her past ancestry and shut herself off to the outside world. She is haunted by the hold the piano had on her father and mother. While talking to Avery she reveals that “when my daddy died seem like all her life went into that piano I don’t play that piano cause I don’t want to wake them spirits”(p70). She also shuts herself off from other people, depending on no one. She spends so much time taking care of other people Avery asks her “who you got to love you? Can’t nobody get close enough to you. Who you got to love you Bernice?”(p66). It is a pivotal point when Bernice calls upon her ancestors, Mama Bernice, Mama Esther, Papa Boy Charles and Mamma Ola saying “I want you to help me”(p107) because she is admitting that she is powerless and needs the help and guidance of those she had shunned from her mind. By calling upon her ancestors and playing the piano, Bernice is admitting she could not do it all alone. She was able to cleanse herself of her ghosts. This is a big development for Bernice. She persevered over the things, which held her down and exorcised the power of the ghost.
However, the lesson Boy Willie learns is the main lesson of the play for the audience. He comes to admit that just maybe the piano has some sentimental value, which is more valuable than its monetary value. By relenting on an issue Bernice says will never happen because, “he just like my daddy. He get his mind fixed on something and can’t nobody turn him from it” he further develops his character. He backs off a plan witch to him seemed beyond perfect revenge. He goes the farthest from his original viewpoint, doses not use violence, and compromises, which is a trait Wilson is encouraging in men. The “life-and-death struggle fraught with perils and faultless terror”(p106), between Sutters ghost and Boy Willie was a representation of Boy Willie struggle with Sutter’s power over him his whole life. Even though Boy Willie is a free man in his heart he always felt controlled by the white man. His clean, comic exit from the play with hardly any dialogue indicates that his struggle with the physical representation of the ghost of Sutter was a catalyst for his intense hatred of the power Sutter yields. In the end Boy Willie became a man.
The dilemma over what to do with the piano is beneficial to the family. For once all the members of the family are in the same place, talking to each other and working out the problems which distance them. They also come to a resolution which honors their past, each other and the symbol of the piano. That they do not forgo history for economic betterment is the core of a lesson Wilson imparts to all African-American’s.