The Piano Lesson By August Wilson

The Piano Lesson By August Wilson

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson – Paper Assignment

Although set during the Great Depression, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson depicts a variety of contemporary themes and conflicts in America, some very prevalent to this day! The central theme concerns the importance of history – understanding the historical context of the world in which we live.

As noted by The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, The Piano Lesson is a play “in two acts by August Wilson, produced in 1987 and published in 1990. The play, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1990, is part of Wilson’s cycle about African-American life in the 20th century. The action takes place in Pittsburgh in 1936 at the house of a family of African-Americans who have migrated from Mississippi. The conflict centers around a piano that was once traded by the family’s white master for two of the family’s ancestors. Boy Willie and Berniece, the siblings who inherit the piano (carved to show family history), argue about whether or not to sell it. Berniece’s climactic refusal to allow Boy Willie to move the piano exorcises both the literal and figurative ghost of the white slave owner who has been haunting the family.”

For your 1000 word written analysis, consider the characters Boy Willie and Berniece in light of today’s American society. In keeping with the jargon of popular culture, beam them up into today’s world! Transplant both characters into contemporary Pittsburgh (or Los Angeles for that matter), and carefully consider how each would think, feel, and act today. Which themes would be consistent? Which conflicts still prevalent? This is a “speculative” opinion essay – you will need to recreate these two characters in light of today’s world. In your analysis, include references to at least two literary theories AND add at least five (5) quotes from specific scenes, action and dialogue from the play.

Please include an introduction and conclusion. In your introduction, state your thesis on whether the play’s themes are consistent with attitudes in contemporary society. In your conclusion, I would like you to reflect on your own personal feelings/reactions to the play.

Most of your analysis should be “analysis,” so keep the quotes to a minimum!!! Your grade will be based on the thoroughness of your analysis, the strength of your quotes/examples, and your thoughtfulness and openmindedness! You may write more than the 1000 word minimum,








Literary theory (choose to from the list below for the analysis!)

New Criticism

A theory that is not concerned with context — historical, biographical, intellectual; not interested in the intent, affect or meaning of the author or the reader-response reaction of the reader. It is solely concerned with the text itself — its language and organization; how the text speaks for itself. This approach would involve an intense reading of the text (used mostly in poetry analysis) in which the language and style is closely examined, without giving any consideration to the meaning or emotion of the writer or the reader (also known as Formalist Criticism)


The reader takes an active role in deciphering meaning. A poem, for instance, has no real existence or meaning until it is read; its meaning can only be discussed by its readers. We differ about interpretations only because our ways of reading differ. It is the reader who applies the code in which the message is written and in this way actualizes what would otherwise remain only potentially meaningful. Hence, the reader is not a passive recipient of an entirely formulated meaning, but an active agent in the making of meaning. The meaning of the text is never self-formulated by the writer; the reader must act upon the textual material in order to produce meaning.

Feminist Theory

Since traditional literary theory is based on patriarchal systems (male-dominated writing and criticism), the feminist critics wish to divorce themselves from any one particular past theory as they focus on redefining literature from a feminine perspective. In so doing, critics focus on female characters; redefining women’s roles in literature and life, and examining the treatment of women in literature from a woman’s point of view.


In Historicism, critics view literary history as part of a larger cultural history. Historicists studied literature in the context of social, political and cultural history, and they viewed a nation’s literary history as an expression of its evolving spirit. Studying the particular period of history during which a piece of literature was written could give the reader the necessary background on that writer’s point of view and his influences. Biographical Criticism examines an author’s life history in order to gain insight into his literary work.

Psychological Criticism

Critics view literature through the lens of modern psychology, exploring human behavior (conscious, subconscious and unconscious), literary language and symbolism. Psychological criticism often employs three approaches: the creative process of the author, the author’s motivation and behavior, and the psychoanalysis of an author’s fictional characters. Sociological Criticism examines literature in the cultural, economic and political context in which it is written or received, and explores the relationship between artist and society.

Marxist Criticism

A form of sociological criticism which focuses on the economic and political elements of art. Marxist criticism often explores the ideological content of literature. Even if a work of art ignores political issues, it makes a political statement, Marxist critics believe, because it endorses the economic and political status quo, thereby illustrating the principles of class struggle.

Mythological Criticism

Critics look for the recurrent universal patterns underlying most literary works. A central concept in mythological criticism is the archetype, a symbol, character, situation, or image that evokes a deep universal response. The idea of the archetype came into literary criticism from the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. Jung believed that all individuals share a “collective unconscious,” a set of primal memories common to the human race, existing below each person’s conscious mind. Critic Joseph Campbell identified archetypal symbols and situations in literary works by demonstrated how similar mythic characters appear in virtually every culture on every continent.


Based on an ecological perspective, eco-criticism investigates the relationship between humans and the natural world. Environmental issues, cultural issues concerning the environment, and attitudes towards nature are highlighted and analyzed. One of the main ideas in eco-criticism is to study how individuals in society behave and react in relation to the nature and ecological aspects.

Queer Theory

Queer theory is a field of Gender Studies that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of gay and lesbian studies and feminist studies. Queer theory is not only about homosexual representations in literature; it also explores the categories of gender, as well as sexual orientation. Theorists claim that identities are not fixed – they cannot be categorized and labeled – because identities consist of many varied components and that to categorize by one characteristic is faulty. Queer theorists argue that every person possesses an individual identity and should not be collectively stereotype.

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