What The Simpsons Can Teach Us About Nuclear Apocalypse
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. The Day After imagines a world reeling from nuclear attack but it’s a very particular world, situated in the Cold-War era of the early ‘80s.
Marsha Gordon said she'd like to see a piece that reflects on the long-term impact of apocalypse. Playwright Anne Washburn tackled one aspect of that in her 2012 play, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play.
CHORUS SINGING: Da-da, da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da…
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It depicts a world devastated by a nuclear incident of some kind in which the survivors cope by retelling one episode of The Simpsons.
LITTLE GIRL: You got a letter too, Bart.
BART, READING NOTE: "I'm going to kill you." [GASPS]
[FOREBODING MUSIC, UP & Under]
ANNE WASHBURN: I was really curious to see what would happen to a story over time, under kind of extreme conditions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the story that you chose to follow across the decades is an episode from The Simpsons called “Cape Feare.”
ANNE WASHBURN: It’s The Simpsons’ version of the Scorsese remake of the Robert Mitchum original --
-- which was, itself, based on a novel. In the episode, Bart was involved in putting Sideshow Bob away to prison for his various incredible misdeeds, and Sideshow Bob is sending him death threats.
LAWYER: If released, would you pose any threat to one Bart Simpson?
SIDESHOW BOB: Bart Simpson? [CHUCKLES] The spirited little scamp who twice foiled my evil schemes and sent me to this dank, urine-soaked hellhole?
ANNE WASHBURN: And, finally, the family, to sort of escape him, goes away on a houseboat in the middle of a river.
FBI AGENT 1: Don't worry, Mrs. Simpson. We've helped hundreds of people in danger.
FBI AGENT 2: We have places your family can hide in peace and security, Cape Feare, Terror Lake, New Horrorfield, Screamville.
HOMER: Ooh, Ice Creamville.
FBI AGENT 2: No, Screamville.
ANNE WASHBURN: And, of course, Sideshow Bob shows up again and there’s a kind of a duel to the death, which gets very involved with Gilbert and Sullivan.
SIDESHOW BOB: Well, Bart, any last requests?
BART: You have such a beautiful voice.
SIDESHOW BOB: Guilty, as charged.
BART: I was wondering if you could sing the entire score of the H.M.S. Pinafore.
SIDESHOW BOB: Very well, Bart. I shall send you to heaven before I send you to hell.
ANNE WASHBURN: And there’s that climactic scene on the river with the performance of H.M.S. Pinafore.
SIDESHOW BOB, SINGING;
BOB AND BART:
He's hardly ever sick at sea
[SINGING UP & UNDER
ANNE WASHBURN: And finally, Bart is saved when the ship runs aground next to a --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: a brothel. And a whole bunch of police, they come streaming out and [LAUGHING] --
ANNE WASHBURN: And eventually decide to arrest him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So now let’s turn to your work, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, Act 1, Scene 1.
ANNE WASHBURN: We open on a group of people around a campfire and they’re really trying very hard to remember this episode of The Simpsons.
MAN: Sideshow Bob takes Bart out of the hold and onto the deck and across….
ANNE WASHBURN: And I think it seems, at first, very much like an activity which is very familiar to us. All of us, at one point or another, have been in a group of people trying to put together a TV episode --
-- and sort of enjoying it and laughing at it and relaxing with it.
MAN: Homer is like, hey, everybody, wanna drive through that cactus patch, and they’re, like, yay! [LAUGHTER]
ANNE WASHBURN: And it’s only as the play kind of moves forward and we hear a sort of strange noise in the shrubbery and everyone stops what they're doing, pulls out guns, that we realize the stakes are different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the person who emerges from the woods is a guy named Gibson who describes his path to this campsite. And so, we’re able to piece together that essentially the world is in flames. You kind of infer that this is probably a string of terrible nuclear incidents. All we know is that now people, they’re basically in survival mode.
ANNE WASHBURN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How does Act I end?
ANNE WASHBURN: After much sort of struggle to integrate Gibson into the group, they start to retell The Simpsons episode and there are numerous Gilbert and Sullivan quotations in that episode of The Simpsons and Gibson, as it turns out, was a member of his local Gilbert and Sullivan society.
So he has that information.
GILBERT, SINGING: Sailors never, never, never get sick at sea.
MAN: I’m never, never sick at sea.
GILBERT: What never, no never.
What never, well, hardly ever!
He’s hardly ever sick at sea.
SEVERAL: Aha, yeah!
ANNE WASHBURN: There’s a little parenthetical in the stage directions, (Please note that these are people who in normal life would never be interested in the introduction of more Gilbert and Sullivan into their immediate social environment.) But in the context they’re thrilled. So he joins in. He’s able to contribute to the group, and they all kind of join in and merrily sing, as the, the lights sort of sweetly go out on this scene at the end of Act 1.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then Act 2 begins. It’s seven years later. The Simpsons episode is still being told but it’s no longer a, a campfire tale.
ANNE WASHBURN: So that same group of people, plus a new member, have become, they’ve become a roving Simpsons troupe. And they will retell and recreate, as best they can, episodes from The Simpsons, one of which is “Cape Feare.”
MAN: At last, Bart Simpson, at last, while you and your family
cozy yourselves away in this houseboat.
ANNE WASHBURN: So we sort of discover they’re one of a number of groups which are, are doing similar things. There are other Simpsons groups. They also make reference to the medical drama group. I think there's an ER or a House.
The landscape is sort of littered with these troupes who are handling TV shows of the past. There is reference made to the Shakespeares.
There’s a group doing Shakespeare but it seems pretty clear that that’s the most low-rent group you could fall into --
-- and only if you are really diseased and desperate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the thing is they are treating these works as unchangeable relics of the past.
ANNE WASHBURN: It’s seven years after the apocalyptic event wherein our civilization was destroyed. And seven years is not a long [LAUGHS] period of time. And it really seemed to me that seven years after the apocalypse people are going to want what’s certain and what’s reassuring and what reminds them very solidly of, of the old time. So the value for entertainment at that time is not going to be in creative expression or commentary on the moment, the value is going to be on the troupe which can pull together the most exacting replica of a cartoon possible.
PERFORMER: No motivation, no consequence, that’s the point of a cartoon. Where else do we get to experience that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does that mean that these roving troupes
never really comment on their lives as they live it?
ANNE WASHBURN: I think they don’t comment at all during the episodes but the episode does have commercial breaks. And I feel like the commercials are where you would have latitude. There are two commercials that we see in the second act, and one of them is a woman comes home from a long tedious day at the office. You know, she takes off her earrings, she shucks her purse, she removes her shoes. She makes sort of, uh, exasperated noises. Her husband is sympathetic. He’s like, oh, you should take a bath. She’s like, I’ll take a bath. Can I get you a Chablis? Yes, I’d love a Chablis.
[HUSBAND AND WIFE LAUGHING]
WIFE: I don’t know.
[PERFORMANCE AUDIO UP & UNDER]
ANNE WASHBURN: And as she’s preparing the bath, she’s talking about someone at work who’s stealing lunch bags out of the office refrigerator, which is all sort of careless and merry but there is no way in that kind of future that anyone would appreciate someone going up onstage and saying, oh my God, we can be looted or raped or robbed at any moment and there’s very little to prevent anyone from doing it. That’s not going to be a welcome commentary. But there is kind of nostalgia a) for a time when somebody snitching lunches out of the office refrigerator was the worst thing that might happen to you in a day.
But also, there is this sense, I think, in which this weird roving figure who steals mysteriously and no one can seem to control is the very lighthearted shadow of, of something which would be of a concern at the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Menace looming behind you. You just don't see it, except maybe out of the corner of your eye.
ANNE WASHBURN: Yes, [LAUGHS] in this case embodied in the jerk who’s stealing lunches out of the refrigerator --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ANNE WASHBURN: -- with seemingly no moral compass whatsoever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like Sideshow Bob.
ANNE WASHBURN: Like Sideshow Bob. I mean, that story, that original story, that “Cape Feare” story is so wonderful because the Robert Mitchum character who becomes the De Nero character who becomes Sideshow Bob is just pitiless and he’s remorseless.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now to your third act. It is 75 years later. And the acting out of The Simpson episodes, especially this one, “Cape Feare,” seems to have become a massive production --
ANNE WASHBURN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- a cultural touchstone like Faust, maybe.
[CHORUS SINGING, PERFORMANCE]
ANNE WASHBURN: Seventy-five years later, it’s become a kind of crazy, gaudy melodrama, which is really about violence and it's about contamination, and Sideshow Bob has morphed into Mr. Burns who in the series is the nuclear power plant owner, but he’s become that same kind of hideous inexorable threat, completely poisonous, completely toxic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Except that Sideshow Bob is, you know, vain and vanquished and it seems like Mr. Burns is invincible.
WOMAN: Mr. Burns, you’re never coming back.
MAN: What? Never.
WOMAN: No, never. What? Never?
MR. BURNS: Kill me now Bart Simpson kill me all you like but don’t be surprised when you and I meet again. I’m never leaving, I don’t go away.
ANNE WASHBURN: You can’t stop him. I mean, in the first act, no one knows what’s going on, particularly. The characters are very much dealing with rumor, you know, like how far does contamination go, does the wind spread it? You know, where do you need to be to be safe? And no one knows. No one knows where it’s safe, which people both speak about in short verse and mostly try not to speak about and try not to think about because why would you? It’d be crazy making.
And in the second act, there’s a kind of a speech where one of the characters talks about the contamination that no one has any idea of, you know, from chemical plants. You know, a tank dissolves or it explodes and it’s by a river or it’s on an aquifer. So the second act is a little bit haunted by this sense of contamination, which is not understood and not possible to do anything about. And so, in the third act, you do see this character who really sort of takes that on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mr. Burns.
ANNE WASHBURN: Mr. Burns, who just is the force which cannot be stopped, cannot be reckoned with, cannot be vanquished. There is a sort of a happy ending but it doesn't come about because Bart is smart or is brave. The, the hand of God does not intervene. He only succeeds because he manages to just constantly hang on long enough for events to change in his favor. But there's no sense in the third act that virtue was rewarded. If you survived, it's because you somehow held on and
BROOKE: -- it's a function of luck.
ANNE WASHBURN: It’s a function of luck.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why The Simpsons?
ANNE WASHBURN: It was not a Simpsons-specific idea originally. I had sort of thought Seinfeld or Friends or Cheers or any program which was cheerful, which a lot of people had known. And I don’t remember how I arrived at The Simpsons. It turns out to work really well, partly, I think, ‘cause it’s been around for so long.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ANNE WASHBURN: And also, because it’s a cartoon, it has so many characters and it’s such a huge, wide world. I think also that a lot of sort of the big popular comedies are about friend groups and intentionally-formed communities and The Simpsons is very much about the family you’re stuck with and the community you’re stuck with and how you make the best of it --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ANNE WASHBURN: -- which I think would be more resonant in a post-apocalyptic world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
ANNE WASHBURN: I mean, people would be longing for their families that were gone. They would be struggling with issues of how you create a community which isn’t completely dysfunctional.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s funny, when we spoke to Marsha Gordon about The Day After, even though it had a huge impact, there hasn’t been a big effort to show it again. And yet, your play has been produced year after year after year, [LAUGHS] since it debuted. Does it feel different now? Does it resonate differently?
ANNE WASHBURN: Only in the sense that I think the question of nuclear annihilation just feels a little more present in our culture right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
ANNE WASHBURN: It isn’t about a nuclear war and the result. It is about nuclear. I mean, Burns is not a PSA, almost to my regret. I have many bossy opinions on the topic of what it is for humans to handle a technology they actually are demonstrably unable to control.
Nuclear power is completely safe, as long as there is no human failure of any kind, no infrastructure failure of any kind. It’s completely safe as long as it is controlled by a civilization which progresses continuously with, you know, smooth segues from one civilization to the next for a period of about 10,000 years. And that's something which has never happened in the history of human beings. And there are disruptions and there are wars. And under those conditions, nuclear power, with its intense dependence for safety on an incredibly vulnerable electrical grid is not completely safe. So that was a source of tension --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ANNE WASHBURN: -- which drove the making of the play.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is something exciting about the breakdown of systems, though, isn’t there?
ANNE WASHBURN: Mm, yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Something liberating about that?
ANNE WASHBURN: I think it’s immensely soothing to think about the apocalypse --
-- because it’s the point where there’s no use being anxious about the apocalypse.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Maybe you can move on to new, more concrete problems. The suspense is over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] It was a pleasure talking to you.
ANNE WASHBURN: It was a real pleasure talking with you. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anne Washburn is a playwright. The play we’ve discussed is Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play.