“Piano Lesson” Analysis
A title of a work is carefully chosen to not only strike interest but also to give some sort of clue as to the significance of the work. In the case of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, the title, though a play on words, reveals how important the piano is to the message Wilson is trying to convey. The piano, as an object, moves the plot of the play along since the conflict is the two main characters fighting over it. On the other hand, the piano, as a symbol, represents the perseverance of history in an individual’s lives. It’s presence and symbolism work hand in hand to communicate the lesson that family history remains with a person and it’s their responsibility to decide how to use it.
Looking at the different character’s and their views on the piano provides evidence of this message. The play begins with Boy Willie barging into the house where his sister, Berniece, lives with his uncle, Doaker. Boy Willie’s purpose for being there is to sell the piano that Berniece keeps so that he can buy the land from his relative’s former slave owners. He knows the importance of the piano but views it as an object and a means for achieving his own success so that he can prove that he deserves as much respect as the white man. He says, “The only thing my daddy had to give me was that piano…I ain’t gonna let it sit up here and rot without trying to do something with it” (1.2).
In his mind, keeping his family’s legacy isn’t with remembering them through the piano but using the piano as a means of making money, which to him will honor them in the long run. He tells his sister, “I’m supposed to build on what they left me…now the kind of man my daddy was he would have understood that” (1.2).
He does acknowledge though that the past is something to be proud of. He lectures Berniece, “You ought to mark down on the calendar the day that Papa Boy Charles brought that piano into the house…and every year when it come up throw a party. Have a celebration. If you did that [Maretha] wouldn’t have no problem in life” (2.5).
Boy Willie’s sister, Berniece, takes an entirely different approach when it comes to her choice of how the piano is used. Berniece is a character that lives in the past in an unhealthy way. The past has hardened her and it shows in the way she raises her child, Maretha, telling her not to go off “showing [her] color” (1.1).
When Doaker comments on Berniece keeping the memory of her deceased husband saying, “she still holding onto to him” (1.2) is further evidence of her clinging to the past but not using those memories in a productive manner. Unlike Willie, she views the piano as a symbol of her family’s heritage but fears it. She scolds Boy Willie for trying to sell it when she says, “You always talking about your daddy but you ain’t never stopped to look at what his foolishness cost your mama…cold nights and an empty bed…For a piano? To get even with somebody?” (1.2).
She shows her resentment to the past by refusing to play the piano and refusing to tell her daughter of it’s history. Berniece is also afraid of the piano because of those who died because of it. Her mother died honoring it and her father died trying to get it. She explains to her suitor, Avery, “I don’t play that piano cause I don’t want to wake them spirits” (2.2). She faces that fear when Boy Willie comes to the house bringing a ghost with him; however, the ghost isn’t their dead relatives but Sutter’s. The presence of the ghost forces Berniece to face the past and Boy Willie to acknowledge that the past matters just as much as the future. The play concludes when Avery, who is a preacher, comes to the house to get rid of the ghost. The ghost protests and “fights” with Boy Willie. It is then that Berniece plays the piano to call on the spirits of her dead relatives singing, “I want you to help me” (2.2). By doing this she learns the lesson that the past isn’t there to burden her but to give her strength for the future. Boy Willie also learns the lesson that the past is alive and that using it doesn’t have to be materialistic. It can simply be used to remember who you are.
The lesson that the two characters learn is Wilson’s way of communicating to the audience how important family legacy is. The character’s growth in terms of their views on the piano display how easily one can lose sight of what is important in terms of being a person. Boy Willie thinks being somebody is materialistic while Berniece hides from being somebody at all. Though the main characters take a big part of the play the piano’s reoccurring presence and symbolism is the central focus of the play since it is through it that the conflict comes together, through it that the characters learn their lessons, and through it that family history is brought to life.