The depiction of Popular Culture with "The Simpsons" in Anne Washburn's "Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play"

Bart Simpson in Place of the Bard

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Content


Popular Culture and the play as such
Popular Culture and its importance in modern times
The use of The Simpsons as representatives of Popular Culture
The dystopic setting of Mr. Burns, A post- electric play.

The depiction of Popular Culture in the play
Popular Culture as diversion from reality
Popular Culture as livelihood: Theatre Companies
Music and Popular Culture
Popular Culture merged with reality




“… and thank you most of all for nuclear power, which has yet to cause a single proven fatality. At least in this country. Amen.”

It is this prayer that Homer Simpson, the head of the well-known yellow television family, states one episode while breaking bread at the supper table (comp. Broderick 2004: 252).

A main objective of The Simpsons series seems to be to take every day issues and world events as a part of its stories and to deal with them in a satirical way. While it also concerns itself with apparently banal issues like popular movies or bands, war, politics or nuclear power do not make an exception in the series’ content. Mick Broderick points out, that

“while many episodes ostensibly do not touch on nuclear themes, the ever- present influence and immanence of the atomic age pervades The Simpsons like a thematic half- life whose motifs contaminate the multi- layered, intertextual narratives of each episode, often as satire.” (2004: 245)

At this background, Anne Washburn’s decision to take The Simpsons, of all things, as the one part of popular culture that survives inside the people’s memories throughout a nuclear apocalypse, seems even more peculiar and ironic. But that’s just what happens in Washburn’s “Mr. Burns – A post- electric play”. The electric grid is destroyed and people have to adapt to a world without telephones, television, electric stoves or radiators. They have to revert to older ways of engagement, like storytelling, but instead of higher literature they reminisce about parts of popular culture everyone remembers.

The following paper therefore will analyse Anne Washburn’s play in regard to the way popular culture is represented in her post- apocalyptic world. Why is it important and why is The Simpsons Washburn’s main representative of contemporary popular culture in the play? And, moreover, in which ways does the representational form of popular culture change throughout it?

Popular Culture and the play as such

Popular Culture and its importance in modern times

The problem with the term “popular culture” is its vagueness: Contemporary popular culture is almost impossible to define, since it is so widespread. Raymond F. Betts describes this problem in A History of Popular Culture this way:

Popular Culture is the first cultural form to compress so many activities previously considered distinct, to engage diverse groups and classes of people so widely in a common environment: in front of the television screen, at the theme park, in the shopping mall, on the computer. [...] The development, still ongoing but less than a century old, has not been premeditated, but it was assured by its two most distinctive characteristics: the proliferation of images and stuff, the intensification of the means of communication and distribution. Add to these two the prevalence of its mood that is entertainment, and the global effects of popular culture are all hunched together. (2013: 157)

At the same time Betts points out that popular culture is mostly uncertain and changeable - no one can certainly determine whether a phenomenon becomes part of popular culture or how long something will stay part of it. (comp. Betts 2013: 157)

While the term popular culture used to refer to the rather vulgar or basic tastes of commoners, its meaning started to change since the 18th century. Popular culture started to denote something `widespread´ (Waltonen/ Du Vernay 2010: P 2717). The abbreviated form “pop” was coined in England in the late 1950s and was used to entitle art inspired by consumerism and music directed to the youth (Betts 2013: 2). Today, “pop culture envelopes all trends and tastes in a given culture, including film, television, and music.” (Waltonen/ Du Vernay 2010: P 2720). It is, however, not restricted to a culture’s consumption habits, but also includes art or various kinds of hobbies, such as dancing, cooking or even knitting.

In 1967, The Journal of Popular Culture was founded, which is the official publication of the Popular Culture Association ( in short: P.C.A.) . Both are part of a movement that believes “the perspectives and experiences of common folk offer compelling insights into the social world.” (P.C.A. Website: FAQ). The main objective of the journal is to disintegrate the barriers between so- called “low” and “high” culture to create a whole depiction of society by taking into account information popular culture contributes. By no longer neglecting popular culture as a mirror of culture and society, it has “grown more complex and intellectually stimulating in the past thirty years. [...] demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year.” (Johnson quoted in Waltonen/ Du Vernay 2010: P 2746[1] ).

The use of The Simpsons as representatives of Popular Culture

Already the title of Anne Washburn’s play – “Mr. Burns” - shows the importance of the television series The Simpsons for her story. But why would the Simpsons, of all things, seem to be a good choice to represent popular culture in a play?

When The Simpsons first aired in 1990, its main aim was to polarise the audiences. Matt Groening, the creator of the show, wanted to fabricate a cartoon that would deal with what he called “bigger issues”, like love, death or sex, setting his show apart from other cartoon series which only addressed lighter issues. The Simpsons, on the other hand, should show topics the audience would really care about (comp. Turner 2005: P 816[2] ).

Even though the series did not directly top the ratings of long established television series like The Cosby Show or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it still registered the third highest income of merchandise products: In 1990 about $750 million were earned by The Simpsons products (Turner 2005: P 583). At this point of the show it was not foreseeable whether The Simpsons would survive their next season. Turner describes popular culture as having “the short term memory of a goldfish” (2005: P 625), thereby indicating how easily one pop culture phenomenon can be replaced by another. Still, about ten years later, The Simpsons was watched by an estimate of 60million viewers in circa 70 countries all over the world every week. (Pinsky 2001: 2)

Since its debut, the show’s focus does not only rest on its main characters, but incorporates current issues and trends as well as (political) world events. (Turner 2005: P 284) The characters have to deal with them, thereby introducing topics like religion or politics. (comp. Turner 2005: P 295). In this way, the show creates a “detailed satirical reflection of the world we live in.” (Turner 2005: P 293)

By using satire as a means of storytelling, The Simpsons not always only provokes positive reactions, earning much criticism in the social media, but at the same time evoking higher resonance than most other television series. (Turner 2005: P 594) This resonance, as Turner points out, is what sets long lasting popular culture phenomena apart from short-lived trends: An audience does not merely consume the series, but connects with it (2005: P 594). Matt Groening stated in an interview in 2003, that “today’s outrage is tomorrow’s beloved classic.” (in Turner 2005: P 978). The more attention a topic of the series gets when it first airs, the more likely an audience is to remember it on a longer scale. Turner even tops this comment by claiming that “if there is a common cultural currency, it’s got Homer Simpson’s picture on it.” (2005: P 284)

It seems that Anne Washburn takes this notion as a starting point for her dystopic play, even stating that if any show could survive an apocalypse, it would be The Simpsons, since “so many people enjoy retelling it, mimicking the voices, the gestures; even a terribly reduced population should be able to do a reliable job of putting it back together.” (Washburn 2010: IV)

The dystopic setting of Mr. Burns, A post- electric play.

The story of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns – A post- electric play is set in the very near future, as it is stated at the beginning of the play. It starts off with a seemingly normal situation: A group of people sitting together at a campfire, retelling stories of The Simpsons. But gradually it becomes clear that this gathering is not a leisure appointment.

The electric grid has disintegrated, leaving the nuclear power plants without electricity to be kept running. As an outcome, the power plants have been destroyed one by one, releasing nuclear radiation that contaminates people and places near to them. Survivors from different cities band together and try to get information about the disposition of people they care about. To do so they keep lists of people they have met along the way, exchanging names with other strangers who have come from different cities.

Since there are no occupations like television or stereo anymore, the people have to return to “the ancient art of storytelling”, as Tim Sanford, the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons puts it in the Introduction of the play (Washburn 2010: I). But instead of retelling tales like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or the Iliad by Homer, they try to retell an episode of The Simpsons, which seems to be something most people can remember well.

In the second Act of the play seven years have passed. The main characters seem better adapted to their living situation and they have started to enact The Simpsons episodes for audiences in exchange for payment. The emerged theatre field seems to be highly competitive, as other companies earn their living by doing the same as the main characters. The main characters hardly get by and are a very small theatre group in comparison to their competitors. Survivors seem to be desperate and willing to do almost anything to get by. Jenny: “I’ve gotten people who are hungry, and desperate. I’ve gotten people who are crazy. [...] Lately people are bold, and that’s new.” (Washburn 2010: 80f) Additionally, supplies get scarcer. Susannah describes how she has not seen a diet coke in about three years and how such items can be traded for high amounts of goods, like lithium batteries (comp. Washburn 2010: 66ff).

As a result of the people becoming more and more desperate, they start acting corruptly. This becomes clear at the end of the second act, when the main characters get attacked for their goods (comp. Washburn 2010: 96ff). Even though they try to secure themselves with weapons, the scene ends rather abruptly with a blackout. Whether the main characters survive the attack or not is left unclear.

The depiction of Popular Culture in the play

Popular Culture as diversion from reality

At the beginning of “Mr. Burns – A post- electric play”, its dystopic setting does not directly come into focus. The main characters are sitting around a fire, retelling an old The Simpsons episode while laughing and humming. (comp. Washburn 2010: 2).

Not until the character Gibson enters the scene as a stranger the situation becomes clearer: The characters react with readied weapons, holding him at gun point while searching him for anything dangerous (comp. Washburn 2010: 16f). Throughout their conversation with him, phrases like “How bad is it?” or “Providence was deserted, weirdly, not even a lot of bodies [...]” (Washburn 2010: 18) give a first impression of the dystopic setting of the play. This is further confirmed and specified while the characters talk about what happened and the resulting consequences for them and other people. Especially a story of another survivor told by Susannah expresses the dread the people constantly feel concerning the threats of radiation poisoning and their inability to change the catastrophe coming on (comp. Washburn 2010: 32ff). She describes how the survivor wills his feet not to fail him, ultimately declaring that “it’s not knowing [how to stop the nuclear power plants from being destroyed], that’s the problem”, but not being able to handle the fear. (comp. Washburn 2010:37) This declaration then ultimately leads to a “rather. Long. Pause” (Washburn 2010: 37) in the conversation.

This pause is broken by Gibson, who recites a quote from the The Simpsons episode the characters were searching for before. Immediately, all characters jump at the change of subject and start talking about the cartoon series again. At this point, the reminiscence of popular culture phenomena, in this case The Simpsons and associated themes like horror movies can be seen as a diversion from the dark reality of the play. The relieved reaction (comp. Washburn 2010: 38) of the character Matt thereby can be interpreted in two different ways: He is either relieved that they finally found the answer to a former question concerning the episode, or he shows his relief because they finally changed the subject to something lighter.


[1] Please note that in the following the position of quotes in an e-book version of a book will be marked with a “P”, indicating that it does not refer to a classic page- system.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


The depiction of Popular Culture with "The Simpsons" in Anne Washburn's "Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play"
Bart Simpson in Place of the Bard
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
The London Stage
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
600 KB
Mr. Burns, Anne Washburn, The Simpsons, London Stage, Popular Culture
Quote paper
Mirja Quix (Author), 2014, The depiction of Popular Culture with "The Simpsons" in Anne Washburn's "Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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