Apr 8, 2019 in Literature

Literary and Theatrical Criticism on August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson


The play The Piano Lesson was written by the playwright August Wilson and it captures the effort of the victims of the slavery movement and their struggle to restore self-worth.  The playwright illuminates the effort of the protagonists in forgetting their past especially after they indirectly become victims of the slavery movement that characterized the American Society. Due to its success in capturing the myriad of experiences prevalent in human life, the play received the 1990 the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the year 1990. 

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Theatrical Criticism of The Piano Lesson

Siebenaler observes that the Wilsons’s play is by all aspects an epic narrative of the history of a family. He postulates that the playwright Wilson is quite candid with the use of vivid description delineates a progressive narration of the injustices that people suffered in America during the slavery. Successful literary writers capture events and experiences that are prevalent in the day to day life in society. Literary writers are therefore the mirror of the society. The Play Piano Lesson mirrors the adverse effects of slavery and the tensions that characterize human relationships. It is evident that the play succeeds in developing the tenets required in building successful family relationships as well as their subsequent interactions during the slavery period and its aftermath.

Nelson, identifies that Historical issues and experiences have always found a place in August Wilsons literary works. This has equally been capture in the prize winning play The piano lesson. The playwright is factual in depicting the historical events that characterized America in the 20th century. He weaves together relevant themes with ambitious characters to reveal a powerful and inspiring stories that the readers can easily associate with. The Play Piano Lesson is therefore about the great migration of Africans who moved from the Southern States into the cities in the north. It equally reveals the struggle of the African – Americans in their reconstruction and the difficulties they faced in the changing world of the 20th century.

According to Nelson, the playwright has  successfully captures the intrigues of the struggle of a family in reconciling their past and their present to make their life meaningful. The various experiences and efforts that the family goes through are intended to restore dignity from their shattered past. The protagonist Willie Boy is engaged in a confrontation that is centered on the carved piano that dominates their living room. Although the play is fictional, the issues it raises are real experiences that affected Africans in the United States.

Siebenaler acknowledges the way Wilson unfolds the story in the play with is characteristically bursts of music and evocative language. The blues occasionally meanders but is a fine tuned vision.. The role and influence of music in the life individuals have equally been reinforced by Wilson’s The Play Pianos Lesson. Music especially the genre of blues developed by African Americans is relevantly appreciated in the play. Music is an effective force that characterizes the life of the African Americans. Music is used as an avenue to pass messages from one generation to another.

Nelson concurs that the story is an epic personal battle involving Boy Willie Charles pitted against his sister, Bernice. The struggle that ensues between the protagonist Boy Willie on one hand and the sister Berniece gradually culminates into a revelation of their past and their subsequent struggle from slavery to their the contemporary lives. The reason Bernice wants the piano is premised on the idea that the blood of the family has been infused into its wood. This represents the heritage and family attachment which is more important that the monetary benefits that Willie Boy intends to get after selling the piano.

Boan equally argues that despite the fact that the play highlights the destructive nature of racism in the family, the book embraces optimism. The playwright captures the scenario where the various characters who are affected by racism, overcome the barrier, and they are determined to live a better life. A good literary writer uses their creative pieces of art as a vehicle for social change. It is important to pinpoint that Wilson in the play The Piano Lesson does not speak only to the experiences of the African-Americans but equally captures the rural experiences of the protagonists.

It is interesting to acknowledge the various heroes that the playwright exposes in his play. According to Wilson, his heroes are cooks, day labors, self-taught musician as well as street vendors.  The choice of these heroes by the playwright is deliberate. He wants to expose the fact that due to the hard experiences the African American have been exposed to in America, the people who have remained to suffer and accept their unfortunate fate are the common people who struggle to make ends meet. Wilson in his play The Piano Lesson appropriately uses eloquent speeches in a way that is not only convincing, but it is equally inspirational. He inspires people who are regarded as being not important.

The overall message that Wilson reinforces is the reconstruction of the African identity after being exposed to historical injustices of slavery, racism and other oppressive inhuman treatment in the plantation farms. The critic further pinpoints that the playwright has successfully captured the effort by individual families’ strategies on how to make the future better despite the harsh past realities that adversely affected them. It is undeniable that the issue of slavery that the playwright captures all through the play is a significant event that has tremendous effects on the lives of not only Americans but also other people from different regions in the world. This is inclusive of Africans where the slaves were picked and exposed to inhuman treatments in the plantations.

Literary Criticism of the Piano Lesson

Boan, captures the idea that Conflicts that arise between close family members are the core issues that sustains August Wilson play The Piano Lesson. The playwright captures the conflict between the two siblings about the efforts to preserve once cultural background on one side pitted against the struggles to survive as championed by Willie Boy. The significance of the resolution of the conflict is crucial in a myriad ways. It is clear that Willie Boy surrenders the piano to the sister with a stern warning that she must make good use of the piano. The playwright reinforces the core issue about the importance of cultural as well as historical heritage. It is important that one’s background is quite important. The various harsh experiences that characterized the African – American during slavery and racism cannot be ignored. It caused a lot of pain to the American people of black origin. The experiences that they went through have significance the contemporary people.

Wilson appropriately uses supernatural elements and relevant connection to the history of characters. In the play, The Piano Lesson, the issues, and characters are outstanding. The play features the protagonists whose identity and esteem have been damaged greatly by the adverse effect of oppression, racism and the negative effects that emerged from the industrial economy in Europe. The characters as depicted in the play are keen on reestablishing their family ties back so as to make them relevant. Emphases on establishing family ties are intended to sustain and make meaning in their lives. 

Plun in his analysis of literary aspects in the play acknowledges that racism in the United States is a controversial issue. The conflicts that have existed in the United States have their genesis in racism. African-Americans have been exposed to adverse effects of racism and are sidelined in the social as well as economic development of their country because of the misplaced stereotype of racism. People who have been subjected to racism have suffered tremendously. Wilson, the playwright of The Play Piano Lesson, highlights the effects of racism on both characters. According to the playwright, racism is a divisive ideology that has created wedges between the Americans of African origin and their white counterparts. By highlighting issues about racism, the author intends exposes its negative effects for people to change for the better. 

He goes further to reinforce that The Play Piano Lesson captures what an individual can do with their legacy. The play focuses on the incessant arguments between a sister and the brother about what they can do with the piano. Willie Boy wants to sell the guitar so that he can purchase a piece of land. On the other hand Berniece, the sister is determined to keep the piano that is quite significant as it is a mirror of what their ancestors went through during enslavement.

The Critic points out that the way the playwright introduces the characters is quite convincing. The way the characters are introduced, it is easy to associate with them. They are not only convincing but equally practical in the way they engage each other in trying to solve the challenges they come across in life and also the past. The plot of the play is characterized by tension and a lot of suspense especially in the way the protagonist argues over the fate of the piano that has a different significance between Willie Boy and the sister Berniece. It is evident that the removal of the star towards the end of the play is a big disappointment. This exposes the weakness of the playwright in developing the characters in the play. The ending of the play leaves so many unanswered questions. It makes the readers quite dissatisfied.

Siebenaler agrees that The Piano Lesson comes out as an honest recapture of events in the 20th century without much hyperbole by restating the atrocities that the African American went through. The dialogues between the characters are real and frank. The characters seem to be committed to outwitting each other so as to win the argument. The appropriate use of dialogues is used to exposes the suppressed personalities of the characters. The character’s articulations of the various lines expose their wisdom and experiences in compelling ways. The book is, therefore, a product of mastery of skill and experience in writing plays.

The old piano is more of a character in the plot of the play piano lesson as depicted by the playwright August Wilson. The piano play a significant role and it influences a plethora of factors in the play. The piano just like the other characters that articulate the lines, chases their dream and equally resist the ghosts in the play, is at the center of the conflict prevalent between the two protagonists.  The playwright is quite skillful in the way he manages to calm the two siblings and resolve the conflict of the piano. In the play, it is clear that the conflict between the two protagonists is destined to end in a violent manner. The playwright is, therefore, mature in his appreciation of how dialogue and compromise can be used to alienate or mitigate conflicts that are prevalent in our societies.

Speer appreciates the use of suspense has been used by the playwright in creating tension and anticipation on the next course of action especially as exhibited by Willie Boy and Berniece over the disposal or retention of the piano. The author acknowledges that conflicts are inevitable in society. Since human beings interact and they possess different personalities, the occurrence of conflicts is part and parcel of life. The acrimony over what should be done on the piano has immense effects on the plot of the novel. The playwright reinforces the importance of people solving conflicts. Willie Boy and the elder sister agree to settle the disagreement through compromise and honest dialogues.

Nelson makes compelling views about the author and the play. He observes that the playwright, August Wilson in the play The Piano Lesson, is determined to trace the story about an African- American family whose ancestry is in the South during the slavery movement. What is amazing about the playwright is the fact that he is careful not to add to much depth in the personalities of the protagonists. The characters are psychologically tortured people because of the past that haunts them.  It is evident that The Piano Lessons captured by August Wilson doesn't disappoint. It carefully delves deep into the inhumane as well as criminality that was meted on the Blacks in America. It equally captures the effort of the victims as shown by Berniece and Willie Boy on how survival instinct takes priority over other human instincts for Black Americans.

Piano Lesson in Schools

Speer observes that The Piano Lesson is read in Schools, Colleges, and Universities due to its meticulous description of issues that affected the African Americans in the 20th century. The Piano Lesson captures the core social issues that happened a century ago, and they are still relevant in the contemporary society. Good writers capture themes that are timeless. Wilson has successfully managed to achieve this. Students, therefore, develop a critical approach to the literary issues raised in the play with the view to justify the occurrence of various movements like the emancipation struggle and the civil rights movement that were formed in the US to eliminate discriminatory practices against the African population.

Although the book highlights social and historical issues of the black experience during in the 20th century, the issues raised are still applicable to the contemporary society. The past experiences that people go through especially if the experiences are bad, ultimately affect the personality of characters in the present lives. The dilemma that the two siblings experience over what to do with the piano reflects how the black people were denied the symbols of their past as well as the opportunities to enjoy the present lives because the bitter experiences still haunt them.

It is important to pinpoint that the play The Piano Lesson is open to a myriad of interpretation depending on the perspective a reader or literary analyst. The open approach is what suits it for study in literature classes. This has proved to be a good literary material for consumption especially on the issue of reconstruction of a legacy that had previously been dismembered. The way the playwright has developed his characters in passing on his message is compelling. Wilson‘s characters as depicted in the play are well developed. The motivations that influence them to make vital decisions are well presented. Wilson appreciates the fact that having all round characters in the play. The characters of can simulate the real-life scenarios.


It is undeniable that the play The Piano Lesson by August Wilson is a compelling literary piece that traces the historical injustices that were meted on the Africans in America during the slavery period. However is equally fails to capture pertinent dynamics concerning literary and theatrical approaches. The author using various literary devices explores thematic concerns in the play in an endeavor to explore the adverse consequences that the victims of slavery suffered and their offspring. Through a simple, plot, timeless character mad vivid description the reader can associate with events in the play. The playwright has managed to weave together a cohesive story about the experiences of the African American during the 20th century. Although the way the conflicts solved in the play is not quite convincing, the story remains memorable in all aspects.


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