Mr Burns: A post-electric comedy

'Mr Burns: A post-electric play' was entertaining but, even more, I really liked the idea.

It was structured into three acts, each of which was set some time after some sort of unspecified global calamity. It looked at how The Simpsons was transformed by people as it became a myth.

The first scene took place shortly after, even during the disaster. Electricity and civilization were apparently gone. In those troubled times, The Simpsons was used as a way to push away the darkness. Trading lines around the camp fire was fun, funny and connected people to each other and to happier times.

Seven years later, performing The Simpsons was a desperate way of making a living. Ragged theater troops performed episodes for audiences. People still remembered the shows but, without having seen it in years, it was hard to remember exactly how they went. Stories were mixed up with other cultural artifacts as the myth changed in peoples' minds.

Seventy-five years later, no one alive had actually seen the show. By then, the myth served only as unconstrained inspiration. The characters were still known, though mixed up, and they had been changed to icons with simplified characteristics. Bart was practical. Homer was hopeful. Etc. Pure mythology of clarified virtues and vices. A play produced in those times used the myth to express the hope that, despite the peeling away of comfort, security and pleasure, those who accepted the new reality would prevail – in a strangely passive way.

It made me think of the Hercules myth. I don't really know how the Romans portrayed him in their culture but they had theater and poetry and the rest. His basic story was as a protector at a time when outside forces were threatening Rome. Where today's Simpsons are a way of looking at American families and small town culture, Hercules was, presumably, a way of understanding the military culture, perhaps the equivalent of terrorism at that time. Later, Hercules changed from his original emphasis as protector to being an heroic inspiration for  warriors.

Centuries later, in the nineteen fifties, Hercules was a comic book hero. "The world's strongest man". That is, the myth, with all those in the real world who lived during the popularity of his origin story long gone, changed again into a symbol of pure masculinity and power. Not having read the books, the cover suggests that he was big and strong and mighty. A good use of the myth for post-war America as the country reveled in its wartime successes or, perhaps more accurately, sought to retain that self-perception in light of the mixed events in Korea.

In the nineties, Kevin Sorbo portrayed him as a response to that era's needs. He was a pleasant, ethical helper. He redefined masculinity as congeniality and restrained strength. He was a helper, not a savior. He avoided violence but, it was because he was strong enough to risk engagement. He was self-effacing. Perhaps it was a response to the "greed is good" eighties or an expression of the power of feminism in myth. Maybe a response to the immense overkill that was applied in the first Iraq war. An attempt to recast our self-image as more thoughtful than violent.

In any case, the sequence is a practical example of the transformation of a myth through time and in response to different social changes. As with the change of Superman story from its creation in the thirties as the American Hercules to the eighties Lover Superman to today's Flawed Introspective Superman, Hercules and The Simpsons adapt to the needs of modern society.

It is peculiar to think of The Simpsons as our mythology. It is thought of as a crude entertainment but, that's how all myths start. The Simpsons has real myth potential because of its longevity (we replace things much more quickly now than in the heyday of historical myth making) and because of its complex reflection of social reality.

'Mr Burns: a post-electric play' is not a fabulous play but the author does a credible and imaginative job of envisioning the changing demands that society places on myths and how a particular one might adapt to fit those needs. From The 'Chase Away the Darkness' Simpsons to The 'Nostalgic Rerun' Simpsons to The 'We Will Endure' Simpsons, the play provides a way of understanding that, even in these cynical and anti-cultural times, mythology is an essential way of helping us adapt and look at ourselves.