By Mike Downing
August Wilson died ten years ago today. He is sadly missed. I can’t believe ten years have gone by so quickly. It seems like just the other day when he told the world that he was dying of liver cancer, and now it’s been ten years.
At one point before he died–after completing his Century Cycle–Mr. Wilson said he wanted to try his hand at writing comedy. He would have been good at it. The comic elements in his existing plays are outstanding. I actually believe that some of the parts of the plays that have heretofore been treated with high degree of seriousness are actually meant to be comedic in a thoughtful, insightful and powerful way.
Now, I do understand why his work has been treated with a high degree of seriousness. He writes like a Greek tragedian. His plays are filled with serious themes, including murder, rape and other extreme violence. In addition, when the plays were being adapted and performed for the first time(s), everyone wanted to show respect, and that means they wanted to err on the side of treating the work with a high degree of seriousness. Wilson was essentially inventing/ creating a unique theatrical experience for African Americans and there’s nothing funny about that.
Still, the longer I study his work, having read and watched all of the plays several times, having listened to all of the Century Cycle plays, having scoured the articles, I assert that there are many comic elements in Wilson’s work, waiting to be fully recognized and developed.
The presence of comedy in Wilson’s work is practically unavoidable. The rhythm of his language makes it perfect for the delivery of snarky lines, and his powerful characterization and juxtaposition of characters and situations also lends itself to biting comedic exchanges.
In addition, there is a high level of humor in Black Culture. It is expected and appreciated, even when handling difficult topics. Wilson is precisely the right man for that job.
This is not to say that his work is not serious. It is. Wilson’s comedy is certainly high comedy insofar as it includes witty dialogue, satire, biting humor, or criticism of life. Perhaps I can tackle this topic in an essay some day. For now, I hope that directors and actors continue to find and stage the humor in Wilson’s existing canon.
For now, however, I need to return to another Wilson project I’m working on. I’m collaborating with an Iranian scholar on a paper relating to “Two Trains Running.” It’s nearing completion and I plan to present it next week at a literature conference.
I have two links for today. Rest in peace, Mr. Wilson.
Obituary from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Remembering August Wilson from the Chicago Tribune.