Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play was originally developed with The Civilians, a theater company dedicated to creative investigations into the most vital questions of the present. Playwright Anne Washburn wanted to explore the question, “What would happen to a pop culture narrative pushed past the fall of civilization?” The Civilians commissioned the project in the summer of 2008, granting Washburn a one-week workshop with members of the company. Unlike a traditional workshop, Washburn gathered the actors and instructed them to recount Simpsons episodes from memory. Much of the dialogue in the play was taken verbatim from the ensuing discussions.
Mr. Burns examines the way stories evolve to fulfill changing cultural needs - specifically, the play imagines the evolution of an episode of The Simpsons. The specific choice of episode cleverly highlights the theme of repurposing and retelling old stories: the characters focus on the episode “Cape Feare,” which in and of itself is a reimagining of an existing story. This particular episode of The Simpsons spoofs the 1991 film Cape Fear, which in turn is based on a 1962 film of the same name.
Both the original film Cape Fear and its 1991 remake revolve around a violent criminal who, after spending years in prison, sets out for revenge against the man he holds responsible for convicting him. In The Simpsons’ “Cape Feare” parody, Sideshow Bob is released from prison and is seeking revenge against Bart, whom he holds responsible for his imprisonment. In addition to the episode’s many nods to the films, it also contains moments of homage to other classic films, including Psycho, Friday the 13th, and Edward Scissorhands. The episode also features characters performing songs from classic musicals like The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore.
The meta-theatricality of The Simpsons’ episode pervades Mr. Burns, which went on to premiere at D.C.’s Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2012, featuring many of the same actors who participated in the initial workshop. The play received its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons the following year, where it was nominated for the Drama League Award for Best New Play.