One of the oldest tricks in the playwright's book is the ghost. Since the ancient Greeks, the device of an apparition of someone who is deceased has been used to deliver information, create motivation, and pronounce morals. The ghost of Agamemnom in Aeschylus's Oresteia is perhaps one of the earliest examples, but the most foundational today is certainly the ghost in Hamlet. Perhaps all our modern Western conceptions about ghosts and the dramatic conventions surrounding their use can be traced to Shakespeare, as well as to Charles Dickens.
August Wilson takes a particularly historical and cultural approach to the theatrical ghost in The Piano Lesson. He may be coming out of a long tradition of expository hauntings, but he is also consciously reflecting a key element of the African American cosmology.
African American culture has long been associated with ghosts and ghost stories. Slave culture melded its assigned Christianity with the spiritual beliefs of Africa, and the result was a highly active paranormal realm. Even into the modern day, stereotypes have persisted regarding African Americans and superstition, particularly regarding ghost stories. It is with the long history of both Western, white theater ghosts and of southern slave cosmology that Wilson writes a play full of ghosts.
The ghosts of Yellow Dog and the ghost of Sutter serve two separate purposes, each reflecting one of those supernatural traditions. The ghosts of Yellow Dog are a relic of slave superstition; out of tragedy grew hope in the form of vengeful spirits. These are ghosts that are just an accepted part of life, believed by some, less believed by others, but a standard part of the spiritual landscape of the south.
The ghost of Sutter, on the other hand, is a traditional Western theater ghost. He is never seen on stage, nor is he ever heard from. But it is Sutter’s function that makes him especially traditional.
The characters of Berniece and Boy Willie are both so set in their plans, ways, and intentions that no amount of argument is going to produce a dramatically suitable outcome. They are so diametrically opposed that putting the two characters in a room to hash out their problems is not going to be successful without outside help. Wilson navigates this challenge by turning to the device of the ghost.
Traditionally, such ghosts are used to initiate action (think the ghost of Hamlet, demanding revenge). But Wilson here invokes the theatrical ghost to resolve the action. The ghost of Sutter is both a literal manifestation and a symbol of the past that both Berniece and Boy Willie, in their different ways, are trying to ignore. By facing his characters with their ghosts - and in the form of a literal ghost - Wilson deftly relocates the action from the mind and onto the stage.
Many theater ghosts are seen (Hamlet) and heard (Angels in America), but some are entirely offstage. The ghost of Sutter is one of these unseen ghosts. But Wilson refuses the easy “mystery” of an ambiguous ghost – his audience does not leave the theater wondering whether the ghost was real or imaginary. The ghost is real, no doubt about it. Wilson offers multiple confirmations of this, from Boy Wilile’s fist fight with the off stage force, to the confirmation by an outsider character, Grace, who had not previously been privy to discussions of the ghosts’ existence.
The ghost of Sutter, just like the more metaphorical ghosts of the Charles’ family’s past, is a real and everyday part of their lives. The ghosts of slavery cannot be dismissed, or written off, or ignored. They must be confronted head on, and lived with every day.