August Wilson was never noted for his tight plotting, and as many have observed, Seven Guitars seems desultory even by his standards. This is a play, after all, whose briefer digressions include a recipe for collard greens. Most of the story is just people talking; tensions gather, so the climactic act of violence doesn't quite come out of nowhere. But the play feels like Wilson is working on ideas, on revealing the outside forces that shape his characters, as much as on the characters themselves.
Of course, half the pleasure of a Wilson play is just hanging out in the world he creates, in this case the Hill District of 1948. (Wilson was born there, of course, in 1945.) It is invariably hilarious and poignant and thoughtful at once -- deeply funny, you might say. In the first scene of Seven Guitars, most of the major characters gather in a backyard after the funeral of the protagonist, a murdered young bluesman named Floyd Barton.
RED CARTER: I was sure hungry.
CANEWELL: I didn't eat nothing this morning.
LOUISE: It was hard to eat. I ain't felt like eating nothing either. But I said, "Let me gon on and eat something 'cause I don't know how long it be before I eat again."
CANEWELL: I want Reverend Thompson to preach my funeral. He make everything sound pretty.
RED CARTER: I was just thinking the same thing! He almost make it where you want to die just to have somebody talk over you like that.
CANEWELL: It sound like he reading from the Bible even when he ain't. I told myself Floyd would have liked that if he could have heard it.
Wilson's plays -- though each of them, so far as I know, is set in a single room or small outdoor space, like this backyard -- are very full of the world, and it's all brought in by nothing but talk. Pittsburgh Playwrights reached a peak of this, I think, with last year's Two Trains Running, which filtered 1969 through a Hill District diner.
But even Seven Guitars is so full of talk about angels, and cigarettes, and Joe Louis, and of stories about relatives and of sexual byplay, that the forces that bring the story to its end only run like a current beneath. These are the old family grievances nurtured by the butcher Hedley, and Floyd's attempts to make it as a musician.
Both struggles revolve around money, and hence power -- two resources pretty much everybody in Seven Guitars lacks. One of Wilson's achievements in the play is to make us see the effects of this circumstance without preaching about it -- indeed, by making it simply part of the fabric of lives in which joy and tragedy lay side by side.