Fifth of July

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)
ph_0111226320-Wilson_L.jpg Lanford Wilson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although Lanford Wilson is the second most frequently produced American playwright (Tennessee Williams is first), his name was little known to the general public beyond the confines of the New York theatrical scene until the Broadway success of his most recent play, Talley’s Folly (as yet unpublished)—a fact that says more about the state of American theater and its place in the cultural spectrum than it does about Wilson’s work.

A quick comparison between Wilson’s career and that of Edward Albee, America’s last “important” playwright, demonstrates the point. Despite its brevity, Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story (1958), made him fairly well-known as the most significant “Off-Broadway” dramatist of the late 1950’s. Since the peak of Off-Broadway activity coincided with Albee’s best works, his reputation soared, although his productivity was modest. In 1962, he made the move to Broadway with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which became the most famous and successful serious American play of the 1960’s, as well as one of the decade’s better-known films. Since then, although only two of his plays, Tiny Alice (1965) and A Delicate Balance (1966), have achieved any degree of critical and/or commercial success, Albee is still well known and seriously regarded.

By the time Lanford Wilson came to New York in 1962, however, theatrical production costs had soared, innovation and experimentation were dead, and “Off-Broadway” had become almost indistinguishable from its slightly richer big brother. But Wilson found a new milieu, “Off-Off-Broadway,” where coffee shops, storefronts, basements, church naves, and the like had been converted into noncommercial stages, and original, experimental work was emphasized. Here a playwright could work free of commercial pressures and of the temptations of fortune or fame. Wilson’s second produced play, The Madness of Lady Bright (1966), became the first real Off-Off-Broadway “hit,” and since that time he has produced a most impressive body of work.

The best-known of these works include Balm in Gilead (1965), the first original full-length play done Off-Off-Broadway; The Rimers of Eldritch, winner of the Vernon Rice-Drama Desk Award as the best Off-Broadway play of 1967; The Hot I Baltimore, winner of the New York Critics Circle and Obie Awards for Best Play of the 1972-1973 season, and later adapted for a short-lived ABC-TV series; and The Mound Builders (1975), another Obie Award winner and subsequent PBS television production. Yet for all of that, only in 1980, with Talley’s Folly a certified Broadway hit, can Lanford Wilson be said to have finally achieved success.

Fifth of July, produced Off-Broadway in 1978 and published in 1979, is the first of a trilogy about the Talley family and the first of several projected plays to be set in Lebanon, Missouri, Wilson’s hometown. It chronicles the attempts of the Talley children, who came to maturity during the social and political chaos of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, to put their disoriented, disillusioned lives together and find new directions for themselves as they precariously enter middle age. Talley’s Folly takes place thirty years earlier when Sally Talley, a high-spirited, rebellious WASP spinster of thirty-one, is wooed and won by Matt Friedman, a forty-two-year-old Jewish refugee accountant. Sally Talley Friedman, a sixty-seven-year-old widow in Fifth of July, provides the primary connection between the two plays. The final play in the trilogy is slated for production late in 1980.

In Fifth of July, Wilson demonstrates the method that he has so effectively developed over the past few years, an approach that clearly reflects his commitment to “ensemble creativity.” In 1969, he and a number of his colleagues founded the Circle Repertory Company, which has since thrived, to some extent because of its fine productions of his plays. Wilson regards the Circle Rep players as true collaborators, and much of his work seems tailored to their talents; he has, he says, “a kind of mild aversion to working alone that everybody at Circle Rep comes by honestly.”

In some ways Wilson is a very old-fashioned playwright, in others a most contemporary one. His approach to characterization and theatrical techniques fixes him squarely in the American realistic tradition of (early and late) Eugene O’Neil, the Elmer Rice of Street Scene, Clifford Odets’ social plays, and the best works of William Inge, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams—although the dramatist he most resembles is Anton Chekhov. But if his methods are traditional, his insights are thoroughly contemporary. He writes, he has said, “for that decently intellectual, politically aware social realist out there that I think the intelligent half of America is,” and his characters are absolutely attached to their time and place, be it 1944 or 1977. Yet Wilson is never a social or political polemicist. His focus is always on the effects that sociopolitical currents and pressures have on his characters as individuals and how they shape their needs, actions, and directions.

As is the case with Tennessee Williams, a dramatist with whom he has been compared (and with whom he has worked, as collaborator on “The Migrants,” a CBS-Playhouse 90 script, and as librettist for Lee Hoiby’s music in the operatic version of Summer and Smoke), the Chekhovian influences on Wilson are obvious. The action in many of his plays, especially those with a half dozen or more characters, may seem undirected,...

(The entire section is 2341 words.)

Fifth of July Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barnett, Gene A. Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Bryer, Jackson R., ed. Lanford Wilson: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1994.

Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1987.

Dasgupta, Gautam. “Lanford Wilson.” In American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, edited by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981.

Dean, Anne M. Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.

Gussow, Mel. “A Playwright at Home with Life’s Outsiders.” The New York Times, September 15, 2002, p. AR1.

Herman, William. Understanding Contemporary American Drama. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Hornsby, Richard Mark. “Miscarriages of Justice.” The Hudson Review 56 (Spring, 2003): 161-167.

Schvey, Henry I. “Images of the Past in the Plays of Lanford Wilson.” In Essays on Contemporary American Drama. Edited by Hedwig Bok and Albert Wertheim. Munich: Max Huber Verlag, 1981.

Williams, Philip Middleton. A Comfortable House: Lanford Wilson, Marshall W. Mason, and the Circle Repertory Theatre. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993.