Critical Context

The Hot l Baltimore is probably the first of Lanford Wilson’s plays that can be called a comedy; it launched his series of optimistic plays throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Focusing on alienated, even psychotic characters, his earlier plays are far more dour. No Trespassing (pr. 1964) concerns a teenager who kills his father, The Madness of Lady Bright (pr. 1964, pb. 1967) focuses on the unhappy plight of an aging homosexual, and Lemon Sky (pr., pb. 1970) deals with a failed father-son relationship. Even a play following The Hot l Baltimore, The Mound Builders (pr. 1975, pb. 1976), is an unhappy story of unrequited love, failed dreams, murder, and suicide at a southern Illinois archaeological excavation. This play does, however, take up some of the same themes of the decay of American institutions and ideals as those in The Hot l Baltimore. By 1978, however, Wilson returned to comedy with his trilogy of plays about the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri: 5th of July (pr., pb. 1978), Talley’s Folly (pr., pb. 1979), and A Tale Told (pr. 1981), later revised as Talley and Son (pr. 1985). Like The Hot l Baltimore, the Talley plays are concerned with relationships and the kinds of families that people form. The main “family” in 5th of July, for example, is composed of the elderly widow Sally Friedman (née Talley), Ken Talley and his homosexual lover Ned, and the single mother June and her daughter Shirley.

The Hot l Baltimore is an important play for Wilson because it brought him his first widespread critical and commercial success. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle and Obie Awards as the best play of 1972-1973. After moving to the Circle-in-the-Square Theatre, it ran for more than eleven hundred performances. In 1975, a television situation comedy, The Hot l Baltimore, based on the successful play, had its premiere and ran for five months. Wilson was not involved in its production. The play also brought critical attention to the Circle Repertory Company, where Wilson became resident writer. Although at times he has been snubbed by academic critics, Wilson has established himself as one of the best and best-known playwrights of his time.