Lanford Wilson Essay - Wilson, Lanford (Vol. 7)

Wilson, Lanford (Vol. 7)

Wilson, Lanford 1937–

Wilson is an award-winning American playwright associated with off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theatre, especially as director, actor, and set designer for Caffe Cino and La Mama Experimental Theater Club. (See Also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

A number of talented young playwrights either worked or started at La Mama, among them Lanford Wilson, whose This Is the Rill Speaking used sound patterns, movement, intertwining time and song to paint a picture of a hillbilly town, its people and its rhythm. A sugar-free Our Town, it found loved life in a dramatic collage of back porches, cars—everywhere. Moreover, it was an early example of a movement away from the intelligibility of dialogue. This sounds silly, but if you listen carefully there is an overlap to daily conversation that turns meaningful words into the beat and music of existence itself. Wilson grasped the feel and rhythm of human conversation. But while the technique was exciting, it was also unresolved. Yet that's all right; that's exactly what La Mama and the far left wing are for—the new, the ambitious, the still-being-born and experimental. (pp. 300-01)

Martin Gottfried, in his A Theater Divided: The Postwar American Stage (copyright © 1967 by Martin Gottfried; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co.), Little-Brown, 1967.

If your Field has not grown rusty with the years, you will recall that the gingham dog and the calico cat got into such a terrible family spat that they soon reduced themselves to a state of invisible and inaudible antimatter. The two leading characters in Mr. Wilson's play ["The Gingham Dog"] were similarly bent upon destroying each other, but they had the bad luck to be human and so remained visible and audible to the end. The weapons they fought with were not innocent teeth and claws but words, and it is a notorious disadvantage of words that though in quarrels they have a tendency to take a sharper edge with use, they maim and do not kill. Many wise people hold that it was the invention of speech that was the Original Sin—the supreme wrong-turning that doomed mankind, since nothing but heartbreak could come of learning to tell one's feelings instead of dumbly bearing them. It requires great literary skill to transform the conventional lacerating encounters between people who love and hate each other into a drama that will prove exhilarating for an audience to overhear, as, for example, we relish overhearing the ferocious antagonists of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Mr. Wilson lacks that skill; he tried valiantly to make his play be true, and it turned out to be merely tiresome.

The hero of "The Gingham Dog" was an architect from Kentucky, young, white, liberal-minded, and laboriously making good in the professional jungle of New York. For three years, he had been married to a crusading black girl. As the play opened, the marriage had failed and the dreary little childless household was breaking up, with the usual squalid allocation of domestic spoils to be sullenly got through—pots and pans to her, hi-fi and books to him…. In a dirgelike monotone, they worried and gnawed at the years they had wasted growing apart; they touched hands for a moment in what they perceived to be a sterile simulacrum of affection, then the husband stumbled away down the apartment-house stairs and the wife stood at the window, smoking and gazing at the sky. Curtain. Poor things, they had talked and talked, and the only secret they had given away to us was that they had no secret; they were unloving and, alas, unlovable, and if we managed to feel sorry for them for what they were not, we failed to be moved by what they were. (p. 107)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1969 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 3, 1969.

From the beginning, the Wilson touch has been distinctive. The most obvious element has been an interest in people, all kinds of people, from parents to street hustlers. The playwright is fascinated by personality and behavior, constantly unearthing the oddities just beneath the surface, and establishing connections between surfaces that seem unalterably alien to each other. The similarities in the human condition are the thing, delineated rarely with sentimentality, always with compassion.

Though the playwright experiments with form, the experiments are hardly ever jarring. In fact, his work as a whole falls within a quite familiar tradition that would include Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams (Mr. Wilson recently completed the screenplay for Williams' "One Arm" and has written the libretto for an opera version of "Summer and Smoke"). The one constant, however, the most outstanding ingredient in all of the Wilson plays, is an extraordinary use of language, the ability to compose not so much patches of interesting dialogue as sustained series of quiet lyricism, resembling vocal duets, trios or complex ensemble pieces.

John J. O'Connor, "The Wilson Touch," in The Wall Street Journal (© 1970 by The Wall Street Journal), May 22, 1970 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, October, 1970, p. 208).

[Lanford Wilson's "Lemon Sky"] is one of those "what-went-wrong" biographical plays in which a family tears itself to tatters, son confronts father and, in Gertrude Stein's memorable phrase, "bitterness is entertained by all." But Mr. Wilson can write; his characters spring alive on stage; he holds our attention, he engages our heart.

People often ask where is the old-fashioned, well-written, well-constructed play. Well,… the answer might well be off Broadway. (p. 208)

Despite its very contemporary attitudes, ["Lemon Sky"] remains … a basically conventional play, but here Mr. Wilson has avoided conventiality. As a self-conscious device (the fashionable word for it is "Pirandellian"), he gets himself started and finished (procedures that clearly gave him professional difficulty) with the quite unnecessary pretense that we are seeing reality, suggesting that it is a play, rather than a play hoping to be taken for reality. It is a feeble conceit, but fortunately the author himself pays so little attention to it that it may easily be forgotten.

Lanford Wilson's great quality as a dramatist—and this in his best play so far—is his impartiality. He realizes that there are no heroes, and it is sometimes as painful to be wicked as it is to be good. The result is a play that has no message except perhaps a sad dislike of blood and a strong belief in survival.

"Lemon Sky" is not merely set in California; it is a superbly and wittily documented guidebook to the land of eternal sunshine, eternal orange juice and forbidden grapes. It is also a guidebook to our two generations, the old and the young, another classic, but stylishly executed exercise into that greatest theme of all American playwrights, the father and the son. (pp. 208-09)

On many levels "Lemon Sky" is a play very well worth seeing. It has the immediacy of the way we live, and something of the smooth-spoken hysteria. (p. 209)

Clive Barnes, "Immediacy Illuminates Wilson's 'Lemon Sky'," in The New York Times (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 18, 1970 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, October 12, 1970, pp. 208-09).

With his new play "The Hot 1 Baltimore," Lanford Wilson's message to the American theater is: look, theater is plays—remember them? And so he goes back and writes a play so old-fashioned in its humanity that it's the freshest play—the best American play—I've seen this season. Wilson is a good young playwright who's been around a long time, he's never had a Broadway smash, but he hasn't gone sour or frantic or corrupt or paranoid. He just keeps writing, and a lot of his writing is for the Circle Theatre Company, the absolute epitome of the tiny, dedicated, poverty-stricken, repertory group, with real playwrights who write new plays for its permanent acting company.

"The Hot l Baltimore" is a daring play. In it Wilson dares to remind us of what writers once were in this country. His play is not an imitation of, say, the young Saroyan of "The LaSalle Hotel in Chicago"; it is an authentic rebirth of that kind of writer's spirit—open, compassionate, loving, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, scrambled—all the kinds of egg a writer could be in those days. Wilson's characters are the beautiful losers—the deadbeats, walking wounded, crippled up-the-creekers, along with their inevitable muse, the golden whore….

Wilson not only loves these characters—creatures of his brain who represent what moves him about human beings—but he loves the play itself, and so he treats it the way you're supposed to treat something you love, building, developing, cultivating, being honest with it until he and the play are speaking to each other in a warm transfer of energy and good faith.

Jack Kroll, "Grand Hotel," in Newsweek (copyright 1973 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1973, p. 91.

"The Hot L Baltimore" … is as odd and original a play as you are likely to see all season. Its originality isn't lessened by the fact that it bears a certain resemblance to Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life." Although perhaps too long, I thought it provided an interesting and appealing evening, and it is certainly acted with skill and spirit….

The setting is the lobby of an ancient hostelry called the Hotel Baltimore that is on its last legs and is about to close down. With the years, the first "e" has disappeared from the electric sign out in front. Incidentally, there is no sign in evidence and no dialogue in the play that so much as mentions the absent letter, and you have to take the reason for the title on faith.

There is no more plot than there is in "The Changing Room," and the only hint of one, a young man's search for his missing grandfather, disappears. All that happens is the residents of the hotel, who have been told they will have to leave within a month, and some of the clerks sit around in the lobby, their substitute for Saroyan's saloon, and talk. The important thing is that they are entertaining and friendly people, though a little crazy, and their thoughts, woes, confidences and self-revelations make an engaging and sympathetic play.

Richard Watts, "The Hotel That Was Dying," in New York Post (reprinted by permission of the New York Post; © 1973, New York Post Corporation), March 23, 1973 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, April 19, 1973, p. 307).

[The Mound Builders is better than Wilson's last play,] The Hot l Baltimore. I thought that play (now the basis of a TV series) an imitation of Tennessee Williams, hollow and syrup-covered. The Mound Builders has its faults, faults aplenty, but at least they are Wilson's. So are its virtues, the chief of which is its authentic base—in Wilson's well known feeling for the Midwest.

Two archaeology professors, one middle-aged and one young, are on a summer dig in Illinois, with their families. The story is told in flashback by the older man, accompanied by many color slides. What is attempted is a parallel/contrast between the vanished society for which they are digging and the complexities of their own lives, of modern life generally….

It's a facile schema, the contrasts between past and present, between the university types and the young countryman, but for a time Wilson breathes some life into it. We really get the feeling that we are in mid-America (as for instance with the young wife's story of her spelling-bee championship), and there are flashes of real wit (as when someone asks the novelist whether she has a deck of tarot cards, and she replies, "No, I just look that way."). And there are some moments of genuine feeling—for instance in the young countryman's doomed fumbling for the young wife. But finally Wilson lacks the intellectual depth to make the schema fruitful or the art to keep it from the mere filling-out of a pattern, step by overlong step. The "tragic" end is far from tragedy because I couldn't believe that the young countryman, close to all the others, would be the only one not to know either that the young wife is pregnant or that the big highway is being switched so he will not make the money he hoped for. This plotty finagling stands out glaringly in a play on the theme of authenticity….

Wilson himself still seems to me an ambitious undergraduate pouring out promising scripts for his professor of play-writing, but at least there are more promises here than there were last time. (p. 22)

Robert Evett, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 1, 1975.

The Mound Builders is Lanford Wilson's most ambitious play….

It deals with a group of men and women digging at an archaeological site somewhere in southern Illinois for relics of the Amerindian civilization. Their work is arduous, the ground treacherous; the possibility of failure, through flooding by the nearby lake, is a constant threat. But the diggers are determined to unearth the priceless treasures buried in the land.

The place where they labor is owned by a man who hopes the publicity given the dig will increase its eventual cash value as real estate. When it becomes apparent that the archaeological venture will prove successful, the landowner's son—who has been befriended by the working team—realizes that the place will become a historical reservation instead of a source of wealth, wrecks the enterprise and drowns his pal, its most dedicated member.

The play is a parable in which the mercenary urge is shown to thwart the artist's dream, so that both parties are ruined in the conflict. But the play is not as bald as this summary may make it seem. There are unusual characters in the telling. This is especially true of the play's anti-hero, the landowner's son. The "intellectuals" (or artists) attract him. They fill him with awe; he envies them and because of this ambivalence he despoils their work. What is still more original in the development: the play's "idealists" (the archaeological group) are not depicted as beautiful souls but are shown to be, like so many of their kind, as confused, neurotic and messy as less honored folk.

The play's idea is provocative and unmistakably felt. What weakens it is that much of its detail is diffuse and ill-digested. The dialogue is heaped pell-mell with sundry reflections that do not establish their relevance to the whole. They strike one as scattered items from the writer's notebooks that have been forced upon the play's design. Still, I found myself strangely disturbed toward the end by the density as well as the pull and tear of motivations and thoughts evoked and left unresolved. The play, I repeat, is one I genuinely respect even in my dissatisfaction with it. (pp. 315-16)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 15, 1975.

Mr. Wilson's play [Serenading Louie] concerns two couples out in suburbia, somewhere in Middle America (Chicago, probably, since mention is made of the Sun-Times and the men had been roommates at Northwestern). They—Carl and Mary, Alex and Gabrielle—live in identical houses…. They are well-off, ritually nostalgic about the Good Old Days, dull, ambitious, and unhappy in their respective marriages…. During the evening it comes out that one member of each couple is, as they say, carrying on. Gabrielle walks out on Alex; Carl dispatches Mary with a bayonet….

Hardly fertile material for a writer whose inventiveness has ranged wide in the past. Mr. Wilson's play is not quite dull, and some of his theatrical contrivance … adds some semblance of freshness, notably his trick of having a character chat with the audience about things he or she cannot say on the stage. But the play is badly lacking in shape. Nearly all of the first act is built out of quick, patchwork scenes that don't begin to come together until much later. Toward the end, the clever device of the asides changes into a series of harangues to the crowd—as though Mr. Wilson had come upon some new ideas and didn't quite know how to get them into the play. The violence at the end is jarring and gratuitous, and it seems to be there for the same reason it turns up in works by lesser writers: because no better idea has come along for getting the play over with. (p. 78)

Alan Rich, in New York Magazine (© 1976 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Alan Rich), May 24, 1976.