Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Angels Fall is one of the few plays in which Wilson explicitly addresses environmental concerns. It continues the playwright’s interest in religious imagery, which is apparent at least as early as Balm in Gilead (pr., pb. 1965). Wilson has commented that his strong religious upbringing has led him to regard his plays as “Baptist sermons” that question why people behave as they do. Thus Doherty asks Niles to consider, in the light of the environmental disaster and the professor’s personal problems, what manner of person he should be.

This play also exemplifies thematic and stylistic shifts in Wilson’s oeuvre between the early plays and those appearing after 1973. Plays such as Balm in Gilead, The Rimers of Eldritch (pr. 1966), The Gingham Dog (pr. 1968), and Serenading Louie (pr. 1970) are almost unremittingly pessimistic in their outlook on the human condition and the individual’s chances for improvement. With The Hot l Baltimore (pr., pb. 1973), Wilson offers a more positive thematic focus, which he continues in such plays as 5th of July (pr., pb. 1978) and Talley’s Folly (pr., pb. 1979), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Angels Fall also continues the playwright’s movement away from the stylistic experiments in works such as Balm in Gilead and Lemon Sky (pr., pb. 1970) and the movement toward the well-made play exemplified by 5th of July and A Tale Told (pr. 1981; revised as Talley and Son, pr. 1985). While many critics approve of this evolution, some have considered that Wilson’s plots—including that of Angels Fall—lack depth and significance and that his experimentation with overlapping dialogue and time shifts should have been continued.

This play also illustrates what has become for some critics a disconcerting representation of female characters. While the four male characters have their vocations, Vita and Marion are merely secondary characters. With this play and others, such as 5th of July, Talley and Son, and Burn This (pr. 1987), the women seem no more than wives, lovers, and mothers—not characters in their own right, and certainly not protagonists. Despite the reservations concerning Wilson’s work, most critics agree that he is, with Sam Shepard and David Mamet, in the highest echelon of his generation’s playwrights.