The Play

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982

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Angels Fall, a play in two acts, is set inside a mission church on a New Mexico Indian reservation. As the play opens, Niles and Vita Harris have been rerouted at a highway roadblock. They enter the church, trying to escape the heat, and call Dr. Singer. Dr. Singer runs a mental institution, and the Harrises are on their way there to admit Niles. Don Tabaha appears and tersely informs them that the church is closed and that the telephone is for medical emergencies only. Marion Clay and Zappy Zappala then arrive; they were stopped at another roadblock on their way to San Diego for a tennis tournament in which Zappy is competing. Marion once lived in the area with her husband, a recently deceased painter whose works are about to be shown on a national tour, and she knows Don and Father Doherty, the church’s pastor. Don remains unfriendly, however, and leaves just as Father Doherty enters.

Niles and Vita tell the others how they had been turned back at a roadblock because a bridge was out. Doherty explains to them that there is no bridge and that the roads are always passable at this time of year (June)—except when there has been an accident at one of the nuclear facilities nearby. Marion and Zappy say that they heard on their car radio that the roads are closed in all directions because of an explosion at Chin Rock Mine: A cloud of uranium dust has escaped, and one worker has been killed and others injured. The travelers are stranded. A low-flying helicopter is heard, and a voice from its loudspeaker tells everyone to stay indoors.

Niles recounts his last day of teaching art history at his college. While working on an outline for a new book, he made the “tactical error,” as he calls it, of rereading his three published books and realized that he did not believe a word of them. Consequently, he went to his class (driving through the college’s iris bed on the way), told the students that the course was worthless, and tore up his books. Although he was not fired, the governors of the college demanded that he receive professional treatment.

Don enters, and Doherty turns the conversation toward the young man’s imminent departure. Don is an intern at the reservation hospital and intended to stay, but now he has changed his plans. Despite the many medical problems among the Native American population, and despite Doherty’s importuning, he is taking a position at a cancer research institute at Berkeley. Doherty feels that Don should stay and minister to his own people, while Don wants to leave the tragic circumstances of the reservation.

Near the end of the first act, Niles and Don argue. Niles suggests that Don ought to reconsider staying on the reservation, and Don implies that college professors, in their ivory towers, are too removed from the real world to understand his reasons for wanting to leave the reservation. In an extended passage, Niles ridicules the notion of an ivory tower by describing the gracelessness and shabbiness, and even despair, of a professor’s daily routine. Niles and Don both leave the room, and Doherty has Zappy hide Don’s motorcycle keys. Vita tells Doherty that she is “at the end of my tether” because of her husband’s problems but declines his invitation to talk. As the act ends, she slowly turns to look at the altar.

Early in act 2, Marion tells Vita and Doherty that her husband was feverishly painting during his last few years and, with his approval, she had begun managing Zappy’s tennis career. The young man is an excellent tennis player, although in each of his last four tournaments he has drawn in the first round the tournament’s eventual winner. Besides being his business manager, Marion has become romantically involved with him, but despite Zappy’s marriage proposals and Doherty’s encouragement, she is avoiding marriage. She then telephones the tournament officials and finds out that at last Zappy’s seeding should allow him to get past his early competition and into the final round of eight competitors.

Niles returns to the church from a walk and becomes ill. As Don tends him, the two men, with Doherty and later Zappy, discuss the professor’s loss of belief. Niles had become dogmatic in his beliefs about art history, and once he realized he could no longer believe in those truths he decided he had to leave his profession. In a pivotal passage, the priest quotes from Scripture to argue that Niles cannot give up his vocation as a teacher and do nothing. Instead, says the priest, each person must determine his vocation and follow it despite the difficulties. At this point, Zappy recounts a youthful incident that, he says, made clear to him that he was “called” to be a tennis player.

The helicopter returns, and a voice informs those below that the road is now clear. Doherty bitterly remarks that Don’s calling is to minister to the Indians but that he has abandoned his vocation for the lure of the research center. Niles argues that the priest cannot shape the young intern to his own image as a minister to the Indians, even if he believes it to be for Don’s own good. Doherty realizes the truth of Niles’s observation and reconciles himself to Don’s departure.

As the second act nears its end, Marion and Zappy leave for the tournament; Niles begins to leave, but Doherty explains to him that Vita has agreed to stay for Mass. As the priest prepares for the service, Don, weeping, looks toward the exit. After a long pause, he picks up his belongings and leaves. Doherty watches him through the window, then moves back toward the altar and begins the service.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

A traditional dramatic device employed in Angels Fall is the locked room. Wilson develops this device by using the unseen but amplified voices from the helicopters commanding everyone to stay within the confines of the sanctuary. As in Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest (pr., pb. 1935) or Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis-clos (pr. 1944; No Exit, 1946), for example, Angels Fall strands its characters and so forces them to communicate with one another, when otherwise they would never have done so. This dramatic device enables the characters, through their markedly different perspectives and experiences, to solve one another’s problems.

While characters have ample reasons to mourn and even to engage in self-pity, humor keeps the plot from devolving into maudlin pathos. For example, Father Doherty remarks on the dangers of nuclear contamination but also on the frivolity of his concern about becoming sterile. Zappy, besides providing dramatic foreshadowing of the others’ salvation, serves through actions and speech as comic relief, easing the tension generated by circumstances and the other characters’ interchanges.

Wilson makes extended use of religious imagery. The action takes place in a church, and the protagonist’s “salvation” is brought about by a priest. Further, as if to validate Niles’s new life, the play ends with a mass being celebrated. The play’s title comes from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (a portion of which is used as an epigraph) that emphasizes the essential limitations and lack of heroism of human beings as compared with the angels; yet despite Hopkins’s awareness of his inherent limitations, his poem implies that one must persevere in one’s vocation. This theme squares with that of the play: Niles falls from his “angelic” place as professor of dogmatic certainties and realizes that humanity is fated to live with doubt and uncertainty. So also do the other characters realize their limitations: Doherty, his inability to control Don; Don, his inability to save the Indians and search for cancer’s cure; Zappy, his inability to control the luck of the draw.

Human limitations are underscored by the nuclear accident, which, for all the characters know, may keep them stranded for days or even kill them. More significant, the accident is suggestive of Armageddon, and Doherty employs this analogy in the biblical citation he uses to redeem Niles. Confronted with this lesson about humankind’s insignificance in the face of the apocalypse, Doherty preaches that man must live his life as if he were at any time about to be called to judgment.

Finally, the accident also emphasizes the play’s theme of the importance of belief. Doherty remarks thatpeople are beginning to look forward to these little emergencies. These shows of power. They’ve always wanted a big terrible God of the Old Testament and now they have Him. . . . The Archangel Gabriel will announce the Second Coming of the Son of Man and this time His voice will be a siren.

Humanity yearns for certainty, Doherty argues, even the certainty of God’s existence manifested through the fulfillment of biblical prophecies of the end of the world.


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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 92

Sources for Further Study

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

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

Dean, Anne. Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.

Herman, William. “Down and Out in Lebanon and New York: Lanford Wilson.” In Understanding Contemporary American Drama. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Jacobi, Martin J. “The Comic Vision of Lanford Wilson.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 21 (Fall, 1988): 119-134.

Tibbetts, John C. “An Interview with Lanford Wilson.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. Spring, 1991.


Critical Essays