Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sexuality and Disease
When Lanford Wilson was writing Burn This, the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic was a major issue for homosexuals. But Wilson never refers to AIDS; instead the play is a heterosexual love story. But AIDS was not far from the news in 1987; AZT, a drug to treat AIDS, was approved by the FDA. Although AZT was expensive, predicted to cost at least $10,000 per year per patient, it was the first treatment that offered hope for AIDS victims. Another effort to halt the AIDS epidemic was suggested by the United States Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who argued that condom commercials should be permitted to air on television. Koop's suggestion was greeted with shock by those groups who argued that condom advertisements would encourage more illicit sexual activity. Some religious groups, who interpreted AIDS as God's punishment of homosexuals, wanted total abstinence to be the official government position in terms of public service campaigns about the disease. Attempts to raise government spending on AIDS research created controversy, although homosexuals did demonstrate in Washington to demand that the federal government increase funding for AIDS. But President Ronald Reagan failed to act until he was forced to recognize that AIDS presented a risk to the heterosexual population as well as to gays. The sexual revolution that had begun in the mid- to late-1960s, and which had continued through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, finally peaked when it became clear that AIDS was more than a rare, "gay man's disease." By the end of the 1980s, fear of AIDS was making more people cautious about sexual relationships. Consequently, when Anna and Pale, who barely know one another, engage in a sexual relationship, the play's 1987 audience was likely considering the risk involved in their behavior.

In many cases art was imitating life in 1987. Theatre and film releases echoed newspaper headlines. Racial and sexual intolerance and the growing perception that big business was uncaring and dishonest provided ample subject matter for entertainment. Although Burn This does not deal overtly with prejudice, one of its primary themes is intolerance. Wilson devotes a significant part of the text to establishing the intolerance of Robbie's family. Later, Larry relates the story of his plane trip and the intolerant attitude of a seat-mate who expounds upon the importance of the American family. In the years just before 1987, prejudice against homosexuality had become more visual, fed in part because of the increase m the number of people afflicted with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and AIDS. Fear motivated much of this intolerance, but the effect was an increase in hate crimes against homosexuals. When Burn This debuted, two other plays that dealt with discrimination were also first presented. August Wilson's drama Fences looked at how discrimination could destroy a man's hopes and dreams, and Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy demonstrated that people could rise above the social constraints placed upon them based on their class, race, and religion. On Wall Street, a rash of insider trading scandals provided material for both the front pages of newspapers and the entertainment page as Wallstreet became a hit Hollywood film. The film's star, Michael Douglas, won an academy award for his portrayal of a cold-hearted businessman who is willing to sacrifice the American worker to increase personal wealth. 1987 brought inflation and depression as American farmers lost their livelihood. With the perception that life was out of control, that inflation, depression, business, and disease were eroding the American dream, all of these plays and this film end with the promise of justice...

(This entire section contains 633 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

and the hope of a better life. This was a period in which entertainment provided escape with films such asMoonstruck, Babette's Feast, and The Untouchables. In 1987, American audiences were in desperate need of hope, either real or perceived.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In Greek plays the sections of the drama were signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans,. and for Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen combined some of the acts. Burn This is a two-act play. The exposition occurs in the first act when the audience learns of Robbie's death and the family history. The complication also occurs in this act when it becomes clear that Anna cares about Pale. The climax occurs at the beginning of the second act when Burton and Pale fight, and Anna throws Burton out and chooses Pale. The falling action, which is the result of the climax, occurs later in act two when Anna admits that she is frightened of emotional involvement. In the catastrophe, an old word for conclusion, Larry unites the two lovers.

The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual's morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. "Characterization" is the process of creating a life-like person from an author's imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. Burn This provides characters whose dialogue reveals their temperament and identity. For example, Larry uses comedy to confront life. It is a means of easing life's pain.

Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Burn This is the story of Anna and Pale's romance.

The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Wilson's play is a loft in New York City.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1987: Homosexuals protest in Washington, D.C., to demand an end to discrimination and to demand more federal funding for research of AIDS.

Today: Homosexuality remains a basis for discrimination in many areas of life. In the military, homosexuality is a leading reason for general discharges, in spite of President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

1987: AZT wins FDA approval for the treatment of AIDS. The treatment will cost $10,000 a year, but it is not a cure and its side effects mean that many AIDS victims will not be able to take the drug.

Today: The most recent AIDS treatment, a protease inhibitor, though initially promising, still fails to provide a cure. And, as has been the case with so many other treatments, newer drug combinations fail to help some patients while proving to be prohibitively expensive for many.

1987: U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop asks that commercials for condoms be shown on television.

Today: Although they are boycotted in some areas, a few condom commercials have aired on national television. However, there still remains a great deal of public resistance to the commercials.
1987: India and Sri Lanka sign a treaty designed to end the ethnic violence that has persisted for four years. But the violence continues even with the treaty.

Today: Ethnic violence in Bosnia continues to draw American troops to the area. Atrocities, especially against women, have been an central part of the Croatian-Serb War.

1987:Beloved, a novel by Toni Morrison which details the story of a slave girl, is published.

Today: Television host and actress Oprah Winfrey is scheduled to release the film adaptation of Beloved.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

There are no media adaptations of Burn This. A few of Lanford Wilson's plays have been produced for television. These include: Stoop: A Turn (New York Television Theatre, 1969), Fifth of July (Showtime, 1982), and The Migrants (with Tennessee Williams; CBS, 1973).

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Brown, Julie. "The Great Ventriloquist Act-Gender and Voice m the Fiction Workshop," in Associated Writing Programs Chronicle, September, 1993, pp 7-9.

Bryer, Jackson R. "Lanford Wilson," in The Playwright's Art Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp.277-96.

DiGaetam, John L. "Lanford Wilson," in A Search for a Postmodern Theatre. Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights, Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 285-93.

Ferguson, Mary Anne. Images of Women in Literature, Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing A Woman's Life, Ballantme, 1988, pp. 33-47.

Jacobi, Martin J. "The Comic Vision of Lanford Wilson,'' in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 21, No 2,1988, pp 119-134.

Rich, Frank Review Burn This, in The New York Times, October 15,1987.

Savran, David. "Lanford Wilson," in In Their Own Words. Contemporary American Playwrights, Theatre Communications Group, 1988, pp 306-20.

Watermeier, Daniel J. "Lanford Wilson's Liebestod. Character, Archetype, and Myth in Burn This," in A Lanford Wilson Casebook, edited by Jackson Bryer, New York, 1990.

Wilson, Edwin. "Hot and Bothered: Malkovich on Fire," in The Wall Street Journal, October 21,1987.

Further Reading
Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson, Boise State University, 1987 This short book—52 pages—is a biography of Wilson.

Byer, Jackson. A Lanford Wilson Casebook, Garland, 1990. This collection of critical essays examine several of Lanford's plays.

Gonzales, Doreen. AIDS: Ten Stones of Courage, Enslow, 1996.This book contains brief biographies of some of the more famous victims of AIDS.

Shilts, Randy. And The Band Played On, St. Martin's Press, 1987. This book traces events related to the AIDS epidemic It was made into a cable television movie in 1993.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide