(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The first of Wilson’s plays about the Talley family, Fifth of July explores two of the playwright’s preoccupations: the need to preserve the past in order to live humanely in the present and the importance to both self and society of embracing one’s vocation. Although Fifth of July is an ensemble piece with several protagonists, the focal character is Kenny Tally, who arrived back from the Vietnam War with five citations for bravery but without his legs.

It is 1977, and Kenny is determined not to return to his calling as a high school teacher. Feeling discomfort over coming home alive, although maimed, from the war, Kenny senses the invisibility imposed upon veterans of an unpopular cause when others refuse to look at them out of shame or guilt.

Joining Kenny at the family homestead are his Aunt Sally Friedman, who has come back to spread the ashes of her deceased husband, Matt (the story of their courtship is later told in the 1979 play Talley’s Folly), Kenny’s sister June, who was a flower child in the 1960’s, and June’s daughter, Shirley, an aspiring writer.

Also visiting are John Landis, a record promoter who wants to buy the Talley property, and his wife, Gwen. They had attended the University of California at Berkeley with Kenny and June but had deliberately gone to Europe without Kenny, leaving him behind to be drafted. Tending the grounds of the Talley home has been Jed, Kenny’s...

(The entire section is 485 words.)