Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485
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 homosexual lover.
Jed has gradually been replanting the property in the manner of a traditional English garden that will take years to mature; recently, he has rediscovered a lost rose that once again will be propagated at Sissinghurst Castle in England, “the greatest rose garden in the world.” Jed, in his planting of the garden and his caring for and loving the disabled Ken, is the new Adam who inspires a sense of purpose and restores a feeling of community after the Fall.
Both Sally, a representative of the oldest generation of Talleys onstage, and Shirley, a member of the family’s youngest generation, join Kenny in resisting the lure of spatial dislocation to answer instead the pull of the ancestral home. If necessary, Sally will buy the Talley place so that it will not go out of family control and become a cement airstrip, especially now that she and Jed have spread Matt’s ashes among the roses.
While Shirley commits the younger generation to renewing the Talley clan, Kenny—once he has learned how to understand the virtually unintelligible speech of his young half cousin through creatively having the boy record a story—overcomes the temptation to give up teaching and recommits himself to his “mission” in life. On all levels—the archetypal, the natural, the familial, and the individual—the movement of Fifth of July is thus from despair and death to renewal and rebirth.
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