Lanford Wilson

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Lanford Wilson Biography

Lanford Wilson, an incredibly prolific playwright, is one of the cofounders of the Circle Repertory Company where many of his plays were first produced. He began his theatrical career in New York at the Café Cino, a small coffeehouse that specialized in avant-garde work. While there, Wilson met director Marshall W. Mason, whom he ended up collaborating with on several projects, most notably the epic play Balm in Gilead. Circle Repertory’s first success was Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore, which ran for over one thousand performances before moving to Broadway. Wilson’s most famous works are the plays Fifth of July, Talley’s Folly, and Talley and Son, a trilogy centered on the Talley family. Talley’s Folly won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979.

Facts and Trivia

  • Wilson and Mason did not originally get along. In fact, Mason criticized Wilson’s rewrite of his play Home Free.
  • Wilson’s play Lemon Sky is completely autobiographical and deals in part with his father’s refusal to accept his son’s homosexuality.
  • Wilson learned to speak Russian so that he could translate the works of his favorite playwright, Anton Chekhov.
  • Wilson writes operettas in addition to plays. He has worked with composer Lee Hoiby on This Is the Rill Speaking.
  • Wilson’s homosexuality influences much of his writing. He incorporated openly gay characters in several of his plays, and even his works that do not feature gay characters often depict people who have been ostracized from society.


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Lanford Wilson was born on April 13, 1937, in Lebanon, Missouri, a locale he would later use as the setting for his cycle of plays about the mythical Talley family. When he was five years old, his parents divorced, and his mother took him to live in Springfield, Missouri. The search to establish a relationship with an absent father would constitute an important motif in a number of his plays, most notably in the autobiographical memory play Lemon Sky (1970) and in Redwood Curtain (1992), in which a half-Vietnamese girl tracks down her American father.

When Wilson’s mother remarried in 1948, the family moved to a farm in Ozark, Missouri. While a high school student there in the mid-1950’s, Wilson received his formative experiences in the theater, acting the role of the narrator, Tom, in a production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (1944) and attending a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) at Southwest Missouri State College.

In 1956, Wilson went to California for an unsuccessful reunion with his father. While there, he studied art history at San Diego State College, claiming it made him aware of “what our heritage was, and what we are doing to it,” which becomes a pivotal concern in several works, particularly The Mound Builders (1975).

In the late 1950’s, Wilson, by then an artist working for an advertising firm in the Midwest, enrolled in a playwriting class offered by the University of Chicago and began working in the one-act form. He moved to New York in 1962 and settled in Greenwich Village. Early the following year, he saw a production of an absurdist work by Eugène Ionesco at the Off-Off-Broadway Caffe Cino; the play’s blend of the funny and the serious greatly affected the young playwright.

Over the next few years, Caffe Cino and Ellen Stewart’s La Mama Experimental Theater Club would provide a hospitable home for many of Wilson’s short works, including The Madness of Lady Bright (1964), which dramatizes the descent of an aging homosexual queen into insanity and remains an impressive contribution to the development of gay theater, and The Rimers of Eldritch (1966), which might be seen as Wilson’s dark version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938). Wilson’s first full-length work, Balm in Gilead, focusing like many of his plays on society’s down-and-outers, opened in 1965.

With dissections of two marriages, a troubled interracial one in The Gingham Dog (1968) and a middle-aged disillusioned one in Serenading Louie (1970), Wilson branched out into regional theaters, a movement then burgeoning in importance for developing playwrights. In 1969, Wilson and three others, including the director Marshall Mason, organized the Circle Repertory Company, which became the home for the premiere productions of virtually all of Wilson’s plays. His The Hot l Baltimore (1973) captivated audiences for more than a thousand performances and won for Wilson his first New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play.

Wilson’s later plays continued to open at Circle Repertory or regional theaters, eventually moving on to Broadway. Angels Fall (1982), for example, began at the New World Festival in Miami, while Burn This (1987) was first seen at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Wilson continued to receive accolades and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in drama for Talley’s Folly (1979). As befits an artist for whom the image of the garden—either lost or restored—is a potent symbol and for whom the preservation of the past is an overriding concern, Wilson’s hobby is tending the gardens around his restored house in Sag Harbor, Long Island.

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