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...
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Partly because Wilson has chosen to premiere his plays at Circle Repertory or in regional theaters, he has seldom attracted the sustained media attention accorded such contemporaries as David Rabe, Sam Shepard, and David Mamet. Yet Wilson’s works are among the most distinctively American dramas of the late twentieth century. Wilson’s emphases closely reflect issues at the heart of the United States’ survival: tolerance for the have-nots and outsiders, respect for the multicultural heritage of the past, the need to preserve beauty in the face of technological advance, the value of work in defining one’s self, and the importance of community for instilling a sense of belonging and rootedness.
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Lanford Eugene (“Lance”) Wilson was born April 13, 1937, in Lebanon, Missouri, the son of Ralph Eugene and Violetta Tate Wilson. When he was five years old, his parents separated (and later divorced), his father leaving for California, his mother taking Lanford to Springfield, Missouri, where she worked in a garment factory and he attended school. When he was thirteen, his mother married again—a dairy inspector from Ozark, Missouri—and they moved to a farm. Wilson attended Ozark High School, where he painted, acted, and was on the track team.
Although his childhood was relatively happy, Wilson never quite recovered from his parents’ marital breakup. At eighteen, after a term at Southwest Missouri State College, he headed for California for a reunion with his father, by then a San Diego aircraft-factory worker with a new wife and two younger sons. The reunion, painfully mirrored in Wilson’s autobiographical play Lemon Sky, was unsuccessful: Wilson and his father were thoroughly incompatible. After a year in his father’s household, during which he worked at his father’s factory and attended San Diego State College, Wilson left for Chicago. He lived for six years in Chicago, where he worked as an artist in an advertising agency, studied playwriting at the University of Chicago, and wrote his first plays (none produced).
In 1962, Wilson moved to New York, worked as an office clerk—in a furniture store, at the Americana...
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