Although Wilson has often been spoken of as a distinctively midwestern playwright in the tradition of William Inge, he is by no means a narrow regionalist. His canvas is all of America, rural and urban, East and West as well as Midwest, with characters from every socioeconomic stratum. Of his first half-dozen long plays, only The Rimers of Eldritch occurs in a small town.
Reminiscent of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954), Wilson’s play tells of the murder of the village idiot/outsider Skelly as he tries to prevent a rape. Wilson’s town of Eldritch has more in common with the poet Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River than it does with Our Town’s pristine Grovers’ Corners, as Eldritch contains small-town narrowness, repression, and hypocrisy. The symbolic hoarfrost (rime) blights all, and the ritual killing of the scapegoat accomplishes no regenerative purpose.
The Rimers of Eldritch, a threnody for voices, is as much readers’ theater as traditional play. It employs several techniques that Wilson uses in other works from the same period: a montage or collage structure, featuring multiple protagonists involved in simultaneous actions; direct address, monologues, and overlapping voices; and an almost cinematic use of lighting to achieve effects analogous to film close-ups and fade-outs.
Such devices appear again in Balm in Gilead and The Hot l Baltimore, both of which have urban settings—a corner lunchroom and a hotel lobby—that should be sanctuaries fostering a sense of community and belonging but that are instead places peopled by society’s outcasts and underclass: prostitutes and pimps, drunks and drug dealers, the lost and lonely and dislocated.
Wilson, a former graphic artist, is especially adept at handling theater space; more than anything, it is the setting of The Hot l Baltimore that establishes the link between Wilson and the Russian master Anton Chekhov. The locale of The Hot l Baltimore is the lobby of a once-elegant railroad hotel now ready for the wrecker’s ball. Wilson comments that “the theater, evanescent itself, and for all we do perhaps disappearing here, seems the ideal place for the representation of the impermanence of our architecture,” thus alerting the reader of change and decay as central motifs.
The play’s action occurs on Memorial Day and builds on the dichotomy between past and present, permanence and progress, and, as in Chekhov, culture and materialism, beauty and use. The characters decry the diminishing countryside, the decline of the railroads, and the environmental pollution destroying the land—all effects of the greedy “vultures” who glorify financial gain.
Even though Wilson’s language may lack the elegiac poeticism of some other literary descendants of Chekhov such as Tennessee Williams, in his use of place as symbol to convey meaning visually, as well as in his recurrent emphasis on the rape of culture and civilization by an amoral business class, Wilson remains the chief Chekhovian dramatist writing in modern America—as David Storey is in Great Britain.
The Chekhovian patterns also foretell other works in the Wilson canon: These include Fifth of July (1978), in which a family faces the prospect of seeing its ancestral home bought for use as a recording studio and its land turned into an airstrip, and Redwood Curtain, in which a family always careful to balance its business dealings with the need to preserve the environment is powerless to resist the huge conglomerate that will cut down the ancient trees—a direct allusion to Chekhov’s Vishnyovy Sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908).
As in Chekhov’s play, the destruction of the forest is linked to the disintegration and dispersal of the family unit. Trees hacked off at the ground are like a family denied its collective memory, left with no sense of rootedness or identity.
Although Wilson does not push as incessantly as Arthur Miller the notion of the debasement of the American Dream by the drive for unlimited success through competition and aggression, this criticism remains implicit in his Chekhov-like questioning of what has been sacrificed or lost in order to achieve material gain.
An integral part of the formulation of the American Dream has always been the promise of a New Eden, the restored garden to the West. The California in Wilson’s Lemon Sky, however, is a sterile wasteland, both environmentally and emotionally, where nothing is “naturally” green; rather, everything is autumnal, “umber, amber, olive, sienna, ocher, orange.”
While gardens, literal and symbolic, proliferate in Wilson’s work, they are just as likely to be dying out (as in The Hot l Baltimore and Redwood Curtain) as growing or thriving (as in Fifth of July). When the garden is healthy, it is usually because an artist tends and nurtures it. Even the creative imagination seems to atrophy when cut off from garden places.
Artists and artist figures—often estranged from their fathers—abound in Wilson’s plays. In Lemon Sky an adolescent writer-son is rejected by a long-lost father, who suspects him of homosexuality. In Burn This, a choreographer learns that the creative process necessarily involves drawing upon personal experience; eradicating the line between life and art can give rise to a representation that somehow mysteriously transcends life. In Redwood Curtain, a young pianist who discovers her identity through music expresses disillusionment with a public increasingly lacking any interest in art.
In the apocalyptic Angels Fall, set in a southwestern mission church under threat of radioactive fallout in a postnuclear “garden” surrounded by a uranium mine, a reactor, and a missile base, the concept of artist expands to include all who recognize their vocations—be they teachers, painters, priests, doctors, or athletes.
Once one hears the call and decides “what manner of persons who ought to be,” then “magic . . . happens and you know who you are.” Each of these characters, in the face of the pervasive danger of annihilation, goes forth from this temporary sanctuary committed to doing his or her work in a perilous world.
If the determination to work that one finds at the end of a Chekhov play sometimes seems but a hollow response to fear of facing the void, when such a determination occurs in Wilson’s work (for example in Angels Fall or in Fifth of July), it reflects instead a hard-won resolve, a positive renewal of oneself to active fellowship in the community of humankind.
The Mound Builders
First produced: 1975 (first published, 1976)
Type of work: Play
An archeological excavation pits scientists against land developers, uncovering not only a primitive god-mask but also human greed, jealousy, and violence.
The most complex treatment of Wilson’s themes appears in The Mound Builders, probably his most impressive achievement. The action occurs in “the mind’s eye” of Professor August Howe, who recalls an archeological dig he led the preceding summer in southern Illinois that unearthed an ancient burial ground of the Temple Mound People. Howe(accompanied by his wife, Cynthia, and their daughter) and his young assistant Dan Loggins (accompanied by his pregnant wife, Jean) come into conflict with the owner of the property and his twenty-five-year-old son, Chad, who hope to make a great deal of money by selling the land for a vacation resort.
Chad, who is carrying on an affair with Cynthia Howe, had saved Dan from drowning the summer before but now tries unsuccessfully to lure Jean away from him. Thwarted both personally in his desire for Jean and financially because laws prevent developing the property, Chad eventually kills Dan, bulldozes the excavation, and kills himself, leaving the god-king mask to be reburied by the mythic flood waters.
Wilson’s dramaturgy in this memory play approximates that of Williams in The Glass Menagerie. The playing area might be seen as August’s mind, with the slides of the precious artifacts that are projected onto the back wall prompting his remembrances. The central conflict is between the preservation of a culture, on one hand, and commercial progress on the other; between a past age of poetry and a present age of facts. The scientists stand poised between commercial promoters and creative artisans, capable of bending either way.
Whereas the ancient tribe sought its immortality through gorgeous works used in rituals, modern humans seek theirs through material gain. When Dan holds the death mask from the god-king “up to his face, and almost inadvertently it stays in place,” it is perhaps an act of hubris, revealing his lack of sufficient awe for the primitive culture and leading unwittingly to his death at the hands of the sexually jealous and money-crazed Chad.
The modern artist who arrives in this midwestern “garden of the gods” is Howe’s sister Delia. The author of one successful novel, she has been unable to summon up the creativity necessary to produce a second book. The source of her writing block was the death of her father and her separation from her paternal home.
If the heritage of the past, whether childhood home or ancient burial site, serves as a creative spur to the artist, then once these places are lost or defiled, judged as worthless or anachronistic except when exploited for profit, all that remains are “syllables, not sense.” Lack of adequate respect for the past results in a present beset by greed and violence and a decline into savagery.
Fifth of July
First produced: 1978 (first published, 1978)
Type of work: Play
Three generations of a family and four friends from the Vietnam War era gather to replay the past and decide on a direction for the future.
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...
(The entire section is 4277 words.)