Lanford Wilson 1937-
The following entry presents information on Wilson's plays through 2001. See also Lanford Wilson Literary Criticism (Volume 7), and Volumes 14, 197.
A prolific and award-winning American playwright, Wilson is an innovator of the off-off-Broadway phenomenon that began in the 1960s, co-founding the now-defunct Circle Repertory Company where many of his own plays premiered throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Over the course of several decades Wilson has written more than forty one-act and full-length plays, most notably the long-running The Hot l Baltimore (1973) and Talley's Folley (1979), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1980. As many playwrights of his generation have done, Wilson has experimented with but has not completely abandoned the realistic conventions of drama. In his plays, Wilson has frequently breached the traditional “fourth wall” by incorporating such devices as monologues, asides, and overlapping dialogue, yet he has also observed the dramatic verities of coherent plotting and character exposition. Themes of decay, disillusionment, and family conflict inform the bulk of Wilson's drama; his works also spotlight such formerly taboo subjects as homosexuality and the plight of social outcasts.
Born on April 13, 1937, in Lebanon, Missouri, Wilson is the son of Ralph Eugene and Violetta Careybelle Wilson, who divorced when he was five years old. His father relocated to San Diego, California, where he worked at an aircraft factory during World War II, while Wilson stayed with his mother, who remarried and settled in Ozark, Missouri. In 1955, Wilson briefly attended Southwest Missouri State University before he transferred to San Diego State University, hoping to renew a relationship with his estranged father, who gave him a room. While there, Wilson studied art and art history and also worked as a riveter at an aircraft plant, but the reunion with his father was short-lived. In 1956, Wilson moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he was employed by an advertising firm as a graphic artist for the next five years. Although Wilson wrote short stories since boyhood, he enrolled in a playwriting class in Chicago and began writing one-act plays. In 1962, Wilson relocated to New York City to launch his career as a playwright, which he accomplished in 1963 with the production of his first play, So Long at the Fair. Throughout the 1960s, Wilson wrote plays at a furious pace. Most of his early works were produced off-off-Broadway at the Caffe Cino and La Mama Experimental Theater Club, which mounted such plays as Home Free (1964) and The Madness of Lady Bright (1964). His other plays of this period include Balm in Gilead (1965) and The Rimers of Eldritch (1966), Wilson's first full-length productions. In 1967, the suicide of Joe Cino, producer at Caffe Cino, forced Wilson to find other venues to produce his plays, including Lemon Sky (1968) and Gingham Dog (1968). In 1969, he found a permanent stage for his talent at the Circle Theatre (later Circle Repertory Company) in Greenwich Village, which he co-founded with a group of friends that included director Marshall W. Mason. Wilson served as the Circle Rep's playwright-in-residence until it closed in 1996. At the Circle Repertory Company, Wilson produced Serenading Louie (1970) and The Hot l Baltimore, his first major critical and commercial success, which ran for 1,100 performances before it transferred to Broadway. That play not only set a performance record for off-Broadway theater at the time but also became the basis for a successful television series of the same name. In 1973 Wilson collaborated with Tennessee Williams on the screenplay for The Migrants, which premiered on television's prestigious “playhouse 90.” Wilson followed that with another critically acclaimed play, The Mound Builders (1975). In 1977 he staged Fifth of July, the first in a cycle of plays about several generations of a Missouri family that also includes Talley's Folley and A Tale Told (1981). Meanwhile, Wilson's teleplay Taxi! was presented as a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” special in 1978. During the early 1980s, Wilson slowed his output, writing Angels Fall (1982) and Thymus Vulgaris (1981), as he concentrated on learning the Russian language in order to translate the works of Anton Chekhov. Subsequently, Wilson premiered his translation of Chekhov's Three Sisters in 1984. In 1987 Wilson returned to form with several productions, unleashing a string of plays that included The Bottle Harp, Burn This, and Say DeKooning. Since then Wilson has produced Redwood Curtain (1991), By the Sea (1996), Book of Days (1998), and Rain Dance (2000).
Wilson's plays typically explore themes of alienation, loneliness, and crumbling illusions. His earliest works, most of which are one-act plays, often focus on destitute characters. For instance, The Madness of Lady Bright concerns an aging transvestite whose fading beauty drives him insane, while Home Free revolves around a pair of incestuous siblings living as a married couple in a fantasy world. Set in an all-night diner with a cast of fifty-six characters, Balm in Gilead features the junkies, prostitutes, homosexuals, and hustlers who populate New York City's underworld, revealing their personalities and histories through overlapping dialogue and simultaneous scenes. Wilson's second full-length play, The Rimers of Eldritch, uses a similar montage technique to recreate life in a small town in Missouri. The play opens with the verdict at a murder trial and proceeds backward in time to conclude with the murder of the town's hermit. Self-described as “completely autobiographical,” Lemon Sky tells the story of a young man who moves in with the father who abandoned him and his mother when he was five years old, but his efforts to reconcile ultimately prove futile when his father violently evicts him because he “doesn't bed women.” In Serenading Louie, two young suburban couples confront the unhappiness that lies at the heart of their marriages. The multiple award-winning play Hot l Baltimore is set in the lobby of a derelict hotel marked for demolition where a motley group of drifters, prostitutes, and aging residents gather to reminisce about the people and times that formerly occupied the hotel. Evincing Wilson's appreciation of the past, The Mound Builders dramatizes the attempt of archaeologists to protect their discovery of an ancient civilization from commercial development. The site is ultimately destroyed, however, by a university scientist whose jealousy and vengeance is aroused by the dig.
Fifth of July is the first play of an acclaimed trilogy about the Talley family spanning several generations and set in Wilson's hometown. Recounting events at the family's Independence Day celebration in 1977, this play concerns a disaffected paraplegic veteran of the Vietnam War, Ken Talley, Jr., who must decide whether or not to sell “the Talley place” to a group of friends who want to convert the property into a recording studio. Among the guests, which includes these friends, are Ken's gay lover, his sister and her daughter, and his Aunt Sally, who ultimately persuade Ken not to sell. The second play in the trilogy, Talley's Folly, features Aunt Sally as a young woman. Set on Independence Day, 1944, this short, two-character play tells the simple yet affecting story of an unlikely love that develops between Sally and Matt Friedman, a Jewish accountant who meets disapproval from Sally's rich, bigoted family. The couple ultimately elopes despite their dissimilar backgrounds. In A Tale Told, the third play of the Talley trilogy, the action occurs on the same night as Talley's Folly and introduces other members of the bigoted, greedy clan who resolve by the end of the play to sell the family garment business to a conglomerate. Angels Fall involves six people confined in a small mission church in a remote part of New Mexico as they face their own mortality following a possible nuclear accident. In Burn This, an up-and-coming female dancer in the throes of a personal crisis turns for help to the men in her life: a gay advertising executive who is her current roommate; a successful screenwriter who is in love with her; and the crude brother of her former roommate, a gay dancer who recently died in a boating accident. In Redwood Curtain, a teenaged Vietnamese-American piano prodigy returns to her aunt's redwood plantation in Northern California to learn more about her father from the homeless Vietnam veterans who inhabit the forests. Set again in Wilson's native Missouri, Book of Days explores the effects of the arts on a small, rural, conservative town where a troubled Hollywood director mounts a production of G. B. Shaw's St. Joan that stars a local dairy-factory bookkeeper whose real-life predicament mirrors that of the titular martyr. In Rain Dance, the testing of the first atomic bomb in 1945 forms the backdrop for a group of people gathered at a Los Alamos cantina, including a young American scientist, a Native-American M.P. officer, and two German immigrants, each of whom has contributed in some way to the bomb's development. As the potential consequences of their work weigh on their consciences, they also grapple with the realization that their efforts contribute to the destruction of local Native-American culture.
Wilson has been widely acknowledged for his contributions to the rise and success of off-Broadway theater as a legitimate venue for American drama. Critics have enthusiastically responded to most of Wilson's plays, especially his work from the late 1960s through the 1970s, which have garnered some of drama's most prestigious prizes. These have included the Vernon Rice Award, the Obie (the off-Broadway's version of the Tony awards), and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, culminating with the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for Talley's Folley. Critics have universally been attracted to the authenticity of dialogue and simultaneous conversations that develop the characters and advance the plots in many of Wilson's plays. In addition, critics have applauded Wilson for showcasing the plight of homosexuals and other socially marginal people as valid concerns of drama. Furthermore, many commentators have noted the compassion and humanity with which Wilson draws these characters. Critics have also praised Wilson's dramaturgy for experimenting with the superficial illusions of realism and breathing new life into such neglected dramatic devices as the monologue and the aside. Despite the critical acclaim Wilson received early in his career, when he was often named among the most promising playwrights of his generation, his plays since the late 1980s have elicited a somewhat cooler reception. Nevertheless, critics have generally continued to esteem Wilson's skills for creating realistic dialogue and evocative scenes, exposing the underbelly of social discontent, and giving a voice to marginal members of American society.