Lanford Wilson Wilson, Lanford - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Lanford Wilson 1937-

American playwright.

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

So Long at the Fair 1963

Home Free 1964

The Madness of Lady Bright 1964

No Trespassing 1964

Balm in Gilead 1965

Days Ahead 1965

Ludlow Fair 1965

The Sand Castle 1965

Sex Is Between Two People 1965

This Is the Rill Speaking 1965

The Rimers of Eldritch 1966

Wandering: A Turn 1966

Miss Williams: A Turn 1967

Gingham Dog 1968

Lemon Sky 1968


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Henry I. Schvey (essay date 1981)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Schvey, Henry I. “Images of the Past in the Plays of Lanford Wilson.” In Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, pp. 225-40. Munich: Max Hueber Verlag, 1981.

[In the following essay, Schvey examines the thematic unity in Wilson's plays from The Hot l Baltimore through Talley's Folley.]

With more than thirty plays to his credit since he began writing for the stage in 1963, Lanford Wilson is almost certainly the most prolific of the younger generation of American playwrights and among the very few who have made the transition from Off-Off Broadway experimental theaters (the Caffe Cino and La Mama Experimental...

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Martin J. Jacobi (essay date fall 1988)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobi, Martin J. “The Comic Vision of Lanford Wilson.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 21, no. 2 (fall 1988): 119-34.

[In the following essay, Jacobi traces the evolution of a comic vision throughout Wilson's career, arguing that with comedy Wilson harmonizes his often-conflicted interests in the past and social misfits.]

The small body of published criticism on Lanford Wilson's drama has frequently mentioned the playwright's recurring interest in two themes: a sympathetic depiction of the past, the traditions, and the cultural values which shape society, and the compassionate portrayal of misfits and outcasts, people not sympathetic to society. As...

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Gary Konas (essay date 1990)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Konas, Gary. “Tennessee Williams and Lanford Wilson at the Missouri Crossroads.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 5 (1990): 23-41.

[In the following essay, Konas compares the Missouri backgrounds of Wilson and Tennessee Williams and contrasts their uses of a Missouri setting in their major works.]

Missouri is sometimes called the Crossroads State because of its central geographical position and because America's two greatest rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri, meet there. It is an apt nickname for other reasons, as well; conceptually, Missouri is where several dichotomies and contradictions meet which make the state and its residents difficult...

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William M. Peterson (essay date spring-summer 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Peterson, William M. “Lanford Wilson's Classroom.” Confrontation: A Literary Journal of Long Island University, nos. 48-49 (spring-summer 1992): 257-59.

[In the following essay, Peterson explicates the pedagogical dimension of Wilson's life and plays.]

I first met Lanford Wilson on November 20, 1991, at the Post House Restaurant in Southampton, Long Island. Perhaps I really had met him earlier, for I had read The Mound Builders and The Hot l Baltimore and had seen Talley's Folly and The Fifth of July on Broadway, and a televised adapatation of Lemon Sky on Public Broadcasting System. I knew the work if not the...

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Thomas P. Adler (essay date 2001)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Adler, Thomas P. “The Artist in the Garden: Theatre Space and Place in Lanford Wilson.” In Modern Dramatists: A Casebook of Major British, Irish, and American Playwrights, edited by Kimball King, pp. 383-95. New York: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Adler survey's Wilson's full-length dramas, analyzing the visual—but not rhetorical—absence of definite places on the stage sets of a dozen plays.]

In his essay “Writing for Films,” William Inge—whose plays share with several of Lanford Wilson's a distinctively midwestern setting—comments on the spatial limitations that would seem to restrict the dramatist's art: “In the theatre,” Inge...

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Lanford Wilson with Gene A. Barnett (interview date 21 April 1981)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Lanford, and Gene A. Barnett. “Recreating the Magic: An Interview with Lanford Wilson.” Ball State University Forum 25, no. 2 (spring 1984): 57-74.

[In the following interview, conducted on April 21, 1981, Wilson discusses his preference for drama, literary influences, writing habits and choices, and response to critics.]

Gene A. Barnett, a native of Missouri, holds the Ph.D. degree from the University of Wisconsin. He has taught at Wayne State University and is now a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck Campus. He is the author of the volume on Irish playwright Denis Johnston...

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Lanford Wilson with John L. DiGaetani (interview date 1991)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Lanford, and John L. DiGaetani. “Lanford Wilson.” In A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights, edited by John L. DiGaetani, pp. 286-93. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

[In the following interview, Wilson talks about his literary influences, his principal themes, his attraction to the theater, his relationship with Tennessee Williams, and his use of homosexuality in his plays.]

Lanford Wilson was one of the founders of the Circle Repertory Company in New York. He has received the following prizes: a Rockefeller Grant, a Vernon Rice Award, an ABC-Yale Fellowship, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (twice),...

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Lanford Wilson with The Playwright's Art (interview date 20 May 1993)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lanford Wilson.” In The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 277-96. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

[In the following interview, conducted on May 20, 1993, Wilson discusses his writing processes and goals, the production aspect of playwrighting, his literary influences, and his response to critics.]

Lanford Wilson was born in 1937 in Lebanon, Missouri. After attending Southwest Missouri State College briefly and spending a year in San Diego and five years in Chicago, he came to New York in 1962. His initial plays, one-acts, were presented at the off-off-Broadway Caffe...

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Barry B. Witham (essay date May 1982)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Witham, Barry B. “Images of America: Wilson, Weller and Horovitz.” Theatre Journal 34, no. 2 (May 1982): 223-32.

[In the following essay, Witham considers Fifth of July, Michael Weller's Loose Ends, and Israel Horovitz's Alfred Dies with respect to their treatments of Independence Day to dramatize the American temperament of the mid-1970s.]

American playwrights are fascinated by the 4th of July and their attempts to articulate its significance are among the most intriguing aspects of the contemporary theatre. It would be convenient to attribute this fascination to the influence of Eugene O'Neill whose Ah Wilderness! explored the...

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James F. Schlatter (essay date spring 1990)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Schlatter, James F. “Some Kind of a Future: The War for Inheritance in the Work of Three American Playwrights of the 1970s.” South Central Review 7, no. 1 (spring 1990): 59-75.

[In the following essay, Schlatter compares Fifth of July, Preston Jones's The Oldest Living Graduate, and Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child with respect to the cultural implications of the 1970s family presented by the plays.]

George McGovern built his dreams for the presidency on the passionate exhortation to “come home, America!” His decisive defeat offers strong evidence that in 1972 America was not ready to do so. She...

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Criticism: Redwood Curtain

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Tucker, Martin. “A Running Log on Lanford Wilson.” Confrontation: A Literary Journal of Long Island University, nos. 48-49 (spring-summer 1992): 245-56.

[In the following essay, Tucker details the circumstances leading up to and including an interview with Wilson around the time he staged the premiere of Redwood Curtain.]

“You in school here? … Let me see your I.D.” The actor playing the Vietnam War veteran in Redwood Curtain tries out these lines, standing alone on the huge, empty stage of the Nederlander Theater in New York. Lanford Wilson, Marshall Mason the director, and Tanya Berezin of the Circle Repertory Company listen from the...

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Criticism: Book Of Days

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Chris. “The Glory Years.” American Theatre 15, no. 9 (November 1998): 20-2.

[In the following essay, Jones presents commentary from Wilson and his colleagues focusing on his writing, specifically Book of Days.]

In recent weeks, Lanford Wilson has been sitting quietly on the porch in his Sag Harbor, N.Y., home, alternately staring into space and reading several of his own full-length dramas.

“I've written a ton of plays,” the one-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama says wearily of his recent autumnal exploits. “It's obscene. And I would rather be doing just about anything else in the world than sitting here and reading...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Barnett, Gene A. Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1987, 170 p.

Provides a bio-critical overview of Wilson's career.

Callens, Johan. “When ‘the Center Cannot Hold’ or the Problem of Mediation in Lanford Wilson's The Mound Builders.” In New Essays on American Drama, edited by Gilbert Debusscher and Henry I. Schvey, pp. 201-26. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989.

Addresses problems with The Mound Builders.

Dean, Anne M. Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. Rutherford, PA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994, 139 p.

Assesses the...

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