Lanford Wilson Wilson, Lanford (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilson, Lanford 1937–

Wilson is an award-winning American playwright associated with off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theater. He is best known as the author of the popular play The Hot l Baltimore. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Catharine Hughes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Coming immediately after The Hot L Baltimore, which won the 1973 Drama Critics Circle 'best play' award, Lanford Wilson's The Mound Builders was … a disappointment, not to mention a considerable bore.

Seemingly, [the play's plot] would contain ample opportunities to explore each character's nature and attitudes, their approaches to life and their ideas concerning Man's destiny. Seemingly, it would also offer the occasion for major conflicts and confrontations among this diverse group of people. Sadly, it does not, for they are not people but insufficiently explored, inadequately motivated puppets in the playwright's hands. Only the sister, and, fleetingly, the young man intent on turning the property, his property, into a lucrative site for highways, dams and motels, thus obliterating forever the lost civilisation, come alive. Only at the end does the conflict between two approaches to civilisation—and life—come into focus. Before that, there is endless rumination, endless padding, endless pseudo-profundity.

In Hot L Baltimore, the decline of the once illustrious hotel became a strikingly effective metaphor for the decline and disillusion of the dreams of the inhabitants. The 'mound builders' metaphor never becomes an even remotely effective one. Man—the archaeologists—may seek to build their own scholarly monuments and others—the young Chad—his in the form of motels and fortunes, but a play must have more life, more living figures, to make such a metaphor resonant and dramatically viable. It must reach considerably farther beneath the surface, not settle for the superficial characterisation and amateur psychology of The Mound Builders,… if it is to have anything truly worth saying about ourselves or our past. (p. 34)

Catharine Hughes, "New York" (© copyright Catharine Hughes 1975; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 22, No. 8, May, 1975, pp. 34-5.

Richard Eder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

You cannot build a serviceable bridge out of flowers unless you are an ant; and Lanford Wilson's vocabulary of freaks, sensitive and even charming as it may be, is not the right material to construct the history of a decade….

["The Fifth of July"] attempts to reflect upon what the 70's have made of the 60's. What is left, the question goes and not for the first time, of the impassioned spirit of the marches and the flower-children.

Mr. Wilson's talent is for the frail oddities of life, for waifs who gather in a haze of intersecting fantasies. The intersections are often pretty and whimsical; they have a humor and wryness that can compensate for the fact that the melancholy that goes with it is rather vapid and loose….

Mr. Wilson has assembled a stageful of luminous freaks. Some of them are tiresome and familiar, but several have a delicate sharpness and some real force.

Not enough, though, to bear a whole message about our times. Their curlicues are pressed flat by the need to signify, and at climactic moments they carry trayfuls of symbols stacked so high as to quite obliterate the faces of their bearers….

The play's essence, however, is a complex and gaudy series of serious games that the characters play with each other and with themselves.

The talk is extravagant, funny and often piercing, but its function is to build up the extremities represented by each of the characters rather than to take them in any particular direction.

Each, carried by the times, has in some way spoiled the hopes of his or her youth. It is not a dramatic spoiling; none was more than a vessel of the times, and when the times changed so did each of them, helplessly.

Richard Eder, "Theater: '5th of July' Is Staged," in The New York Times (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1978, p. C3.

Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The action [of "The 5th of July"] just seems to drift along. There are monologues—indeed, the play at times could be considered an amalgam of these arias which arise out of not much of anything—there are sessions of reminiscence of the old days at Berkeley …; there are dustups and reconciliations; and there are a few passages of genuine comedy. Yet beneath all the apparently random activity there are feelings, most of them sexual, and a story, of sorts, is being told. The evening ends with a burst of violence, a revelation, and a resolution, also of sorts.

"The 5th of July" is Mr. Wilson's most ambitious play so far, and, regrettably, it is his most verbose, seeming at times to be almost smothered in words; those monologues become very trying. There is no doubt, though, that he is a writer, in a profession crowded with non-writers. (But only Chekhov can write Chekhov's plays.) The four principal characters are the Berkeley classmates, remnants of the nineteen-sixties treading water in the nineteen-seventies, and they are on-and-off believable and on-and-off synthetic.

Edith Oliver, "The Theatre: 'The 5th of July'," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIV, No. 12, May 8, 1978, p. 90.

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lanford Wilson's The 5th of July is a pretty good Chekhovian play written too late….

Wilson's Chekhov does not out-Chekhov the originals; it is merely out of place in its anachronistic garb, like people in nineteenth-century attire in a Danish-modern living room….

[With the] unlikely plot device … needed to keep the characters spinning in the semblance of a non-vacuum … you have a clash of remembrances, recriminations, interests, and expectations. What you do not have, however, is dramatic development: a forward movement of a significant sort, a true change of human dynamics, despite not one but two switcheroos thrown in at the end. There are small conflicts, less than shattering revelations, and, mostly, people persisting in their old semi-impotent, semi-resigned ways.

All that is very Chekhovian—this sense of plus ça change, these people loving and hating one another to a stalemate, this blasé and cunning chatter that cannot keep the wolf of reality from the door, this getting nowhere even when one is most on the go, the very business of selling a house (Cherry Orchard) or planting for the future (Uncle Vanya) or yearning for other places (Three Sisters). But it doesn't work, for two reasons. It looks, sounds, and feels like a copy, however witty, wistful, and exquisite; and all that aimlessness, frustration, and failure does not have a compelling substratum of loss. In Chekhov's Russia, there were intimations of a collapsing empire, of a social order headed for bloody extinction; in Wilson's world, there is only the sense of the departed sixties, with their feeble political and sexual protests coming to an end. That is the implied fifth of July: the post-activist, post-coital, post-holiday depression.

Within this somewhat less than weighty framework, the individual moonings and moanings are also, unsurprisingly, trivial. But Wilson writes intelligent, amusing, racy dialogue, and is able to create lively albeit minuscule confrontations. The play is never uninteresting; it is merely, in the most profound sense, unsatisfying. (p. 77)

John Simon, "Likable but Unlikely Transplant," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1978 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 11, No. 20, May 15, 1978, pp. 77-8.∗

Erika Munk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From the beginning it's obvious that The 5th of July is a deliberate variation on the theme of Cherry Orchard. It's equally clear by the end that melancholy comic naturalism has become a hollow structure, which, though it can still enclose a core of affectionate humaneness, has decayed toward soap opera and the quiet but unambiguous happy ending….

There are many tender, tart, and funny moments and clever sections of contrapuntally overlapped dialogue. It is also a relief to see gay relationships taken for granted. But the central metaphorical anecdote (about dying from hunger through fear of eating something contaminated) is heavy-handed, Ken's Vietnam memories are cliched and unconvincing, and two of the women characters are treated very nastily…. The message is, I suppose, upbeat: Life can be warm and rooted, even for a legless homosexual, a lonely single mother, a 67-year-old widow with a mild stroke, a 13-year-old with a newly discovered rotten father … all you need is a radiantly beautiful farmhouse and the gumption not to let the city slickers buy you out. Perhaps if I lived in [such a set], I'd believe in happy endings, too.

Erika Munk, "Home Rule," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), Vol. XXIII, No. 20, May 15, 1978, p. 99.∗

Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Talley's Folly"] is set in a boathouse—very gingerbready in design—during an evening in 1944 when Sally Talley, aged thirty-one, a spinster with leftish leanings, is courted and won by Matt Friedman, aged forty-two, an accountant from St. Louis…. All the action is the difficult, ultimately successful attempt by each of them to pin the other down. Matt, teasing, devious, and jokey, eventually talks of his family's being on the run from country to country in Europe during his childhood, and Sally, proud and private, eventually tells of her engagement as a young girl to a local boy—an engagement that was terminated when she became ill with tuberculosis—and when they have finished we are aware that the reason that neither of them has married before is exactly the reason that they should marry now. (pp. 84, 86)

The ninety-four minutes [of the play] … are rather short on content, but Mr. Wilson has become so skillful a craftsman and writer that he can catch and hold an audience's attention. The playful mood that he establishes and its serious undertone are right, and the show is always at least diverting. (p. 86)

Edith Oliver, "At the Boathouse," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 13, May 14, 1979, pp. 84, 86.∗

Julius Novick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For years Mr. Wilson's work did not interest me much; The Hot l Baltimore, his big hit, struck me as rather tired in its conventionality. But with 5th of July last year,… it seemed to me that Mr. Wilson was on to something: there was a new vividness, a new vigor….

Mr. Wilson's new vigor, if not his new vividness, has ebbed noticeably in Talley's Folly, however, and the old sentimentality has resurged.

On this occasion Mr. Wilson is quite up front about being sentimental; in an opening monologue, Matt tells us that we are in for a "valentine," a "waltz."…

Matt is the Jewish stereotype in its most idealized form: warm, wise, witty, well-read, gentle, bespectacled and shaped by suffering. But I am here to tell you that there still are warm, wise, witty, well-read, gentle, bespectacled, Jewish men around, and even the suffering seems right for 1944. Matt is much nicer than any Jew that a Jewish writer would dream of creating, but, that granted, Mr. Wilson has written him impeccably. Not only are the cadences of Yiddish-inspired English rendered with authenticity and grace; the thinking and the experience behind them seem Jewish too….

Sally also belongs to a type, somewhat less defined in her case: the young woman too spunky and intelligent for the mean-minded small town she lives in….

Talley's Folly is funny and charming…. I don't even mind its sentimentality as such, much. Matt Friedman believes that people have "Humpty-Dumpty complexes": they think they're eggs, and are afraid to let other people get through their shells, and so lose out on life. A truth—and the play demonstrates, quite touchingly at moments, what good things can happen when people leave their Humpty-Dumpty complexes behind.

What got me down about Talley's Folly was the damned predictability and repetitiousness of it—not the inevitability of the happy ending, but the way nothing happens on the way to the happy ending that wasn't obviously going to happen.

Julius Novick, "Sentimental Journey," in The Village Voice (copyright © 1979; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 19, May 14, 1979, p. 95.∗

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Talley's Folly] is a duologue between Matt and Sally, from sundown through moonrise and thence to the start of three decades of married happiness…. Matt and Sally can play out their duet of pursuit and evasion, hopefulness and disillusion, until revelations of their pasts to each other bring better understanding, absolution through mutual compassion, and final tremulous affirmation of love. It is a curious love that slowly emerges from a protective husk of banter, teasing, even pugnacity. Once out, however, it can match the moon in its zenith—hold its own even under the coming scrutiny of long sunlight.

Gradually, with the double assurance of a master of psychology and dramaturgy, Wilson...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Years ago … Talley's Folly … would not have been considered a play…. The piece contains almost no plot in the ordinary sense of that term. Nevertheless, we are charmed….

Talley's Folly is sustained by the engaging humor of its writing…. [Wilson] is a prolific playwright and his plays … vary in large degree in form and content. But their keynote is a tenderness subdued and masked by quizzical objectivity. Wilson harbors a special sympathy for oddballs of every sort, but this is usually held in check in an effort to avoid outright sentimentality.

Harold Clurman, "Theater: 'Talley's Folly'," in The Nation (copyright 1979 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 228, No. 20, May 26, 1979, p. 609.

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Talley's Folly] is another piece of Lanford Wilson's front-porch knitting about the South Central states, full of the click-clack of theatrical needles that obviously brings joy to critical hearts nostalgic for old fashions. The play is a two character hokum-jokum—a self-styled "waltz."… The way in which the man of the pair addresses the audience at the beginning and end; the ungainliness and self-doubt of the woman; the loneliness of two wounded people; the seedy elegance of the setting; the inclusion of inserted jokes—these are all Tennessee Williams derivatives. The difference from the best Williams is that no authentic mood or character or feeling is ever generated, just a series of facsimiles that lead to revelations whose only point is to justify the series of facsimiles that led to these revelations whose only point etc….

[The] glibly summoned nostalgia, the distant band music, the southern summer evenings, are just further deployments of familiar theatrical devices.

Yet the huzzahs range across the (alleged) spectrum of critics. And intelligent "civilians"—people not specifically engaged in the theater—go to Talley's Folly, and other plays that could be cited, then leave with their heads shaking: in wonderment at the praise and in despair about going back to the theater.

Stanley Kauffmann, "Stages of Discussion" (© 1979 The New Republic, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.), in The New Republic, Vol. 180. No. 23, June 9, 1979, p. 24.