The Mound Builders

by Lanford Wilson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

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.

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