The Mound Builders

by Lanford Wilson

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Critical Context

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The Hot l Baltimore (pr., pb. 1973), Lanford Wilson’s eleventh play, won two major awards, an Obie and the 1973 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play of 1973. Wilson’s next play, The Mound Builders, though not as popular, has been produced often in the United States and abroad. In addition, it has been made into a film for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Like The Hot l Baltimore, The Mound Builders received high critical praise for its complexity of thought and language. Critics were divided on its central meaning but generally found evidence in the play of a playwright of great promise.

In The Mound Builders, Wilson continued developing ideas, concerns, and techniques along the same daring lines he pursued in The Hot l Baltimore. In both plays, as well as in many successful plays in the years since, Wilson provides an authentic American base—the decaying hotel in The Hot l Baltimore, rural middle America in The Mound Builders, a small town in Missouri in his Talley family trilogy. In his plays, as well, character, not action, dominates. Events often seem ordinary and insignificant, but they accumulate meanings and can prove to be loaded with significance. Some critics have likened Wilson to Tennessee Williams, others, to George S. Kaufman, but for his focus on character rather than action, Wilson’s roots might be traced back to Anton Chekhov, whose quirky yet endearing characters also often passively accept a fate they seem powerless to change. Moreover, Wilson, like Chekhov, often employs melodramatic confrontations and climaxes to suggest meanings inherent yet unexpected in the ordinarily uneventful lives of his characters.

Wilson contributed a number of new plays to his oeuvre in the 1990’s and early twenty-first century, many of which continued the themes developed in his earlier plays. These works included The Moonshot Tape (pr., pb. 1990), Eukiah (pr., pb. 1992), Redwood Curtain (pr. 1992, pb. 1993), Day (pr., pb. 1996), A Sense of Place: Or, Virgil Is Still the Frogboy (pr. 1997, pb. 1999), Book of Days (pr. 1998, pb. 2000), and Rain Dance (pr. 2000).

The Mound Builders is representative of Wilson’s best work. In his many full-length plays and one-acts, this major American playwright eloquently states his conviction that each individual is the sum total of what he or she has been. In The Mound Builders, as in all of his best plays, characters look to the past for the values to sustain them, and, if they are lucky, discover that personal relationships in the present are their only salvation.

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Critical Overview