The Mound Builders

by Lanford Wilson

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Critical Overview

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Although The Mound Builders is Wilson’s favorite of his plays, it has not been the favorite of critics. For the most part, it is fair to say that the play has been more widely admired by those who have read it and studied it as a text than by those who have seen it performed. Both groups agree that the play is complicated and literary, even ‘‘opaque’’—just the type of play that is often more rewarding to readers, who can pause and retrace their steps to confirm connections. And most critics who have studied Wilson’s career have found that Wilson did not hit his stride and produce fine, mature work until the Talley family plays a few years after The Mound Builders.

When the play opened off-Broadway in 1975, Wilson and the Circle Repertory were already important enough to draw the attention of New York’s most influential reviewers. For Wilson, this was both good and bad. His play was reviewed in the New York Times and important magazines, but the reviews were not favorable. Edith Oliver, reviewer for the New Yorker, described an ‘‘elaborate production of a dim and insubstantial play.’’ She admired Wilson’s ability to write dialogue, writing ‘‘the lines are speakable, and there are a number of good, funny ones,’’ but did not believe the characters to be ‘‘based on any firsthand observation, or even on memory.’’ Stanley Kauffmann, on the other hand, found the play’s ‘‘authentic base—in Wilson’s well-known feeling for the Midwest’’ to be its strongest virtue. Kauffmann’s review for the New Republic described moments of ‘‘real wit’’ and ‘‘genuine feeling’’ but concluded that ‘‘Wilson lacks the intellectual depth to make the schema fruitful or the art to keep it from the mere filling-out of a pattern.’’ The most positive review was Harold Clurman’s for the Nation. Clurman called the play ‘‘Wilson’s most ambitious’’ and the play’s idea ‘‘provocative and unmistakably felt.’’ He found himself ‘‘strangely disturbed’’ by the play’s ‘‘density as well as the pull and tear of motivations and thoughts evoked and left unresolved,’’ and he concluded that the play ‘‘is one I genuinely respect even in my dissatisfaction with it.’’

The play was revived by Circle Repertory in 1986 with a slightly revised script. In this new version, the character of Kirsten was deleted, and other changes were made to sharpen the conflicts, but the critics were not much impressed. Reviewing the revival for New York magazine, John Simon commented, ‘‘Even the most talented playwrights cannot score all the time.’’ He found the play ‘‘rather opaque’’ and joked that the characters and their issues were so difficult to empathize with that ‘‘It’s all just making mounds out of molehills.’’ John Beaufort, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, agreed, praising ‘‘the gifts that have served Mr. Wilson so admirably in other works’’ but finding that in this play ‘‘the characters and their problems arouse no particular concern.’’

Literary critics have focused on delineating the central conflicts of the play and on showing how the play fits into Wilson’s body of work. In his Twayne overview Lanford Wilson, Gene A. Barnett intentionally sidesteps the play’s weaknesses to focus on its strengths: ‘‘Thematically, The Mound Builders is Wilson’s most complicated play, and any flaw in the work does not mitigate the validity of its themes.’’ Barnett examines the themes of conflict between man’s dreams and reality and ‘‘the cyclical repetition of history and culture.’’ Only one scholarly article devoted entirely to The Mound Builders has been published, Johan Callens’s ‘‘When ‘the Center Cannot Hold.’’’ Callens examines the play as both ‘‘an exploration of the psychological tensions that arise when people from different professions and classes’’ come together and as ‘‘an investigation of the nature of reality and man’s relation to it.’’ Mark Busby, author of a brief monograph entitled Lanford Wilson, traces the play’s themes of ‘‘work, family, and betrayal’’ through several other of Wilson’s plays. He admits that reviewers did not admire the play in performance but finds that ‘‘its complexity makes it perhaps his most satisfying play to read.’’

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