The Mound Builders

by Lanford Wilson

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The Play

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The Mound Builders opens in August Howe’s study in Urbana, Illinois, on a February morning. August, an archaeology professor, begins to dictate a report on the previous summer’s failed expedition to Blue Shoals, in southern Illinois. As he dictates, slides depicting scenes from the expedition are projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. The slides show the lake that threatened to flood his team’s excavation, the old farmhouse where the team and their families lived, construction of a dam close to the house and their excavation, a bulldozer, and their excavation site.

As August narrates over the slides, the scene fades into the previous summer, and the lights come up on an interior: the large living, dining, and working area of the old farmhouse. Most of the play’s action takes place here, in a series of brief scenes that introduce the central characters, detail their personal lives, and follow the progress of their expedition to discover evidence of early American Indian cultures. Scenes of the summer in Blue Shoals are interrupted by interludes in which August provides commentary in order to introduce background information or heighten suspense.

In the act’s second scene, Dan and Jean Loggins arrive at the farmhouse, the archaeological team’s summer home for the previous three years. Dan Loggins, also an archaeologist, is August Howe’s junior partner; Jean Loggins, a gynecologist, is Dan’s wife. Chad Jasker, the landowner’s son and a friend of Dan, has driven them to the house and helps to carry in their belongings. Dan tells August privately that he wants to keep the pregnancy of his wife, Jean, a secret from the students helping with the dig. The next evening Chad and August arrive at the house with Delia, August’s ill sister, a well-known writer. Dan describes a difficult day at the dig. A bit of a poet, Dan believes the early American Indians built mounds for essentially the same reasons motivating builders today. “A person isn’t happy,” he says, “unless he’s building something.”

The quick passage of summer at Blue Shoals is represented in a series of short scenes separated by abrupt blackouts, like slides in a slide show. In one scene, alone with Jean, Chad asks her to go with him to see a model of the county as it will look, he says, after Jasker’s development is built. An interstate highway will soon pass close to Blue Shoals, he says, and the new dam will create a large lake. On the lakeshore, resort accommodations will be built on land owned by Chad and his father, making them rich. Jean is happy for Chad but is fascinated with the process by which rural areas can be transformed by “the signing of an energy bill in Washington.” As Jean begins to leave the room, Chad suddenly expresses his desire for her. Jean tells him to “get lost.” Later, when Chad and Cynthia Howe are alone, he asks Cynthia for money, which she gives him. Events subsequently reveal that Chad and Cynthia are lovers.

The scene shifts back to Urbana in February. Alone in his study, August attempts to organize what he calls “shards” from the expedition. He catalogs a personal tragedy, including a separation from his wife and daughter and an impending resignation from his position at the university.

One night toward the end of June, Dan and Chad return drunk from a fishing trip. Dan tells Chad that the archaeologists have found something unusual under the roundhouse they are excavating. After Chad leaves, Dan tells Jean and Delia that Chad saved him last summer from drowning. Dan goes...

(This entire section contains 1352 words.)

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to bed, and a short scene between Delia and Jean ends the act. Delia believes that men and women burden themselves with too much pain. She envisions how the world ends: “A sad old world of widows . . . lined up on beaches . . . looking out over the water and trying to keep warm.”

When act 2 opens, the team has made an exciting discovery beneath the roundhouse: remains of an even earlier culture. Dan believes that they may have discovered a burial mound of the Mississippian culture, which had disappeared from southern Illinois many centuries before. The rest of the act focuses on the team’s increasingly more significant discoveries. The archaeologists work under extreme pressure as heavy summer rains threaten their excavation and cause the water level of the lake to rise, further endangering their project. Chad continues his affair with Cynthia and attempts once more to seduce Jean, who again rejects him.

In the longest speech of the play, Dan eulogizes a vanished member of the Mississippian culture, whom he calls Cochise. Cochise, he says, did not vanish “without a trace.” He left behind him burial mounds, remains of dwellings and tools, and enough evidence of his culture to attract admirers like Dan, who mourn his passing.

August and Dan’s team has unearthed the burial mound of a god-king, the first discovered in North America, only days before the lake would have flooded it. The team begins to collect artifacts from the mound, including the first gold ornaments known to be made by North American Indian cultures. Seeing the gold and copper beads, Chad admires August and Dan’s attempt to make something of themselves, not for money but for a reason he understands but is unable to express. The team has discovered a gold burial mask, which Dan puts on almost inadvertently.

While the team cleans and preserves gold and copper ornaments, Chad discovers that Jean is pregnant and becomes extremely agitated, perhaps because he thinks that everyone has been withholding this information from him. Chad tells the team that they will not be able to work on his father’s land next summer. Dan and he argue over the use of his father’s land, and Dan eventually tells Chad that the interstate highway on which Chad had been counting to bring vacationers and their money to Blue Shoals has been rerouted to the other side of the lake owing to the importance of the Native American monuments in the area. August and Dan have known this information for two years but kept it from everyone else, including Cynthia and Chad. When he learns this, Chad is furious, believing that he had been betrayed by the people he most respected and admired. Dan cannot convince Chad that the land has immense value as a repository of important indigenous dwelling places and artifacts. Instead, Chad howls at the loss of his dream of commercial success and abruptly leaves the stage.

Later that night, Chad returns, and Dan catches him about to leave the house with the god-king’s golden mask and other valuables. Chad then lures Dan outside, telling him that he has something to show him. The next morning, the team learns that Chad has run the bulldozer over the site, ruining the project, and has driven the machine into the lake. Moreover, Chad and Dan are missing. Telling August that Chad is “capable of anything,” Cynthia then destroys the photographic evidence of their finds. After discovery in the lake of an oar from Chad’s boat, a search for Chad and Dan is begun. Dan is missing, and Jean says, “WHY DID HE TRUST PEOPLE, WHY DID HE BELIEVE IN THINGS? . . . Vanished without a trace.”

The last scene in the play contrasts tableaux of August Howe in Urbana in February and three women—Cynthia, Delia, and Jean—in Blue Shoals in August. August says that he had imagined the house being carried off by a “great brown flood” when the lake rose; in fact, when he returned in January to see it, the house was on the same spot, half covered by the lake waters. In imagery reminiscent of the ending of act 2, the three women, alone in a house at the edge of rising waters, lament the loss of their men. The women fade into black. Motionless and speechless, microphone in hand, August cannot put his emotions into words as the lights fade on him.

Dramatic Devices

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Through a variety of dramatic devices that invite the audience to interpret the play metaphorically as well as literally, The Mound Builders directs the playgoer’s attention to the struggle of the characters to find meaning and purpose in their lives as well as in the course of all human existence. The play suggests that the meaning of human existence is not inherent in events themselves, but rather must be discovered, if not made. Wilson employs three major devices to make this point: a self-conscious stylized structure, numerous parallels between the culture of the mound builders and the present culture, and symbols suggesting that time itself works against humankind’s effort to build lasting monuments to itself.

The story of the failed expedition to Blue Shoals is told in flashback, six months after its climactic event, by August Howe, leader of the archaeology team. While attempting to organize a report on the expedition from the archaeologists’ notes and his wife’s slides, he recalls the events that brought about the end of his marriage, the failure of the expedition, and the death of Dan Loggins. This frame functions as a device to summarize and organize much diverse material, but Wilson uses it primarily to foreshadow the climactic revelation of the play and its consequences, thus suggesting the role played in subsequent events by the otherwise apparently random conversations and confrontations preceding it.

In the first scene of the play, for example, August says that he intends to “go through what is left of the wreckage of last summer’s expedition.” In the second framing scene, he refers to his wife as “ex-relation by marriage” and to his daughter as “alleged daughter.” In the fourth and final framing scene of act 1, August says, “There was no September goodbye this summer.” Early in act 2, in the last framing scene before the climax of the play, August says, “By the time the lake overran the site, it didn’t at all matter.” August’s apparent interruptions of the events of the summer thus frequently remind the audience that the events witnessed will eventually culminate by association in meanings and causation. In addition to the framing device, Wilson also foreshadows the outcome of the action by drawing numerous parallels between mound-builder culture and the present. These might represent coincidences, the action of fate, or merely plot machinations. Though their meanings are debatable, the parallels certainly add urgency and significance to ordinary human actions, motivations, needs, and desires.

Wilson’s stylized technique serves to remind the audience that what is being watched is not random behavior but a play. The lake water covering a multitude of sins at the end of this play also obliterates the past, making it appear that Dan, Chad, the roundhouse, and the burial mound have all vanished without a trace. Soon the old farmhouse will also disappear. The meaning of this place, then, exists only in human memory and in the spoken and written records made by those struggling to understand the meaning in their own lives.

Historical Context

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The Drug Culture of the 1970s For readers in the twenty-first century, the casual drug use by the characters in The Mound Builders may seem surprising. Contrary to the stereotype today of drug users as primarily young, poor, and uneducated, the marijuana and mescaline users in the play are in their twenties and thirties, middle class, and highly educated. Dan, the heaviest drug user, has a doctoral degree and works for a major university. Jean is a medical doctor, who has a history of being a ‘‘drughead’’ but who has gone ‘‘cold turkey’’ for the duration of her pregnancy. These characters are not meant to be seen as perverse or unusual but as fairly typical young professionals for whom recreational drug use is nothing to hide. In fact, the period of the 1970s saw the highest rate of drug use in the nation’s history.

Before the second world war, drugs were diffi- cult to obtain. Working with other countries to reduce production of opium poppies and coca, the United States was able to prevent most drugs from entering the country. Drug use was scarcely recognized as a social problem. The bursting economy after the war and advances in production methods led to many benefits for the country but also led to an increase in drug use. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the 1970s, the United States had a large population of middle-class young people who had the money to buy drugs and a ready supply of drugs. In the 1960s, marijuana became widely available for the first time, and psychedelic drugs were said to help users ‘‘expand their consciousness.’’ In the era of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War, drug use became a sign of rebellion for many people who needed a way to distance themselves from what they saw as an immoral society. Because many of the drug users were middleclass, use became somewhat casual and acceptable (although still illegal) in most places, which helped spread drug use even further. The 1970s saw the reemergence of cocaine, which had virtually disappeared after the 1920s but later was now seen as a sign of power and status because of its high cost. Some celebrities made no secret of their drug use. Drugs were celebrated in movies and in music, and a comedy team named Cheech and Chong made a career of mocking and championing the drug culture.

By 1979, government figures estimated that one in ten Americans was using recreational drugs. Since that time, drug use has continued to be a major problem for the United States, but the numbers of users and the casual nature of their use has not been equaled.

The Nation’s First Energy Crisis In the early 1970s, the United States was enjoying a period of cheap energy and a growing economy. The idea of conserving energy was far from the minds of most Americans, who imagined energy to be so limitless that they never really considered it at all. Like the early settlers who could not imagine this huge country ever running low on land or on buffalo, Americans had a disturbing awakening in 1973. Suddenly, large cities found they could not meet the demand for electricity to power the airconditioners and other electrical appliances that had multiplied faster than energy companies’ capacity to produce power. This led to periods of low power over large areas, called ‘‘brown outs,’’ as utility companies simply could not produce enough power. Rates increased rapidly.

In October of 1973, the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) staged an embargo, which means they intentionally reduced the amount of oil they would sell to other nations, including the United States. The effect was immediate and dramatic. In the United States, customers found long lines at gas stations, and in some areas customers were allowed to buy gasoline only on certain days. In December, the national Christmas tree went without lights as a symbol that all Americans needed to use less energy.

The price of oil rose from three dollars a barrel in 1973 to thirty dollars a barrel in 1980, leading to a worldwide recession. In the United States, it seemed important to reduce dependency on foreign oil. Federal laws called for energy conservation and encouraged the development of alternative sources of energy. Funding became available for solar, wind, and hydroelectric power development. This led directly to projects similar to Wilson’s fictional Blue Shoals Dam, which would provide hydroelectric power and, incidentally, create a lake and all its accompanying tourist activity. As Jean says to Chad, ‘‘The signing of an energy bill in Washington transforms rural areas into resorts—field hands into busboys.’’

Literary Style

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Frame As the curtain rises on The Mound Builders, August Howe is in his study in Urbana, Illinois, dictating notes into a tape recorder as he looks at slides of ‘‘the wreckage of last summer’s expedition.’’ The slides are projected onto a wall on the stage so the audience can see them, and the first series includes pictures of the lake, the house, the construction of the dam, the bulldozer, and the dig itself. Although most of the action of the play happens in Blue Shoals, Illinois, the Blue Shoals scenes are flashbacks, and the present time is February in Urbana. Twelve times throughout the play, scenes of August in his study are interspersed with scenes of the characters living out the events recorded in August’s notes and Cynthia’s slides.

This framing device has several effects. Mechanically, it enables Wilson to provide images for his audience that would not be possible to present in live action. The characters talk to each other inside the house, but much of what they talk about is outside: ‘‘August up to his a—— in mud,’’ the mounds as they are excavated and after they are flattened by a bulldozer, the rising lake. Wilson cannot have a bulldozer run over a mound on stage, but the slides enable him to show a picture of it stuck in the mud afterward. Other items, such as a pot from the excavation and the bone awl, are too small to show the audience in detail, but the slides enable the audience to gain a deeper understanding of the artifacts the team is finding.

Another important effect of the framing device is to cast doubt on everything that happens between the characters. If the Blue Shoals scenes are August’s memories of events, how reliable are they? Of all the characters in the house, August is the least engaged; he spends most of his time alone in his study and hurries through the room where others are talking. He is angry with Delia for being a burden on him, and after the summer, he is angry with Cynthia and Kirsten for leaving him. He has never respected Chad and must feel even less regard for him after, it may be assumed, Chad kills Dan and himself. It is likely that these events and emotions have colored August’s memories of the summer. And if he did not even notice that his wife was having an affair (and making little effort to hide it), how accurately can he remember conversations? Wilson points out in the stage directions that ‘‘the house is seen from August’s memory,’’ and the same must be said of all of the flashback scenes. The frame repeatedly reminds the audience that the play is itself an artifact. It is imperfect, as all artifacts are, but it is all we have.

Foreshadowing When a writer drops clues about what is going to happen in a story—especially clues to unhappy or evil events—those clues are said to foreshadow future events. In The Mound Builders, Wilson leaves no doubt from the very beginning that the play is going to end unhappily. One of August’s first lines in the first scene is a reference to ‘‘the wreckage of last summer’s expedition,’’ and audiences who have seen Wilson’s earlier play The Hot l Baltimore know that the slide of the bulldozer in the first scene foreshadows future destruction.

Many of August’s slides and comments refer to events before they happen on stage. In his second series of slides are pictures of Cynthia, whom he twice refers to as his ‘‘ex-relation.’’ Halfway through the play, he comments that ‘‘by the time the lake over-ran the site, it didn’t matter at all.’’ He later reveals that his years of work ultimately came to ‘‘a salvage operation from which we salvaged nothing.’’ Other elements of foreshadowing include Delia looking into the future at a ‘‘sad old world of widows’’ on the shore ‘‘looking out over the water’’; Dan making Jean uncomfortable by putting on the death mask; and Cynthia telling Jean that Chad will never get rich, that he and his father will ‘‘have the whole property extorted out from under them.’’ All of these moments (some more overt than others) indicate what is going to happen before it actually occurs.

Why would an author do this? Why spoil the surprise? Wilson uses foreshadowing to shift the audience’s attention from the plot and onto the underlying themes. In other words, the plot itself is not the main point in this play; the play is about ideas. Wilson is concerned less with what happens than with why. By relieving the audience from the responsibility of keeping track of the action, he makes it easier for them to focus on motivation and cause.

Compare and Contrast

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1975: The first software to operate a personal computer is developed, but personal computers are not generally available. Scientists in major universities have access to large mainframe computers, but archeologists in the field make notes with pen and paper and have them typed up on electric typewriters.

Today: Many homes in the United States have at least one personal computer, and many people have portable laptop computers. Archeological projects sponsored by universities use computers, global positioning satellite systems, digital cameras, cellular phones, and other electronic equipment.

1975: The United States remains under pressure from the energy crisis of 1973 and continuing fuel shortages. The federal government passes various energy bills to help the country become less dependent on foreign oil and encourages the production of wind farms, solar panels, and dams.

Today: Foreign oil dependency is still a major concern for the United States. Federal policy concentrates on increased domestic production of oil.

1975: Although women have nearly all the same legal rights as men and many women have active and successful careers, it is still unusual for a woman to maintain her career after she becomes a mother. Few day care centers exist, and only affluent women can afford to hire child care.

Today: Many women pursue careers, even as physicians and photographers, after the birth of their children. Good quality child care is available to most middle- and upper-class women, although mothers with lower incomes still find it difficult to arrange child care.

1975: The town of Bull Shoals, Arkansas, likely a model for Blue Shoals, Illinois, is a resort community with motels, restaurants, boat rentals, golf courses, and other attractions along the shores of Bull Shoals Lake, created by the Bull Shoals Dam in the late 1940s.

Today: Bulls Shoals enjoys continued prosperity, as the number of tourists and permanent residents increased by more than 25 percent in the 1990s.

Media Adaptations

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The Mound Builders was produced for the PBS series Theater in America (Great Performances) in 1976, starring Trish Hawkins, Brad Dourif, and Tanya Berezin. It is available as a ninetyminute video from Insight Media.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Barnett, Gene A., Lanford Wilson, Twayne, 1987, pp. 100–01.

———, ‘‘Recreating the Magic: An Interview with Lanford Wilson,’’ in Forum, Vol. 25, Spring 1984, p. 68.

Beaufort, John, Review of The Mound Builders, in the Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1986, p. 29.

Busby, Mark, Lanford Wilson, Boise State University, 1987, p. 31.

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, Rodopi, 1989, p. 203.

Clurman, Harold, ‘‘Theatre,’’ in the Nation, March 15, 1975, pp. 315–16.

Kauffmann, Stanley, ‘‘Stanley Kauffmann on Theatre: Two American Plays,’’ in New Republic, March 1, 1975, p. 22.

Oliver, Edith, ‘‘On the Mounds,’’ in the New Yorker, February 17, 1975, pp. 84–85.

Simon, John, ‘‘Rum Deals Two with Coke,’’ in New York, February 10, 1986, p. 56.

Wilson, Lanford, Introduction to The Mound Builders, in Lanford Wilson: Collected Works, Volume II, 1970–1983, Smith and Kraus, 1998, pp. 126, 128.

Further Reading Barnett, Gene A., Lanford Wilson, Twayne, 1987. This biography provides the best introduction to Wilson’s life and work. In a full chapter devoted to The Mound Builders, Barnett examines the play’s plot, structure, and major characters and discusses the play’s origins as two imagined scenes in the writer’s mind.

Bryer, Jackson R., Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, Garland, 1994. Twelve critical articles, an introduction, a chronology, and an annotated bibliography of primary and secondary works comprise this volume. While The Mound Builders is mentioned only briefly, interviews that Bryer conducted with Wilson and his collaborator Marshall Mason illuminate Wilson’s creative process.

Busby, Mark, Lanford Wilson, Boise State University, 1987. This brief monograph focuses on Wilson’s family history as it has influenced his writing. Busby treats The Mound Builders, Wilson’s first play set in the Midwest, as an important stepping stone toward the playwright’s Talley family plays—his greatest works.

Cooperman, Robert, ‘‘Lanford Wilson: A Bibliography,’’ in Bulletin of Bibliography, Vol. 48, September 1991, pp. 125–35. Although no longer up-to-date, this bibliography is a good source for information about productions of The Mound Builders and other plays, including performance and publication dates, and citations for criticism and reviews. Interviews with Wilson, and performances by him, are also listed.

Ryzuk, Mary S., The Circle Repertory Company: The First Fifteen Years, Iowa State University Press, 1989. This is a history of the theater company founded in 1969 in New York by playwright-in-residence Lanford Wilson and managing director Marshall W. Mason. Wilson wrote The Mound Builders and other plays with the ‘‘Circle Rep’’ company in mind; the character of Delia, for example, was created specifically for one of the company’s actors.


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Sources for Further Study

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

Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1987.

Clurman, Harold. Review in The Nation, March 15, 1975, 315-316.

Cohn, Ruby. “Lanford Wilson.” In New American Dramatists, 1960-1980. New York: Grove Press, 1982.

Dasgupta, Gautam. “Lanford Wilson.” In American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, edited by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981.

DiGaetani, John L. “Lanford Wilson.” In A Search for Postmodern Theatre: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Gussow, Mel. “Lanford Wilson on Broadway.” Horizon 23 (May, 1980): 30-36.

Savran, David. “Lanford Wilson.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Williams, Philip Middleton. A Comfortable House: Lanford Wilson, Marshall W. Mason, and the Circle Repertory Company. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide