The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Drug Culture of the 1970s
For readers in the twenty-first century, the casual drug use by the characters in The Mound...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

As the curtain rises on The Mound Builders, August Howe is in his study in Urbana, Illinois, dictating notes into a...

(The entire section is 808 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1975: The first software to operate a personal computer is developed, but personal computers are not generally available. Scientists...

(The entire section is 307 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the early Mississippian cultures that thrived along the Mississippi River from about A.D. 600 to 1100. What is known about these...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Mound Builders was produced for the PBS series Theater in America (Great Performances) in 1976, starring Trish...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Talley’s Folly, first produced in 1979, is Wilson’s most award-winning play. Like The Mound Builders, it deals with...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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

———, ‘‘Recreating the Magic:...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.


(The entire section is 129 words.)