The Mound Builders

by Lanford Wilson

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Themes and Meanings

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The Mound Builders is a play about the need of human beings to lead meaningful lives and to discover sustaining values: to identify themselves with something of significance and permanence amid the constant change inherent in existence. The characters in the play attach meaning and significance to the vagaries of ordinary existence but eventually have the truly consequential thrust upon them in the inevitable clash of values and desires.

Through not so much a series of events as a series of apparently spontaneous conversations, Lanford Wilson underscores the folly of the myth of self-importance, showing men and women who delude themselves in order to maintain an aura of importance, respectability, and humanity. Humankind builds—things, relationships, works of art, lives—because it is only happy when building something. Wilson shows that within the builder is also the destroyer. The roundhouse was built over a burial mound of an earlier culture. Chad Jasker and his father want to build over the roundhouse.

The archaeologists who dig in the earth for evidence of vanished cultures, the engineers constructing interstate highways and erecting a dam, the planners and builders of Holiday Inn hotels, the farmers plowing new lands for planting—all are destroying what was on the land before they began. Similarly, the desires of the various builders and destroyers inevitably collide. Chad Jasker’s father plowed under burial mounds in his desire to work his land, and Chad himself bulldozes the project of Dan Loggins and August Howe in his frustration over the collapse of his dreams. In her passion for Chad Jasker, Cynthia Howe gives away her honor, destroys her marriage, and brings confusion to her daughter. Thus on one level the metaphors of the burial mounds, highway, dam, and Holiday Inn demonstrate humankind’s quest for permanence, meaning, and happiness, but they also operate as symbols of destructive elements in humankind. As people search out what meaning and happiness they must, perhaps creating their own myths, they destroy the past and the relationships, and even the people, they most need to cling to. According to the evidence of the burial mounds and the roundhouse, entire cultures can vanish without a trace of the values that sustained them. The present age cannot look to the past for answers. Each culture must discover its own meanings, values, and happiness in the context of the ordinary pains and pleasures of existence.

Wilson resists judging his characters, but for the most part, they are ordinary people, driven by the usual human desires for sex, money, possessions, power, fame. Some of them, such as Dan, Delia, and Jean, repress these desires or attempt to fulfill them as harmlessly as possible. Others, such as Chad and Cynthia, are slaves to their passions and eventually cause misery and destruction. The world is a difficult, unpredictable, dangerous place, Wilson demonstrates, and humankind does not make life easier for itself. Its survival may depend on finding a way to happiness that values preservation more than destruction. Must humanity vanish without a trace, or can it transcend its baser impulses in order to leave behind a record that documents its nobility, courage, and goodness? The Mound Builders provides no answers but suggests by its own existence that only the truth about human nature will suffice to indicate its potential for greatness.


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Among its other themes, The Mound Builders is an examination of betrayal. All of the adult characters gathered in the house in Blue Shoals are bright and capable people; what keeps them from reaching their goals is a pattern of betrayal—real and merely perceived, large and small—visited on...

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the characters by each other.

Chad, for example, destroys the dig site and probably kills Dan and himself. From his point of view, however, Chad is more victim than criminal. He reveals that he values two things above all others: Jean (‘‘the only thing I ever saw I really wanted’’) and his future riches. Both have been taken from him by the actions of others. The summer before, when he was involved with Jean, he ‘‘didn’t really figure’’ that she would marry Dan. In his mind, Jean has betrayed him by marrying Dan and is ‘‘trying to make a fool’’ of him now. The betrayals by Dan, whose life Chad saved the previous summer, increase through the play: he has taken Jean away, he has gotten her pregnant, and he is part of the secret machinations to have the highway moved.

Cynthia also betrays and is betrayed. She betrays August by having an affair with Chad. When she learns that August has deceived them all about the plans for the highway, she herself feels betrayed, because her photographs were used without her knowledge to persuade the authorities to protect the dig site. She acts against August again by exposing the film that has the only photos of the God-King’s artifacts.

August is at the center of the cycle of betrayal. He is the instigator of the plan to keep Chad from getting rich. He and his father have betrayed the bonds of family for many years by making a fool of Delia. August is cruel enough to tell Delia about their betrayal: ‘‘Dad never read a word you wrote. He quoted your reviews back to you verbatim and laughed behind your back because you never noticed.’’ The only honest relationship in August’s life is his friendship with Dan, and August’s betrayal of Chad leads to Dan’s death.

In the end, of course, betrayal leads to unhappiness and loss. Dan and Chad are dead. August and Cynthia are divorced. Delia and August will be forever estranged. The expedition has come to ruin. The play ends pessimistically; there seems to be no way to protect oneself from betrayal. In Jean’s mind, Dan died because he was too innocent: ‘‘WHY DID HE TRUST PEOPLE, WHY DID HE BELIEVE IN THINGS?’’ Whether they are trusting or cynical, most of the characters in The Mound Builders hurt each other in the end.

Permanence and Impermanence
The world of The Mound Builders is a cruel one. Not only do people betray each other, but the simple passage of time makes everything people do turn to dust. The constant action of the universe is to destroy, yet, even knowing this, the primal urge of people is to try to build something permanent. In the introduction to Lanford Wilson: Collected Works Volume II 1970–1983, Wilson wrote that even in the earliest drafts of the play, he realized that ‘‘at the burning heart of the theme was: Why do we strive to achieve? To build, to make our mark? Why are we Mound Builders?’’

The parallels between the pre-Columbian Mound Builders and the modern characters trying to make something echo throughout the play. Dan makes the comparison plain early in the play, when he answers an imaginary girl’s question: ‘‘Why did they build the mounds? They built the mounds for the same reason I’d build the mounds.’’ There are frequent references to the past and records from the past. The Mound Builders lived from about A.D. 600 to 1100, and the poetry, pots, and bone awls they left behind are the foundation for what August and Dan are trying to accomplish. Delia compares the house in Blue Shoals to a painting by the Midwestern artist Grant Wood and compares her life to the Charles Dickens novel Dombey and Son. Chad cites local folklore, and Dan quotes Confucius (or tries to), when the two are drinking together. Jean quotes an old Chinese proverb. August compares Cynthia’s work with that of famed photographer Diane Arbus. Dan’s nickname, Pollyandy, is a reference to Pollyanna, a fictional character from a series of early twentieth-century novels. These references demonstrate that the past is useful in the present: people can use what others have left behind to help them live today.

All of the adult characters are trying to create something that will live on after they are gone. August and Dan are trying to build a national monument as well as careers and a reputation, ‘‘to conquer lost worlds with a doctorate in one hand and a trowel in the other.’’ Jean wants to make a family and after two miscarriages in less than a year is cautiously optimistic about her current pregnancy. Chad plans to build a motel, a golf course, and a restaurant. Delia has written two books that will endure, and her inability to write more has driven her to alcohol and despair. Cynthia makes photographs, and although she is not as talented as the famous Diane Arbus, she is responsible for the visual record of August and Dan’s work. (She is also the only one who chooses to destroy her own work.)

None of it is any good. August and Dan’s work is destroyed, first by Chad and the bulldozer and then again by the floods. Jean, presumably, will deliver a healthy baby, but she will not have the family she dreamed of because her husband is dead. Chad is also dead, after being cheated out of his planned development. Delia and Cynthia may find new outlets for their art, or they may sink deeper into drink. As for the Mound Builders, their pots and bone awls and gold beads lie at the bottom of the lake, buried again as they were for nine hundred years before August came along. The cycle is complete—until another group of archeologists finds the artifacts and dreams of using them to build something permament.