The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Rimers of Eldritch begins in darkness. Two female voices are heard gossiping sympathetically about Cora Groves, who has taken a considerably younger man as her lover. As Martha and Wilma speak, a faint light begins to illuminate a middle-aged woman, Nelly, with her hand raised as if taking an oath. The gossip continues a few moments, then the lights are turned full on to indicate morning. Nelly swears, “I do,” and the women, now seen on a raised platform suggestive of a porch, talk of “the trials that woman has to bear.” The juxtaposition indicates that they are talking of Nelly, who is now being sworn in by the judge. The lights dim once again to evening, as the women’s talk shifts to chastising the townspeople for allowing an unspecified character to terrorize them with his incoherent growling and illicit spying into their lives.

The unnamed character, whom the audience later learns is Skelly Mannor, is at the heart of the scandal for which Martha and Wilma believe the town must take responsibility. His murder forms the thematic and structural center of the play, and the audience is led to and from it via multiple points of view and rapid time shifts. Throughout the first act, the evidence of character is compiled. The audience learns that, with the lone exception of Cora, all consider Skelly a moral reprobate: accused of dog poisoning, bestiality (the town’s boys bleat at him), and voyeurism (Patsy swears that he peeped at her as she changed clothes). In his sixties, he is old enough to have served as the town scapegoat for two generations, as the Skelly-baiting stories swapped by Peck Johnson and his son, Josh, attest. What finally triggers Skelly’s death is less his actions than the explosive emotional interdependence in the claustrophobic town. For this reason, as well as the dramatic method used, the plot is best told through its characters.

Just as Nelly is about to begin her testimony in the opening scene, two other characters, Mary and Robert, speak in the grocery store where Robert works. Mary, Nelly’s mother, is the principal “trial” Nelly must bear. Her grasp of facts is comically muddled in this conversation with Robert, but her later conversation with Martha and Wilma, in which she claims that her immunity to disease protects her from the town’s wickedness, fully reveals her senility. She risks Nelly’s anger by misrepresenting her daughter as physically abusive and guilty of killing her own father. After Nelly subsequently testifies that it was Mary who saw (in a dream) the attack on Eva Jackson and informed Nelly, Mary loses all credibility (and her hints to Robert in this first conversation that she knows that it was he who attacked Eva may be overlooked).

Robert appears an average teenage boy, just graduated from high school and undecided about his future plans. His...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Because of the importance of the autumnal metaphor (not to mention the pun) to the play’s theme, Lanford Wilson utilizes the dramatic techniques of poetic realism. The audience is given an early clue to his break from naturalism by the stage design. Although Wilson does not specify a bare stage or platforms of varying heights and sizes (such as those used at the play’s premiere), he does recommend that nothing more realistic than suggestions of “American Gothic motifs” be used. With such an evocative stage in mind, Wilson specified in his stage directions that particular attention be paid to the lighting: “A scene continues—sometimes two or more in separate areas of the stage simultaneously—until the lights dim on the scene and focus attention elsewhere.” The insistence of well-timed lighting is important for underscoring a sense of the simultaneity of place, as well as of past, present, and future.

As lyrical as the stage appears, the characters are convincingly realistic. Deftly, Wilson reveals the townspeople’s distinct personalities through their everyday gossip and domestic exchanges, as well as through their responses to the crisis of Skelly’s death. For all of their individuality, however, Wilson also has them operate as a group protagonist against the evil they think they see in Skelly. From the bleatings of the teenage boys to the ruin of his property to the pastor’s insistence on collective responsibility, the townspeople close ranks and function as a single unit....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bigsby, C. W. E. Introduction to Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Brockett, Oscar G. “Theatre and Drama Since 1960.” In Modern Theatre: Realism and Naturalism to the Present. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1982.

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

Dean, Anne. Discovery and Imagination: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.

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

Kane, Leslie. “The Agony of Isolation in the Drama of Anton Chekhov and Lanford Wilson.” West Virginia University Philological Papers 31 (1986): 20-25.

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

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

Schvey, Henry I. “Images of the Past in the Plays of Lanford Wilson.” In Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock. Munich: M. Hueber, 1981.