Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939
Lanford Wilson’s trilogy about the Talley family traces their spiritual decline in the 1940’s to their renewed hope and optimism in the late 1970’s. Talley’s Folly and Talley and Son take place on July 4, 1944, when the family learns that Eldon’s youngest child, Timmy, has been killed. In addition, family outcast Sally agrees on that day to marry Matt Friedman, a man of Russian-Jewish descent. Fifth of July may be viewed as the completion of the saga.
Of the three Talley plays, Fifth of July and Talley’s Folly have received the most critical attention, with Talley’s Folly winning the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1980. Fifth of July, which was first performed Off-Broadway by the Circle Repertory Company in April, 1978, and ran for 168 performances, was revised, with significant changes, and reopened on Broadway in November, 1980, for a longer run.
The plots of Talley and Son and Talley’s Folly overlap, but Talley’s Folly is far less plot-driven. Set at the family boathouse, Talley’s Folly is a romantic comedy in which only two characters, Matt and Sally, discuss their relationship, World War II, the Talley family, and each other’s dreams and aspirations.
The events of Talley and Son and Talley’s Folly stress two complementary conflicts. Each is concerned with family—most particularly the role a family plays in contributing to and inhibiting the growth of individual members. Talley and Son demonstrates the importance of the father-son relationship, and Talley’s Folly emphasizes the effects of family estrangement on the individual. Timmy, the narrator of the former play, represents the failure of the Talley patriarchs, Eldon and Calvin Stuart Talley, to consider family bonds as more important than money and power. The elder Talley is portrayed as a powerful and corrupt figure in the history of Lebanon; he does whatever he can to protect the family name and to maintain control. Eldon has inherited many of his traits. For example, he has fathered a child out of wedlock but is unwilling to take responsibility. None of the sons is able to relate well to his father or to become the son for which his father wished.
Sally’s conflict in Talley’s Folly concerns whether she should rebel against her patriarchal family and marry an outsider. Thus, while the title Talley and Son emphasizes the importance of familial male bonding, both plays stress the failure of mothers and fathers to teach their children humane values. The mother figures—Olive, Buddy’s wife, Aunt Lottie, and Netta, Eldon’s wife—have, like their husbands, contributed to the family’s decline through their own spiritual weakness. Lottie is, however, the strongest rebel; she recognizes the flaws of her father and her brother—and the inherent problems in the capitalistic American dream—but is physically and emotionally incapable of caring for herself. Her inner strength is clear, nevertheless, when she tells Sally she will rebel vicariously through her niece’s marriage. Lottie serves as a mother figure to Sally, hoping she will reject their family’s corrupt values. Sally’s own mother, Netta, is too neurotic to take care of herself or her family effectively, though her outbursts at Eldon show that she could, were she to allow herself, stand up against him for his extramarital affairs.
In Fifth of July, family plays a significant role as well, although the play advocates a broader definition of family. Aunt Sally influences and cares for Shirley, June’s daughter. She becomes the clan’s matriarch since Olive and Buddy moved to California, forsaking home and the past. The ideal gay relationship between Ken and Jed may perhaps be the first in an American drama glorifying the values of family and tradition. On the one hand, Fifth of July critiques the American dream of capitalism, showing the flaws of the capitalists John and Gwen Landis in, for example, the harshness and vulgarity of their language and in their immoral betrayal of Ken during the Vietnam War. On the other hand, the American dream of individualism, of land, of family, and of home triumph in the historically latest Talley play.
All three plays criticize American concepts of masculinity, male-female relationships, and heroism, but Fifth of July most fully explores the effects of war. Although the other two Talley plays touch on antiwar sentiment (particularly evident in the cruelty and violence of Timmy’s death), Fifth of July directly confronts the Vietnam War, the concept of American heroism, and the idealism of those who protested the Vietnam conflict. Vietnam symbolizes for Wilson the failure of American men and women to acknowledge fundamental problems within the American psyche. As Ken and John try to convince Wes, John and Gwen’s sidekick, that by definition “Heroic actions must have saving results,” Wilson ironically emphasizes that for Vietnam there was no such effect—that for Ken, like so many others who fought for the United States, his sacrifice was futile. Although World War II had positive results, Vietnam failed miserably—as did the antiwar and related Civil Rights movements—in achieving the American Dream. The personal sacrifices of Timmy and his nephew, Ken, Jr., are underappreciated when the wars are over.
Each of the Talley plays affirms idealism while warning Americans against the effects of materialism, capitalism, and war on the American psyche. All the play’s conflicts emerge from a lack of humane concern for family and for those outside the family. Like many American dramatists, Wilson fears that money and materialism lead to objectification of the human being and to denial of the most basic of American values, the worth of the individual.
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