Talley's Folly

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

ph_0111226320-Wilson_L.jpg Lanford Wilson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The best way to discuss Lanford Wilson’s trilogy of plays about the Talley clan would probably be to ignore their order of production/publication and treat them as a single unified family chronicle, beginning with A Tale Told (as yet unpublished), which explores the family traumas and crises at the end of World War II, then Talley’s Folly (produced, 1979; published, 1980), the romance between the family oddball, Sally, and her middle-aged Jewish suitor, and finally 5th of July (produced, 1978; published, 1979), which jumps ahead thirty-three years to dramatize the plight of the Talleys born after World War II, illusioned in the 1960’s, and disillusioned in the 1970’s. At the same time, however, each play is a separate, powerful whole that can be appreciated on its own terms. This is especially true of Talley’s Folly, the most commercially successful of the three, indeed, of Lanford Wilson’s entire career.

Since the production of his first play, The Madness of Lady Bright in 1964, Wilson has been one of the most consistently stimulating, provocative, and—although clearly influenced by Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams among others—original of contemporary American playwrights. In plotting, characterization, and dialogue, he seems to be an “old-fashioned” realist, in attitude and awareness a thorough contemporary, and in theatrical approach, an experimenter.

Despite the color and variety in his work, however, all of the plays utilize one of three structural approaches. A few, primarily the domestic conflict plays such as Lemon Sky, 5th of July, and The Mound Builders, are conventionally realistic in organization. A small number of intimately related characters come into conflict over a single problem or cluster of problems, most often based on shifting family relationships. Another set of dramas, which might be called the “ensemble plays”—Balm in Gilead, The Hot l Baltimore, The Rimers of Eldritch—are put together much more elaborately. In these plays, an extremely large cast more or less splits into a series of character clusters, each with their own mini-plays to act out in the context of the whole. The rhythm and movement of these plays is controlled by juxtaposing the various groups against each other and fluidly moving between them, while gradually building an overall sense of meaning and direction until the whole finally jells. Then, at the other extreme, are the small, tightly focused plays, where everything is narrowed and intensified into a confrontation between two vital, troubled characters. Examples of this approach are his brilliant early one-act plays The Madness of Lady Bright and Home Free, his provocative, flawed full-length work The Gingham Dog, and, of course, Talley’s Folly.

Talley’s Folly is the story of an unlikely affair between two individuals who seem to have little in common beyond the fact that they are both outsiders. Matt Friedman, a forty-two-year-old-Jewish accountant, enters and talks directly to the audience. He introduces himself, gives a tour of the set, an old Victorian-styled boathouse on the Talley farm, verbally establishes mood and atmosphere, and sketches in the social and personal background of the play.

The boathouse setting provides the play with both its title and its atmosphere. “Talley’s Folly” is the name given the boathouse when Sally Talley’s Uncle Everett “Whistler” Talley first built it in 1870. The character of the old oddball Uncle remains in the background of the play as referent and model against whom the narrow, rigid, conformist, “successful” Talleys of the mid-1940’s are measured. The ornate boathouse “constructed of louvers, and lattice and geegaws” gives the play an otherworldly, sentimental, nineteenth centuryish feeling. This atmosphere is enhanced by sentimental music in the background coming from the Fourth of July celebrations in the park on the other side of the small lake. This music, Friedman says, sets the tone of the play: “this should be a waltz one-two-three, one-two-three a no-holds-barred romantic story.”

After Matt goes through his introductions twice (once quickly “for the latecomers”), Sally appears. She is irritated by Matt’s persistence, as well as by the behavior of her own family back on the hill (the subject of the last play, A Tale Told). Matt represents a possibility in her life that she had rejected—or thinks that she had rejected—yet her attraction to him is clear and the overall shape and direction of the play is evident from its first moments. Matt will gradually break down Sally’s resistance until she gives up, admits she loves him, and agrees to go off with him. In the process, we get to know and like these two individuals, and also, finally, to learn their secrets: why has this middle-aged Jewish man, apparently without any previous attachments, suddenly decided to woo aggressively a thirty-one-year-old Midwestern WASP spinster? Why has Sally Talley, a moderately attractive, socially prominent young woman, remained unmarried and almost ostracized by her family? And what exactly is her relationship to that family?


(The entire section is 2150 words.)

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The set consists of an elaborate Victorian boathouse, now gone to ruin, containing a latticework crammed with long-unused fishing equipment. Matt Friedman, forty-two, an accountant from St. Louis, enters and begins to address the audience. Although he mentions that a year ago he visited Sally Talley and spent some time at this very spot, he appears to be more interested in telling the audience that because he is not a “romantic type” of character, the technical elements of theater (lighting, sound, and set) along with the assistance of the audience are required to create the romantic atmosphere for this play. During his monologue he often lapses into seemingly irrelevant digressions that barely conceal his nervousness and volubility. Just when Matt appears completely lost in his whimsical musings, Sally, offstage, yells his name. As if by magic, the houselights dim, the special theatrical effects are added, and the drama begins.

Sally enters. She is thirty-four years old, works as a nurse at a hospital in Springfield, and lives at home with her parents. She complains that his interference with her family has precipitated a crisis she will be forced to resolve. Smatterings of exposition are revealed as they interact. Five months ago Matt had come to the hospital where Sally works and tried to see her; apparently she knew that he was there, but she refused to see him. Sally also notes that she had sent him only one letter in reply to numerous letters on his part. In her letter she had told him clearly that she had no intention of seeing him again.

Matt tries on a pair of old skates he finds stashed in the boathouse. As he simulates skating with Sally, he hums a song and says, “I’m having an old-fashioned skate with my girl.” His gambit does not work—Sally responds, “I’m not your girl,” and begins to walk away. At that moment, however, fortune smiles on Matt. When he tries to catch up with her, he falls through the floor of the boathouse and is nearly injured.

Now that Matt has Sally’s attention again, he tries to coax a favorable response from her by referring to the “affair” the two had last year. He notes that they did see each other seven times in seven days. When Sally again begins to walk away, Matt appeals to her to not run away from this encounter.

Sally admits that she needs to move away from the stifling atmosphere of her parents’ house. Matt invites her to consider the possibility that he might be in love with her, and that she might be in love with him. Then he turns to his playful nature...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The play’s opening scene presents a number of challenging dramatic devices. When the audience enters the theater and surveys the stage setting, it sees upon the stage a dilapidated Victorian boathouse amid waist-high weeds. Despite the romantic possibilities of the setting, the opposite effect is emphasized at the opening. Lanford Wilson specifies that “all this is seen in a blank white work light; the artificiality of the theatrical set quite apparent. The houselights are up.” In other words, most of the magic of the theatrical experience—its ability to transport an audience from one time and place to another—is purposely withheld at the opening of the play.

When Matt enters, the conventions that audiences...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Examining Vietnam
Although the United States had withdrawn its last troops from Southeast Asia seven years before Talley’s...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Talley’s Folly takes place on the evening of July 4, 1944, in the old boathouse on the Talley property just...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1940: Laclede County, Missouri, which includes the town of Lebanon, is a mostly rural area in the wooded Ozark Mountains. Although the...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research Lithuania, Latvia, Prussia, and the Ukraine, particularly their political status during and just after World War I. Why does Matt,...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Talley & Son, written by Wilson in 1981, shows what the rest of the Talley family is doing up at the house while Matt and Sally...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnett, Gene A., Lanford Wilson, Twayne, 1987, pp. 121–22.

Busby, Mark, Lanford Wilson,...

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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.

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 a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Gussow, Mel. “Lanford Wilson on...

(The entire section is 134 words.)