PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide - An Ongoing Project

© Paul P. Reuben

Chapter 8: Lanford Wilson (1937-2011)

| NY Times Obituary March 24, 2011 | "LW's Losers." NY Times March 24, 2011 |

Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

Site Links: | Chap. 8: Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page | January 5, 2012

E-Mail
 Photo: NY Times, March 24, 2011

Primary Works

Balm in Gilead, and other plays. NY: Hill and Wang, 1965.

The rimers of Eldritch, and other plays. NY: Hill and Wang, 1967.

The gingham dog; a play. NY: Hill and Wang, 1969.

Lemon sky; a play. NY: Hill and Wang, 1970.

The Hot l Baltimore; a play. NY: Hill and Wang, 1973.

The mound builders: a play. NY: Hill and Wang, 1976.

5th of July: a play. NY: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Talley's folly: a play. NY: Hill and Wang, 1979.

Angels fall: a play. NY: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Balm in Gilead and other plays. NY: Hill and Wang, 1984.

Serenading Louie. NY: Hill and Wang, 1984.

Talley & Son: a play in two acts. NY: Hill and Wang, 1986.

Burn this: a play. NY: Noonday Press, 1987.

Lanford Wilson: 21 short plays. Newbury, VT: Smith and Kraus, 1993.

A sense of place, or, Virgil is still the frogboy: a play in two acts. NY: Dramatists Play Service, 1999.

Fifth of July. Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment, 2001.

The Rimers of Eldritch. West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 2002.

 Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Barnett, Gene A. Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson. Boise: Boise State Univ, 1987.

Dean, Anne M. Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1994.

King, Kimball. Ten modern American playwrights: an annotated bibliography. NY: Garland, 1982.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 8: Zoe Akins." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap8/wilson_lanford.html (provide page date or date of your login). 

| Top | The New York Times Reprints

March 24, 2011

Lanford Wilson, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright, Dies at 73

By MARGALIT FOX

Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose work &emdash; earthy, realist, greatly admired, widely performed &emdash; centered on the sheer ordinariness of marginality, died on Thursday in Wayne, N.J. He was 73 and lived in Sag Harbor, on Long Island.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, said Marshall W. Mason, a director and longtime collaborator who is widely considered the foremost interpreter of Mr. Wilson's work.

One of the most distinguished American playwrights of the late 20th century, Mr. Wilson was considered instrumental in drawing attention to Off Off Broadway, where his first works were staged in the mid-1960s. He was also among the first playwrights to move from that milieu to renown on wider stages, ascending to Off Broadway, and then to Broadway with no Off's whatsoever, within a decade of his arrival in New York.

His work has also long been a staple of regional theaters throughout the United States.

Mr. Wilson won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for drama for "Talley's Folly," which played 286 performances on Broadway that year. A one-act, two-character comedy set in his hometown, Lebanon, Mo., the play chronicled the romantic fortunes of a Jewish man (played by Judd Hirsch) and a Protestant woman (Trish Hawkins) in 1944.

"Talley's Folly" was an installment in Mr. Wilson's Talley Cycle, an eventual trilogy. The cycle also comprised "Talley & Son," which played Off Broadway in 1985 and also looked in on the Talley family in 1944; and "Fifth of July," which takes up the family's story in 1977.

"Fifth of July," a comedy that explores the disillusionment of the Vietnam era, came to Broadway in November of 1980. The production, which starred Christopher Reeve as Kenneth Talley Jr., a gay, paraplegic Vietnam veteran, ran for 511 performances at the New Apollo Theater; it also starred Jeff Daniels and Swoosie Kurtz.

Reviewing the production in The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote: "Mr. Wilson has poured the full bounty of his gifts into this work, and they are the gifts of a major playwright. 'Fifth of July' is a densely packed yet buoyant outpouring of empathy, poetry and humor, all shaped into a remarkable vision."

Mr. Wilson's other Broadway plays include "Burn This" (1987), "Angels Fall" (1983) and "Redwood Curtain" (1993).

His Off Broadway work included "The Hot l Baltimore," about the denizens of a down-at-the-heels residential hotel. The play was the basis of a short-lived television sitcom of the same name, broadcast on ABC in 1975.

With Mr. Mason, Tanya Berezin and Rob Thirkield, Mr. Wilson founded the Circle Repertory Company, a highly regarded collective of actors, directors, playwrights and others known for its collaborative approach.

Established in 1969 on the Upper West Side as the Circle Theater Company, it later moved to the Sheridan Square Playhouse in Greenwich Village. The company ceased operations in 1996.

Besides producing work by Mr. Wilson, Circle Rep produced plays by Jules Feiffer, Sam Shepard, Larry Kramer and others. Actors associated with the company include William Hurt, Kathy Bates, Barnard Hughes, Cherry Jones and Cynthia Nixon.

Stylistically, the distinguishing hallmark of Mr. Wilson's work was his dialogue &emdash; authentic, gritty, often overlapping &emdash; be it the speech of his native Missouri or adopted New York. To audiences, his approach gave the experience of eavesdropping on real, bustling people in real, bustling time. (As a young playwright honing his craft, he later explained, he would set himself exercises like writing down the overheard speech of five people talking at once.)

Thematically, his work concerned dissolutions large and small: the rupture of societies, families and individual marriages; the loss of life, love, companionship and sanity.

His characters, drawn true to life if sometimes larger, tended toward the socially marginalized, perhaps no surprise for a man whose identity &emdash; Ozark, somewhat rootless, a child of a broken home, gay at a time when it was taboo to be gay &emdash; no doubt made him feel pushed to the margins of mainstream culture himself. (Mr. Wilson was noted for being one of the first mainstream playwrights to create central, meaningful gay and lesbian characters.)

Ragtag collections of prostitutes and pimps, drug addicts and sundry urban nighthawks, the people who populate his plays were unusual theatrical subjects in their day, but were no less sympathetic for that. In many respects, as he made clear in interviews, Mr. Wilson saw his work as the counterpart to the New Realism of post-1960 visual art, in which artists created works that were amalgams of images, often fragmentary, observed in the world around them and ripe for the taking.

As he also made clear, the subject matter of many of his plays was drawn from his own life.

Lanford Eugene Wilson was born in Lebanon on April 13, 1937; his parents divorced when he was a young child. He moved with his mother to Springfield, Mo., and, after she remarried a farmer, to Ozark, Mo.

After studying briefly at Southwest Missouri State College, Mr. Wilson moved to San Diego, where his father was living. Their reunion &emdash; not a happy one, though their relationship fared better in later years &emdash; became the basis of "Lemon Sky."

That play, first performed in 1970 at the Studio Arena Theater in Buffalo, opened Off Broadway that year at the Playhouse Theater on West 48th Street, and was revived in 1985 at the Second Stage Theater. It was later adapted as a television movie, first broadcast in 1988 and starring Kevin Bacon as the youth who attempts to bond with his estranged father.

In San Diego, the young Mr. Wilson worked at a desultory job in an aircraft plant and took classes at what was then San Diego State College. It was there, in a writing class, that he discovered dialogue and determined to become a writer of short stories.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Wilson moved to Chicago, where he worked as a commercial artist in an advertising agency and took extension classes at the University of Chicago. He wrote a sheaf of short stories that were rejected by all the magazines to which he sent them, and made his first tentative stabs at writing plays.

Mr. Wilson settled in New York in 1962. There, as the reference work Contemporary Biography wrote in 1979, he "saw and disliked every play on Broadway."

He found the ersatz environment of Off Off Broadway, with its theater spaces shoehorned into coffeehouses and church basements, far more congenial. His first produced play, a one-act called "So Long at the Fair," was staged at Caffe Cino, in the Village, in 1963. It concerned a young man, newly arrived in New York, and the young woman who hopes to seduce him.

Reviewing the play, The Village Voice praised the "exactness and inner logic" of the dialogue. Over the years to come, Mr. Wilson's facility for dialogue proved both a great strength and an occasional weakness: critics sometimes took him to task for neglecting other aspects of dramatic construction, like tight plotting, in favor of the rush of pure spoken language.

In 1965, Mr. Wilson attracted attention with "The Madness of Lady Bright," also at Caffe Cino. Its protagonist, Leslie Bright, is a middle-aged gay man confronting a wistful past, a lonely present and an uncertain future.

He garnered still wider attention for his first full-length play, "Balm in Gilead," also staged in 1965, at La MaMa. The play, about low-life characters converging in the New York nightscape, was so successful that Ellen Stewart, La MaMa's founder, had to stand on the sidewalk each night and beseech an eager fire marshal not to close the theater, packed to capacity.

His first play to come to Broadway was "The Gingham Dog," about the dissolution of an interracial marriage. It ran for just 19 performances in 1969.

Mr. Wilson was single at the time of his death. Survivors include two half-brothers, John and Jim, and a stepsister, Judy.

In an interview quoted in The Times in 2002, Mr. Wilson expounded on his realist, quasidocumentary approach: "I want people to see &emdash; and to read &emdash; my plays and to say: 'This is what it was like living in that place at that time. People haven't changed a damn bit. We can recognize everyone.' "

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting. 

The New York Times Reprints

March 24, 2011

Lanford Wilson's Losers, Beloved by Their Creator

By BEN BRANTLEY

Lanford Wilson liked losers. This is not to say that he gloried, masochistically, in defeat. But as a playwright, he knew that the most poignant drama often radiates from people's failure to connect with one another, with their aspirations and with their own feelings. In this sense, you could say he was an heir to Tennessee Williams, another dramatist who saw the poetry in withered hopes and ideals tenuously sustained against a world of denial. If his characters lacked the complexity of Williams's greatest creations, they possessed some of the same vital glow, that of a self-consuming bonfire in a chilly twilight.

Though Mr. Wilson, who died on Wednesday at 73, came of age as a writer in the 1960s &emdash; and reflected the disenchantment that came to pervade this country in that decade and the one that succeeded it &emdash; his work also exuded a sentimentality that seemed to come from an earlier time. What is probably his best-known (if not his best) play, "The Hot L Baltimore" (1973), portrayed a gallery of down-and-outers in a seedy hotel lobby, swapping illusions and rubbing their eccentricities up against one another.

Such gatherings of lost souls had been a staple of the American drama for decades, in works as pitiless as Eugene O'Neill's "Iceman Cometh" and as cozy as William Saroyan's "Time of Your Life." With "Hot L," Mr. Wilson (who used a similar format for his first full-length play, "Balm in Gilead," in 1965) tended toward Saroyanesque preciousness. It makes sense that the show, with its gallery of adorable kooks, was transformed into a (short-lived) sitcom for television.

But I retained affectionate memories of that play from having seen it when I was a college student, at the Circle Repertory Theater in Greenwich Village (in a production directed by Mr. Wilson's longtime colleague, Marshall W. Mason). I was a tad embarrassed by those memories and slightly reluctant to revisit the play when it was revived by Williamstown Theater Festival in 2000. But Joe Mantello's production made me realize what was, and remains, wonderful about "The Hot L Baltimore": its creator's immense love for every one of his wounded characters. And not just love but admiration for the human urge to persist, to go wild, to keep dancing even when the music has stopped.

The empathy and respect (or "sympathetic magic," to borrow the title of a later Wilson play) that infuses "Hot L" is highly seductive. And I could feel the performers in the Williamstown production reveling in that warmth. Of course it didn't hurt that the play's denizens were largely grandstanders who would go far to grab the attention of others. Mr. Wilson enjoyed showoffs. No wonder his work was, for so many years, catnip to actors.

Pure exhibitionism, whether naturally come by or pharmaceutically induced, can be read as an affirmation of life in Mr. Wilson's world. And it registers in fierce character portraits that make for vibrant performances. I think particularly of Swoosie Kurtz turning a whacked-out heiress's neuroses into a one-woman fireworks display in the Broadway production of "Fifth of July" in 1981; a hyperkinetic, hyper-articulate blur named John Malkovich playing a coked-up restaurant manager in "Burn This" in 1987; and Laurie Metcalf keening through a 20-minute aria of desperation in the 1984 Steppenwolf Theater revival of "Balm in Gilead."

That many of these characters feel destined for self-destruction adds a special sheen to these ephemeral moments in the spotlight. It's the abiding hunger for life, in characters who aren't quite yet down for the count, that makes the spotlight blaze. Mr. Wilson's greatest strength wasn't his lyrical way with words, which could occasionally cloy, but his infectious, sincere appreciation for the unexpected heat within lost and wayward lives.

 
| Top |