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Analysis of Lanford Wilson’s Plays

During his first period of playwriting (1963-1972), Lanford Wilson (April 13, 1937 – March 24, 2011) struggled to learn his trade—mainly in the convivial atmosphere of Off-Off-Broadway, where it did not matter if sometimes audiences did not show up. His plays from this period, mostly one-act dramas, are clearly apprentice work. They contain echoes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and the Theater of the Absurd. Experiments include the use of overlapping and simultaneous speeches, free-floating time sequences, and characters who are figments of the main character’s imagination. Perhaps the most effective of the plays from this decade are Home Free!, about a bizarre, incestuous relationship between brother and sister; The Madness of Lady Bright, about “a screaming preening queen” losing his beauty to middle age; and two impressionistic “montage” works that draw on Wilson’s small-town Missouri background: This Is the Rill Speaking and The Rimers of Eldritch.

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With the exception of The Rimers of Eldritch, a two-act play, Wilson had trouble sustaining longer plays during his apprentice decade; his longer works of this period tend to be uneven, diffuse, almost plotless. Their subject matter provides the main interest. Balm in Gilead, set in and around an all-night café on Upper Broadway, pictures the New York City subculture of pimps, prostitutes, pushers, and users. The Gingham Dog, financially unsuccessful but favorably reviewed when it opened on Broadway, portrays the rancorous breakup of an interracial marriage. Lemon Sky is autobiographical— about a young man’s efforts to reunite with his father, who fled years before and is rearing a second family in Southern California.

As he gained experience, Wilson’s work became more substantial in every sense: His mature plays are generally longer, more conventional, more realistic, and more successful than those of the decade of his apprenticeship. Wilson’s breakthrough was with The Hot l Baltimore, an Off-Broadway success (with 1,166 performances) produced in 1973. The Hot l Baltimore shows the playwright in control of his material, displays his sense of humor, and illustrates the format on which Wilson has relied (in lieu of plot) with repeated success—an updating of the old parlor or weekend drama that brings together a group of disparate characters in an interesting setting (usually threatened, usually around a holiday) and allows them to interact. Other plays falling into this format are The Mound Builders, Fifth of July, Angels Fall, Talley and Son (a revised version of the 1981 A Tale Told ), Burn This, and Book of Days. Even the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly, a romantic tour de force with only two characters, repeats the format on a smaller scale. Wilson reveals one source of this recurring device in his 1984 translation of Anton Chekhov’s Tri sestry (pr., pb. 1901; Three Sisters, 1920).

The public has been accurate in judging The Hot l Baltimore, Talley’s Folly, and Burn This the best of Wilson’s plays: They are the most tightly knit and evenly written, though some critics find them marred by sentimentality. The Mound Builders, his most ambitious work, is Wilson’s favorite, but it shares, with Fifth of July and Angels Fall, a tendency toward rambling, uneven dialogue that is witty one moment and dull the next. Angels Fall, in particular, is burdened with intellectual baggage, something not found in Wilson’s early work.

One simply does not look for highly structured, suspenseful plots fromWilson (the description “tightly knit,” used above, is only relative), though his plays usually rise to a climax, even if it is sometimes forced or artificial. Rather,Wilson’s work is significant for its characters and themes. His plays contain the greatest menagerie of characters in contemporary American drama—drag queens, freaks, prostitutes, academics, priests—for the most part likable becauseWilson has a special sympathy for the losers and lost of society (a category that, in his work, includes almost everybody). Wilson does not really need intellectual baggage, because his characters carry his themes much more powerfully: In the world of Wilson’s plays, only “angels fall” because his characters are already down—but never out. This sense of humanity is Wilson’s most sterling quality.

Heartland Dramas

Wilson represents the most recent stage of an American cultural phenomenon that could be aptly termed “the heartland drama.”Wilson’s predecessor and fellow Missourian Mark Twain celebrated American innocence; Wilson mourns its loss. The loss occurred precisely on August 6, 1945, when Harry S. Truman, the presidential Huck Finn, ordered that the atomic bomb be dropped on Hiroshima. The United States had been trying hard for a long time to lose its innocence, but once it was gone, the nation regretted its loss. Apparently, the famed innocence had been the source of American wholeness, of Fourth of July optimism, of childlike wonder.

Wilson centered his version of this American heartland drama on the family, where, according to Sigmund Freud, all the history of the world is played out. It is in the family, once the bastion of American innocence, that signs of the disintegration are most noticeable and its effects most far-reaching, and it is there that wholeness must be restored. Longing for the old innocence is expressed in Wilson’s plays through titles that sound as if they are from nursery rhymes or children’s games (some are). It is also expressed through the constant efforts to mend splintered families or to construct surrogate families. Yet the longing and the efforts are mostly in vain: The nursery-rhyme titles are mockeries, and the versions of home and family depicted are little better than cruel parodies.

Extreme examples can be found in Home Free!, in which a brother and sister, huddled in their apartment in an attempt to shut out the world, play husband-wife and father- mother; in The Madness of Lady Bright, in which the fading drag queen Lady Bright, lonely in his apartment, reminisces about former lovers (whose autographs are on the wall), talks with an imaginary “Boy” and “Girl,” and waits in vain for a phone call; and in The Hot l Baltimore, in which the condemned urban hotel of the title is the home of prostitutes and poor retirees. Unfortunately, in modern America, these bizarre examples are only too real. For those seeking a substitute for the American family’s lost wholeness,Wilson has some news: There is very little balm in Gilead, especially if one locates Gilead in such places as the New York City subculture of prostitutes and drug addicts.

Ultimately, in Wilson’s work, the American heartland drama is not only played out in the family but also the family itself—real or surrogate—mirrors and becomes a metaphor for the whole society. Such is the case in Fifth of July, where the extended Talley family and its holiday guests mirror the post-Vietnam state of the nation. The older generation is blessedly dead or slightly dotty; the middle generation, now over thirty, is burnt out, subsisting on drugs and memories of Berkeley idealism and sexual entanglements; and the younger generation has a precocious vocabulary and sophistication that leaves little doubt that the era of old-fashioned Fourth of July innocence is finished. Similarly, the surrogate family group (including real families) gathered for an archaeological dig in The Mound Builders mirrors the larger tensions in American society, particularly the tensions between preservation and development. In both plays, the sense of America’s loss—of its values, its history—is acute.

The Rimers of Eldritch

In dramatizing America’s loss, Wilson occasionally takes on the tones of an Old Testament prophet. Nowhere is this more the case than in The Rimers of Eldritch, the best example of Wilson’s early experimental work. Reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (pr., pb. 1938) and Dylan Thomas’s Under MilkWood: A Play for Voices (pr. 1953, pb. 1954), though with a different emphasis, The Rimers of Eldritch treats a somewhat worn subject, now a television standard—the hypocrisy of a small town. Just one big down-home family, the town’s citizens close ranks to heap their evil on a poor scapegoat and thereby preserve their appearance of innocence, but the town’s evil remains, its corruption confirmed.

Appropriately, the printed play has the following epigraph from Jeremiah (the reference to balm in Gilead appears two verses later): “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” ( Jeremiah 8:20). The Rimers of Eldritch takes place during one spring, summer, and fall, but the play skips backward and forward in time, from one conversation to another, creating a montage effect rather than presenting a chronological sequence. Less confusing than it sounds, the montage dresses the worn subject in mystery and suspense, ironic juxtapositions, different versions of what happened (thereby mimicking small-town gossip), and a memory-like quality.

The town is named Eldritch and, true to the meaning of its name, Eldritch displays a weird collection of small-town characters, descendants of Sherwood Anderson’s midwestern grotesques: farmers; a garage mechanic; a trucker; Cora Groves, owner of the Hilltop Café, who is carrying on with her young and transient lover; Patsy Johnson, prettiest girl at Centerville High, who gets pregnant by the transient lover and arranges a quick marriage to a hometown boy; Skelly Mannor, the town hermit, who goes about peeping into people’s windows and who is suspected, according to an old rumor, of bestiality (boys follow him in the street shouting “Baaa!”); the town hero, a stock-car driver, now deceased, who was impotent and beat women; and a group of gossips who could substitute for the Eumenides. What characterizes the town, however, is not only its individual members but also its collective mentality. As Skelly says, the town’s citizens see what they want to see and think what they want to think, all in the name of good Christian living.

The play’s slight, makeshift plot dramatizes this observation. The plot revolves around an innocent fourteen-year-old crippled girl, who dreams of flying like Peter Pan and sowing autumn rime over the town. She compares the rime to sugar, but it turns out to be more like salt. Out of her sexual curiosity, she provokes her equally innocent boyfriend to try to rape her. Skelly happens on the scene and prevents the rape, but a nearby neighbor emerges with his gun and, naturally thinking that Skelly is the molester, kills him. The two “innocents” tell the Skelly-the-molester story to the judge and jury—a story the town is only too ready to believe. As the preacher (who doubles as judge) points out to the accompaniment of hymn singing, the town is to blame for not shooting the fellow sooner.

The Hot l Baltimore

Wilson’s roots in the Bible Belt make him sound like the prophet Jeremiah in such plays as Balm in Gilead and The Rimers of Eldritch, but, in his The Hot l Baltimore, they also lead him to discover Mary Magdalene, whom he immediately forgave. An example of Wilson’s mature work and his most popular play, The Hot l Baltimore is a warm and witty comedy—bittersweet, to be sure, but farcical at times. Apparently tired of turning his audiences into pillars of salt straining back toward the lost past, Wilson set out deliberately to entertain in The Hot l Baltimore—and happily succeeded with a realistic, conventional play that even observes the classical unities.

The play is set during one twenty-four-hour period (“a recent Memorial Day”) in the lobby of a seedy Baltimore hotel. Once an ornate showplace of the railroad era, the Hotel Baltimore is now scheduled for demolition. It is the home of the expected motley assortment of Wilson characters: hotel workers, retirees, transients, and—most notably—three warmhearted prostitutes. Like an extended family, from grandparents down to teenagers, they gather in the lobby to share each other’s company and experiences. The prostitutes, in particular, share some ribald experiences concerning their clients. April observes, “If my clientele represents a cross section of American manhood, the country’s in trouble,” citing as one of the representative samples the fellow who scalds himself in the bathtub. Occasionally these scenes obtrude onstage, as at the hilarious end of act 1, when the outraged but otherwise unhurt Suzy, beaten and locked out of her room by a client, creates a commotion in the lobby by appearing wrapped in her towel and then nude.

Beneath the repartee and rough sexual humor, the audience is constantly reminded of the parallel between a troubled United States and the rundown hotel. The hotel’s residents will be losing their home, the workers, within a month, their jobs, and other people with troubles appear: Mrs. Bellotti, whose crazy, thieving, alcoholic son Horse has been kicked out of the hotel and whose diabetic husband has had his leg amputated; Paul Granger III, a refugee from a reform school who is searching for his lost grandfather; and Jackie and Jamie, a sister and brother who bought salty desert land in Utah and now lack money to get their car on the road. All represent typical cases of the American blues, just as the hotel setting represents the transience of American values and society in general.

Presiding over this scene, ministering to the troubled in spirit, is the trinity of prostitutes, Suzy, April Green, and the Girl. These angels of mercy provide not only sex but also therapy, laughter, and sympathy. Significantly, they, among all the characters, show the most concern about family ties—about Mr. Bellotti disowning Horse, about Paul Granger III giving up the search for his namesake grandfather, about Jackie’s abandonment of Jamie; they also have the strongest feelings about the scheduled demolition of the hotel and the dispersal of its workers and residents. “We been like a family, haven’t we?” says Suzy. “My family.” She is so broken up that she moves in with a rotten pimp, because she needs “someone; . . . I need love!” The prostitutes have lost their illusions along with their innocence, but they retain their sense of values, their humanity. As the Girl says, “I just think it’s really chicken not to believe in anything!” For Wilson, still mourning the loss of American innocence, the prostitutes were an important discovery: One takes one’s balm, however little there is, wherever one can get it.

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Lanford Wilson with director Marshall Mason (left)

Talley’s Folly

This philosophy of balm, discovered in The Hot l Baltimore, prevails in Talley’s Folly, Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work. Talley’s Folly introduces two mature misfits who have about given up on love but finally find solace in each other’s arms. As this simple plot suggests, Talley’s Folly, like The Hot l Baltimore, observes the unities, only more so: Matt’s wooing of Sally takes place entirely in an old boathouse (an ornate Victorian structure called Talley’s Folly), and the time required coincides with the playing time (ninety-seven minutes, no intermission).

Family is a particularly important consideration in Talley’s Folly, one of an ongoing series ofWilson plays about the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri (the other plays are Fifth of July and Talley and Son). As in so many Wilson plays, however, here again the families depicted experience friction or breakup. Thirty-one-year-old Sally Talley is the family outcast, first because tuberculosis left her sterile and thus unfit to seal the Talley-Campbell family business partnership by marrying Harley Campbell, and second because her political views are anathema to the family, with its conservative smalltown values (she sides with the union against the family’s garment factory and is fired from teaching Sunday School). Forty-two-year-old Matt Friedman, a radical Jewish accountant, seems a likely mate for Sally, satisfying even her family’s exacting requirements (though her brother Buddy runs Matt off with a shotgun). Matt does not even want children: Because the rest of his own family was wiped out in the Holocaust, he has resolved never to be responsible for bringing a child into this world.

Before the two can come together, they have to break down each other’s solitary defenses. Matt has been melted down by Sally the summer before, with a few sessions in the boathouse, so now he takes the initiative. The play consists of their love sparring— Matt’s persistence, Sally’s attempts to chase him away, their anger, their jokes and repartee, their reminiscences, and finally their confessions—until Matt wins her hand. A fine vehicle for two good actors, Talley’s Folly shows that, even in a bleak and hurtful world—no place to raise children—one can still find some balm in personal relationships.

Talley and Son

The third play in the Talley family cycle, Talley and Son, a revision of the 1981 A Tale Told, is set in Lebanon, Missouri, on July 4, 1944, precisely the same evening as in Talley’s Folly. A darker play than Talley’s Folly, this play is about the financial and other machinations of three generations of Talleys, who, together with the Campbells, have run two of the most profitable businesses in Lebanon: the clothing factory and the bank. Because of the liberal use of plot devices, this story of meanness and greed has often been compared with Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (pr., pb. 1939).

Angels Fall

Lest Wilson be accused of recommending retreat from the world, it should be added that in Angels Fall, he has used his family metaphor to extend the possibilities of reconciliation and hope. In Angels Fall, the surrogate family is a group of travelers taking shelter in a New Mexico mission church from a nearby nuclear accident. The play’s title, perhaps implying that only angels stand tall enough to fall, suggests that Wilson has become reconciled to the loss of American innocence. Here the characters are all forgivably flawed and, in their mutual danger, in their mutual need, lean on one another and show a caring attitude. (Whether a nuclear accident is necessary to bring this about is unclear.) Even if the traditional American family is a dying institution, the play suggests, some of its values are still preserved in the bigger family of humankind—or perhaps in the family of God: What Wilson considers to be the fountainhead of these positive possibilities is implied in the setting (a church) and its presiding official, the genial Father Doherty.

Burn This

Burn This, which premiered in January, 1987, is shocking, outrageous, and larger than life. It presents Wilson’s views on art, human sexuality, and love. Like Sally and Matt of Talley’s Folly, the characters Anna and Pale conclude the play as a couple, but here the union may be a mistake. It is a poetic and cataclysmic work, in which art is seen as a sacrament, as an outward sign for inward, often chaotic but exhilarating truths. Redwood Curtain, a disturbing yet compassionate drama that depicts Vietnam veterans eking out primitive lives in the forests of Northern California, is perhaps equally powerful.

Book of Days

Book of Days was heralded as Wilson’s “comeback” play, his most significant production in two decades, or perhaps in his entire career. The play is set in the small town of Dublin, Missouri, a spiritual sister city to Lebanon, the setting of the Talley family plays. When a Hollywood director named Boyd Middleton arrives in town to direct a community theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan, he sets off a chain reaction of events that upset the quiet lives of the other characters. The biblically named Ruth, cast in the role of Joan of Arc, stands up to evil in the form of big business after the mysterious murder of the owner of the local cheese factory.

Wilson has returned throughout his career to thinking about the Midwest where he was born. In the Talley family plays and The Mound Builders, he explored Midwest family dynamics, creating families that survived or unraveled after meeting outside forces. In Book of Days, Wilson moves beyond the family unit to ask serious questions about how towns, especially in the Midwest, can preserve their values against the threats of the Christian right and corporate greed.

Book of Days echoes elements found in Wilson’s earlier work. Small towns such as Dublin, Missouri, marred by hidden corruption, have appeared in Wilson’s plays since The Rimers of Eldritch. Ruth and Len, who manage to stay happily married because they are loyal to each other and because they have simple and honest dreams, are reminiscent of Sally and Matt of Talley’s Folly. Doubts about the roles of art and artists in healing individuals and communities are raised in Burn This. What is intriguing in Book of Days is the combination of these elements, and the unusual political nature of the underlying conflict.

Principal drama
So Long at the Fair, pr. 1963 (one act); Home Free!, pr. 1964, pb. 1965 (one act); The Madness of Lady Bright, pr. 1964, pb. 1967 (one act); No Trespassing, pr. 1964 (one act); Balm in Gilead, pr., pb. 1965 (two acts); Days Ahead: A Monologue, pr. 1965, pb. 1967 (one scene); Ludlow Fair, pr., pb. 1965 (one act); The Sand Castle, pr. 1965, pb. 1970 (one act); Sex Is Between Two People, pr. 1965 (one scene); This Is the Rill Speaking, pr. 1965, pb. 1967 (one act); The Rimers of Eldritch, pr. 1966, pb. 1967 (two acts); Wandering: A Turn, pr. 1966, pb. 1967 (one scene); Untitled Play, pr. 1967 (one act; music by Al Carmines); The Gingham Dog, pr. 1968, pb. 1969; The Great Nebula in Orion, pr. 1970, pb. 1973 (one act); Lemon Sky, pr., pb. 1970; Serenading Louie, pr. 1970, pb. 1976 (two acts); Sextet (Yes), pb. 1970, pr. 1971 (one scene); Stoop: A Turn, pb. 1970; Ikke, Ikke, Nye, Nye, Nye, pr. 1971, pb. 1973; Summer and Smoke, pr. 1971, pb. 1972 (libretto; adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play; music by Lee Hoiby); The Family Continues, pr. 1972, pb. 1973 (one act); The Hot l Baltimore, pr., pb. 1973; Victory on Mrs. Dandywine’s Island, pb. 1973 (one act); The Mound Builders, pr. 1975, pb. 1976 (two acts); Brontosaurus, pr. 1977, pb. 1978 (one act); Fifth of July, pr., pb. 1978 (two acts); Talley’s Folly, pr., pb. 1979 (one act); A Tale Told, pr. 1981 (pb. as Talley and Son, 1986; two acts); Thymus Vulgaris, pr., pb. 1982 (one act); Angels Fall, pr., pb. 1982 (two acts); Balm in Gilead and Other Plays, pb. 1985; Say deKooning, pr. 1985, pb. 1994; Sa-Hurt?, pr. 1986; A Betrothal, pr., pb. 1986 (one act); Burn This, pr., pb. 1987; Dying Breed, pr. 1987; Hall of North American Forests, pr. 1987, pb. 1988; A Poster of the Cosmos, pr. 1987, pb. 1990 (one act); Abstinence: A Turn, pb. 1989 (one scene); The Moonshot Tape, pr., pb. 1990; Eukiah, pr., pb. 1992; Redwood Curtain, pr. 1992, pb. 1993; Twenty-one Short Plays, pb. 1993; Collected Works, pb. 1996-1999 (3 volumes; Vol. 1, Collected Plays, 1965-1970; Vol. 2, Collected Works, 1970-1983; Vol. 3, The Talley Trilogy); Lanford Wilson: The Early Plays, 1965- 1970, pb. 1996; Day, pr., pb. 1996 (one act); A Sense of Place: Or, Virgil Is Still the Frogboy, pr. 1997, pb. 1999; Sympathetic Magic, pr. 1997, pb. 2000; Book of Days, pr. 1998, pb. 2000; Rain Dance, pr. 2000.

Other major works
Teleplays: One Arm, 1970; The Migrants, 1973 (with Tennessee Williams); Taxi!, 1978; Sam Found Out: A Triple Play, 1988; Lemon Sky, 1988; Burn This, 1992; Talley’s Folly, 1992.
Translation: Three Sisters, 1984 (of Anton Chekhov’s play Tri sestry).

Bibliography
Barnett, Gene A. Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Bryer, Jackson R. Lanford Wilson: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1994.
Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1987.
Dean, Anne M. Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. Rutherford, Md.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.
Herman, William. “Down and Out in Lebanon and New York: Lanford Wilson.” In Understanding Contemporary American Drama. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
Robertson, C.Warren. “LanfordWilson.” In American Playwrights Since 1945, edited by Philip C. Kolin. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

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Categories: American Literature, Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Theatre Studies

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