The Playgoer: Lanford Wilson

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Lanford Wilson

Wilson's longtime director/interpreter/champion Marshall Mason made this announcement on his Facebook page yesterday:
To all friends and admirers of Lanford Wilson: Our great writer and my closest friend passed away this morning at 10:45. The doctors say it was a peaceful, painless end. I’m very happy that just a couple of days ago Jeff Daniels and Jon Hogan serenaded him in his hospital room, and that he had the pleasure of hearing his songs. Words cannot express the loss we all will feel, but we must be grateful for the bountiful beauty he bestowed upon us. His funeral will be in his beloved Sag Harbor, where he will be laid to rest Monday, March 28, only a two weeks before what would have been his 74th birthday.
I find it hard to imagine Lanford Wilson old and dead since for me his dramatic voice was always one of youth.  Or maybe that's just because he was such a looming figure in the American theatre of my youth. Growing up in the 80s, it seemed he was the most ubiquitous American playwright. Everywhere you turned--Broadway, Off Broadway, a school playhouse, the NY Times, Applause Bookstore...there he was. I remember TV commercials for Fifth of July on Broadway, the landmark Steppenwolf Balm in Gilead that came to NY's Circle in the Square, Tally's Folly winning the Tony Pulitzer, the production of The Hot L Baltimore that my drama teacher was crazy enough to stage in my high school! (I played Katz, the manager), and John Malkovich's crazy long hair in Burn This.

A child of the Caffe Cino world of the 1960s (the cradle of Off Off Broadway), Wilson's wider impact on American Theatre came years later. While we think of Mamet and Shepard as the dominant American playwrights of this era, Wilson was probably even more widely produced in the 1980s. (Especially from Talley's Folley in 1979 to Burn This in 1986.)  Maybe because his work, being less hindered by obscenity, nudity, or just weirdness than his contemporaries, was more palatable to the general public. But despite the wholesomeness that some mistakenly read into his depictions of the Ozark "heartland" he so often wrote about, Wilson was as attracted to seediness, torment, and depravity as anyone. (Any high school who mounts the perennial Rimers of Eldrich, for example, expecting an easy replacement for Our Town will be disappointed.)

I also grew up identifying Wilson as the exemplar of a kind of lyrical American naturalism that was the dominant strain of that era's mainstream drama. This made him enormously influential I think.  And of course, like all great "realists," there's always a surprising amount of magic, meta-theatricality, and overt contrivance just beneath the surface if you choose to look for it.

All in all, I suspect his work will be more and more appreciated by critics and the academy as his prime era of the 1970s - 1980s recedes even more into the past and becomes "theatre history."

Meanwhile, we've all had close encounters with Lanford Wilson plays in our theatrical coming of age. What's yours?

(NY Times obit here, as well as a tribute by B. Brantley--the first of many appraisals and remembrances to come, I'm sure. Check out the Times' "slideshow," too for indelible images of the moments Wilson has given to actors over time.)


RLewis said...

Well said, G!

Although you hit the right notes on his most important/well known period, I also want to give a shout out to: The Madness of Lady Bright, Home Free!, This is the Rill Speaking, and So Long at the Fair. With these early plays his trajectory was set.

Damn, I know way too much about early Cino now, so that it just hurts as one-by-one its inhabitants leave us.

John Branch said...

Thanks for posting this, Playgoer. At the moment I've had time only to see that you put up something, as I'm busy at work, but some of his plays occupied a major place in my theatrical upbringing too, so I intend to come back here and read more carefully when I have time--and add a reminiscence if something appropriate comes to mind.

Tom Shea said...

Great post as always, but Talley's Folly didn't win the Tony. It did win the Pulitzer, but lost the Tony the next season to Children of a Lesser God.

Playgoer said...

Egads, Tom, you are correct. Thanks for pointing out. Duly emended...

John Branch said...

Dallas, Texas, where I lived until moving to NYC in 1998, wasn't the best place in which to discover the full extent and wonder of American theatrical activity in the latter 20th century, but in some ways it was better than might be expected, thanks to the presence of a fine theater-training program at SMU and a fine nonprofit theater called Stage #1, which was started and run by some of SMU's best and was dedicated to contemporary American drama. Thanks mainly to those two sources, I was able to see Wilson's Rimers of Eldrich, The Mound Builders, Tally's Folly, Hot l Baltimore, and Fifth of July.

I still recall the marketing slogan used on a poster for The Mound Builders: "What happened to their culture? What happened to ours?" And the play itself surprised me (maybe I should say "amazed me") for the particular way it cast light on the present by way of the past. Fifth of July, a production of which I made a very small technical contribution to, impressed me even more, for what I'd call its realism (the social and psychological background-sketching it does seems more "realistic," in the literary sense, than naturalistic, the term I see Playgoer chose), and for Wilson's generosity to his characters. And I suppose for the lyricism that Playgoer mentioned, and its skillful construction of an ensemble of characters. All those qualities--the sense of history, the realism and generosity, the style of the language, the weaving of group portraits--are still ideals of mine, or at least personal-favorite modes (I know better than to hold everything up to one yardstick), and though I didn't acquire those ideals solely from Wilson, he did much to show me how far they can go, how capably and thrillingly they can be brought to bear.

Ken said...

I certainly will miss Lanford, as I miss the now decade-and-a-half-defunct Circle Rep, established in part to master the balance between naturalism and poetry so evident in his work. People always compare him to Williams, but it must be said that Lanford kept his creative gifts in better working order longer han Tennessee was able to.