Lanford Wilson

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Lanford Wilson
Born (1937-04-13)April 13, 1937
Lebanon, Missouri
Died March 24, 2011(2011-03-24) (aged 73)
Wayne, New Jersey
Nationality American
Period 1964–2006
Awards Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1980), Artistic Achievement Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards (2010)

Lanford Wilson (April 13, 1937 – March 24, 2011) was an American playwright. His work, as described by The New York Times, was "earthy, realist, greatly admired [and] widely performed." Wilson also helped to advance the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement with his earliest plays, which were first produced in New York at the Caffe Cino beginning in 1964. He was one of the first playwrights to move from Off-Off-Broadway, to Off-Broadway, then Broadway, and beyond.[1] He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980 and was elected in 2001 to the Theater Hall of Fame. In 2004, Wilson was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a Master American Dramatist. He was nominated for three Tony Awards and has won a Drama Desk Award and five Obie Awards.

His 1964 short play, The Madness of Lady Bright, was his first significant success and led to further works throughout the 1960s that expressed a variety of social and romantic themes. In 1969, he was a co-founder of Circle Repertory Company, for which he wrote many plays in the 1970s. His 1973 play, The Hot l Baltimore, was the company's first major hit with both audiences and critics; its Off-Broadway run exceeded 1,000 performances.

Wilson's Fifth of July was first produced at Circle Rep in 1978; for its Broadway production opening in 1980, he received a Tony Award nomination. A prequel, Talley's Folly (1979 at Circle Rep.), opened on Broadway before Fifth of July and won him the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and his first Tony nomination. Burn This (1987) was another Broadway success. Wilson also wrote the libretti for several 20th-century operas. In later years, he lived mostly in Sag Harbor on Long Island and continued to write plays into the 21st century.

Early years[edit]

Wilson was born to Ralph Eugene and Violetta Tate Wilson in Lebanon, Missouri. After his parents' divorced when he was 5,[2] he moved with his mother to Springfield, Missouri, where they lived until she remarried. When he was 11, his mother married Walt E. Lenhard, a farmer from Ozark, Missouri, and they both moved in with him. He had two half-brothers, John and Jim, and one stepsister, Judy.[1][3][4] There, he attended high school and developed a love for film and art.[5] As a child, Wilson enjoyed writing short stories and going to see plays performed at Southwest Missouri State College (now Missouri State University),[6] namely Brigadoon, which had a resounding effect on Wilson, saying that "after that town came back to life on stage, movies didn't stand a chance".[7] He developed an interest in acting and played roles in his high school plays, including Tom in "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams.[8]

After graduating from Ozark High School in 1955, Wilson began his collegiate studies at Southwest Missouri State College.[9] In 1956, he moved to San Diego, California,[10] where his father had relocated after his parents' divorce.[4] He studied art and art history at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University) and also worked as a riveter in the Ryan Aircraft Plant.[11] His reunion with his father, who lived in San Diego, may have been difficult, but the relationship improved in later years, and Wilson based his play Lemon Sky on their relationship.[1] He left school and moved to Chicago in 1957, where he worked as a graphic artist for an advertising firm.[9] During this time, Wilson realized that the short stories he had always enjoyed writing would be more effective as plays, and so he studied playwriting at the University of Chicago extension.[12][13]

Early career[edit]

In 1962, Wilson moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. He worked in odd jobs, such as a temporary typist, a reservations clerk at Americana Hotel, at the complaint desk of a furniture store,[14] and at a dishwashing job where a co-worker incorrectly called him "Lance". After that, Wilson's friends all called him by that name.[2] Wilson would eventually work for the subscription office of the New York Shakespeare Festival, which would be a formative insight into the world of professional theatre.[15]

Wilson first encountered Caffe Cino, a coffeehouse and small theatre in Greenwich Village, where he went to see Eugène Ionesco's The Lesson. The experience left him thinking that "theatre could be both dangerous and funny in that way at the same time".[15] After the show Wilson introduced himself to Cino co-founder and producer Joseph Cino, a pioneer of the Off-Off-Broadway movement.[16][17][18] Cino encouraged Wilson to submit a show to the Cino: Wilson had found a mentor who would not only critique his shows, but also stage them.[15]

Wilson's first show to premiere at Cino was So Long at the Fair in August 1963.[15] His works for Caffe Cino include Ludlow Fair (originally titled "Nail Polish and Tampons"), Home Free! and The Madness of Lady Bright. He worked odd jobs to support himself during this Off-Off-Broadway apprenticeship.[19] The Madness of Lady Bright premiered at Caffe Cino in May 1964. The play concerns "Lady" Bright, who is a forty-year-old "screaming preening queen". On a sultry summer day in the 1960s, while in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, "Lady" Bright slowly loses his mind. It is a complex, and comic little tragedy of striking originality, and one of Wilson's most notable and finest works. At its heart it is a penetrating study of loneliness and isolation. It was one of off-off-Broadway's first significant successes.[20] It ran for over 200 performances,[21] setting a record as the longest-running play at Caffe Cino.[22][23]

In 1965, Wilson also began writing plays for Ellen Stewart's La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club.[21] His first full-length plays premiered there, including Balm in Gilead, which depicted a doomed romance in an urban greasy spoon diner inhabited by junkies, prostitutes and thieves.[21][24] It premiered at La MaMa in 1965, directed by Marshall W. Mason, and was revived in 1984 in a collaboration between Circle Repertory Company and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The revival was directed by John Malkovich.[25] Also in 1965, Wilson participated in the inaugural National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, along with Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, and John Guare. He later returned there to develop Lemon Sky in 1968. The Rimers of Eldritch (1967), which dwelt on hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness in a small town in the rural Midwest, won the 1966-1967 Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award for contribution to Off-Broadway theatre.[26] This was followed by The Gingham Dog (1968) about the breakup of an interracial couple.[27] Wilson described Lemon Sky as "directly autobiographical"; the narrator, Alan, Wilson's representation of himself, describes an attempt to reconcile with his long-absent father. Son and father fail to meet each other's expectations, and Alan leaves, disillusioned by his father's authoritarianism and narrow-mindedness.[28]

Circle Repertory Company and later years[edit]

A scene from the 1986 New York revival of Home Free!

Wilson was a co-founder, in 1969, with his collaborator Marshall W. Mason, Tanya Berezin and Rob Thirkield, of Circle Repertory Company. Many of his plays were first presented there, directed by Mason.[29][30] 1969 was also when Wilson was hired for $5000 to adapt Tennessee Williams' short story "One Arm", about a male hustler, into a screenplay. The day after he finished the script, he was invited to a preview of Midnight Cowboy, and after seeing it, thought "there went that idea down the drain".[2]

His first plays at Circle Rep., The Great Nebula in Orion, Ikke, Ikke, Nye, Nye, Nye, and The Family Continues, premiered in 1972.[31] Wilson's The Hot l Baltimore, about lowlifes who face eviction when the decaying hotel in which they live is to be demolished, opened in 1973 and was Circle Rep.'s first commercial success; it also won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Obie Award.[32] It transferred to the Circle in the Square Theatre, then Off-Broadway, and ran for 1,166 performances.[33] It was adapted into a short-lived television series by ABC in 1975, which Wilson pronounced "a disaster".[32][33] In 1975, Wilson's The Mound Builders, which The New York Times described as Wilson's "most ambitious work", premiered at Circle Rep.[34] Its story concerned an ill-fated archeological dig in the Midwest, and, thematically, it contemplated the futility of man's achievements.[35] Circle Repertory Company produced Wilson's Serenading Louie in 1976. The play had been unsuccessfully performed in 1970 by the Washington Theater Club, and Wilson revised it for Circle Rep.'s 1976 production, which is generally regarded as its official premiere.[36]

Among the themes that Wilson explored in his plays is sexual identity,[1][37] which occurs in The Madness of Lady Bright, Lemon Sky, Fifth of July (1978) and Burn This (1986). In Fifth of July, a hit on Broadway in 1980–1982, members of the Talley family decide whether to sell the family farmhouse in Missouri. The story centers on Ken Talley, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, and his lover Jed, who are currently living in the house.[38] Wilson was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play for Fifth of July.[39] After Fifth of July, Wilson wrote Talley's Folly (1979), a two-person play depicting how midwestern Sally Talley and Jewish Matt Friedman fall in love and become engaged, despite the objections of Sally's narrow-minded family.[40][41] Talley & Son premiered as A Tale Told in 1981 but was substantially rewritten and renamed, opening in 1985.[42] Both are prequels, set 30 years prior to Fifth of July.[43] Talley's Folly was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980 and received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Play.[44] It was around this time that Norman Mailer originally asked Wilson to adapt The Executioner's Song for a television movie, but Wilson politely declined.[2]

Angels Fall opened on Broadway in 1983, and earned Wilson his third nomination for the Tony Award for Best Play.[45] In its review the New York Times said, "Mr. Wilson is one of the few artists in our theater who can truly make America sing."[46] In Burn This, a young gay dancer named Robbie and his lover Dom have died in a boating accident before the play begins. Robbie's roommates, his sensitive dance partner Anna and gay, confident Larry, must come to terms with Robbie's death. Anna learns to be independent and self-confident; she pursues her interest in choreography and begins a relationship with Robbie's grieving brother Pale, breaking off her dispassionate relationship with her longtime boyfriend.[47]

In addition to writing plays, Wilson wrote the texts for several 20th-century operas, collaborating with composer Lee Hoiby for Summer and Smoke (1971), and adapting his own play, This is the Rill Speaking (1992).[39][48] Summer and Smoke is an adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name. Williams gave composer Hoiby permission to compose an opera based on the play, and Hoiby asked Wilson to adapt the play into libretto form.[49] This is the Rill Speaking is a one-act chamber opera that Wilson adapted from his own play of the same name.[48] In 1984, Wilson wrote a new translation of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters for the Hartford Stage Company.[50] Wilson strove to make his translation sound like everyday speech; he thought that existing translations were linguistically accurate but were not inherently theatrical.[50] Reviews of the Hartford production and a subsequent production by the Steppenwolf Theater Ensemble of Chicago praised Wilson's idiomatic dialogue.[50]

He also became active with the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, where some of his new short plays were produced, along with his 1996 world premiere comedy Virgil is Still the Frogboy, which was commissioned by Bay Street Theatre (underwritten by Vanity Fair); the title of the play having to do with a famous bit of graffiti spray-painted on a railroad bridge that had puzzled local citizens of the Hamptons for years. Directed by Marshall W. Mason, it starred Arija Bareiikis, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Dundas, Thomas McCarthy and Josh Pais, and ran from August 14 to September 9.[51][52]

Personal life and death[edit]

Wilson was openly gay. After moving to New York City in 1962, he settled in an apartment on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, where he lived for many years. In the 1970s, he bought a house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York.[9] He lived in both places, using his Manhattan apartment mainly when he had a play in production there.[53] When living in Manhattan, he worked with Playwrights Laboratory at the Circle Repertory Company, often attending readings, rehearsals, and productions.

Around 1998, Wilson finally gave up his apartment in New York to live full-time in Sag Harbor.[1] He also became active with the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.[51][52]

On 24 March 2011, Wilson died, aged 73, from complications of pneumonia.[1]

Honors and legacy[edit]

He shared insights about his friendship with American playwright Tennessee Williams at a Provincetown, Massachusetts, theatre festival.[54]

In 2004, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In 2010, Debra Monk presented Wilson with the Artistic Achievement Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. This honor was awarded by the Off-Off-Broadway community "in recognition of his brave and unique works that helped establish the Off-Off-Broadway community and propel the independent theatre voice as an important contributor to the American stage."[55][56]

New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley said that Wilson's plays reflect "disenchantment with the state of the nation. ... A couple plays, at least, featured embittered Vietnam veterans. At the same time, he harked back to the era of more sentimental plays – of portraits of losers on the margins of life."[57] Wilson and Mason encouraged so-called "method" acting and often used the classic techniques of Constantin Stanislavski.[58] In addition to Malkovich, Judd Hirsch, Swoosie Kurtz, William Hurt, Jeff Daniels, and Christopher Reeve were among the actors who starred in Wilson and Mason's productions.[57] In 2004, Wilson received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Master American Dramatist.


The following is a list of selected major works.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Fox, Margalit. "Lanford Wilson, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright, Dies at 73", The New York Times, March 24, 2011
  2. ^ a b c d "Lanford Wilson". 
  3. ^ "L. Wilson". Special Book Collections. U. Missouri Library. 
  4. ^ a b Barnett, p. 2
  5. ^ Dean, Anne (30 December 2015). Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. p. 15 – via Google Books. 
  6. ^ Barnett, p. 1
  7. ^ Dean, p. 16
  8. ^ Barnett, p. 51
  9. ^ a b c Barnett, Chronology
  10. ^ Jones, Chris (25 March 2011). "Lanford Wilson dies at 73; Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright". Chicago Tribune. 
  11. ^ Barnett, pp. 2–3
  12. ^ Barnett, p. 3
  13. ^ Jones, Chris (24 March 2011). "Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson dead at 73". The Chicago Tribune. 
  14. ^ Dean, p. 17
  15. ^ a b c d Dean, p. 18
  16. ^ C Caffe Cino Pictures: Lanford Wilson: The Mozart from Missouri
  17. ^ Williams, p. 17
  18. ^ Barnett, p. 4
  19. ^ Busby, p. 8
  20. ^ Barnett, p. 14
  21. ^ a b c Barnett, p. 5
  22. ^ Busby, p. ?
  23. ^ "1964 – The birth of gay theater". Gay & Lesbian Review. 
  24. ^ Barnett, p. 19
  25. ^ Schvey, Henry I. "Heathcliff in Manhattan: Fire and Ice in Lanford Wilson's Burn This" in Bryer, pp. 151–160
  26. ^ Busby, pp. 9, 22
  27. ^ Barnett, pp. 42–43
  28. ^ Barnett, p. 49
  29. ^ Williams, p. 25
  30. ^ Lunden, Jeff (25 March 2011). "For Lanford Wilson, the plays were always personal". 
  31. ^ Williams, p. 28
  32. ^ a b Williams, pp. 31–34
  33. ^ a b Barnett, pp. 85–86
  34. ^ Barnett, p. 94
  35. ^ Barnett, pp. 100–101
  36. ^ Barnett, p. 68
  37. ^ "Lanford Wilson, Burn This playwright, dies at 73". Variety. 24 March 2011. 
  38. ^ Barnett, pp. 109–110
  39. ^ a b Kennedy, Mark. "Tony award-winning playwright Lanford Wilson dies". Backstage. Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  40. ^ Busby, p. 39
  41. ^ Martine, James J. "Charlotte's Daughters: Changing Gender Roles and Family Structures in Lanford Wilson" in Bryer, pp. 37–63
  42. ^ Barnett, p. 141
  43. ^ Barnett, pp. 107–08
  44. ^ Barnett, p. 118
  45. ^ "Angels Fall". IBDB. 
  46. ^ Rich, Frank (18 October 1982). "Angels Fall, Lanford Wilson's apocalypse". New York Times. 
  47. ^ Jacobi, Martin J. "'The Monster Within' in Lanford Wilson's Burn This" in Bryer, pp. 131–49
  48. ^ a b "Lee Hoiby, 85, American opera composer, has died". Obituary. Opera News. 28 March 2011. 
  49. ^ Barnett, p. 106
  50. ^ a b c Hardison Londré, Felicia. "From Provincial Yearnings to Urban Danger: Lanford Wilson's Three Sisters and Burn This" [in] Bryer pp. 119–130
  51. ^ a b Weber, Bruce. (18 August 1986). "Residents gripe that their hideaway has become too much like Beverly Hills". New York Times. 
  52. ^ a b Wilson, Lanford (1999). A Sense of Place; Or, Virgil is Still the Frogboy: A play in two acts. Dramatist Play Service – via Google Books. 
  53. ^ "Biographical Note". Lanford Wilson Collection. University of Missouri Library. Retrieved 3 September 2015. 
  54. ^ Israel, Robert. “Lanford Wilson recalls Tennessee Williams.” The Edge, Provincetown, Massachusetts, September 17, 2009
  55. ^ Andronico, Michael. "Winners of 2010 IT Awards Announced", Back Stage, September 21, 2010
  56. ^ Bacalzo, Dan. "Children of Eden, Samuel and Alasdair, and More Win 2010 IT Awards", Theatremania, September 20, 2010
  57. ^ a b Lunden, Jeff. "For Lanford Wilson, The Plays Were Always Personal", NPR, March 25, 2011, accessed March 13, 2012
  58. ^ Bryer, Jackson R. "'Hell Is Watching Your Script Done Badly': An Interview with Lanford Wilson". Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, New York: Garland Pub., 1994, pp. 183–203


  • Barnett, Gene A. (1987). Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7498-X. 
  • Bryer, Jackson (ed) (1994). Lanford Wilson: a Casebook. New York: Garland Pub. ISBN 0-8240-0648-8. 
  • Busby, Mark (1987). Lanford Wilson. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University. ISBN 0-88430-080-3. 
  • Radavich, David. "Rabe, Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson: Mid-American Male Dramatists of the 1970s and '80s." The Midwest Quarterly XLVIII: 3 (Spring 2007): 342-58.
  • Williams, Philip Middleton (1993). A Comfortable House: Lanford Wilson, Marshall W. Mason and the Circle Repertory Theatre. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 0-89950-836-7. 

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