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 United States
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 who helped to advance the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement, producing his earliest plays in New York at the Caffe Cino in 1964.[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.

Wilson was raised in Missouri by his mother, but in 1956 he moved to California, where he worked and attended college. There, Wilson lived with his father, who did not accept Wilson's homosexuality, and so, in 1957, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a graphic artist and studied playwriting. In 1962, he moved to New York and began to write plays for Off-Off-Broadway theatres. His 1964 short play, The Madness of Lady Bright, was his first significant success and led to further works treating gay identity and other social and romantic issues throughout the 1960s. In 1969, he was a co-founder of Circle Repertory Company, for whom 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' divorce, he moved with his mother to Springfield, Missouri, where they lived until she remarried. He had two half-brothers, John and Jim, and one stepsister, Judy.[1] When he was 11, they moved to Ozark, Missouri.[2] There, he attended high school and developed a love for film and art.[citation needed] As a child, Wilson enjoyed writing short stories and going to see plays performed at Southwest Missouri State College (now Missouri State University).[3] He developed an interest in acting and played roles in his high school plays, including Tom in "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams.[4]

After graduating from Ozark High School in 1955, Wilson began his collegiate studies at Southwest Missouri State College.[5] In 1956, he moved to San Diego, California, where his father had relocated after his parents' divorce.[2] 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.[6] His time with his father proved to be difficult, leaving Wilson feeling unwanted and unaccepted as a homosexual.[citation needed] He left school and moved to Chicago in 1957, where he worked as a graphic artist for an advertising firm.[5] During this time, Wilson realized that the short stories he had always enjoyed writing would be more effective as plays, and so he took playwriting at the University of Chicago extension.[7][8]

Early career[edit]

The Caffe Cino, July 1965

In 1962, Wilson moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. He worked in odd jobs before finding a job in the subscriptions office of the New York Shakespeare Festival.[citation needed] Wilson began his professional career as a playwright writing one-act plays for Caffe Cino, a coffeehouse and small theatre run by Joseph Cino, a pioneer of the Off-Off-Broadway theatre movement.[9][10][11] His works for Caffe Cino include Ludlow Fair, Home Free! and The Madness of Lady Bright. He worked odd jobs to support himself during this Off-Off-Broadway apprenticeship.[12] The Madness of Lady Bright premiered at Caffe Cino in May 1964 and was the venue's first significant success. The play concerns Leslie Bright, a neurotic aging drag queen. It is an important early stage representation of homosexuality, but Wilson stated, "If it's taken as the first homosexual play, I have a feeling that I'm not very fond of it. ... That will pass, I think, and it'll be just the story of a lonely person."[13] It ran for over 200 performances,[14] setting a record as the longest-running play at Caffe Cino.[15][page needed]

In 1965, Wilson also began writing plays for Ellen Stewart's La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club.[14] 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.[14][16] 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.[17] 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.[18] This was followed by The Gingham Dog (1968) about the breakup of an interracial couple.[19] Wilson described Lemon Sky (1968) 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.[20]

Circle Rep. 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.[21][22] His first plays at Circle Rep., The Great Nebula in Orion, Ikke, Ikke, Nye, Nye, Nye, and The Family Continues, premiered in 1972.[23] 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.[24] It transferred to the Circle in the Square Theatre, then Off-Broadway, and ran for 1,166 performances.[25] It was adapted into a short-lived television series by ABC in 1975, which Wilson pronounced "a disaster".[24][25] In 1975, Wilson's The Mound Builders, which The New York Times described as Wilson's "most ambitious work", premiered at Circle Rep.[26] Its story concerned an ill-fated archeological dig in the Midwest, and, thematically, it contemplated the futility of man's achievements.[27] 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.[28] Wilson was also a founding member of the New York State Summer School of the Arts, of which Circle Rep. was the theatre contingent.[15][page needed]

Gay identity is a major theme in Wilson's work.[1][29] The Madness of Lady Bright, Lemon Sky, Fifth of July (1978) and Burn This (1986) all deal with sexual identity. In Fifth of July, a hit on Broadway in 1980–82, members of the Talley family decide whether to sell the family farmhouse in Missouri; the story centers on Ken Tally, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, and his lover Jed, who are currently living in the house.[30] Wilson was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play for Fifth of July.[31] 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.[32][33] Talley & Son premiered as A Tale Told in 1981 but was substantially rewritten and renamed, opening in 1985.[34] Both are prequels, set 30 years prior to Fifth of July.[35] Talley's Folly was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980 and received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Play.[36] Angels Fall was not a success on Broadway in 1983, but earned Wilson his third nomination for the Tony Award for Best Play.[citation needed] 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.[37]

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."[38] Wilson and Mason encouraged so-called "method" acting and often used the classic techniques of Constantin Stanislavski.[39] 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.[38] In 2004, Wilson received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Master American Dramatist.

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).[31][40] 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.[41] This is the Rill Speaking is a one-act chamber opera that Wilson adapted from his own play of the same name.[40] In 1984, Wilson wrote a new translation of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters for the Hartford Stage Company.[42] Wilson strove to make his translation sound like everyday speech; he thought that existing translations were linguistically accurate but were not inherently theatrical.[42] Reviews of the Hartford production and a subsequent production by the Steppenwolf Theater Ensemble of Chicago praised Wilson's idiomatic dialogue.[42]

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."[43][44]

He shared insights about his friendship with American playwright Tennessee Williams at a Provincetown theatre festival.

Personal life and death[edit]

After Wilson moved to New York City in 1962, he settled in an apartment in West Greenwich Village on Sheridan Square, where he lived for many years. In the 1970s, he bought a house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York.[5] He lived in both places, using his Manhattan apartment mainly when he had a play in production there.[citation needed]

When living in Manhattan, he worked with Playwrights Laboratory at the Circle Repertory Company, often attending readings, rehearsals, and productions. Around 1998, he finally gave up his apartment in New York and lived full-time in Sag Harbor. Wilson was openly homosexual and never had children. In 2004, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 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.[citation needed]

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


The following is a list of selected major works. Wilson wrote dozens of short plays, including those collected in the volume Twenty-one Short Plays of Lanford Wilson.


  1. ^ a b c d Fox, Margalit. "Lanford Wilson, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright, Dies at 73", The New York Times, March 24, 2011
  2. ^ a b Barnett, p. 2
  3. ^ Barnett, p. 1
  4. ^ Barnett, p. 51
  5. ^ a b c Barnett, Chronology
  6. ^ Barnett, pp. 2–3
  7. ^ Barnett, p. 3
  8. ^ Jones, Chris. "Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright Lanford Wilson Dead at 73", The Chicago Tribune March 24, 2011
  9. ^ Caffe Cino Pictures: Lanford Wilson: The Mozart from Missouri
  10. ^ Williams, p. 17
  11. ^ Barnett, p. 4
  12. ^ Busby, p. 8
  13. ^ Barnett, p. 14
  14. ^ a b c Barnett, p. 5
  15. ^ a b Busby, p. ?
  16. ^ Barnett, p. 19
  17. ^ Schvey, Henry I. "Heathcliff in Manhattan: Fire and Ice in Lanford Wilson's Burn This" in Bryer, pp. 151–60
  18. ^ Busby, pp. 9 and 22
  19. ^ Barnett, pp. 42–43
  20. ^ Barnett, p. 49
  21. ^ Williams, p. 25
  22. ^ Lunden, Jeff. "For Lanford Wilson, the Plays Were Always Personal",, March 25, 2011
  23. ^ Williams, p. 28
  24. ^ a b Williams, pp. 31–34
  25. ^ a b Barnett, pp. 85–86
  26. ^ Barnett, p. 94
  27. ^ Barnett, pp. 100–01
  28. ^ Barnett, p. 68
  29. ^ Lanford Wilson, Burn This playwright, dies at 73", Variety, March 24, 2011
  30. ^ Barnett, pp. 109–10
  31. ^ a b Kennedy, Mark. "Tony Award-Winning Playwright Lanford Wilson Dies". Backstage. Retrieved March 24, 2011. 
  32. ^ Busby, p. 39
  33. ^ Martine, James J. "Charlotte's Daughters: Changing Gender Roles and Family Structures in Lanford Wilson" in Bryer, pp. 37–63
  34. ^ Barnett, p. 141
  35. ^ Barnett, pp. 107–08
  36. ^ Barnett, p. 118
  37. ^ Jacobi, Martin J. "'The Monster Within' in Lanford Wilson's Burn This" in Bryer, pp. 131–49
  38. ^ a b Lunden, Jeff. "For Lanford Wilson, The Plays Were Always Personal", NPR, March 25, 2011, accessed March 13, 2012
  39. ^ 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
  40. ^ a b "Lee Hoiby, 85, American Opera Composer, Has Died", Opera News, March 28, 2011
  41. ^ Barnett, p. 106
  42. ^ a b c Hardison Londré, Felicia. "From Provincial Yearnings to Urban Danger: Lanford Wilson's Three Sisters and Burn This" in Bryer, pp. 119–30
  43. ^ Andronico, Michael. "Winners of 2010 IT Awards Announced", Back Stage, September 21, 2010
  44. ^ Bacalzo, Dan. "Children of Eden, Samuel and Alasdair, and More Win 2010 IT Awards", Theatremania, September 20, 2010


  • 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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