Lanford Wilson (1937-2011)

Remembering the American theater's poet of embattled dreamers

Knowing Wilson was a wonderful experience. He could seem loopy, dreamy, and distracted, but he missed nothing: His eyes and ears were sharp as a hawk’s, and his acute memory stored every detail for replay at some unexpected moment in conversation, or in an upcoming script. (Only Wilson would have titled a play Lemon Sky and then noted in its opening stage direction that the sky “is never yellow.”) He loved actors and writing for specific actors. He was one of those playwrights for whom a permanent company is a spiritual necessity, and his hawk eye proved infallible, as I know from many conversations over the years, when it came to spotting talent. His passion for life went into his art; his passion for art, in his later years, went into the life of his garden, in Sag Harbor, where he built a world of plants, domestic and exotic, that was itself a kind of theatrical production. He had dreams—of having a garden, of having a company like Circle Rep to call him—and he realized them. And in his plays he embodied his awareness that everyone else has dreams too.

Ken, the hero of Fifth of July, struggles throughout the play to comprehend a tape made by a speech-impaired, gifted schoolboy with a penchant for science fiction. Finally he deciphers it, as follows: “After they had explored all the suns in the universe, and all the planets of all the suns, they realized that there was no other life in the universe, and that they were alone. And they were very happy, because then they knew it was up to them to become all the things they had imagined they would find.”

I think that in many ways, Lanford Wilson intended that to be his story—the story of a life, the story of a theater, the story of a dream. And I am glad that he put happiness in it.

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