Lanford Wilson (1937-2011)

Remembering the American theater's poet of embattled dreamers

In Lanford Wilson’s 1973 play, The Hot l Baltimore, set in a crumbling SRO that was once an elegant stopover for travelers to a formerly bustling urban center, a young woman on the move is caught robbing a half-senile pensioner’s room. “I got dreams, goddamit,” she shouts defensively. “What’s he got?”

The line is its own critique: Like young women, old men have dreams too. Everyone’s a dreamer, a fact that can bring either tragic or wonderful results, depending on how each dreamer approaches that other unbearable fact, the disappearing present, which turns into the unrecapturable past too quickly for us to plan the future. Lanford Wilson was a poet, whose plays hymn the sagas of embattled dreamers, struggling against each other’s dreams. He himself became part of the past on Thursday, March 24, dying of an emphysema-related condition just two weeks short of his 74th birthday.

The temptation to “type” Wilson’s playwriting dogged him throughout his career, and its results have inevitably cropped up in the outpouring of memorial tributes. But the principal beauty of Wilson’s substantial output is the grace with which it resists such typecasting. He wrote in a conventional realistic mode—which he constantly broke, reshaped, or departed from as the mood struck him. He wrote about the poor, riffraff, losers, the displaced—except for all the plays in which he examined the rich, the comfortably off, the professional classes, academics and artists. He wrote with tender sentiment—except that every sentimental stroke in his scripts is framed by irony and planted in a ground of sturdy fact.

The voyager
The voyager

Not coincidentally, he loved Chekhov, another playwright whose crisscrossing ironies tend to be oversimplified into sentimentalism by the world’s misunderstanding. Not irrelevantly, when he and a group of equally committed friends founded what would become Circle Repertory Company, the only acting role he undertook with the troupe was the lead in an American classic that he loved, and that might be viewed as quintessentially un-Chekhovian, e.e. cummings’s him. Something like cummings’s freewheeling sense of theatrical gesture and his surrealist games with verbal displacements merged, in Wilson, with Chekhov’s exactingly notated sense of reality’s mishearings and overlappings.

Wilson himself was like a voyager, traveling among the classes and the social realms of American life as he traveled aesthetically among the variegated styles of art and literature. (In his later years, he became a passionate collector of outsider art.) A state college dropout from a single-parent home in a medium-size town, Lebanon, Missouri, he drifted through Chicago and Southern California before making common cause, in the beginning years of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, with a group of graduates from an elite university, Northwestern. The startling early plays that built his reputation, Home Free (1964), The Madness of Lady Bright (1965), Balm in Gilead (1965), and The Rimers of Eldritch (1966), all display his acuteness of observation in tandem with his formal flexibility—and have all, even more remarkably, held up well in repeated revivals.

In the afterglow of Balm in Gilead’s acclaim and the successful Off-Broadway mounting of Lemon Sky (1970), with a memorable lead performance by the young Christopher Walken, Wilson and his chosen colleagues founded the Circle Theatre Company, which ultimately evolved into the long-lasting institution that everybody in the New York theater knew as Circle Rep. From intermittent productions in a grungy loft over a supermarket on Broadway and 83rd Street, it grew—especially after the triumph and Off-Broadway transfer of The Hot l Baltimore—first into an established subscription theater, expanding its activities with acting and playwriting workshops to the point where its waning and final loss in the fiscal upheavals of the 1990s are still felt with a pang by many artists.

Led by Wilson’s director of choice, Marshall W. Mason, Circle Rep created a distinctive style, which it described as “poetic naturalism,” and which it happily breached whenever a play it loved demanded something else. The company nurtured a host of playwrights besides Wilson; it spawned or furthered the careers of countless actors, many now prominent, as well as designers and composers. Most often, the productions on which Wilson and Mason collaborated were the keystones up to which its seasons arched.

Among these, the trilogy that evokes Wilson’s hometown—Talley & Son (1985, originally titled A Tale Told), Talley’s Folly (1979), and Fifth of July (1978)—became the most widely known: The latter two had long Broadway runs, with Talley’s Folly winning Wilson his only Pulitzer Prize. Others, though, linger as strongly in the memory: The troubling Serenading Louie (1976) gets frequent revivals, while the neglected work that Wilson aficionados, myself included, prize most highly, The Mound Builders (1975), may yet prove to rank among his longest-lasting achievements. Other Wilson works that deserve renewed attention include, besides a cluster of one-acts, his early Broadway mishap, The Gingham Dog (1969), and the late plays Rain Dance (2003) and Sympathetic Magic (1997).

Something should be said, too, about Wilson as an adaptor. His versions of Chekhov, made in close collaboration with a native Russian speaker, are among the most playable and authentic-feeling in English. Two adaptations for other media, made from the works of another writer with whom he felt an intense kinship, Tennessee Williams, also belong on that list of neglected works that should be looked at again: the TV film of The Migrants and his libretto for Lee Hoiby’s opera, Summer and Smoke, which some have considered a distinct improvement over the original play.

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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