I spent a certain amount of time in the late 1970s, early 1980s trying to get a production of the beautiful play- Fifth Of July off the ground, one of those opportunities that slipped away. I have remained a fan of the work of playwright Lanford Wilson for the past 45 years, since seeing his play- Balm in Gilead in 1965. Many of Wilson's characters were desperate eccentrics whose fears & needs were portrayed with sympathy.
Wilson was born on this day in 1937, in Lebanon, Missouri. After living for 6 years in Chicago, where he studied at the University of Chicago & worked briefly in advertising. Wilson emerged as a playwright at NYC’s Caffe Cino in 1964, where his play The Madness of Lady Bright was a major hit & a significant milestone in the development of gay-themed drama. In 1965, Wilson attracted attention with The Madness of Lady Bright. Its protagonist, Leslie Bright, is a middle-aged gay man confronting a wistful past, a lonely present & an uncertain future.
Many of his early play- The Hot L Baltimore, Serenading Louie & Balm In Gilead were associated with Circle Rep, where he was founding member in 1969.
Wilson’s work is earthy, realist, greatly admired, widely performed. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for drama for Talley’s Folly. Talley’s Folly was one of a trilogy- The Talley Cycle along with Talley & Son & Fifth of July.
My personal favorite- Fifth of July is a bittersweet comedy that explores the disillusionment of the Vietnam era. The Broadway production starred Christopher Reeve as Kenneth Talley Jr., a gay, paraplegic Vietnam veteran, & co-starred Jeff Daniels & Swoosie Kurtz. It was TV movie in 1982. His work reminds me of Tennessee Williams, in the best way.
Wilson’s other Broadway plays include Burn This (1987), Angels Fall (1983) & Redwood Curtain, which premiered at Seattle Rep in1993.
His Off Broadway work included The Hot L Baltimore, about the residents of a seedy residential hotel. The play was the basis of a short-lived TV sitcom of the same name, broadcast on ABC in 1975.
Actors associated with Wilson's work include Judd Hirsch, William Hurt, Kathy Bates, Barnard Hughes, Christopher Reeve, Jeff Daniels, Cherry Jones & Cynthia Nixon.
Wilson’s work was filled with authentic, gritty, often overlapping dialogue & characters concerned with dissolutions large and small & the loss of life, love, companionship & sanity.
His characters tended toward the socially marginalized. They were drawn from a playwright whose identity as someone from the Ozarks, a child of a broken home & gay at a time when it was very tough to be gay. He was pushed the margins of mainstream culture himself. Wilson was one of the first mainstream playwrights to create central, meaningful gay characters.
His prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts & urban night people who populate his plays were unusual theatrical subjects in their day, but were sympathetic. He also made it clear that the subject matter of many of his plays was drawn from his own life.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Wilson lived in a small apartment in West Greenwich Village. In the 1970s, he bought a house in Sag Harbor. He lived in both places, using his Manhattan apartment mainly when he had a play in production there. He also became active in a community theatre company in Sag Harbor.
Wilson was openly gay all of his professional life. Brave for the time. My research finds nothing about a boyfriend or partner. In 2004, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Letters.
Last spring, Wilson died, at age 73, from complications of pneumonia, at his home in Sag Harbor.