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Wilson, Lanford (1937-2011)  

One of the pioneers in the creation of a gay American theater, Lanford Wilson proved himself to be a powerful voice speaking of the lives of gay men.

Wilson was born in Lebanon, Missouri, on April 13, 1937, the son of Ralph Eugene and Violetta Tate Wilson. His childhood home of Lebanon serves as the locale for the plays composing the Talley trilogy.

His parents divorced when Wilson was five; he then moved to Springfield, Missouri, with his mother where she found work in a garment factory. His mother remarried when he was eleven and the new family moved to a farm near Ozark, where Wilson attended high school, graduating in 1955.

He went to San Diego to visit his father and step-family in 1956, a trip that forms the basis of the autobiographical play, Lemon Sky (1970). Wilson briefly attended San Diego State, but as the play would indicate, the reunion was not a successful one, so Wilson left, moving to Chicago where he lived for six years, working as an artist for an advertising agency and taking a playwrighting course at a University of Chicago extension.

In 1962, Wilson moved to New York, where he quickly became associated with the burgeoning avant-garde theater movement in Greenwich Village. His early plays were produced at Caffe Cino and the La Mama Experimental Theater Club.

In 1969, Wilson, Marshall Mason, Rob Thirkield, and Tanya Berezin founded the Circle Repertory Company. Wilson was associated with Circle Rep for most of the rest of his life, and Mason directed the premieres of his productions at Circle Rep and elsewhere.

Wilson first reached Broadway in 1968 with The Gingham Dog and subsequently achieved other successes there; he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for Talley's Folly and his plays have been widely produced across the country and abroad.

Wilson has taken on a variety of subjects in his work; thus overt portrayals of gay men and their lives make up only a portion of his dramatic opus.

His early one-act play "The Madness of Lady Bright" (1964) depicts the demise of a lonely, disturbed drag queen. Balm in Gilead (1965) includes several identifiably gay characters among its enormous cast.

It would be difficult to imagine not portraying Robert in The Gingham Dog (1968) as a gay character; although there are no direct descriptions of him as such, he plays a parallel role to that of Larry in Burn This (1987), who is identified as a gay man. Tom in the one-act "A Portrait of the Cosmos" (1987) is interrogated by an off-stage policeman for having murdered a gay lover.

One of Wilson's most successful portrayals of gay themes occurs in Lemon Sky, in which the main character, Alan (whose situation is based on Wilson's own life after high school), is forced to come to grips with his homosexuality when he attempts a reconciliation with his estranged father.

The play is obviously influenced by Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, in which Wilson performed in a high school production. One sees the pain Alan experiences in Lemon Sky as being a primary force in the development of an artist, one who creates order and beauty out of himself, his past, and his imagination.

Wilson's other major "gay play" is Fifth of July (1978), chronologically the last of the Talley trilogy. Just as Lemon Sky owes a debt to Williams, Fifth of July is influenced by Anton Chekhov.

Kenneth Talley, the play's main character, having lost both his legs in Vietnam, is trying to sell the Talley home in Lebanon to avoid having to live under the microscope of a small town as both a handicapped person and an openly gay man. His lover Jed, on the other hand, is busy on the property planting a formal garden that will take decades to mature.

The play ends with the tentative creation of an alternative kind of family with Ken and Jed at the center, but Ken's Aunt Sally (the same Sally Talley of Talley's Folly now widowed and grown old), his sister June, and his niece Shirley are all part of the extended clan as well. Though their future is uncertain at the play's end, these characters have a chance to be happy and productive together.

It is certainly possible to read some of the heterosexual couples in Wilson's plays as representative of gay people as well.

Matt and Sally in Talley's Folly, for example, face much familial opposition resulting from bigotry and prejudice (Matt is a Jew) and are depicted as sterile, unable to produce children. The interracial couple at the heart of The Gingham Dog, likewise, face enormous societal opposition to their marriage.

Moreover, Wilson frequently created characters who must operate at the borders of society (the homeless Vietnam veteran Lyman Fellers in Redwood Curtain, for example) or who openly violate societal norms (for example, Pale in Burn This). These characters, too, can be seen as having significant parallels to the experience of gay people.

As an openly gay man who achieved success in mainstream theater, Wilson served as a model for many aspiring writers.

Wilson died in Wayne, N. J. as a result of complications from pneumonia on March 24, 2011.

Don S. Lawson


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Lanford Wilson presenting at the New York Innovative Theatre Awards in 2006. Photograph by Sans Peur Photography.
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Barnett, Gene A. Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

Bryer, Jackson R. Lanford Wilson: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1993.

Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson. Boise: Boise State University Press, 1987.

Cohn, Ruby. New American Dramatists: 1960-1980. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Dean, Anne. Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. Rutherford, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.

Robertson, C. Warren. "Lanford Wilson." American Playwrights Since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance. Philip C. Kolin, ed. New York: Greenwood, 1989. 528-539.

Ryzuk, Mary S. The Circle Repertory Company: The First Fifteen Years. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989.

Schevy, Henry I. "Images of the Past in the Plays of Lanford Wilson." Essays on Contemporary American Drama. Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, eds. Munich: Huber, 1981. 225-240.

Schlatter, James F. "Some Kind of Future: The War for Inheritance in the Work of Three American Playwrights of the 1970s." South Central Review 7.1 (Spring 1990): 56-75.

Witham, Barry. "Images of America: Wilson, Weller, Horovitz." Theatre Journal 34 (1982): 223-232.


    Citation Information
    Author: Lawson, Don S.  
    Entry Title: Wilson, Lanford  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 25, 2011  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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