Authors: Lanford Wilson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Author Works


So Long at the Fair, pr. 1963 (one act)

Home Free!, pr. 1964 (one act)

The Madness of Lady Bright, pr. 1964 (one act)

No Trespassing, pr. 1964 (one act)

Balm in Gilead, pr., pb. 1965

Days Ahead: A Monologue, pr. 1965 (one scene)

Ludlow Fair, pr., pb. 1965 (one act)

The Sand Castle, pr. 1965 (one act)

Sex Is Between Two People, pr. 1965 (one scene)

This Is the Rill Speaking, pr. 1965 (one act)

The Rimers of Eldritch, pr. 1966

Wandering: A Turn, pr. 1966 (one scene)

Untitled Play, pr. 1967 (one act; music by Al Carmines)

The Gingham Dog, pr. 1968

The Great Nebula in Orion, pr. 1970 (one act)

Lemon Sky, pr., pb. 1970

Serenading Louie, pr. 1970

Sextet (Yes), pb. 1970 (one scene)

Stoop: A Turn, pb. 1970

Ikke, Ikke, Nye, Nye, Nye, pr. 1971

Summer and Smoke, pr. 1971 (libretto; adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play; music by Lee Hoiby)

The Family Continues, pr. 1972 (one act)

The Hot l Baltimore, pr., pb. 1973

Victory on Mrs. Dandywine’s Island, pb. 1973 (one act)

The Mound Builders, pr. 1975

Brontosaurus, pr. 1977 (one act)

Fifth of July, pr., pb. 1978

Talley’s Folly, pr., pb. 1979 (one act)

A Tale Told, pr. 1981 (pb. as Talley and Son, 1986)

Thymus Vulgaris, pr., pb. 1982 (one act)

Angels Fall, pr., pb. 1982

Balm in Gilead, and Other Plays, pb. 1985

Say deKooning, pr. 1985

Sa-Hurt?, pr. 1986

A Betrothal, pr., pb. 1986 (one act)

Burn This, pr., pb. 1987

Dying Breed, pr. 1987

Hall of North American Forests, pr. 1987

A Poster of the Cosmos, pr. 1987 (one act)

Abstinence: A Turn, pb. 1989 (one scene)

The Moonshot Tape, pr., pb. 1990

Eukiah, pr., pb. 1992

Redwood Curtain, pr. 1992

Twenty-one Short Plays, pb. 1993

Collected Works, pb. 1996-1999 (3 volumes; Vol. 1, Collected Plays, 1965-1970; Vol. 2, Collected Works, 1970-1983; Vol. 3, The Talley Trilogy)

Day, pr., pb. 1996 (one act)

A Sense of Place: Or, Virgil Is Still the Frogboy, pr. 1997

Sympathetic Music, pr. 1997

Book of Days, pr. 1998

Rain Dance, pr. 2000


Three Sisters, 1984 (of Anton Chekhov’s play Tri sestry)


One Arm, 1970

The Migrants, 1973 (with Tennessee Williams)

Taxi!, 1978

Sam Found Out: A Triple Play, 1988

Lemon Sky, 1988

Burn This, 1992

Talley’s Folly, 1992


Lanford Eugene Wilson, a model of the playwrights of the generation bred and nurtured in the fertile Off-Off-Broadway lofts and churches of the 1960’s, may be the most prolific American writer for the stage since Eugene O’Neill. His Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly took him about halfway through his lifelong chronicling of the fictitious Talley family and its richly variegated American environment.{$I[AN]9810000713}{$I[A]Wilson, Lanford}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Wilson, Lanford}{$I[tim]1937;Wilson, Lanford}

Wilson was affected by the early divorce of his parents. After spending his childhood with his mother and stepfather in Springfield and Ozark, Missouri, he moved to San Diego, where his reacquaintance with his father (after thirteen years), however imperfect, served as the basis for his examination of his life through drama in the creative years that followed, culminating in the anguished, autobiographical Lemon Sky. Gradually working his way eastward, Wilson found himself in New York at the moment of the birth of Off-Off-Broadway theater, which welcomed his idiosyncratic dramatic voice.

Three New York theaters were integral to Wilson’s growth as an artist and person during those formative years. The Caffé Cino, operated with great daring and foresight by Joe Cino, staged Wilson’s first effort, So Long at the Fair, and some other one-act plays, including This Is the Rill Speaking, Wandering, and The Madness of Lady Bright, which won an Obie for its star, Neil Flanagan. Ellen Stewart’s equally daring and innovative La Mama Experimental Theatre Club staged some of Wilson’s longer works; Balm in Gilead and The Rimers of Eldritch demonstrate Wilson’s multicharacter scene study approach to depicting whole slices of American culture in decay, a layering technique refined in subsequent work such as The Hot l Baltimore.

The third theater to influence Wilson’s work was the Circle Repertory Company, which he cofounded in 1969 with Tanya Berezin, Rob Thierkield, and Marshall Mason, who had directed Wilson’s play The Sand Castle at Café La Mama in 1965. This relationship continued: As playwright in residence at the Circle Repertory, Wilson created, developed, and directed more than a dozen plays, many of which moved on to Broadway and won awards and honors.

Wilson’s mature output centered on the continuing saga of the Talley family, in some respects intensely autobiographical but also, more important, a metaphorical construction that dramatizes the best and worst of the American family tradition. Fifth of July, a rambling front-porch drama with kaleidoscopic focus, was followed by Talley’s Folly, a thirty-year step backward to examine in closer detail the odd love of two characters, Matt Friedman and Sally Talley (who appears as a mature aunt in the first play). A Tale Told takes place at the same moment, but in the main house on the hill above the boathouse where Matt and Sally are declaring their love. Wilson’s Angels Fall examines other themes (nuclear devastation), but Talley and Son, a rewriting of A Tale Told, brought the family back to the Circle Repertory Company in 1985. In the same year a brilliant revival of Lemon Sky, directed by Mary B. Robinson, was performed to rave reviews at the Second Stage Theatre. Burn This, opening on Broadway in 1987, returns to an urban setting to tell a story of postmodern nonlove non-triangles. By contrast Redwood Curtain takes place in the redwood forest of northwest California. In this, his eighteenth full-length play, Wilson looks at the United States as it approaches the twenty-first century. He shows a country not yet recovered from the Vietnam War and threatened by the fragmentation of families and by the greed of corporate giants.

Critics have seen in Wilson’s themes and techniques a complex but dramatically exciting vision of the American family situation, the traditions of former generations implanted on the next, in conflict with a world changing more rapidly in its external indifference than in the basically unchanging human interrelationships that make up the private lives of the family members. His plays take place in two essential environments: the family setting, in which ties to former and future generations (represented by impending and dissolving marriages) are reinforced; and hard-edged urban settings peopled with failures and those isolated from their families but forming alliances among themselves for security and hope. His predilection for seedy hotel lobbies and all-night restaurants as settings has invited comparison with William Saroyan and Eugene O’Neill; the roving, unfocused plots, stripping away the layers of complex family relationships with slowly revealed exposition and attention to details of characterization, show the influence of Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and Lillian Hellman; the sense of isolation, especially in the shorter works, owes something to Eugene Ionesco, an early influence for Wilson; the “poetic realism” of his language (sometimes referred to as “lyric realism” by spokespersons of the Circle Repertory Company) is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams. In form, as in theme, subject, and style, Wilson’s works are varied. With the same seeming ease he turned out lavish, melodramatic stage plays like Redwood Curtain, simple monologues like Moonshot and Cosmos, and television versions of his own work, as in Lemon Sky.

As early as 1975 Wilson began to be called a young genius. His subsequent successes, not only on Broadway and at Circle Rep but also in the regional theaters throughout the United States, ensured his high reputation among future critics and audiences. With David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Arthur Kopit, he belongs to the generation of playwrights whose voices began to be heard during the Vietnam War, a kind of American absurdist school, nurtured by both Off-Off-Broadway and the regional theater movement.

BibliographyBarnett, Gene A. Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1987. The most valuable general study of Wilson. This book carries chapters on all the major plays through Talley and Son. It also includes a family genealogy and a family chronology for the entire Talley clan.Bode, Walter. “Lanford Wilson.” In Contemporary Dramatists, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick. 4th ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1988. Bode’s brief article contains a complete primary bibliography through Burn This. The analysis that follows discusses Wilson’s work as it relates to the conflict between the traditional values of the past and the “insidious pressures of modern life.”Bryer, Jackson R. Lanford Wilson: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1994. This collection includes ten critical articles, covering plays through Burn This. Also includes an introduction and chronology, and two interviews with Wilson.Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1987. Busby’s brief monograph focuses on how Wilson’s own family history influenced his dramatic themes of longing for the past and conflict between generations. Literary influences, including Franz Kafka, and the influence of Wilson’s early theater-going experiences, are also explored.Dean, Anne M. Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. Rutherford, Md.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995. Written with the cooperation of Wilson, Marshall Mason, and other members of the Circle Repertory Company, this passionately affirming book examines Wilson’s themes and the use of realistic yet poetic language, particularly in Balm in Gilead, Hot l Baltimore, and Burn This.Herman, William. “Down and Out in Lebanon and New York: Lanford Wilson.” In Understanding Contemporary American Drama. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. Herman’s chapter includes explications of Wilson’s major plays. He praises Wilson for the “delicate poetic language at the heart of his style” and for his “epic encompassment of American experience and mythologies.”Robertson, C. Warren. “Lanford Wilson.” In American Playwrights Since 1945, edited by Philip C. Kolin. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. An accessible reference to primary and secondary sources through 1987. Robertson provides a complete primary bibliography of Wilson’s works and brief discussions entitled “Assessment of Wilson’s Reputation” and “Production History.” The article also includes an informative survey of secondary sources and a complete secondary bibliography.
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