Lanford Wilson is consistently given the respect reserved for “great” American playwrights, but the distinction is a dubious honor at best. Each Wilson piece is overly scrutinized and judged ultimately as being a notch below what it might have been. Revivals of earlier neglected works become causes for celebration, but here too, there is always a danger that the earlier plays—while they may be perceived as harboring incipient signs of later thematic developments—are also considered naive and not quite up to par with the later work.
If critical success is the surest path to critical failure, the dilemma of “greatness” perpetuates itself as new works are greeted with the kind of enthusiastic anticipation that even a Chekhov would be hard-pressed to live up to. A new Wilson play will almost certainly fail to live up to past successes; it will even more certainly fail to make good on his earlier promise. For such is the fate of “great” American playwrights, predetermined and dictated by the relentless fall-from-grace attitude of American theater criticism.
The belief that Wilson has more to offer suggests he is less than himself. Viewed as better than the “rest,” the one playwright Wilson will forever be competing against is the image of Lanford Wilson, that important dramatist, as created by the critics who insist that he fulfill their requirements.
Fueled by critical success and popular attention, Wilson’s reputation picked up steam in the 70’s, beginning with The Hot I Baltimore in 1973, and continuing with The Mound Builders (1975), 5th of July (1978), and Talley’s Folly (1979). Confirmation of his popularity came when The Hot I Baltimore was realized as a TV series. He received his first Pulitzer Prize for Talley’s Folly—a one-act drama with only two characters and 60 pages of dialogue—one of his more modest pieces.
By all standards, his two subsequent works were less successful. Angels Fall, which closed soon after it opened on Broadway in 1983, employed a Grand Hotel or Ship of Fools motif to bring together six disparate characters seeking sanctuary in a New Mexico church during a nuclear plant accident in the vicinity. A Tale Told (1981), offered as the third work in the so-called “Talley Trilogy,” occurs on the same July 4, 1944, evening as Talley’s Folly, also on the Talley estate in Lebanon, Missouri (Wilson’s hometown). While Sally Talley is working out her betrothal to Matt Friedman at the “old boathouse at the Talley Place” in Talley’s Folly, three generations of threatened Talleys in the house proper are contending with the possible takeover of the family businesses. Though A Tale Told was revised in 1985 as Talley & Son, it could not surmount the problems of contrivance shared with Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, of which it seemed more than a little reminiscent. Thirty-three years and one day following the 1944 evening of A Tale Told and Talley’s Folly, some of the Talleys are dealing with the sale of the house itself in 5th of July, a far more felicitous work written earlier in the oeuvre.
Following Wilson’s success in the 70’s, the intervening years have seen a number of Wilson revivals. For its format and sensitivity, Lemon Sky (1970) has been justifiably compared with Tennessee Williams, and particularly The Glass Menagerie. In Balm in Gilead, his first full-length play (1965), Wilson achieved an uncanny verisimilitude recreating the low-life activities at a New York, Upper West Side coffee shop. In some “notes” to the published script, Wilson explained, “Within the general large pattern the people who spend their nights at the cafe have separate goals and separate characters but together they constitute a whole, revolving around some common center. They are the riffraff, the bums, the petty thieves, the scum, the lost, the desperate, the dispossessed, the cool; depending on one’s attitude there are a hundred names that could describe them.” Besides filling the stage with no fewer than 25 characters, Wilson’s theatrical innovation in Balm in Gilead was to load the script with overlapping dialogue.
In The Mound Builders (1975), Wilson chose an archaeological dig in. Illinois to develop multilayered conflicts, including a clash between the scientific community and commercial enterprise (archaeology versus a tourist retreat). But the beauty of this work (which Clive Barnes called “one of the most complex and rewarding of all Wilson’s plays”) is how the characters mirror their scientific and social discoveries. The most well-received revival, however, was the 1984 comeback of Serenading Louie (another 1970 opus) that focused on the disintegrating marriages of two suburban couples.
In the retrospective reactions to these works we can most clearly detect the critical ambivalence toward Wilson at work. In response to the 1985 revival of Lemon Sky, Frank Rich felt compelled to undermine Wilson as well as his own perceptions. After saying that Lemon Sky “reminds us that Mr. Wilson is our primary heir to Tennessee Williams,” Rich continued, “If there’s one lapse that prevents Lemon Sky from joining Mr. Wilson’s major plays, it’s that the skeletons in the family closet prove to be melodramatic secrets that diminish rather than fulfill the mysteries preceding their unveiling.” John Simon, on the other hand, called the play “an interesting failure” and its revival “a captivating near-miss.
Many of Wilson’s interests can be discerned in his titles alone. As a symbol, 5th of July reveals Wilson’s recurring interest in exploring America’s collapse of spirit and change of heart before and since the Bicentennial. With its biblical reference. Balm in Gilead (which premiered for one week only in 1965 and remained dormant until Steppenwolf’s revival in 1984) refers to what a number of critics have cited as Wilson’s characteristic “generosity” of spirit or “democratic” attitude towards all of his characters.
Though Wilson writes in a contemporary idiom and captures the essence of a confused age that lacks commitment for conviction, a number of his works ultimately evince a respect for tradition. Wilson’s most consistent concern is expressed as the clash between past and present. The past is physically symbolized by the condemned hotel in The Hot I Baltimore, and by the Talley house in 5th of July, which is being sold. Setting “The Scene” in his stage notes for the former play, Wilson wrote: “The Hotel Baltimore, built in the late nineteenth century, remodeled during the Art Deco last stand of the railroads, is a five-story establishment intended to be an elegant and restful haven. Its history has mirrored the rails’ decline. . . . The Hotel Baltimore is scheduled for demolition. The theater, evanescent itself, and for all we do perhaps itself disappearing here, seems the ideal place for the representation of the impermanence of our architecture.”
While the negative reaction to Wilson’s last new work. Angels Fall, is justified, the reception to Burn This has been as shortsighted as it was inhospitable. In the characteristic need to find some fault with any new Wilson offering, the play’s very essence has been ignored, or worse yet, turned against itself.
After a preliminary run in Los Angeles, followed by a for-members-only production at the Circle Rep in New York and a quasi-tryout in Chicago prior to opening on Broadway in mid-October, the advance “word” on Burn This was nothing less than spectacular. Tony Awards could have been predicted and a Pulitzer acceptance speech prepared on the basis of the excitement generated by Wilson’s first new play in four years.
But the critics rushed to declare Burn This less than the greatest play, since the last greatest play was never written in the first place. Most of the notices for Burn This discussed the acting, which is a customary way of evading or deferring opinion on the play itself Clive Barnes’s review began with an apparent rave (“Broadway has finally gotten masterfully into its stride [sic] with a new American play”) but ended on an ambivalent note (“Take it not too seriously, and enjoy”), dithering with any number of inherently contradictory comments in between. Aside from praise for the performers, some plot description, and some ambiguously disparaging remarks, Edith Oliver avoids confrontation with the play altogether and refuses to comment on whether or not it works. And Frank Rich repeatedly focuses on the idea of unfulfilled promise: “Although the payoff . . . is perilously slight, the play initially promises the abundance one anticipates from Mr. Wilson, as wise and accomplished a playwright as we have”; and later, “Yet the promised illumination of torrid intimacies and larger-than-life passions never quite emerges either in the text or the performance.”
With that last remark, Rich has inadvertently struck the thrust of Wilson’s smoldering drama. If Burn This could be reduced to a single message, it would be about the lack of passion in contemporary life and the difficulty in achieving passion in our overly cynical climate. Although the passion at the center of Burn This seems ambivalent and diffused, the evidence suggests that is precisely the point Wilson intended. It’s a theme that Wilson elicited at least as far back as The Hot I Baltimore (where one character complained, “That’s why nothing gets done anymore. Nobody’s got the conviction of their passions”); Burn This suggests that Wilson even perceives how the culture’s disdain for passion and for the romantic sensibility has limited the scope of his own work.
That subtext is hammered home by Burton, a financially successful film writer within the play. In a sense, Burton, the most secondary of the four characters, is Wilson’s surrogate. When Burton talks about writing for movies, it’s as if Wilson is speaking directly for himself “You write a saga today, it turns out as Little House on the Prairie.” “Beautiful writing is anathema to a movie. . . . There is no such thing as a good movie. . . . Movies are some bankers’ speculation about how American adolescents want to see each other that week—period!” When he later renounces a script he’s currently working on by saying, “I want something larger than life. These people are smaller than life,” it’s hard not to detect that Wilson is sharing his own self-deprecation. According to Burton/Wilson, if you “tell the truth, make it personal, then [you might as well] write ‘burn this’ at the bottom.” Such a notion perfectly describes Wilson’s inspiration for writing this play, when he did write “burn this” on his first few pages of script.
The credible plot to Burn This is straightforward and compact. While it may be the play’s least interesting element, the plot’s reliance on the cliches of urban life for contemporary sophisticates should not be disregarded, since those cliches are inextricably wound up in Wilson’s conceit. Wilson’s interest in the dissolution of the American family has finally caught up with the way of life for so many urban people who find themselves in their mid-30’s living independently within an extended or an ad hoc family.
Burn This takes place in Anna’s “lower Manhattan” loft, which she shares with Larry, a gay advertising executive. When the story begins, the two of them are recovering from the recent drowning of their third roommate, a highly praised homosexual dancer who had been Anna’s dancing partner for the past three years (“I thought everything important in the future of dance was going to happen in this room,” says Anna late in the opening scene).
Anna is obviously close to Larry and simultaneously courting Burton, the successful Hollywood screenwriter who represents for Anna a “safe,” conventional, potential husband (as Larry says at one point, “I don’t know why you don’t just marry [Burton] and buy things”). Anna’s relationship with Robbie, the deceased roommate, evidently was the deepest and most meaningful attachment for her, though it was decidedly unfulfilled.
Implicit in this arrangement is the suggestion that Anna could afford to feel such intimacy only for someone who was homosexual, permitting her to subdue her passion and save her energies for dance. This becomes Wilson’s commentary on many residents of the mid-80’s, unwilling to jeopardize their careers or their overanalyzed self-hood (read as selfishness) by getting too close to another human being. But into Anna’s safe scenario walks Pale, the deceased gay dancer’s brother who is overwhelming like Robbie, but is straight and not to be put off (“You are obviously some relation of Robbie’s—God, you could be his double,” responds Anna when Pale arrives unexpectedly at three in the morning and immediately takes over the space). And as Pale says, “You know, little girls your age do not have roommates. It’s not just me. It’s prevailing opinion.”
The passion between Anna and Pale percolates through in oblique but decisive ways. “I am sick of the age I’m living in,” exclaims Anna, who can best be summarized as a Blanche du Bois in Wilson’s update of A Streetcar Named Desire. But in some respects, Anna is a younger version who before meeting Pale had been content to sublimate her sexual impulses for her creativity as a dancer. A Blanche-in-training, Anna is without the desperation and the faded nostalgia that will set in when she ages. “I just haven’t felt open to the world since those days,” says Burton, referring to 20 or more years ago, and reinforcing Wilson’s point that the larger-than-life passions which were permissible on stage (as in life) during Williams’ heyday will simply not do anymore.
Many critics correctly perceived the connections with Williams and particularly Streetcar, but failed to grasp the implications. To return to Frank Rich: “Despite much onstage brawling and crying and precoital theatrics, Anna and Pale don’t fight to the death, as Stanley and Blanche did, so much as slowly settle down to make the choices facing those New York couples who inhabit the slick magazines. What begins as a go-for-broke sexual struggle trails off into sentimental conflicts between love and career, unbridled passion and intellectual detachment, a loft life style and the biological clock.”
Could Blanche and Stanley have it any other way in the mid-80’s, or by default could Wilson? If Streetcar were written today it would probably be dismissed or even ridiculed as being overly sentimental. Burn This is as close as Wilson can get to Williams while still abiding by the contemporary theatrical protocol and plausibility. Anna’s description of the Pennsylvania attic-room she spent the night of Robbie’s funeral in is not only poetic, it is also an organic metaphor. She describes a mass of butterflies, captured and pinned on the walls by Robbie’s cousin: “They were pinned, each wing, around the walls.” As she was trying to fall asleep, she’d heard “this intermittent soft flutter sound” and realized they were all still alive. As striking and natural as the anecdote is, it assumes relevance later when Anna exclaims in Act II, “I almost feel like I have burst my chrysalis after thirty years of incubation.” Though she’s speaking to Burton at the time, it’s obvious that she’s referring to her passion for Pale.
As exquisite as Joan Allen’s performance as Anna is, John Malkovich is overwrought as Pale. The difficulty may be in striking the balance Wilson intended between Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. When Pale says, “I like those gigantic city-wide fires. . . . I like avalanches . . . you know, any shit that can still amaze you,” he has been reduced to self-conscious character analysis, in keeping with the culture that has become overly self-aware. Moments later. Pale says, “My normal temperature is like one-hundred and ten” and “My . . . heart is killing me” because Stanley would, without the self-awareness that diminishes the state-of-being. In the midst of these lines, Wilson (or perhaps director Marshall Mason) has Pale beat his chest Tarzan-like; but even this is a response to heart palpitations from being coked up and high on booze. Pale exists as a symbol or embodiment of the mindbody conflict that has only increased since Williams’ day.
Sublimated into the more incidental characters of Larry and Burton, Wilson is shrewdly on the sidelines observing the precious fire that Anna is finally subjected to, despite her instincts for self-preservation (her last line, delivered in Pale’s embrace: “I didn’t want this—Oh Lord, I didn’t want this”). If the terms for Anna are different than they were for Blanche, Anna, who has more ahead of her, is paying a higher price.
After Anna has resolved to leave Pale (who urges her to stay: “No, I am not dangerous. What you think is that you’re afraid of me . . . because you’re afraid you might feel something”) and to work on a new dance, it is Larry, Wilson’s spokesman, who ultimately brings the couple back together. Larry gives Pale the keys to the loft and a note which reads: “I don’t know how you’re doing, but Anna is in pretty bad shape. This isn’t opera, this is life. Why should love always be tragic? Burn This!” With Burn This, Wilson is fanning the fires of contemporary passion with all of the skill, and the passion, that his creative imagination has engendered over the years.
With a certain timidity, if not outright equivocation, Lanford Wilson is viewed as a contemporary link in the chain of great American dramatists. With his work as evidence, many have seen him as capable to ameliorate the plight of our failed drama. But in giving Wilson the benefit of the doubt, his critics are quick to introduce a series of other doubts and further questions. By respecting his masters, Wilson dares to be traditional and in that sense anachronistic. Alone among contemporary playwrights, he maintains a respect for the past even as he attempts to uncover new terrain and to stretch the boundaries of dramaturgy. But “attempts” is used here advisedly, for Wilson’s downfall is precisely this: despite his evident efforts, he finally fails to break any new ground or to become a harbinger of how the drama may be evolving.
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