SEPTEMBER 26 - 29, 2019


September 2009

Pulizer Prize-winning Williams protégé Lanford Wilson appears at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival (Photo from 1983)


Williams Pass / Sustaining Donors only

A conversation with the award-winning playwright

Lanford Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Talley’s Folly. He is the author of the landmark play Burn This, and Hot L Baltimore, as well as the founder of the Off-Off Broadway Theater movement. A Williams protégé in his youth, who traveled with him, wrote with him, and was inspired by him.

Don't miss this singular opportunity to meet and talk with Lanford Wilson over coffee. This special event is hosted by Williams scholar and editor Thomas Keith, and is available only to Sustaining Donors and Williams Pass holders.

Coffee With Lanford Wilson

While it can be precarious to make comparisons between writers, there are some links to be made with Lanford Wilson and Tennessee Williams. Wilson’s interest in theater began in high school where he played Tom in The Glass Menagerie. His early plays show flashes of Williams’ influence, and his autobiographical “memory play” Lemon Sky owes some debt to The Glass Menagerie. Wilson wrote the libretto for an opera of Summer and Smoke, and collaborated with Williams on the idea for the teleplay The Migrants, though the writing was entirely his own. They share similar backgrounds as openly gay American playwrights who come from nearly the same part of the country. Yet, where Williams’ characters can be recognized variously as desperate, charming, sensual, hysterical, benevolent, fantastic, or violent, Wilson’s characters are more likely to be identified as tough, passionate, no nonsense, intelligent, sarcastic, blunt, or understated. In its directness and tone, Wilson’s literary vocabulary is closer to Walt Whitman’s than to Williams.’ Wilson shares with Williams a gut compassion for the outsiders of life; their empathy grasps the imperfections that connect us.

Concerned with intensely emotional characters and their relationships, Wilson also writes plays filled with conflicts that rise from social, political, and existential concerns as well. Angel’s Fall is a front drop for expanding dangers of nuclear technology; the specter of WWII surrounds the intimacy of Talley’s Folly; and the personal conflicts in Redwood Curtain are infused with the failures of the war in Vietnam. Wilson weaves his dramas in such a way that the personal is the universal and vice versa. Existential? Meet Delia from The Mound Builders: “… he couldn’t tell you how to keep from cutting your wrist while you’re shaving your legs.”

Wilson’s ear for the rhythms of speech and conversation is impeccable. Whether the character is a Midwesterner, Southerner, or New Yorker, his dialogue crackles, rolls, and sparks with a music that is not poetic in the traditional sense of being heightened language; Wilson’s dialogue never feels heightened yet it is lyrically connected to common speech. Wilson has yet to write a play in which dialogue does not deliberately coincide with other dialogue. This is part of the musicality which helps drive Wilson’s plays and perhaps lends them much of their “realism.” In the Midwest drama, The Rimers of Eldritch, even the scenes overlap as the dialogue overlaps, so the story is told in a moving collage of action, music, and language that is theatrical and intoxicating. Wilson orchestrates a similar, but more jazz-like effect in Balm in Gilead with a cast of twenty-four and a Manhattan setting. In Book of Days the cast doubles as a Greek chorus that helps reveal the underbelly of contemporary America.

Wilson’s characters often identify themselves by what they do. They are both defined and freed by their “occupations:” the archeologist August in The Mound Builders, the choreographer Anna in Burn This, and the tennis player Zappy in Angels Fall who knows that what he does is joined with who he is: ”I hit that first ball and I said, ’This is me. This is what I do. What I do is tennis.’ And once you know, there’s no way out.”

What Lanford Wilson does is write beautiful plays. Prompted in a 1984 interview Wilson said: “I don’t compare myself to Tennessee Williams, no, thank you. We’re talking Tennessee Williams. He’s great, and I’m not.” Without comparisons, based entirely on his own body of work, Lanford Wilson is, by any definition, great.

– Thomas Keith

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