Lanford Wilson

Born on April 13, 1937, in Lebanon, Missouri, Lanford Wilson began writing at the University of Chicago in 1959 after enrolling in a playwriting class. Upon graduation, he moved to New York City where he soon became involved with a group of theatrical artists at the Café Cino, one of many tiny coffeehouses Off-Off-Broadway that presented edgy, avant-garde works. Wilson served not only as playwright, but also as director, actor and designer. His first play, So Long at the Fair, was produced at the Café Cino in 1963.

Another of Wilson's scripts to be produced at the café was a one-act entitled Home Free (1964) which revolved around the relationship of two incestuous siblings. During the run of Home Free, Wilson met another member of the Café Cino group, a young director named Marshall W. Mason. Although the two started off on the wrong foot when Mason criticized Wilson's rewrite of Home Free, the young playwright soon gave Mason a copy of his latest play, Balm in Giliad (1965), a massive, 56 character piece that incorporated simultaneous scenes and overlapping dialogue. Several months later, Balm in Giliad opened under the direction of Mason at the Café LaMama. Not only was the play a great critical success, but it marked the beginning of a long and profitable collaboration between the two young artists.

In 1969, Wilson co-founded Circle Repertory Company with a group of friends that included Mason. The company's first major success was Wilson's Hot L Baltimore (1973), the story of a group of drifters, prostitutes, and aging residents in an old, run-down hotel. Hot L Baltimore, directed by Mason, ran for 1,100 performances and eventually transferred to Broadway. Other Wilson/Mason collaborations include The Mound Builders (1975) in which an archeological dig sets the stage for a fascinating meditation on a university scientist's past and present, Serenading Louie (1970) which focuses on two young suburban couples facing the unhappiness at the heart of their marriages, Angels Fall (1982) in which a group of strangers come together in a small mission church in a remote part of New Mexico to face their own mortality in the wake of a possible nuclear accident, and Talley's Folly (1979), for which Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

Wilson has often been compared to the likes of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Lillian Hellman. His plays usually explore themes of alienation, loneliness, and crumbling illusions. Lemon Sky (1970), which Wilson describes as "completely autobiographical", tells the story of a young man who moves in with the father who abandoned him and his mother when he was only five years old. Ultimately, attempts to reconcile prove to be in vain, and in the end the young man is thrown out of his father's house because he "doesn't bed women."

Wilson's awards include, among others, the Vernon Rice Award for Rimers of Eldritch (1965), the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, the Outer Circle Award, and an Obie for Hot L Baltimore (1973), and another Obie for The Mound Builders (1975). Recently, he learned Russian in order to be able to translate the works of one of his favorite authors, Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov.

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American Theatre Index

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