Lanford Wilson is a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and a pioneer of the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement. His early years were spent in small towns in the Ozarks, often the central theme of his plays. His massive amount of stage productions continue to make him a force in the theater industry, and his success continues to make him a force on societal issues facing the country, especially in the genre of gay literature.
THE EARLY YEARS
Lanford Eugene Wilson was born on April 13, 1937, in Lebanon, Missouri. He stayed in the small southwest Missouri town until he was about five years old when he and his mother moved to Springfield after his parents divorced. When his mother remarried, they moved to a farm near the small town of Ozark, where they stayed until he graduated from high school in 1955.
Wilson moved to San Diego not long after he graduated to reunite with his father and attend San Diego State University. As depicted in a later autobiographical writing, Lemon Sky, the reunion didn’t go so well, so he moved to Chicago. He took a playwriting class at the University of Chicago, which struck a chord with the young man and stimulated an interest that turned out to be a lifelong passion.
RISE TO FAME
Wilson stayed in the Windy City for six years, where he worked jobs at an advertising agency and as an actor while developing his skill at playwriting. To really make it big in theater, though, he knew he had to try his luck in New York City. He moved to Greenwich Village in 1962 at the age of 25 and immediately embraced the culture. He got involved with a group of local writers and actors at the Caffe Cino coffeehouse, which acted as a staging ground for the avant-garde theater movement. It allowed playwrights and actors the chance to hone their skills in a supportive environment before trying their hand at bigger venues. Hisfirst play, So Long at the Fair, was produced at this cafe in 1963.
Wilson wrote, produced, and acted in plays over the next several years in the Off-Off-Broadway circuit. He finally reached the “big-time” in 1968, when his play, The Gingham Dog, made it to Broadway. It was a major milestone for the young man to finally have a hit show in the Big Apple, but it was just the start for the prolific playwright.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
While Wilson enjoyed the success of producing plays for other production houses, he longed for something he could call his own. So in 1969, he and four associates founded the Circle Repertory Company. Their first major success was a 1973 play titled Hot L Baltimore, which Wilson wrote. The play drew enormous crowds, won critical praise, and played for more than one thousand performances before heading off to Broadway.
Wilson also wrote an autobiographical play called Lemon Sky. It was the story of a young man who comes to terms with his homosexuality as he tries to reconcile with his father who abandoned him when he was only five. The reconciliation proves to be unsuccessful, and the gay themes of the play made Wilson a frontrunner in gay literature.
Over the next few decades, Wilson churned out nearly twenty full-length plays and dozens of short plays. One of the most famous was released in 1979, titled Talley’s Folley, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and made him one of the most successful and powerful writers and producers on the stage. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he was also honored with four Obies, two New York Drama Critic’s Circle Awards, The Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and the Brandeis Creative Arts Award.
*Wilson learned Russian in order to translate the writings of Anton Chekhov.
*He is often compared to fellow Missourian Tennessee Williams for his themes of crumbling illusions and alienation.
* Talley’s Folley used Lebanon, Missouri, as the backdrop for the story.