Entertainment » Theatre

Lanford Wilson recalls Tennessee Williams

by Robert Israel
Contributor
Thursday Sep 17, 2009

Lanford Wilson speaks with a warm Midwestern twang that traces back to his Lebanon, Missouri roots, where he was born in 1937. An openly declared gay playwright, he is the author of The Madness of Lady Bright, a groundbreaking play about the life of a drag queen, produced by Caffe Cino in New York in 1964. In subsequent years, he founded the Circle Repertory (now defunct), credited as the harbinger of the Off-Broadway movement. Many years and many plays later, Circle Rep produced his drama, Tally’s Folly, which was later awarded the 1980 Pulitzer Prize.

Wilson is as plain speaking as another famous Missourian, Harry S. Truman. A long time resident of Sag Harbor, New York, Wilson will travel to Provincetown as a special guest of the Fourth Annual Tennessee Williams Festival. The event, Coffee With Lanford Wilson, takes place on September 27th at 11 a.m., at Central House at the Crown and Anchor.

Appearing with Wilson will be Tennessee Williams scholar and New Directions editor Thomas Keith, who will serve as interviewer/moderator. Keith has written that the young Wilson was influenced by Williams as far back as 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."


How they met

But then Wilson matured and went on to make his own mark on the American theatre. He has been lauded by the New York Times as a playwright who has "special gifts for listening and for recording and giving voice to the innermost workings of the human heart."

Lanford Wilson met Williams through mutual friend Lee Hoiby, with whom he wrote an opera based on Williams’ play Summer and Smoke. Wilson went on to collaborate with Williams on several other projects.

In a recently published introductory essay to Williams’ "Sweet Bird of Youth," published by New Directions, Wilson writes: "We talked about a lot of things-well, he talked, I listened. Tennessee had been everywhere, of course, and knew everyone, and I knew no one and hadn’t been anywhere."

In late 1969, several months before they met, Williams was hospitalized in Wilson’s home state of Missouri for mental illness and drug addiction. In the process of withdrawing from drugs Williams suffered seizures and had two heart attacks. According to published biographical notes, Williams was finally able to return to his home - and to writing -- in Key West in December of that year.


A wonderful time

"We met in Key West, and he was still quite sick, in very bad shape," Wilson remembered. "And he got back in shape. We had a wonderful time collaborating together. He was a genuinely funny man, and he was a tremendously hard working writer."

Williams’ work ethic was legendary, Wilson said: "He’d get up at the crack of dawn and work all day, seven days a week, and I’d get up at the crack of noon. I was living in a motel nearby, which was just as well, since our schedules were so entirely different."

They’d get together in the evenings and talk, watch television, and work on projects. They also traveled together, and met migrant workers for another project they worked on. All the while, Wilson was impressed with Williams’ enormous appetite for life.

"Nothing shocked him," Wilson said. "There is a character in his play, Night of the Iguana, who says, ’Nothing human disgusts me.’ Well, that was Tennessee. He was life affirming, always. He said he slept through the 1960s, but I’m convinced he played a very important role in the sexual revolution."

Williams’ frank discussion of his own homosexuality on national television in an interview with David Frost (and on other televised and public appearances during the late ’60s-early ’70s) is an example of how he contributed to that sexual revolution, one of the few "celebrities" who engaged in such candid confessions.

Williams experienced success and failure with his work. Yet, according to Wilson, he remained free of cynicism.

"He had a wonderful sense of irony," Wilson said. "We were driving once from Miami down to Key West, and it was a lovely time of night, the palm trees were silhouetted against the sky, it was a very beautiful evening, and Tennessee turned to me and said, ’Seems I’ve always lived where they are palm trees, but I’ve never much liked them.’ He always caught you off guard. He could be melancholic, but he was deeper than that, he delved deeper than mere melancholy would allow."

When Wilson is asked about his own work, he responds that he has been involved this past summer in teaching a writing symposium and participating in an "Our Town" forum on writing in Sag Harbor. But what about a new play? He responds that while he has explored various ideas for plays, none of these ideas has coalesced into a fully realized work.

"The muse will come to me when she comes," he said, and, with a self-deprecating chuckle, added: "Maybe she’s gone off in a cab to Bermuda."

In the meanwhile, Wilson’s works are widely performed at repertory theatres throughout the country. His play Burn This (first performed in 1987 with John Malkovich in the lead role) has enjoyed successful revivals. Boston-area audiences saw a spirited production at Boston University’s Huntington Theatre with television actor Michael T. Weiss a few years ago. And New York City audiences saw a Signature Theatre production - in their season devoted to Wilson’s works on Broadway -- that won accolades for movie actor Edward Norton’s interpretation of the role a few years back.

"Ed Norton has just bought the film rights to Burn This," Wilson said, "which is exciting news. When he played it in New York, he never played to an empty seat. And it was a very young audience, too. The play is speaking to an entirely new generation. It was a gorgeous production, very sad, very soulful."

And then he offers a remark laced with irony that might make Tennessee Williams smile somewhere in the far beyond: "I often say I never should have started writing plays, because people expect me to continue." Pausing for a moment, he adds: "So, I guess I’ll have to."

For more information about >Lanford Wilson’s appearance at the Fourth Annual Tennessee Williams Festivalevent’s website.


Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.

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