Playwright Lanford Wilson Dies at 73

By: Mar. 24, 2011
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Broadway playwright Lanford Wilson passed away this morning, March 24. He was 73 years old. Considered one of the founders of the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement, Wilson received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980, was elected in 2001 to the Theater Hall of Fame, and in 2004 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Wilson began his active career as a playwright in the early 1960s at the Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village, writing one-act plays such as Ludlow Fair, Home Free!, and The Madness of Lady Bright. The Madness of Lady Bright premiered at the Caffe Cino in May 1964 and was the venue's first significant hit. 

Wilson was a founding member of The Circle Repertory Company in 1969. Many of his plays were first presented there, directed by his long-standing collaborative partner, Marshall W. Mason. The Circle Rep's production of Wilson's The Hot l Baltimore won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the Obie Award, and in 1979 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Talley's Folly.

Amongt his plays which deal with gay identity are the early, autobiographical Lemon Sky (1970), Fifth of July (1978), and Burn This (1986). Lemon Sky tells the story of a young man's struggle with his crude, uneducated father, when he tries to come out of the closet. In Fifth of July, a hit on Broadway in the 1970s, two of the central characters are a gay couple living in a small town, one of whom is a disabled veteran of Vietnam. In Burn This a central character is a gay man who writes advertising for a living and is involved with a group of both gay and straight friends, one of whom has committed suicide before the play begins. The entire group struggles together to deal with their collective grief.

Some of Wilson's plays have been produced as made-for-TV movies. In that respect Wilson's career can be contrasted usefully with that of his off-off-Broadway colleague, Sam Shepard. Both playwrights were among the most popular on the off-off-Broadway circuit in the early 1960s, and both later ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize, Shepard in 1979, Wilson in 1980. With the exception of some fairly brief revivals, Shepard has never had a hit on Broadway, but several of his plays have been made into movies. 

In 2010, Debra Monk presentEd Wilson with the Artistic Achievement Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. This honor was bestowed on Wilson on behalf of his peers and fellow artists of the Off-Off-Broadway community "in recognition of his brave and unique works that helped established the Off-Off-Broadway community, and propel the independent theatre voice as an important contributor to the American stage.