Sometimes, it’s the story behind the story that’s just as interesting as the story—maybe even more.
It’s hard not to think that that is the case after walking away from a conversation with Lanford Wilson. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is in the spotlight locally this summer, thanks to Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Wilson’s soul-stirring play, “Burn This,” is one of the two contemporary works unfolding in this year’s festival—the other is “Bach at Leipzig” by Itamar Moses. Presented in repertory with William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Burn This” not only offers audiences an opportunity to connect with a brilliant work, but also to the living playwright responsible for creating it.
Wilson is a man people should know about, for a number of reasons—and the main one, like any good play, isn’t really revealed until the final act.
Born in 1937, Wilson hails from Missouri. After transferring to San Diego State, he moved on to Chicago. He began writing more there but was craving bigger experiences. New York beckoned and off he went. In time, the move proved to be a great catalyst. He eventually became involved with a group of theatrical artists at the well-known Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village in the early ’60s. Cino was one of those famous New York coffeehouses of the day; the kind that spawned a slew of philosophers and bohemians whose works were often edgy yet revered. It sat (way) Off-Broadway. It was there that Wilson presented his early works, most notably the one-act plays “Ludlow Fair” and “Home Free.” Then came “The Madness of Lady Bright,” which many considered groundbreaking at the time (1964) because it depicted homosexuals as human beings rather than social misfits or human anomalies.
If there was something that always stood out in Wilson’s work—and would through time—it was his brilliant use of dialogue, which was honest to the core.
Many other plays followed after Wilson’s Caffe Cino experience, and a great deal of them boasted powerful storylines that pushed the envelope far away from anything conventional. “The Rimers of Eldritch” (1965) exposes a small Midwestern town in turmoil after a sexual assault. “Balm in Gilead” (1965) finds prostitutes, thieves and heroin addicts trying to move beyond their “boredom.” “The Gingham Dog” (1968) is about racial marriage.
After Wilson co-founded the Circle Repertory Company (better known as Circle Rep) in 1969 with frequent directing collaborator Marshall W. Mason, he seemed to hit a creative jackpot with 1973’s memorable “Hot L Baltimore,” which chronicled the plight of the residents of a rundown hotel—the “Hot L” refers to the hotel’s exterior sign, where a burned-out letter “e” was never replaced. (Pop culture junkies may even recall the short-lived television series of the same name.) Wilson collaborated again with Mason on 1975’s searing “The Mound Builders”—about a group of archeologists—but it was 1979’s “Talley’s Folly,” a one-act play, that caught everyone’s attention, and won the Pulitzer. The premise was simple enough—one couple comes to terms with their feelings for each other—but there’s a raw grittiness to the piece. It would be one of three “Talley” family plays Wilson penned.
As for “Burn This,” the playwright once touted it to be a different kind of love story, a play where its main characters never really say the “love” word, but, instead, are caught in resisting the overpowering force of love, or, rather, the emotional messiness that comes along with it. (Perhaps his characters, merely trying to move through their suddenly muddied lives, aren’t equipped to take on deeper emotional challenges.) Admired for its rich dialogue, the show debuted Off-Broadway in 1987 with John Malkovich and Joan Allen assuming the roles of Pale and Anna. (Edward Norton led the revival in 2002.) The story builds on the emotional intensity that unravels after the funeral of a young dancer named Robbie. His roommates, Anna and Larry, are adrift and in shock, of course, and when Robbie’s brother, Pale, arrives to collect his sibling’s personal belongings, the drama unfolds.
New York-based Michael Barakiva hits Shakespeare Santa Cruz for the very first time to direct “Burn This.” Of the work, he points out Wilson’s vibrant dialogue, but also believes the play stands out in this SSC’s offerings this season.
“I think when [artistic director] Marcus Cato was trying to find contemporary plays this season, I think he wanted to find ones that would refract on Shakespeare’s themes, and this play has all the viciousness and veracity and unapologetic fervor of a 25-character Shakespeare play packed into four people in New York in the ’80s. There’s something about that veracity that is so satisfying.”
Looking back on the work, Wilson, now 71 and living in Sag Harbor, New York, exudes a curious detached charm—as if he’s recalling the early years of his own child, now grown, and with whom he has occasional, albeit fond, contact with. (The phrase “burn this” by the way, was the phrase Wilson infused in the play, referring to a letter so honest it could only be burned afterward.)
Wilson is neither overly excited nor completely unmoved by the creativity that has passed through him over the years. What he is, is extremely honest. (That theme runs through much of SSC’s season.) In fact, through the course of our recent interview via phone, he holds little back. Mention of the Pulitzer he won for “Talley’s Folly” only seems to spark more amusement than pride. Memories of his love life—a fitting topic considering the emotional undertow found in “Burn This”—conjures up secrets he admits he’d rather still keep. (Although, he freely reveals that his own coming out process in the late-’50s was a mixture of relief and necessity.) When approached with the notion that he was the man whom many felt could create realistic “gay” plays, he clearly tells you otherwise. But the real jewel Wilson reveals comes at the end of our conversation, when he admits something so personal that you sense the man, like the characters in his plays, simply craves something completely universal: real connection.
SO, WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?
Nothing. It’s not great. I’d like to be working on something. I just did an introduction for another Tennessee Williams play, but I am casting around for some kind of an idea. Give me an idea. Any one.
I’M A WRITER, SO I UNDERSTAND THAT—FINDING THAT NEXT SPARK. HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THAT?
It’s scary. I’ve written several introductions to various plays. I am used to going around driving people crazy telling them I don’t have an idea for something, or that I don’t know why I am doing something because I have no idea how I am going to finish it. You know, that voice that says, ‘I never was a writer. I shouldn’t be a writer. I don’t know what I am doing!’ And … actually something will come, but this time, I really have not written anything … I haven’t started something in five years.
WELL, THAT CAN MEAN A LOT OF THINGS.
I’ve had periods before, but they didn’t last as long.
SO, HOW DOES ONE COPE WITH THAT?
Well, I was very complacent for two or three years, and thought, ‘This is just wonderful, I am not harassing myself!’ Then I said, ‘Idiot! Harass yourself!’ So I have been really crazy for the last year. Inside I am saying, ‘OK, are you going to write something or not?’
IS THERE ANY NEW WORK OUT OR ANY PLAYS THAT YOU’VE APPRECIATED LATELY?
No. I’ve obviously seen the wrong things, because some of the plays many people have been carrying on about, I thought were just dreck.
‘August’ for one thing. I didn’t love it the way all the critics loved it. I think it’s been since I’ve seen ‘I Am My Own Wife’ since something has knocked me out. It’s a good show. It’s a beautifully constructed play. Just gorgeous. And then it turns and turns.
YES. IT WAS RECENTLY IN SAN FRANCISCO AND YOU NEVER QUITE KNOW THE MOTIVE BEHIND THE MAIN CHARACTER …
Being writers, we may like it more than somebody who is not a writer because it’s about writing and the problems you come up against and the turns and the twists, and the pointlessness and the jubilation and the hell with it … just go on. I did a play called ‘Sympathetic Magic’ and you know, same subject, different story. It took 15 years to write that play and I thought I would never finish it. I would try something and then … one thing happened. I wrote my lead man saying the most terrible thing. And I had always known that the scene was going to be in the play, and when I wrote it, I said, ‘Oh my God, that is my lead, and this is despicable what he is saying. And the audience will hate him! What was I thinking and how can I bring him back on?’ It took me a solid year, to say … ‘Then what happens? He can die, drive off a bridge … then what happens?’
That’s the magic question to get you started again. And it took me a solid year to get over the fact to say, you know, ‘I don’t give a shit what the audience thinks!’ To remember that. I mean, I can’t help it what they think. They are just there to be entertained. So, you feel like an idiot … then you wake up and say, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens next, the only thing is you just have to write it.’
DO YOU THINK WRITERS ARE HARD ON THEMSELVES?
Oh yes, we are so much harder than anyone dreams. We are so hard on ourselves it’s ridiculous.
YOU’RE HARD ON YOURSELF?
Yes. Unless you are that person who absolutely loves themselves; those that are just self-congratulatory with everything they do … and they can’t write anyway.
SO, HOW DO YOU TEMPER THAT? HOW DO YOU NOT BE HARD ON YOURSELF?
Boy, I wish I knew. I guess you say, ‘Why am I being hard on myself?’ And you try to sort it all out.
WHERE ARE YOU AT ARTISTICALLY THESE DAYS? WE ALL GROW AS ARTISTS, AND YOU HAVE HAD A GREAT DEAL OF SUCCESS—FROM ‘HOT L BALTIMORE’ TO ‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ TO ‘BURN THIS’ TO …
Well, I don’t know if we all keep growing. A lot of American writers have gone to hell in 10 or 15 years in their career—not that I necessarily agree that they have, but a lot of critics think they have.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE ARTISTICALLY NOW?
I guess getting something down; just getting to the typewriter. Artistically, I feel comfortable once I have something started. I know the overarching arc of the thing is what I am concerned with. I am concerned with every little moment and how they end up and all the little things that you do to stimulate you as a writer, which is very exciting, but that’s the challenge—getting down to it. I remember I had idea after idea after idea … and sometimes I still do that … and say, ‘That’s not worth working on for a year; that’s not it yet; that’s complicated enough and the end product I see is not what I care to work on for a year.’
SO, IT’S DISCERNMENT?
Yeah. I got stuck on the word, thank you.
CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT WAS GOING ON IN YOUR MIND THE DAY AFTER YOU RECEIVED THE PULITZER FOR ‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’?
You know, we work on such a tough hide because we are criticized every time we turn around. You’re criticized and then sometimes you are praised for something and you think ‘I didn’t know what I was doing at all!’ Or you are praised in a back-handed way, or you see somebody else praised that you think is just a piece of crap. And so you can’t take the person praising you seriously—and on and on and on. So you grow such a tough hide against criticism and praise that you say, ‘OK, it’s about time, where were you when ‘Hot L Baltimore’ came out and you didn’t give anyone the award?’ You say, ‘Good, fine—about damn time!’ So six months later I was walking through my living room and I stopped in the middle of the room and said, ‘Son of a bitch, that is all right! That is very damn good!’ And before that, I said, ‘Well, it’s better than not getting it.’ You know?
So I had a moment where I was absolutely pleased with myself. Happiness. And that was very nice … because you can’t always allow yourself that, so I did enjoy it but it came a little later. I have run into people who have said, ‘Lanford, Lanford, oh Lanford … I got the Pulitzer Prize and can’t work at all! I said, ‘Hang on a second, it is not that big a deal! Get over yourself. But there are people that it took … well, the guy who wrote ‘The Gin Game,’ he had said to me, ‘The Pulitzer stopped me cold!’ He’s now writing again …
Sam Shepard had said a nice thing about ‘Talley’s Folly,’ when I won. He said, ‘Well, that’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. And I thought that was nice. But, at that point, I had written ‘Hot L Baltimore’ and ‘The Mound Builders.’ and I thought ‘The Mound Builders’ was a much better play and it had not even moved to another theater. At the time … I didn’t think ‘Talley’s Folly’ was my best, but it’s one of them, and it’s one of the most accessible anyway … along with ‘Burn This’ by the way. They are sort of odds. ‘Talley’s Folly’ was sort of a valentine to love. And ‘Burn This’ is, ‘What is this stuff really about?’ It’s a more difficult play.
WHAT DO YOU FIND PARTICULARLY REFRESHING ABOUT WRITING WORK THAT FEATURES GAY CHARACTERS AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO FEATURE DIVERSE CHARACTERS IN YOUR WORK?
It [diversity] isn’t in a lot of work out there. When you consider a good percentage of the country is gay, when you are working on something you grab what you need, and very often, you just don’t need a gay character, or that color. It just doesn’t happen.
One of the first full-length plays I wrote has this next door neighbor and it doesn’t say a word about his sexual preference and everybody assumes he is gay, and I was writing a portrait of a gay man that I met and I swear he is asexual. He just didn’t have any sexual impulse whatsoever. He’s a sweetheart of a guy. It just didn’t enter his life whatsoever. And I know a gal like that … absolutely not interested in sex; it would never occur to her. Patting and sweet hugging is fine, but sex …
I would love to write another character … and I don’t know why I haven’t … or maybe a girl who is asexual. Now that would be fun.
YOU HAD SPENT SOME TIME IN CHICAGO BEFORE HEADING TO NEW YORK.
Yes, but the things I was writing were not good—really. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I wrote a play about a family that I knew nothing about and said, ‘Oh Lord!’ So when I came to New York, I had been so unhappy with everything I had done, and New York colors everything. It’s the most watchable place in the world. And I thought, ‘Well, you are supposed to write what you know … what a concept!’
So I was writing … ‘Home Free,’ this one-act play. That was the first play I had written in New York. Well, it was written by a completely different person than the person who got there … I had no relationship at all to that person. The quality, I say modestly, was damn good, and it’s what I knew. It was a completely new world. I think that voice that wrote ‘Home Free’ has remained with me from that moment. New York changed everything—the lights under the marquee, you know? And then, later on, I would do shows and go out there and think, those lights suck, but …
YOU GREW UP IN THE OZARKS? WHAT WAS BEST THING ABOUT GROWING UP THERE?
It was nice in an odd way. I didn’t know how insular and how protected it was. It was just 20 miles south of Springfield, Missouri, in the town of Ozark, Missouri, funny enough. There was a college there and it had a phenomenal drama department and so the class went to see one of their plays or we took field trips to some of the Broadway or touring company shows, so I was exposed to theater and every movie that came to town. And, you know, I was popular as an oddball.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN ODDBALL?
I wasn’t that odd I guess … well, I was effeminate for one thing. I had no idea I was gay but half the adults in town could have told me, if they bothered … or if they felt that I was, or if they felt anything. But it was such a relief to find out there were not only others, but that there was an entire other culture, a sub-culture at least.
WHEN DID YOU COME OUT?
Well, I spent a year in California and I was kicked out of the house.
Oh yeah. We just didn’t get along at all, my father and I. Without me really knowing why. And then I was at San Diego State and I was half way through that year and I discovered … well, I fell in love with this guy. And I said, ‘What the fuck do you know about that?’ That [experience with him] explains a lot, doesn‘t it?’ And I was just very pleased to discover what I was and that there was a culture. That was in 1957. I was 20. I wish I had come out sooner.
WELL, IN THE ’50S THAT WAS …
Yeah, that may have not have been that bad.
Well, I was thankful it was early but most of the kids around me were my age. You’re right. I did see many many closet cases that were miserable and did not have a clue, and you want so desperately to say, ‘Let me tell you what’s going on in your life …’
WHO IS, OR WHO WAS, THE BIGGEST LOVE OF YOUR LIFE AND WHY?
Somebody I can’t really say. I can’t tell you. I did have a lover for 15 years and thankfully we saved each other from AIDS but really, we were faking it for the last eight years. The last 10 years was bullshit. We weren’t even close and we didn’t fight because I don’t fight but the one argument we had, he just loved it because he thought it was just great. Truth was, he didn’t respect me and what I was doing any more, and I thought, ‘Wow—non support! What an interesting phenomenon!’ And I put up with it, but we never lived together. He lived 20 miles or so from Manhattan and came in every weekend in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when I got the house in Sag Harbor.
One day, I just didn’t call. And we never did say goodbye but it was clear that there was nothing there.
WELL, RELATIONSHIPS IN AND OF THEMSELVES CAN BE CHALLENGING.
And this was an odd relationship from beginning to end.
WELL, WHAT ABOUT AFTER THAT?
I had a lover before that and he was very wonderful and we are still friends. He had a lover for 20 years whom he is still with now. When we were together, I was much too fickle. But it was very nice.
WAS IT EASY OR HARD TO BE OUT AT THAT TIME?
Well, I was in Greenwich Village at that time. I worked in The Village and I lived in The Village. I never thought it was a big deal when I discovered what gayness was. I went, ‘Oh, thank God!’ I never paid much attention to it after that. I never thought of it politically or any way. It was ‘Oh, this is who I am.’ If anybody would have asked, I would have told them I was homosexual.
ANY THOUGHTS ON GAY CULTURE TODAY?
Not really. Robert Patrick, who was at Caffe Cino at the time we were all there, keeps everyone abreast of what’s happening, but living out in Sag Harbor, I don’t have much of a social life, which is not the way I had wanted, I don’t think. But, I thought about selling the house and getting an apartment in New York and made a few test trips, but I was disappointed. I went to see Broadway shows. The one great light was the revival of ‘South Pacific.’ And whatever else you hear about the revival of ‘Gypsy’, it’s a lie. It’s not good. She [Patti LuPone] was all right, if you like somebody who doesn’t believe what they are doing.
IT DOES SHOW THROUGH, DOESN’T IT?
She’s ‘acting’ all the way through it and not believing it. And that’s rare for her. It’s so rare, that I said to friends, I bet it had to have been an aberration, because I bet she went into it thinking ‘I don’t believe a damn word of what I am saying!’ I pray that that’s what it was (behind the scenes). Certainly, there are off nights … maybe this is what it was.
DO YOU ENJOY LIVING IN SAG HARBOR?
Yes and no. I love my garden. People always ask ‘How is your garden?’ It’s a recreation garden; an English garden. I am growing plants you’ve never heard of, unless you are a gardener.
WELL, WE SHOULD TALK ABOUT ‘BURN THIS.’ WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND IT?
Let me think. What the hell was the vision of it? It was two cultures; a clash of two cultures. And you can’t tell that’s what it is, but it is very often the case with some of my work.
I was asked to write a play about AIDS. Well, that didn’t interest me much. And they said nobody was writing that and that I could, but it wouldn’t really be about that, I thought. The interior would be the same but the exterior … the circumstance would be different. So that was in the back of my mind. And the bar that I went to … the bartender there was a card; a real character. So I had in my mind someone from New Jersey—from any non-metropolitan place—coming to New York, and there was this clash of cultures. And the guy … well, he was coming to pick up his brother’s stuff because his brother had died and you got to see the environment that the brother that you knew only as the sophisticated brother—a ballet dancer; an artist. You got to see where he came from and what the background was; what the town was. And this guy really filled in all these details for me; told me about this guy who had a gay brother who had died; that nobody admitted he was gay. And that he was dragged all over Boston to every bar by the older brother of the gay man.
And that was … the story. I said, ‘There is my character in that perfect situation. That’s the perfect heart for that person.’ Through this miracle, I also had an anxiety attack and it segued into this screaming tirade which ended up being the character of Pale. I finished writing it and went, ‘What in the hell was that … where the fuck did it come from?’ For a couple of years, I had this great character and he was screaming to get the fuck out, and he did, and so did the other characters.
I read something about me that said, ‘Lanford Wilson is considered one of the main gay writers of the century,’ and I looked at that and went, ‘Who the fuck wrote this?’ I don’t really consider myself a gay writer. A friend of mine said, ‘What is a gay play? A play that is attracted to another play of the same sex?’ I don’t write ‘gay’ plays although that subject is explored in ‘Burn This.’
WHAT IS THE BEST THING ABOUT BEING 71?
I can’t think of a damn thing. That question has not been asked me … but I am not 71, I am 43—that’s what I am. I do not feel in the least 71, which is trouble when I am attracted to somebody.
DID THAT HAPPEN RECENTLY?
No. Well, yeah … four times on the street, but I’ll tell you something interesting … a lot of people respond only to their generation, and whatever 10 years that tends to be—within 10 years—and I don’t, and never have particularly. And it’s really interesting to see that; at town meetings to see a 40-year-old dismiss people who are 70, who have never spoken to me, and people 70 dismiss people who are 50, thinking, they don’t know this or that, and only listen to people in their own age group and dismiss people younger. It’s amazing.
WHY DO YOU THINK WE DO THAT?
We respond to people who have, well, the same favorite songs. And I don’t give a shit about Tommy Dorsey!
BEST ADVICE YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN IN LIFE?
My, my, my. In work—write what you know and if you don’t know, learn it. So that means I spend a lot of time in research. Half of ‘The Mound Builders’ was written and I didn’t know what the people in it did for a living. And when I discovered that, I thought, ‘Of course, asshole, they are archeologists!’ I stopped dead in my tracks because I didn’t know shit about archeology. I just put the play aside and studied archeology for the next solid year and was able to finish.
SO WHAT ABOUT LIFE, IN GENERAL … WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN?
Hmm. Real life? Well, that almost everything you do, almost everything you think, almost every moment of your life, is dictated by fear … so, ‘get over it!’
I CAN RELATE
Get over it!
THOSE ARE MY THREE FAVORITE WORDS, BY THE WAY
Nobody gives a shit, right?
IT’S TRUE, I GUESS.
But you asked. But nobody cares about what you have, don’t have, or what your inadequacies are. It’s bullshit! They only look at what’s good, so get over it! Stop fighting.
TWO MORE QUESTIONS …
These are pretty damn good. You got more? OK.
WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY THESE DAYS?
Well, this coincides with being sober … I had very bad spell where I became an alcoholic for about 10 years and went downhill very, very fast—and hit bottom and eventually went into rehab six years ago.
WHAT IS THE MOST INTERESTING THING YOU’VE LEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF LATELY?
I think I need people around. And I don’t have people around me. I need people around me. I need nice people around me and I don’t really have that, and I didn’t really quite know that until … Well, I’ve had roommates and things like that. I had moved out here and lived by myself and invited people out and then, I had somebody who lived on the third floor—a straight man with his girlfriend, and they moved out and I miss them. I was much better with them around, although they were a younger generation and sometimes uninterested in anything I had to say, but it was another heart beating in the house. So … another beating heart—I’ve learned that it’s important to have that around.