Lanford Wilson: Gorgeously Lapidary

Tenn in Conversation
Over Several Days
French Quarter
New Orleans

I am terribly impressed by and terribly envious of Lanford Wilson. I could never bring myself to call him Lance, although he often offered it as a friendly gesture. While he is young enough to be my son, and while he has admitted to being influenced by my work--and at times channeling it--I think of him not as a young writer, but as a peer, and as a peer who frequently, passionately succeeds where I fail.

The  placement of words in a play of Lanford's is gorgeously lapidary, a very sure handling of materials. Words, like bricks, are placed one atop another, a character embedded in the brick, and the completed edifice is a play, a majestic erection. I think Lanford would be amused by my comparison.

As I no longer know where the women and the words are coming from, I search so many places to see where they reside, where others have found them and shared them. I am reading or re-reading plays, including those of Lanford. So much heart, so much properly channeled anger--he aims for humor where I am most apt to go for tragedy or vengeance. His love for the lost, for the grasping, is as dear as his personal manner.

I was much taken with his handsomeness, his chivalry, his calm manner, which could then be excited by a discussion dear to him. He cared a great deal for the theatre, for literature--and he believed, as I do, that plays are a branch of the tree, if you will, of literature. We could gather and mourn for the lost reverence for the artistry of plays--those lapidary writers who so delicately construct works of so much beauty.

His plays can very easily hurt my heart, because I always see characters struggling to understand themselves and each other; to survive and prosper; to matter. I can also always be a witness to the hard work--the sheer labor--that Lanford put into his plays so that they were as smooth and lovely as they were. There is an intelligent sheen to all the plays of his I've seen, and I'm not so shiny anymore.

He adapted a wonderful television film called The Migrants. It's based on something I wrote so long ago that I can't recall precisely what I was thinking of or caring about when I dreamed it, but his version made me care greatly for it again. I have never possessed the gift of adaptation, but Lanford is a master at it, because, I think, his respect for the words of others is as great as that he bestows on his own.

I told him once that I felt that Lemon Sky was his invitation to me to join him in a dance. I felt the play was a gesture to another Midwestern soul who had escaped--physically, at least--the dry, empty, angry flat lands scoured by God's hand and the anger of racism of the ages. He smiled and said it was true, and he suggested that I always, at least in the beginning, should lead.

Author's Note: Through the kindness of Thomas Keith, the editor at New Directions of many of Tenn's works, and Robert Patrick, the playwright, I was able to connect, by phone, with Lanford Wilson in 2009. I will share his reaction to these words in the next installment.


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