Today, Lanford Wilson died. He was a great playwright. “Burn This” was one of the plays I wrote about in my Master’s thesis. He was one of the playwrights from the 60s and 70s who got his start at the legendary Caffe Cino. I’ve always loved that idea of early off-off Broadway, especially the very gay friendly Caffe Cino – him, Robert Patrick, Sam Shepard, John Guare, and many others. It was the place, along with La Mama and Circle Rep, that I would see listed on the first page about the cast and production when I read plays and was inspired to do theater. Years later, at Po, a little Italian restaurant on Cornelia, I went into the bathroom and saw that this was that place. I almost had a seizure. I was covered in goosebumps for 10 minutes and almost started crying for joy/sadness. My dinner companions – not so much. I’m digressing here…but suffice it to say, I romanticized that time a little.
Wilson was one of the first out gay playwrights to write about gay men, and to have gay characters in major commercial Broadway plays, especially whose lives weren’t completely defined by their sexuality. 5th of July has a gay couple at its center, one of whom is a Vietnam vet; Lemon Sky is about a gay man coming to terms with his past, and The Madness of Lady Bright is about an unhappy queen. I’m rethinking my thoughts about Burn This and I’m excited to see it when it opens at the Taper next month.
There’s no short way to put this, but I’ll try- Burn This is about a female dancer who is mourning the loss of her best friend, a gay man, and ends up falling in love with his tough, macho brother who shows up after his death. There’s another friend, and a caustic gay man. I thought, when I was, what? 22? that Wilson put himself in the character of Anna, the dancer, and that the play was about her learning to love and let down her guard for a love that was dangerous to her.
This was in 1991, living in New York, in the midst of the AIDS crisis. I was writing a thesis about the construction of heterosexual desire by gay playwrights, and how the times in which they were living and attitudes toward gay men are mirrored in their construction of heterosexual desire. I see now that this is quite an assumption: that the playwright is necessarily masking his sexuality and writing about heterosexuals because he either won’t write about gays, or is hiding something. With Wilson, this doesn’t account for the other plays in which gay men were quite prominent; for his own place possibly being in a character other than the central man (the gay character in the play); that perhaps he was just writing a play about characters dealing with the particular death of a gay man, which was a central narrative at that time. Basically, you get a little older and things get more complicated, lives need more room, and you see that writers write about what they need to. And, also, to give myself a little credit, a product of their time. My ideas now, 20 years later, feel like a product of theirs.
I will probably write about this more after I see the play – I have a lot of thoughts about it and I haven’t thought about this in a while. Mainly, though, I am thinking what a trailblazer he was – that while I was faulting him for not writing a play about gay men, he already had. I was young, it was a very different time, and I desperately needed role models. Who knew that one was there all along? He was a man who wrote about what he needed – possibly post-gay in a world that hadn’t even had a term for it yet, though I could see it at the time as possibly apology or shame for the sake of commercial success. I had a lot of ideas.
Most importantly, he gave us great words, great moments, great American drama. Rest in Peace, and thank you.