This won’t be a very long blog post this week, Constant Reader; it’s a holiday weekend, after all. I can’t very well expect you to take time to read a blog post on a holiday. Yes, today is Monday, the Fifth of July, and all us theater folk know what that meahs. After all, if your social media feed is anything like mine, and your circle of friends includes theater arts professionals like mine does, you’ll no doubt have half a dozen of your artsy friends wish you, either in person or digitally, a “Happy Lanford Wilson Day!”
I don’t know exactly when we first started doing this. Obviously, it couldn’t have been prior to 1978, when American playwright Lanford Wilson kicked off his so-called “Talley Trilogy” of plays with Fifth of July. The play made its Broadway debut in 1980, so people could have started the association at that time – but on behalf of those of us who were alive at the time, I can attest that we hadn’t yet proclaimed the namesake date on the calendar as its own holiday. Wilson passed away in 2011, so a desire to memorialize a significant American man of letters in the subsequent decade by referencing a familiar title of his is understandable. Even so, while a highly respected figure in the theater world, Wilson wasn’t exactly a household name when Fifth of July played on Broadway (not even with Christopher Reeve in the cast!) and he isn’t exactly a household name now.
And yet, every year, my theater friends all wish each other a happy Lanford Wilson day when the fifth of July rolls around. I assume, like so much of contemporary life, it’s facilitated by the existence of social media. Where once a single person might have made the reference, been greeted by the stone-faced looks and rolled eyes of their peers, and immediately gone silent, now we can find like-minded communities making the same obscure cultural references. Get enough people doing it, and the idea begins to catch on, and voila! The holiday of Lanford Wilson Day is born.
Now, you might say this is a bit superfluous, since we already have a much better known holiday immediately preceding Lanford Wilson day. (Happy Birthday America, btw) But even though we were getting off from work this long weekend anyway, I’d argue that not only is there room for Lanford Wilson day, but it’s a necessary complement to the celebration of our nation’s independence.
After all, Wilson was a major American playwright – a reminder that the right to speech and expression is a foundational component of who we are.
Wilson was a pioneer of off-off Broadway, a founding playwright of Café Cino, for which he wrote sprawling epics of America’s subcultures like Balm in Gilead – a reminder that this country’s whole existence is built on misfits creating their own communities.
The play Fifth of July itself focuses on a disabled Vietnam veteran – a reminder of the sacrifices that have been made in this nation’s name, some deserving, some not.
That veteran, Kenneth Talley, Jr., is also homosexual, and Wilson was a pioneer in depicting gay lives onstage – a reminder that this nation’s rights and promises are supposed to be the birthright of all its citizens.
And if you’re looking for a specific way to celebrate, I have it on good authority – a friend of mine who served as a production assistant to the man – that his favorite snack food was Reese’s peanut butter cups. They can certainly serve as today’s version of candy canes or pumpkin pie.
Happy holiday(s), everybody!