Robert Patrick Remembers Lanford Wilson: friend, roommate, colleague, champion, and defender

This Wednesday, the conference, Missouri Self-Taught: Lanford Wilson and the American Drama begins! Concurrently, the Mizzou Theatre Department presents Lanford Wilson’s The Rimers of Eldritch. Neither is to be missed!

As a part of this celebration of the Pulizer Prize-winning Missouri native, playwright and author Robert Patrick shares his memories of Wilson when they were both just starting out in New York City:

When Lanford first hit New York and lived with me, he rather gave us all to think that he’d never before written or read anything, but had just sprung forth whole from own head after seeing Roberta Sklar’s production of Ionesco’s The Lesson at the Caffe Cino in 1963. The Cino — and La Mama, Judson Memorial Church, Theatre Genesis, Playwrights Workshop, W.P.A. Theatre Project, The Dove Theatre, Theater for the New City and the Old Reliable Theatre Tavern — did inspire a lot of playwrights to spring forth unexpectedly. And one can certainly in retrospect hear a playwright chomping to spring forth out of the prose and poetry collected herein. Lanford was my friend, my roommate, my colleague, often my champion and defender. I cannot separate the personal from the professional while discussing these works. I can professionally appreciate that whenever he wrote these, he already knew just when to toss in a funny word like “Dalmatian.” And I can personally hear him saying it and getting a big laugh. I can also hear him reading both of the roles, the sophisticated brother and sister, in “Fuzz in Orion’s Sword,” and nearly gargling the “r’s” just like comics Nichols & May did. “We rrreally should take the ashtrrray, don’t you think?” And I and other friends rolling in laughter at the same time that we moan “Awwwwwwwwww” in empathy with the characters’ winsome desolation. It’s a shame the term, “twee” wasn’t yet in use when Lanford began producing at the Cino. But even his earliest works were a great deal more than twee. His first few plays dealt with deaths, by violence in “So Long at the Fair,” by negligence in “Home Free,” and mercifully offstage in “No Trespassing.” On August fifth, 2007, Cino actor Bill Mitchell said to me in conversation that he thought there was an attempt at a revue at the Cino in 1963, with skits by Lanford Wilson, including an “Alice in Wonderland” skit featuring Kitty McDonald as the queen and Barbara Walker as Alice, which was pulled quickly and replaced with a revival of Bill’s tremendously successful production of “The Boy Friend.” So on August twenty-fifth, 1963, Lanford-the-stage-writer burst upon the world with “So Long at the Fair,” in which a sexually aggressive woman so frightens a timid boy that he murders her and folds her body up in a sofa bed. But amidst this horror, Lanford’s twee humor emerged. The doomed girl, played by Maggy Miklos, said no man had been able to break her “titanic membrane,” to which Michael Warren Powell responded, “That’s ‘tympanic.’ And it’s in your ear,” pronounced “yourrrr earrr” in the best stand-up comic fashion. After that, the plays seemed to cascade from Lanford’s hands, evolving quickly into tales of difficult lives rather than shocking deaths. He wrote on our kitchen table by day, I wrote on it by night, till it turned out that he wasn’t really working nights and couldn’t come up with his share of the rent. When I asked what he had been doing nights instead of the temp jobs which were so easily available at that time, he said, “Sitting out in parks and places, watching people.” I daresay that that proved more profitable for him — and for audiences — in the long run. I miss him, and his occasional unforeseeable letter or midnight phone call. The last time we met, PBS got a bunch of us “original gay Cino playwrights” together for an interview show and I said to him, “I never understood what I had that let me be among all of you beautiful people.” With perfect Lanford Wilson timing, he tilted his head and said, “You had a job, Bob.

Robert PatrickRobert Patrick is a playwright, author and poet. Some of his best known works include The Haunted Host, Kennedy’s Children and What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes a Great Story Later. The first day he moved to New York he discovered Caffe Cino, where he and Lanford Wilson got their start. Learn more about Robert Patrick in this Someday Productions interview.

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