After O'Neill, Williams is perhaps the best dramatist the United States has yet produced. Born in his grandfather's rectory in Columbus, Mississippi, Williams and his family later moved to St. Louis. There Williams endured many bad years caused by the abuse of his father and his own anguish over his introverted sister, who was later permanently institutionalized. Williams attended the University of Missouri, and, after time out to clerk for a shoe company and for his own mental breakdown, also attended Washington University of St. Louis and the University of Iowa, from which he graduated in 1938. Williams began to write plays in 1935. During 1943 he spent six months as a contract screenwriter for MGM but produced only one script, The Gentleman Caller. When MGM rejected it, Williams turned it into his first major success, The Glass Menagerie (1945). In this intensely autobiographical play, Williams dramatizes the story of Amanda, who dreams of restoring her lost past by finding a gentleman caller for her crippled daughter, and of Amanda's son Tom, who longs to escape from the responsibility of supporting his mother and sister. After The Glass Menagerie,Williams wrote his masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, (1947), along with a steady stream of other plays, among them such major works as Summer and Smoke(1948), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1954), and Suddenly Last Summer (1958). His plays celebrate the "fugitive kind," the sensitive outcasts whose outsider status allows them to perceive the horror of the world and who often give additional witness to that horror by becoming its victims. Stephen S. Stanton has summed up Williams's "virtues and strengths" as "a genius for portraiture, particularly of women, a sensitive ear for dialogue and the rhythms of natural speech, a comic talent often manifesting itself in "black comedy,' and a genuine theatrical flair exhibited in telling stage effects attained through lighting, costume, music, and movements." After The Night of the Iguana (1961), Williams continued to write profusely---and constantly to revise his work---but it became more difficult to get productions of his plays and, if they were produced, to win critical or popular acclaim for them. Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for these two and for The Glass Menagerie and The Night of the Iguana.
Wilson was born in Lebanon, Missouri, and began to write plays while at the University of Chicago. In 1969 he helped found the off-Broadway Circle Repertory Company, becoming its chief playwright. He thus has had the rare opportunity to develop his craft in collaboration with a permanent company of actors and a theater where he could try out and, if necessary, revise his plays. Like The Hot l Baltimore (1973), which ran for 1,166 performances and set an off-Broadway record for a nonmusical, many of Wilson's plays are vaguely realistic in manner, emphasizing characters over plot, and featuring likeable misfits and deviants. Fifth of July (1978), Talley's Folly (1979), and Talley and Son (1981) are all about the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri. Fifth of July, a Broadway smash hit, deals with people who were "burned" physically and psychologically by the 1960s but who can still dream of a democratic America. Talley's Folly, another Broadway hit, is an unabashed love story about the Jewish outsider, Matt, and the misfit of the Protestant Talley family, Sally. Talley and Son tells of the financial and other machinations of three generations of Talleys. This story of meanness and greed has often been compared with Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. .Angels Fall (1982) concerns a group of people brought together in a mission in northwestern New Mexico by a nuclear accident. Although it seems at first that the play will comment on an impending apocalypse, its actual themes deal with daily questions: how to live and love, how to teach and learn, and how to find one's vocation. Burn This (1987) is the story of a young dancer, Anna, who is profoundly distressed by the death of her gay collaborator. Her life is transformed by the bizarre and explosive arrival of Pale, the dead man's older brother. Shocking, outrageous, and larger than life, the play presents Wilson's views on art, human sexuality, and love. It is a poetic and cataclysmic work in which art is seen as a sacrament, as an outward sign for inward, chaotic, and exhilarating truths. Burn This, which opened on Broadway in the fall of 1987, is Wilson's masterpiece. Lanford Wilson is a distinctly American playwright whose works reflect his roots in the Ozarks as well as in his adopted home, New York City. The esteem in which he is held is attested to by the respect of numerous critics and by the many awards he has received: a Vernon Rice Award, several Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships, the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, Obies for The Hot l Baltimore and The Mound Builders (1976), and a Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1980 for Talley's Folly.