Lanford Eugene Wilson was born in Lebanon, Missouri, on April 13, 1937. His parents were Ralph Eugene Wilson and Violetta Tate Wilson, who divorced when he was five. Wilson first became interested in theater in high school where he saw productions of Brigadoon and Death of a Salesman and where he played Tom Wingfield in a production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. In 1956 Wilson traveled to San Diego, California, to visit his father who had moved there, remarried, and started another family. This visit would be dramatized in Wilson’s play Lemon Sky (1970). Wilson briefly attended classes at Southwest Missouri State College, at San Diego State University, and at the University of Chicago before deciding to move to New York City in 1962, where he quickly gravitated to the Greenwich Village experimental theater scene. His earliest one-act plays (“So Long at the Fair” and “Home Free!”) as well as his earliest explicitly gay-themed play, the one-act “The Madness of Lady Bright,” were produced at the Caffe Cino; Wilson’s first full-length play, Balm in Gilead, was produced at the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in 1965. Thus, early on in his career as a dramatist, Wilson worked with both of the major figures in New York experimental theater, Ellen Stewart of La Mama and Joe Cino of Caffe Cino. Wilson received a Rockefeller Grant in 1967, and his second full-length play, The Rimers of Eldritch, was produced off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre. That play was awarded a Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award. Also in 1967, Wilson wrote the libretto for Lee Hoiby’s opera of Tennessee Williams’s play Summer and Smoke, which would be performed by the New York City Opera during the 1972 season.
In 1969 Wilson (along with Marshall Mason—who would direct the first pro-