The Theme of Alienation in Lanford Wilson's Plays

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


This is a thematic analysis of the theme of alienation in the plays of the American playwright Lanford Wilson (1937-2011). With the revival of Wilson’s play Burn This (1987) in 2019, it is surprising that such a prolific playwright with an acknowledged presence in American theatre who emerged in 1960s Off-Off-Broadway venues and moved to Broadway theatres has not received dedicated critical or academic attention. Wilson’s modest presence in critical literature is identified in terms of gay theatre, realism, and dramatic literary criticism, which are limiting and inaccurate approaches to his work. The focus on Wilson’s sexual identity, though legitimate to an extent, has excluded further possible interpretations of his plays. While maintaining its thematic analytical approach, this thesis challenges such problematic approaches by critically identifying and engaging with methods and ways that have dominated criticism in American theatrical history and performance studies and therefore influenced the critical literature on Wilson.
Through exploring selected texts and performances of plays produced between 1962 and 2002, the thesis provides critical and historical accounts of Wilson’s presentation of ‘alienated’ identities and their emergence and development in connection with their social, economic, cultural, and theatrical contexts. Alienation as a term is abundantly present in American theatre studies and Wilson’s critical literature. However, the term is rarely defined or extensively investigated in relevance to the contexts of the plays written and performed since 1962. The thesis focuses on the theme of alienation as defined by Marx’s theory of alienation, existential writings of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Kafka, and Melvin Seeman’s definition of alienation. The alienation that haunts both Wilson’s plays and his theatrical career are used broadly to refer to various expressions of indifference and feelings of futility, powerlessness, hopelessness, normalness, and both spatial and emotional isolation. The experience of alienation in the plays is strongly and directly attached to certain American issues such as the 1960s social movements, including the Vietnam War, the Cold War and McCarthyism, the AIDS pandemic, and multiculturalism. Alienation, in various forms, influences the formation of characters’ identities and Wilson’s identity as a playwright, as I argue in this thesis. The primary influence is the disturbance of the possibilities of creating cohesive narratives or developing stable and meaningful manners of identification. In the theoretical framework of the experience of alienation that is established in the introductory chapter, the presentation of variations of overlapping individual identities (gender, sexual, racial) and collective identities (national identity) are investigated in Wilson’s plays.
By following a thematic analysis approach incorporating an examination of historical records, performed plays, and relevant contexts, I attempt to provide a cohesive critical account to situate Wilson’s plays in American theatrical and dramatic contexts. The thesis considers the performed plays which methodologically adds to the discussion on the intricate connection between dramatic text and performed plays in American historiography. Exploring alienation, identities, narratives, and the ways they interact with each other and with their contexts adds up to the studies on identities and narratives in American theatre. Additionally, this thesis makes original contributions to several areas of American theatre studies such as the presentation of American national identity, spaces of performance, disability on stage, and rituals and narratives.
Date of Award28 Sep 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorKatja Krebs (Supervisor) & Andrew M Blades (Supervisor)

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