More than twenty years after its debut, Lanford Wilson's Angels Fall continues to be a little-known and rarely produced play. Commissioned by the New World Festival of Miami, Florida, in 1982, it moved to the Circle Repertory Theater in New York later that year. In 1983, despite a brief run on Broadway, New York drama critic John Simon judged it as the best American play that season. Unlike the familiar urban and Midwestern settings of Wilson's previous plays, Angels Fall is set in a church in the desert of the American Southwest. The catalyst for the play's action—a nuclear accident at a uranium mine that forces a group of people to take refuge at a Catholic mission—is more overtly political than many of his other plays and can even be seen, particularly through the figure of Father Doherty, as a morality tale about the nuclear age.
Although the accident at Chin Rock mine alludes to a broader theme of Wilson's that concerns the destruction of the national heritage as found in the stark natural beauty of the Southwest, another key theme unravels as the characters gathered at the church begin to interact. What is most compelling about the play is its ability to conjure up complex feelings in the characters about the direction their lives have taken, particularly as it concerns their occupations. For some, such as the tennis player Zappy, there is no ambivalence regarding vocation. Contrast that with Don Tabaha, whose choices will have an effect not just on him but the community of Native Americans with whom he has spent his life. Thus, a main question that Wilson pursues throughout the play reveals a concern with being satisfied with the kind of work one has chosen to do. One's work or vocation must have a function that moves beyond economic need. For this cast of professionals, work must be meaningful or else one's life has not been lived as fully as it could have been. The absent presence of an environmental disaster as a backdrop to the play compels the characters to confront, if it is only momentarily, how to live fully in the time given doing work that is satisfying.
Dramatist Lanford Wilson was born in Lebanon, Missouri, on April 13, 1937. An only child of divorced parents, Wilson spent most of his younger years with his mother in Missouri, only reuniting with his father in California after his freshman year of college. After only a year in San Diego where he attended San Diego State College, Wilson moved to Chicago, spending six years there working as a copywriter in advertising while pursuing his writing career. In 1962, Wilson moved to New York and became involved with the experimental drama scene at off-off-Broadway theaters such as Caffe Cino and Cafe La Mama Experimental Theater. In 1963, his first play So Long at the Fair was produced at Caffe Cino. While many of his early plays were produced at these experimental theaters, it was not until the late 1960s when Wilson, along with three of his friends involved in theater, founded the Circle Repertory Company that he began to garner a reputation as an important American playwright. It was at this venue that many of his best known plays Hot l Baltimore (1973), Talley's Folly (1979), and Burn This (1987) had their premieres; many of them moving to Broadway theaters after receiving critical reviews.
During the 1970s, Wilson gained recognition as a major American playwright. In 1973, he received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play and an Obie for Hot l Baltimore. Two years later, The Moundbuilders won an Obie, an award that recognizes outstanding off-Broadway productions. In 1980, Wilson received a Pulitzer Prize for Talley's Folly, the first of three plays that followed several generations of an American family. One of his less well-received plays, produced in 1982 for the New World Festival of Miami, Florida, Angels Fall later opened at the Circle Repertory Theater and eventually moved to Broadway where it had only a short run before closing. Lemon Sky, another play that did not do well on Broadway during its first appearance in 1970, was later revived successfully and adapted to television in a PBS American Playhouse production.
In the past decade, Wilson has continued to write plays and collaborate with long-time friend and fellow Circle Repertory Company founder, Marshall Mason. In 1995, after nearly thirty years of being its playwright-in-residence, Wilson resigned from his position. Since then, he has held a number of artist-in-residencies at theaters such as the Signature in New York and at university theater departments such as the University of Houston and Arizona State University. When not in residence, he lives in Sag Harbor on Long Island, New York.
The setting of Angels Fall is a small, plain adobe church in northwestern New Mexico. The play takes place during an afternoon and early evening. As the play begins, Don Tabaha is sitting in the church staring at the wall. Momentarily he walks into the residence where he, his mother Maria, and Father Doherty live. As the play begins, two of the main characters, Niles and Vita Harris, are heard offstage. From their conversation, it appears that they have been turned back by the highway patrol and have sought refuge from the heat in the church. After they enter the church, Vita goes off to make a phone call to Dr. Singer who runs the mental health institute where Niles is going for therapy.
As they wait for Dr. Singer to call, Don walks into the church and tells them that the church is closed on Saturdays. Soon after this exchange, voices are heard approaching. Momentarily, Marion and Zappy enter the church and head toward the phone. A few minutes later, Father Doherty enters the church and assumes Vita and Niles are here for a conference or appointment which he cannot remember making. When Vita explains that there was a bridge out at the fork, Doherty claims there is no problem with the bridge at this time of year, but that it must be "some problem with the nuclear thing again." When they inquire about it again, he brushes them off and asks if they have seen Don whom he describes as "short, dark, surly." When Vita tells the priest that Don left on his motorcycle, the priest appears disturbed, then looks out the window and sees Don arguing with Arthur, the highway patrol officer who is also his uncle. Niles pursues Doherty about the nuclear accident and Doherty explains that the whole area is surrounded by uranium mines, nuclear power plants, and toxic dumps that often experience accidents.
Soon Marion and Zap enter the church again and the priest enters his living quarters. Zap tells them that something went wrong when some yellow cake was being loaded at the Chin Rock mine and that traffic is being stopped for a hundred miles. Marion tells Vita and Niles that they are due in San Diego tomorrow for a tennis match and need to catch a plane at the local airport. While talking about what route to take to leave the area, they hear a helicopter approach. A voice from a speaker proclaims, "Stay indoors. The roads are temporarily closed." When it is clear everyone in the church must stay there for a while, the priest has his housekeeper make them lemonade. Meanwhile, Don enters the church, demanding to learn what Marion knows about the Chin Rock mine accident. He is furious that Arthur will not allow him to travel on the road. He is supposed to be leaving for Berkley that evening to take up a position as a researcher. While Vita is once again talking to the clinic in Phoenix, Marion and Niles discover they are both involved with art, he as an art professor and she as a gallery owner. Niles also learns that Marion is the widow of Ernest Branch, a well-known regional artist. Although she lives in the area, she is about to move, having sold most of her late husband's work to various museums around the country.
Father Doherty returns with the lemonade and acknowledges Don, who has been sitting quietly while the others talk. Tension erupts between Don and the priest and Don leaves again. The priest explains to the others that, instead of administering medicine to his people, the Navajo, Don has decided to take a research position at a famous cancer institute. Afterwards, the characters begin to express frustration about not being able to leave. Meanwhile, Niles reveals that he is not returning to the college where he teaches since undergoing a "willful suspension of disbelief." He and Vita then describe the reason why he is on his way to the mental health clinic. Don and Zap enter the church again, Don with a newspaper and Zap with earphones, listening to the radio. He tells everyone that someone has died at the mine already and that a truck overturned, blowing yellowcake dust all over. Everyone becomes nervous and begins discussing
the difficulties of living in the southwest. Discussion turns toward Don about his decision. Soon, Don and Father Doherty are bickering about his decision. When Niles gets involved, Don accuses him of not living in the real world and mocks his decision to go to Dr. Singer's where all the wealthy professionals go. Niles leaves in a huff. Don who is tired of hearing the priest press him to stay, also departs. By the end of the first act, Vita is the only one left in the church. She holds Niles's jacket and turns toward the altar.
The second act begins at dusk with a discussion between Vita and Father Doherty about the work that he does in the area. Zap, who is listening to the radio, tells them that traffic is beginning to move and that the road should be cleared by 8:00. After Father Doherty leaves the church, Marion and Vita discuss the difficulties of moving and getting rid of personal effects. Marion is putting together a show of her late husband's that will be exhibited in Chicago and other cities around the country. Soon after Don returns to the church, Niles enters and apologizes to him for his behavior. Meanwhile, Marion tells Zap about the schedule he will be playing in the tennis tournament. Each of his contenders appears to be easily defeated. While he and Don are talking, Father Doherty comes in and again begins goading Don about his decision. This time, the priest chides him for moving to Northern California where, unlike his current situation, he will be living among very well-to-do people. Niles seems to be getting upset again and suddenly claims that he and Vita are leaving. However, he takes ill and falls to a bench. Don immediately begins to diagnose him, asking questions and making him drink lemonade. After a while, Niles recovers from what Don has tentatively described as a hypoglycemic, or low blood sugar, attack. This scare allows him to discuss his departure from the college and his feelings about his profession as a teacher and scholar. The priest joins in the discussion, claiming that teaching is a calling much like Don's calling to medicine, and his to the priesthood. Zap also chimes in claiming that tennis was a calling to him at a very young age and recounts the story of how he knew he was a tennis player without ever really playing the game.
Overhead, a voice announces from a helicopter that the road is clear. On hearing this, Father Doherty runs outside, shouting that the road is not clear. Back inside, he resumes hounding Don about his decision to leave the indigenous people who have very little health care available to them in the area. At this point, Niles intervenes again but more aggressively pointing out the priest's inability to see Don's decision for what it is—his own. Suddenly, after a pause in the argument, the priest understands what he has been doing to Don, denying him the freedom to make his own decision. He wishes Don good luck and begins to get ready for mass that evening. As the characters depart, they treat each other with newfound respect and intimacy. Niles and Vita decide to remain for evening mass but go and take a walk beforehand. In the final moments of the play, Don says his goodbye to Father Doherty. They make gestures of reconciliation toward each other and then Don leaves, crying. The play ends with Father Doherty ringing the church bells for mass to begin.
Marion Clay is the widow of a well-known New Mexico artist who is dating a younger man, Salvatore Zappala or Zappy. Her vocation in life has been to run an art gallery in Chicago where she has sold her husband's and other contemporary artists' work successfully. When the play begins, Marion is in the midst of selling her dead husband's effects so that she can leave the southwest and attend to her gallery as well as her lover's career as a professional tennis player. However, even though she is portrayed as an independent woman, she has a very maternal relationship to Zappy, indulging him as one would a child about his health and well-being.
Father William Doherty
Father Doherty is the parish priest of the New Mexico mission where the play takes place. As a mentor to Don Tabaha, the young half-Navajo studying medicine, Father Doherty tries to convince him to stay in New Mexico and administer to the Native Americans who live in the vicinity rather than pursue a career as a researcher at UC Berkeley. Their conflict acts as the nexus for the other "couples" in conflict: Niles and Vita Harris and Marion and Zappy. Despite his officious nature, the priest reveals himself to have only good intentions, even if they are misguided. Throughout the play, he acts as a unifying force among the strangers gathered at the church. His friendly overtures include serving lemonade, giving counsel to Niles Harris, the professor who has recently undergone a nervous breakdown, and his wife, Vita, and providing comic relief during the tense hours when everyone is trying to figure out the effects of the nuclear accident. However, despite his whimsical nature, often twisting popular song lyrics to suit his own situation, he is quite serious about persuading Don to stay and administer medicine to his people. Just as Doherty had a calling to the priesthood, he is intent on convincing Don that being a doctor and not a scientist is his vocation.
Niles Harris is a middle-aged art history professor who is on his way to a mental health clinic in Arizona with his wife, Vita. After suffering a nervous breakdown in the classroom due to what he refers to as "my willful suspension of disbelief," Niles is asked to take a temporary leave at the university in Providence, Rhode Island where he works. On route to Phoenix, Niles and Vita stop at the mission to use a phone and end up staying for several hours while a nearby nuclear accident is being contained. It is clear that the professor is not mentally alert and often appears to be forgetful and daft despite his erudition. He is querulous and difficult at times, sarcastic and biting, especially toward Don who mocks him for his position in the ivory tower. After experiencing a slight case of hypoglycemia that Don diagnoses and then treats, Niles calms down, confessing the details of his mid-life crisis candidly with Don and the priest. Of all the characters in the play, Niles appears to be most changed by the hours spent confined with strangers. His momentary health crisis leads him to appreciate Don's generosity of spirit and to connect with Father Doherty about their callings as teachers despite their differences. Finally, in the last scene he comes to the aid of Don by defending his decision to leave New Mexico for California. Speaking from experience, he derides Father Doherty by exclaiming, "You cannot hold power over another man; even for his own good."
As the young wife of Niles Harris, Vita Harris is exceptionally pretty, thin, and smart. Whereas Niles is cantankerous, Vita is upbeat and charming. Throughout the play, she is the paragon of the protective and supportive wife, providing Niles with as much care as she can while also gently chiding him for his cantankerous ways. As a former student of his, Vita shares his love of art and history. Although she does not have a major role in the play, Vita acts as the backbone to the relationship, making sure they are in touch with the mental health institute where they are going, providing support when Niles's faculties are quite weak and being amenable to his various whims.
Intentionally unfriendly and belligerent at times toward the other characters, Don Tabaha, a young half-Navaho, has given up his intention to be a doctor in the Indian community in northern New Mexico to take a high level position as a research scientist near San Francisco. It is his decision to take the position that results in continual conflicts between him and his mentor and substitute father, Father Doherty, who wants him to practice medicine among his people. His torment is exacerbated by the nuclear accident which prevents him from leaving, and thus allows Father Doherty to harp on his decision to leave. Toward the end of the play, Don reiterates the famous line delivered by James Dean in Rebel without a Cause as he declares to the priest, "You are tearing me apart." Throughout the play, Don appears on the periphery of the action, trying to keep to himself and dissuade others from engaging with him, yet when Niles experiences a hypoglycemic attack, it is Don who administers aid and provides comfort. At the end of the play, he breaks down crying as he leaves the priest, thus capturing the difficulty of his decision.
Referred to as Zappy, the young lover of Marion Clay aspires to be a champion tennis player. Although he has a rather minor role in the play compared to the other characters, his youth and vitality are contrasted to the diminishing health and well-being of Niles Harris. Whereas Niles' career is viewed as over because of his failing state of mind, Zappy is on his way to the top if he is given a chance to show his talents as a tennis player. Throughout the play, Zappy plays a marginal role, acting out childish whims about the upcoming tournament he is about to play, obsessing about his health, and even at times trying to undermine himself by belittling his abilities. However, like Marion, he understands who he is and what he wants. His determination to be a contender on the tennis circuit is witnessed by the way he recounts playing tennis for the first time and knowing that was what he wanted to do. Although he may be younger than the other characters, his understanding of who he is and what he wants to do is quite certain.
See Salvatore Zappala
Following One's Calling
A central theme of following one's calling or vocation emerges most frequently in the bitter exchanges between Don Tabaha and Father Doherty over Tabaha's decision to become a research scientist and the more philosophical discussions between Niles and Father Doherty over Niles's loss of faith in his scholarship and its effect on his teaching art history. The ability to follow one's calling despite occasional lapses is witnessed in Doherty himself. For example, he describes his church service to Vita as one where "Twelve, fifteen stoic Navahos shuffle in, kneel, I mumble sincerely, they mumble sincerely, and they shuffle out." For Father Doherty, administering religion to a congregation that may not be particularly attuned to everything that Christianity has to offer may be daunting but it is what he does. His insistence on the importance of vocation is most dramatically seen in the encounters he has with Don whom he thinks was meant to be a local doctor. Yet Don's decision is based on what he considers "a very special talent for research." On a more positive note, the priest encourages Niles to return to teaching which he sees as being part of his vocation as a priest. In nearly all of the characters, a desire to do something with one's life involves work. For Marion, it is selling the work of contemporary artists; for her lover, Zappy, it is playing tennis, a talent he discovered having while in grade school. What these chance encounters among the characters engender is a reassessment of what is most important, particularly with the threat of nuclear contamination occurring nearby.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- After reading Wilson's play Angels Fall, read other "sealed-room" plays that confine characters to a particular place such as Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit and William Inge's Bus Stop. Compare the settings of these plays—a church, a spare room, and a snowbound bus stop—noting the use of a specific setting for its symbolic effects. In what ways do these confined settings illustrate a major theme found in the plays? What symbolism is provoked by the setting? What is the significance of the characters' inability to leave?
- The historical period in which Angels Fall takes place is the height of the nuclear arms build-up between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1980s. Research this decade for other plays, works of fiction, and popular films that dramatize the effects of a possible nuclear catastrophe. In what ways are they similar to Angels Fall in theme and setting? In what ways are they different?
- Tennessee Williams, best known for his plays Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Glass Menagerie, is one of the most highly acclaimed American dramatists. Critics have noted that Wilson's plays bear a strong semblance to Williams's in terms of their poetic lyricism and sentimentality. Compare a Williams play to Angels Fall, noting what critics have said about these two playwrights, then write an argumentative paper that agrees or disagrees with these critics' comparisons.
- Some critics, such as Susan Harris Smith, have noted that the female characters—Vita, Maria, and Marion—in Angels Fall are not very significant characters and do nothing more than provide support and encouragement to the men in the play. Other critics such as Richard Wattenberg suggest the opposite, claiming that the female characters are strong and central to the play's themes. After reading these two critics, choose one couple and analyze their gender roles. In what ways do you agree with either Smith or Wattenberg's assessment and in what ways do you disagree?
Skepticism about Technology
The nuclear accident at the Chin Rock mine acts as a reminder that dangerous technologies threaten mankind. Although the setting of the accident is offstage, reference is made to it throughout the play as a way of drawing danger close enough to the characters to have a feeling of unease. However, more pertinent are Father Doherty's comments that make it clear how technology has contributed to the destruction of the natural environment in the Southwest as well as to its native peoples, many of whom are employed in the nuclear industry. Describing the frequent accidents that occur at the various nuclear mines, reactors, and waste dumps in the vicinity as "the Perils of Pauline," Doherty expresses his disgust at the government's inability to consider the dangers of its policies. Particularly via the character of the priest, Wilson reveals a cautious attitude toward embracing the concept of technology as improving the quality of life. Instead, Doherty fixates on how these technologies have contaminated natural resources and endangered human lives. In addition, Don Tabaha's decision to abandon his adolescent dream of being a local doctor to pursue genetic engineering reveals how the pursuit of scientific knowledge can be highly seductive.
Crisis of Faith
Isolated from the rest of the world due to the nuclear accident, several of the characters, particularly Niles, Don, and Father Doherty, reveal in obvious and oblique ways that they are undergoing a crisis of faith regarding their work. This crisis is most outwardly expressed in Niles Harris, who admits that while reading his life's work, he experienced "a willful suspension of disbelief" that made him realize that his scholarship was a farce. This leads him to comment that for thirty years he had been "brainwashing the little bastards" in the classroom. After breaking down in the classroom, he was told to take a leave from the university where he taught. In contrast to Niles's open confession of his crises, Father Doherty appears to be projecting his own crisis of faith onto Don. The priest does not seem to get much satisfaction out of his work in this remote parish, partly because it seems as if he is not really needed. Still, he is unable to leave because he is so attached to the region and its people. Don, on the other hand, seems overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done in terms of providing good health care to the Navajos. His crisis stems from his fear of failure as is witnessed when he lists major diseases affecting the Navajo and ends by saying to Vita, "there's no time for one person in a hundred years to begin to correct a millennium of genetic neglect." Compared to these men, minor characters such as Marion, Zappy, and Vita appear stable and content with their life's decisions although their social roles do not have as much import as a doctor, priest, and professor does.
The dialogue in the play is marked by fast-paced one-liners interspersed with monologues that slow down the pace of the play. The bitter and detailed exchanges between Don and Father Doherty reveal a complex history of expectations and obligations that leave others who do not know them outside the loop. In contrast, Wilson employs monologues to reveal autobiographical details that bring understanding and empathy to the listeners. Throughout the play, these two kinds of dialogue create a rhythm, at points highlighting the intensity of the accident occurring offstage, while at others marking the passing of time for people who are in transit. At moments throughout the play, Wilson uses overlapping dialogue to convey a rush to gain understanding of someone or something. He also peppers his dialogue with popular sayings, passages from the Bible, and popular song lyrics as found in the sometimes solemn, sometimes humorous speech of Father Doherty.
The dramatic structure of Angels Fall is best described as a 'sealed-room' play in which characters who may not know each other or who are very different from each other are forced together due to an unforeseen or unknown circumstance. The accident at the Chin Rock mine results in the characters not being able to go anywhere until notified by authorities. All of the characters are affected in different ways by this news in terms of where they are supposed to be going, yet having their plans on hold allows each of them to take the time to interact with people whom they may not typically meet. Thus, a priest, a professor, a tennis player, an art gallery owner, and a scientist are brought together, each with his or her particular worldview. Although these world views clash throughout the play, there are occasional moments of understanding. The accident literally seals the characters off from the world, except for the radio and phone, thus allowing time to be placed on hold.
Wilson uses the setting of a church in the New Mexican desert to highlight his themes of finding one's calling, being skeptical of technology, and undergoing a crisis of faith. In particular, the church symbolizes the need for a sanctuary in a world that is increasingly dehumanized through modernization, commercialization, and militarization. Thus, even though the church provides sanctuary, its modern day counterpart, the Chin Rock mine acts as a more compelling but absent setting. Whereas the nuclear accident symbolizes the destruction of the natural world, the church promotes preservation of traditional values. However, that the church is located in the desert reveals its marginalized position from the mainstream. Although the church may have an impact on the few humans it serves in the area, it has little effect on the economic and political realities represented by the uranium mine, which though never stated in the play, contributes to the creation and continuation of the military-industrial complex.
It is also significant that the church is located at a crossroads since many of the characters in the play, particularly Niles and Don, find themselves at a moment in their lives where they are experiencing indecision about their life's work. Whereas Niles must determine whether he can return to the classroom, Don must decide whether to stay among his people or leave to pursue an illustrious career as a scientist. Each of these decisions is based on what their vocation is in life. It is the priest, acting as a mediator, who both thwarts (as in the case of Don) and facilitates (as in the case of Niles) these decisions. Another important symbol conveying the inability of these characters to make a decision is the helicopter that appears like a modern deity to warn the neighboring areas around the mine that "The road is closed." That the road is closed metaphorically may mean that there is a temporary inability to move forward in life as represented by Don and Niles's indecisiveness. Later, at the end of the play, the helicopter reappears, signaling that the road has reopened and that both Don and Niles can now make their way.
The title of the play is taken from a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem that compares the condition of humans whose lives for the most part are ordinary and often times lackluster to the dramatic story of fallen angels who rise and fall majestically. The contrast between the eternal and temporal which Hopkins explores in the poem poses this question: if humans cannot live on the grand scale that angels do, what can they do to make their lives have significance while here on earth? The need to find a calling seems to be the answer in this play. For the short time that the characters are gathered at the church, they seem to come to some realization that they only have a short time in which to do what they can to improve life on earth, regardless of how small these actions may appear.
A similar allusion to the theme of how to live one's life gracefully and fully within the time that one has is posed by Father Doherty when he quotes from the Bible: "Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness?" The quote as found in the New Testament alludes to the possibility of an apocalypse and challenges its readers to live life in a manner in which confronting death will not be frightening. As a contemporary example, the play provides a situation in which the characters face an environmental disaster that is highly suggestive of an even bleaker possibility, the end of the world due to nuclear war. For these characters, undergoing even a slightly deeper understanding of themselves may be the only possible course of action, but it will be one that is true to themselves.
As a playwright coming of age in the 1950s, Wilson, like his other dramatic cohorts, drew his inspiration from the social and historical conditions that transformed the United States into a superpower after World War II. Despite the general optimism buoyed by post-war economic growth throughout the 1950s, the rush towards building and maintaining a nuclear arsenal ready to be deployed at any moment resulted in social anxiety and occasional panic about the possibility of nuclear annihilation. In Drama Since 1960: A Critical History, Matthew Roudane notes that "Some of our dramatists lived through many of these historical and social experiences, and their plays reflect an uneasiness with an increasingly atomized and mechanized postwar America." The growth of the military state resulted in the production of thousands of warheads capable of reaching the Soviet Union at any time. In addition, the conservative cultural climate of the cold war provoked anti-Communist sentiment in the 1950s, known as the McCarthy Era, which involved an attempt to root out American Communists. Many people lost their jobs and went to jail, often times for little more than being a member of the American Communist Party. Others were falsely accused of spying for America's nemesis, the Soviet Union.
Along with the social panic incited by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the fear of nuclear war came an understanding of the cold war's impact on the environment through the production of uranium and the testing of missiles. Starting in the 1950s and continuing today (despite the dismantling of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s), the United States military has used the West and Southwest as a testing ground for missiles. In addition, the region's rich mineral resources, particularly uranium, are needed to fuel nuclear power plants. Thus, it is not surprising that throughout the play, references are made to the deadly costs of building military strength. Literally, the deaths of workers at the Chin Rock mine reflect the dangers inherent in the industry.
In particular, it is Father Doherty who addresses the potential environmental hazards that surround his parish. "[W]est are about seven mines and mills, and east of here the Rio Puerco goes awash with some kind of waste…, and of course there's the reactor at Los Alamos and the missile base at White Sands." His anger and distrust of the nuclear industry acts as the moral barometer for a nation obsessed with its own technological achievements. Because the play takes place in the early 1980s, during an accelerated build up of nuclear missiles under the administration of Ronald Reagan, an underlying theme is that Americans have lost sight of what really matters. Thus, the setting of a church during a time where the end of the world is near signifies that spiritual and traditional values are being replaced by the gods of technology and notions of progress. Father Doherty expresses this when yelling at the helicopter after it has announced that the road is now clear: "The road is not clear! You're sick as cats! You've made the bomb your god and you're praying for the bomb to call in the number." During an age when super powers have jurisdiction over whether or not the world will end, Angels Fall provides a bleak yet realistic view of the role of technology in the culture of the United States.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1980s: Nuclear accidents, such as the meltdowns at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, awaken Americans to the dangers of radiation from nuclear energy. Because of these accidents and the build-up of nuclear arms, an international grass-roots movement forms to protest the use of nuclear energy. Environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, pressure governments to rethink their environmental policies.
Today: In the United States, a moratorium is placed on the building of nuclear energy plants. However, because of its lengthy shelf life, hazardous waste from uranium mining in the southwestern United States continues to be a problem in terms of its handling, transportation, and storage.
- 1980s: The Cold War, which began as a diplomatic standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II, reaches its zenith under Ronald Reagan's U.S. administration from 1980 to 1988. Billions of dollars are spent building nuclear missiles that are hidden in various parts of the country that can be deployed at any moment. In addition, the Reagan administration lobbies heavily for funding of a defense plan popularly known as "Star Wars," which is meant to repel incoming nuclear missiles.
Today: In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union is dismantled and the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union comes to an end. However, because of the enormous trafficking in nuclear weapons, not only do many developing nations such as North Korea, India, and Pakistan acquire missiles, they continue to build them as a defense system against invasion.
At the time that Angels Fall was written and produced in the early 1980s, Lanford Wilson had already established himself as an exceptional dramatist with compelling Broadway plays such as The Hot l Baltimore (1973), The Fifth of July (1978), and Talley's Folley (1979). As Gerald Berkowitz notes in American Drama of the Twentieth Century, Wilson's plays, from the mid-seventies onward, had "the ability to depict the complex emotions and relationships of a group of characters through a domestic realism given a lyrical tone by a musical and poetic use of language." More than one critic has noted that Wilson's emphasis on family relations combined with lyricism and compassion evoke Tennessee Williams, a playwright Wilson deeply admired. His emphasis on the dignified struggles of ordinary people in contemporary times has lead drama critic Anne Dean, in her book Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson, to note that Wilson is concerned with capturing "the dramatic and poetic essence of a particular social milieu" similar to the work of Charles Dickens, whom Wilson cites as a major influence. She continues to examine these two writers' similarities, suggesting that in both their works "metaphorically heightened messages about the unhappy state of the world abound."
Probably no other play of Wilson's illustrates the polemicist side of him than Angels Fall, which depicts the incidental gathering of a group of people in a New Mexican church during a nuclear accident at a nearby uranium mine. What strikes many critics of this play is its atypical setting which might account for critics' inability to designate this play as one that fits into the schemata of Wilson settings—Midwest, New York, West Coast. However, like his other plays, the setting of the play is extremely important to the play's themes and outcomes. The church setting shelters an ensemble of characters who may not be completely shunned from society as other misfit casts he has created in plays like Hot l Baltimore but it represents, according to Thomas Adler in his article "The Artist in the Garden: Theatre Space and Place in Lanford Wilson," "an oasis… whose inherent beauty has been threatened by contemporary man's idolization of technological progress at the expense of human values." In this way, as noted by Mark Busby in Lanford Wilson, the contrast of the church in the desert surrounded by the waste products of the modern age reveals a juxtaposition of the eternal past (the natural world, the spiritual world) with the temporal present (industry motivated by capitalism). This theme of past and present in conflict with each other is also a key foundation to the crises of faith that the art professor, Niles Harris, and the parish priest, Father Doherty, undergo in their inability to accept the shift in thinking that the modern world demands—that truth has become relative.
Most critics agree that Wilson's solution to this crisis of faith is found in the concept of vocation, which is offered as a solution to threat of nuclear war and ultimately death. This is seen in the passage from the New Testament that incites people to do goodwill and thus death becomes less fraught, which Father Doherty recites to the other characters. As Gene Barnett, writing in Lanford Wilson, suggests, the play's major theme is that "in finding our own profession, we are able to face death in the knowledge that life has been lived well." In this way, both the professor and priest must engage in rediscovering their abilities to teach in order to make their lives fulfilling. The "road" that is referred to in the play as first being closed and then opened act has both a literal and metaphorical meaning. In his article, "'Above Time' in the Present?: Emerson's 'Self-Reliance' and Lanford Wilson's Angels Fall," Richard Wattenberg describes the road as denoting both the route of the characters' lives as well as the course of the lives they currently lead, particularly as it refers to their work.
However, as Susan Harris Smith, in her article "Angels Fall: An American Melodrama of Beset Manhood," points out, having one's work be a solution to the environmental and political crises that nuclear technologies engender displaces one's commitment to community to that of the self. The true problem, contends Smith, is that this group "disbands for individual realization and does not coalesce around the pressing issue that should unite them permanently, namely the threat of nuclear catastrophe." As other critics have noted about Angels Fall, the play lacks any resolution and provides little redemption in relation to the epiphanies the characters' experience. What it does offer, notes Berkowitz in American Drama of the Twentieth Century, is its ability to show ordinary people enduring life, not necessarily in a triumphant way, but in a way that is reassuring.
Piano is a Marion Brittain Fellow in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at GeorgiaInstitute of Technology in Atlanta. In this essay, Piano explores how strangers who inadvertently gather at a church during an environmental accident struggle to understand the importance of their lives in relation to their work.
Written in 1982 for the New World Festival of Miami, Florida, Angels Fall depicts a group of people, some of whom are strangers, who take refuge in a church during an accident at a nearby uranium mine. Set in New Mexico, the action takes place over the course of an afternoon and early evening. Both the desert setting and the use of a "sealed-room play"—a plot device that forces a group of people to interact with each other—increase their feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world. It is only through finding out small bits of information that the characters are able to piece together what has happened nearby. This isolation creates both a sense of fear in terms of the proximity to the disaster as well as a sense of timelessness since the characters cannot go anywhere and thus their plans are in abeyance. By disrupting the timetables of these characters, Wilson creates a space for them to examine their lives. In particular, through dialogue and setting, he addresses the need for people to have a specific calling or vocation that gives their lives meaning beyond material comfort. Despite the characters' differences which are most apparent in the dialogues between them as well as their chosen professions—a priest, a professor, a research scientist, an art gallery owner, a children's book illustrator, and a professional tennis player—they are able to come together if only momentarily to understand each other and in some small way provide comfort during a brief crisis. By drawing together a variety of disparate people during an environmental disaster, Wilson is able to show how people react differently to confronting the possibility of death by stepping away from their day to day lives to find out what is really important to them.
The nuclear accident that propels the characters together forms a perfect backdrop for their internal conflicts. Although the accident occurs at some distance to the church, it is present both as a topic of conversation among those characters who are not familiar with each other and as a source of anxiety and anger. While Father Doherty appears to take the accident all in stride, referring to it as another one of these "little emergencies," Niles and Vita attempt to deduce from his descriptions of these catastrophes how harmful they are. Throughout the play,
references to what is occurring at the Chin Rock mine remind the audience of why the characters are gathered and contribute to the internal turmoil that some of the characters are experiencing. For example, two of the characters, Niles Harris, the art professor, and Don Tabaha, the young half-Navajo, are at a crossroads in determining what to do next in their chosen professions. For Niles, it is a crisis of faith that erupted while reviewing his life's work and realizing that "to every didactic, authoritative sentence I had written, I said: 'Yes, of course, and exactly the opposite could be as true."' This evaluation stirs him to repudiate his life's work. Don, on the other hand, must decide between being a doctor in the poor, rural area in which he grew up, or working as a cancer researcher with a famous scientist at Berkley.
Because of the accident, these two men are forced to interact with each other and to reflect on their life's choices. At first, their relationship is antagonistic, with both men making assumptions about each other, particularly Don, who accuses Niles of "working in your ivy-covered ivory towers back East." However, by the second act, especially after Niles's hypoglycemic attack in which Don helps him recover, the two men have come to an understanding that they have more in common than first imagined—as each is undergoing a professional crisis. Being holed up at the church provides a respite from their daily lives, a temporary sanctuary from the world's demands, that allows them time to evaluate their choices. As Christopher Bigsby notes in Contemporary American Playwrights, "The intensity of the situation raises the stakes for those who find themselves suddenly shaken out of their routines, nudged off the paths they believe themselves to have chosen." Although the meeting does not engender any radical action from either of the men, the accident at the mine facilitates an exchange between them that brings richer understanding of why they do what they do.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Contemporary Native American writer Sherman Alexie in his novel Reservation Blues (1996) explores the complex historical relationship between indigenous cultures and Christianity in the United States which is alluded to in Angels Fall through the relationship between Father Doherty and Don Tabaha.
- Drama scholar Christopher Bigsby, in his Contemporary American Playwrights (1999), analyzes the contemporary American theater scene by focusing on ten playwrights who have secured major reputations in drama but who may not have garnered major academic interest. His study includes chapters on Marsha Norman, Tony Kushner, Wendy Wasserstein, and Lanford Wilson.
- In New American Dramatists 1960–1980, Ruby Cohn covers a range of contemporary playwrights who have influenced American theater. Whereas the actual coverage of individual works is cursory, the book, published in 1981, provides an important overview of drama during an experimental and fertile period of American drama.
- Robert Del Tredici's At Work in the Fields of the Bomb (1987) documents the history of nuclear power, the rise of the United States' nuclear arsenal, and the contemporary uses and effects of uranium in communities through photographs of those who work in the nuclear industry as well as those who have been affected by it.
- In Drama since 1960: A Critical History (1996), Matthew Roudané discusses over two dozen contemporary playwrights, focusing especially on the political and social histories in which they wrote. Particular attention is paid to African American and women playwrights as well as to themes in drama that explore myths of rebellion and resistance, of confrontation and expiation, and of the American dream.
- As a contrasting example of a "locked-door" play similar to the format of Angels Fall, Jean-Paul Sartre's existential play No Exit, originally written in French in 1944, depicts a concept of Hell that involves a group of strangers locked in a room who are forced to interact with each other.
- Wilson's award-winning play Hot l Baltimore (1975) provides an interesting comparison in setting, theme, and characterization to Angels Fall in its sympathetic look at a group of urban misfits mostly prostitutes, occupying a hotel that is about to be demolished.
The theme of making the most of one's life through one's work is most prominently displayed by the parish priest, Father Doherty. Although Doherty's work at the mission is not exactly what he himself had hoped for as a parish priest, he has a keen understanding that his purpose in life transcends the rather uninspiring aspects of his job. When Vita asks him how many parishioners he has in the area, he honestly tells her very few. But despite the few attendees, he is committed to his task. After describing the services to Vita, he tells her later, "It's what we live for." The sense of vocation that Doherty illuminates is also what he advocates most incessantly in his encounters with Don, whom Doherty has known for his whole life. Don's decision to leave medicine for research infuriates Doherty as he views it as a cop-out. Referring to the inadequate health care in the area, he says to Niles late in the play, "The need here is something you can't comprehend." For Father Doherty, Don's departure is viewed as an escape from a world that he longs to forget, one that is full of misery and pain. As Don himself acknowledges, in reference to the health problems among the Navajo, "There's no time for one person in a hundred years to begin to correct a millennium of genetic neglect."
Throughout the play, the priest badgers Don about why he is leaving the area, often getting others to side with him. Yet by imposing his own views of what Tabaha should do, Doherty is not granting him the freedom to make his own decision. In American Drama of the Twentieth Century, Gerald Berkowitz notes that it is this realization, more than Don's decision to leave medicine and Niles' decision to leave teaching, that produces the most dramatic moment of the play. Having listened to their barbed conversations for most of the afternoon, toward the end of the play Niles comes to Don's defense, exclaiming to the priest, "You cannot hold power over another man; even for his own good…. I've seen it with teachers a dozen times. I've done it myself." By intervening into the debate between Don and Father Doherty, Niles extends himself outward, seeking a common ground, first by defending the young man who appears extremely different from him, and second, by acknowledging to the priest that as teachers they are similar in their shortsightedness as well as their good intentions.
Although the uranium accident does not have any immediate dire effects on the characters gathered, it does provide a setting for several of the characters to respond at least internally to the understanding that their time on earth is limited and thus making the best of it through valuable work is urgent and necessary. This message is conveyed most overtly by the Biblical passage Doherty reads to them, "Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be?" When the helicopter arrives toward the end of the play to announce that the road has been cleared, the characters, except for Doherty, leave the church, reentering the world of temporal time. They may not necessarily have undergone a profound change, but because their paths have crossed, they may have a deeper understanding of the need to continue on with their own specific journeys.
Source: Doreen Piano, Critical Essay on Angels Fall, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Lanford Wilson and John C. Tibbetts
In the following interview, Wilson expounds on his background and early days as a struggling playwright in New York, and his association with Off-Off-Broadway.
At the beginning of Lanford Wilson's Lemon Sky, the character of Alan comes downstage out of the darkness. "I've been trying to tell this story, to get it down, for a long time," he says to the audience, "—for a number of years, seven years at least—closer to ten." Alan's lament is the playwright's dilemma. He explains that the story has been told dozens of times to friends, each time with different starts and different endings. He adds that the characters often disrupt matters and go off on their own, wilfully, sometimes destructively. "They wouldn't have any part of what I wanted them to say. They sat down to coffee or some damn thing."
For thirty-four years, ever since Lanford Wilson's arrival in New York City in 1956 at the age of nineteen, he has fought and wrestled that stubborn, sometimes pliant, sometimes recalcitrant raw material of theatrical stuff. Now one of America's most successful and respected playwrights, he is turning his energies increasingly to that kind of theatrical trench warfare known as the "staged reading." He is in Kansas City at the moment visiting the Missouri Repertory Theater's Second Stage to direct a reading of Timothy Mason's new play, Babylon Gardens. Obviously, he identifies with this play—like Lemon Sky it is about a young man trying to cope with memories of a difficult relationship with his father. It will go through many hours of rehearsal (or "discovery" as he puts it) before facing three days' worth of paying audiences. Then it will go back to New York for a possible premiere. Ask Timothy Mason, who is also here, just how possible that premiere is, and he only shrugs. His play isn't finished yet. Lanford Wilson agrees.
"It's very strange," Wilson says. "You never know where a play comes from. You may have had the idea for five years; you still don't know where it came from or where it's going to hit you; or when you're going to actually sit down and write the darned thing. And when you do sit down to write, you may write something completely different."
His own Lemon Sky, to stay with that example for a moment, is a case in point. One early version was given a staged reading at the O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwright's Conference in 1968. In 1970 a different version came to Buffalo's Studio Arena Theater.
Then it moved to an Off Broadway theatre for a brief run later that May. It was revived after more changes fifteen years later at The Second Stage in New York in 1985. When it was printed in the May 1986 issue of American Theatre, it revealed still more changes.
"What drives me crazy is having to finally say—OK, you can print it. Because I keep wanting to tinker with it and fuss with it. And my publishers hate me, because they send me page proofs and I send them back with marginalia all over them and they say—Lanford, this costs a fortune to re-do. I just never—I always want to change things."
We are sitting in Room 119 of the Missouri Repertory Theater's Stage Two. The actor rehearsals before tomorrow's first public reading have been intense. Wilson's soft Missouri drawl belies a quick volatility that seems to prowl around, restless, even at this late hour on a wintry February evening.
"I love these readings," he is saying. "We have them at Circle Rep, too. We have a Friday reading every week of a new play. It's either one that a company writer is working on; or one that we found, the library department has found from out-side from a new writer. Sometimes we invite the writer to come and hear it. And many times it's the first time he's heard his work read in public. It's not for an audience—just an audience of Circle Rep members, which is about two hundred."
Incidentally, these Circle Rep readings have become notorious for playwrights like John Patrick Shanley. In a recent interview during the release of his film, Joe Versus the Volcano, Shanley told me there comes a time in his work when he has to cut that umbilical cord. "I'll do a couple of readings, maybe two or three, but that long, developmental process Lanford has, well—God bless him—but I wouldn't want to do that! When it comes to playwriting, they all have their own way of working. Lanford comes from Circle Repertory, which has a tradition of taking ten years to get it right. And I'd die! I'd say—chain me to a wall. I couldn't do it!"
Wilson is looking about at the tight circle of empty chairs. Dozens of coffee cups and ashtrays piled with mangled cigarette stubs are strewn about the table in front of us. Timothy Mason has joined in the conversation. By contrast to Wilson's thatched hair, furious eyebrows, and restless manner, Mason is tidy and self-contained.
"You find acute ears among the listeners who come to these readings, in New York, or here in Kansas City," he says. His Minnesota voice is a pleasant counterpoint to Wilson's. "People rediscover they have ears for the theatre. They get attuned to just the sounds of the readings very quickly."
Wilson laughs sharply, agreeably. "I sometimes find that the readings are more important than the subsequent productions. When you have a reading without all the trappings, without the stuffing, your mind has to work and you make the set and costumes and the changes. You end up becoming the director."
The Circle Rep first discovered Mason when his unsolicited manuscript for a play called Levitation appeared in the mail. Wilson became Mason's dramaturge and invited him to come to New York. Now Mason is a company playwright and has had three plays produced by the organization.
Wilson is satisfied that history is repeating itself. He himself is a product of regional theatres and noncommercial theatres.
"I was born in Lebanon, Missouri and graduated from high school in the town of Ozark, where I had moved to go to high school. My father had left a long time ago and my mother had remarried. But I got out of Missouri as soon as I could. I thought, I've got to get the hell out of here. And I left, went out to San Diego. My father, whom I hadn't heard from in thirteen years, said—why don't you come out to San Diego? And I split as quick as I could. And then we didn't get along at all well. So I went to see some friends of mine in Chicago and fell in love with Chicago. I always thought I was going to be a painter. I thought I was going to do that. I was the best artist at Ozark High School. There were ten people in the art department and I was the best one. And then I went to San Diego State and I wasn't the best one anymore. But still I thought I was going to be a painter. Actually, I was interested in advertising and advertising illustration, editorial illustration—or even produce illustration. My writing was just an avocation then. Sometimes I would write stories and send them off and I got a collection of rejection slips from the best magazines in the country. One day in Chicago I was working in an ad agency and started a new story. I said, you know what?—this doesn't sound like a story, this sounds like a play! I got halfway down the page, no more than that, and said—I'm a playwright. It was just as clear as day. I had an actual talent for writing dialogue and no talent at all for writing narrative. Writing down the way people spoke in a room was suddenly incredibly exciting. It was one of those life decisions where you know immediately—you're never going to get to the bottom of this thing. And what more could you want than something that you're never going to—that's never going to satisfy you completely? And I just saw this as an enormous, great challenge that was going to be worth banging away at for the rest of my life."
At that time in the mid-fifties Chicago was primarily a stop for touring plays. Wilson saw Night of the Iguana with Bette Davis before it opened on Broadway. He saw Brendan Behan's The Hostage with Joan Littlewood. "I think I tried to write my version of The Hostage for the next five years."
An erstwhile playwright now, Wilson came to New York in 1956. Disgusted at Broadway, he turned to a number of new, small theaters. The movement we now call "Off-Off Broadway" was just beginning.
"I found the Caffe Cino in New York. That was the very beginning of 'Off-Off Broadway.' They hadn't even named it yet. I had the first play that I wrote in New York done within three months of my arrival. I've since learned that's not the typical story… There was the Judson Church, the Cafe La Mama, and of course the Caffe Cino. And there were about 15 playwrights in New York City that worked there. And that's all. Now, there are about 40,000, it seems! It was a great apprenticeship, but we didn't know it. We just were working and you couldn't have more than a half-hour play because the audiences' butts couldn't stand to sit on the edge of a milk carton for more than a half hour! Also, the Caffe Cino was so hot you couldn't keep it closed, locked from the street for more than thirty minutes."
He pauses to light another cigarette. There's a slight clatter behind us as two stagehands begin packing away the scattered chairs. We talk about his founding of the Circle Repertory Company in 1968.
"I had had no real success. I got sort of minor awards and minor grants from people because, as I said, there weren't many of us. But I didn't have any real success or any real recognition until The Hot L Baltimore in 1973, I don't believe. That was for Circle Rep. I had also written Rimers of Eldritch and Balm in Gilead. But you understand, they only ran for a week. So you couldn't get—there isn't much satisfaction in something running a week! Maybe that's why you have to be so prolific—the plays were on such a short time you had to write something very quick to get something back on!
"I was one of the founders of Circle Rep. At Off-Off Broadway we all worked together. There was sort of a loose collective of writers and designers and actors and directors. The Caffe Cino had folded and there was no place for us to go. So we started our own theatre to be as much like the Caffe Cino as possible. Except we were a little more professional than that. So we started up above a McCann shoestore on Broadway—but about 70 blocks north of the Broadway anyone's heard of. After about four or five years we moved to a professional house that used to be called Sheridan Square Playhouse; and now it's Circle Repertory Company. We're in Greenwich Village at 7th Avenue South and West 4th Street at one of the great old intersections in the Village. We're in our 21st or 22nd year now. It's amazing—it sure doesn't seem like it."
All of Wilson's subsequent major works premiered there—besides The Hot L Baltimore, there have been The Mound Builders (1975), Serenading Louie (1976), Angels Fall (1982), and the "Talley Trilogy" (5th of July, Talley's Folly, and Talley and Son). Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for Talley's Folly. Many other productions and many newcomers got their start at Circle Rep.
"Let's see, there was When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder—that started there. There was a play that toured all over the country, called Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein. We did the first New York production of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending. John Malkovich came to us from Steppenwolf in Chicago. William Hurt came from Juilliard to us. Christopher Reeve—just at the time he was auditioning for Superman in London. Swoozie Kurtz, Richard Thomas. We found Timothy Mason in our 'slush-pile."'
Mason explains he had sent Levitation to Circle Rep. "I feel fortunate that Circle Rep opened that envelope and responded to that first play I sent out. Without Circle Rep, I would be hopeless, without a theatrical home—a playwright all alone in his room. With a theatrical home, I've got constant feedback, a venue to read embryonic scripts. Bill Hurt did a reading in New York and we knew the thing needed more work. So here we are."
This theatrical midwifery takes its toll, however. If a living income is difficult enough in the commercial theatre, it's all but impossible in the birthing rooms of noncommercial theatre.
"Most of the theatre work we do ends up being pro bono," Wilson says. "Serious plays haven't made money for authors on Broadway for years. Since I've come to New York there's not been more than a few plays on Broadway that made the author anything to speak of at all. There's a new contract now where we get a minimum of $1,000 a week, which is very good, while a play is running on Broadway. But you really have to survive from other sources. My friend Tim here types for the National Kidney Foundation. I just finished roughing out a screenplay for Burn This. But it was rejected out of hand. It would make a terrific movie. You hope it can get done, like Driving Miss Daisy, which is very close to the original work. Then, they just pour money onto you until you say, stop, that's enough!" He laughs out loud. "I've had several plays on Broadway. And I go back and forth all the time about how I feel about the Broadway audience. I really have a feeling that I'm happier Off-Broadway and I'm happier in the regional theatres. Because, whatever the Broadway audience is going for, I'm not really quite sure that I'm pleasing them. It's very strange, when you're writing a play, you really don't care who you offend or what you say. You just have to say it one way or the other and it comes out and you work very hard to keep it as true to your subject as you possibly can. And you really say, I do not care who this offends. And then the play gets on and the very first person who gets up and walks, you say—My God, why is he leaving? Don't tell me he didn't like it! I'm so upset when somebody leaves. And you've put on the play with no compromises whatever and then someone is offended and leaves and you say—Lord, no, I hope I didn't offend that person! But that's just my old 'wanting-to-be-liked' nonsense. Fortunately, I don't have that when I write. You can't write a play to be liked."
We exchange anecdotes about authors driven to write, by that compulsion that twitches fingers toward the pen and paper, or the typewriter, or the pad of paper. Wilson shakes his head ruefully.
"Tennessee Williams used to write at night because he took change in the subway. He sold tokens in the subway. He felt very protected in the booth. He had the night shift. And he'd sit there and write on the pad. I wrote The Madness of Lady Bright on the Reservation typewriter at the Americana Hotel in New York. I was the Night Reservation person and nobody ever made reservations at night. So, it was a very good occupation for a writer!"
The chairs have all been folded away by now. (Wilson and Mason look askance, as if their own will be whisked away from under them. I decide no better metaphor for life in the theatre could be found. There is time for a last question or two.) I ask how the Circle Rep in New York continues to encourage new playwrights and plays.
"Oh, we have our 'literary department,"' drawls Wilson, puffing away at a last cigarette. "We have readers, they read unsolicited scripts. We're the only theatre in the country, I believe, that reads unsolicited scripts. And comments on them. From anyone. They don't even have to be submitted by an agent or anything anymore. And then we come to places like the Missouri Rep. We have an excellent cast here for the reading of Babylon Gardens. Some real discoveries. Missouri Rep called us, inviting us to come out here—and we said, would we ever! Plays have to have a long development process. And here things are completely—completely blind. We have no idea what the reception will be, what we've got. They will tell us."
He looks around the room, those bristling brows surmounting a sudden puff of smoke. "It's like my work on the 'Talley' trilogy, you know? You don't know what's going to come out of it all. You have to learn so much about the characters and that takes time. You have to do so much research and so much of a—forgive this word—back story. You become interested in the background, like I did with the Talleys. And so—when I was working on 5th of July I had to get the story of Matt and Sally right. And I found that and thought, boy, that would be a really good story! So I wondered while writing Talley's Folly just what was happening up on the hill in the main house during the dialogue at the Folly. I said, boy, I sure would like to know that. And then I wanted to know about the guy that had built that house. So out comes Talley and Son. Working on something, it generates in your mind the story of what happens earlier. There are a lot of plays that go backwards like that.
"It's those characters. They need time to live out a life and learn to talk to you. They really do. They really do pester and hound you. They yell—but it's great, a healthy thing when they do. When they're silent is when you start worrying!"
Source: Lanford Wilson and John C. Tibbetts, "An Interview with Lanford Wilson," in Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Fall 1990, pp. 175–80.
Gene A. Barnett
In the following essay, Barnett examines the setting, plot, themes, and characters in Angels Fall.
When the first season of the New World Festival of Miami, Florida, was planned for 1982, several important dramatists, Wilson among them, were invited to contribute new work. Angels Fall was written on commission for the festival and first performed there in June of the inaugural season, after which it opened at the Circle Repertory Theater in New York City the following autumn. The play was greeted with respectful reviews and moved to Broadway early in 1983 where, unlike the author's two previous plays, it had only a short run.
Angels Fall is a very earnest, very moral play—perhaps it is even a "morality play." One critic
described it as "preachy," while another called it "a parable." In addition to the moral nature of its themes, it was also found to be "unself-consciously traditional" in structure, with its careful adherence to the classical unities. With a beginning, middle, and end, Angels Fall was considered to be "an exquisitely wrought old-fashioned new play."
While most reviewers applauded the fact that the play's heart was in the right place and wrote glowingly of Wilson's language and characterization, some also noted that it seem "contrived" and implied that this contrivance vitiated the dramatic energy of the play. Walter Kerr referred to "an artifice of sorts," while Variety commented that the situation and characters seemed more "authorial contrivances than spontaneous creations." John Simon declared that Wilson's "device smells a bit of device." But after judging it to be a "relatively slight play," he still recommended it, and when he reviewed the Broadway production in February 1983, he judged it "the best American play on Broadway this season."
A "Sealed-Room" Play
Generically, Angels Fall is of the type often referred to as the "sealed-room play." To put it another way, the "contrivance" the reviewers noted is the "locked-room format": several people not previously acquainted are thrown together, by accident or design, in one setting or situation, and are forced to endure each other's company for a period of time. This device is a variation of that used in The Hot-l Baltimore in which the setting permits a highly disparate group of people to assemble naturally. In Angels Fall, it is the "naturally" that is suspect. The hand of the dramatist was thought by some reviewers to be too obvious in several ways: in carefully arranging for these particular types of people to come together (i.e., a theologian, a scientist, a humanist, etc.); in symbolically convening them in a church; in adding an apocalyptic note to the proceedings; in somewhat methodically allocating personal problems to over half the characters; and in resolving their dilemmas with rather pat solutions. In short, is the play too carefully and systematically structured?
The setting of Angels Fall is a small adobe Catholic mission in northwestern New Mexico Furnished only with wooden benches and a simple altar, the church is located in the country near a crossroads. A pay telephone outside the church is the only link with the outside world.
If the immediately visible setting evokes a timeless quality, both in its architecture and in the faith the structure represents, the larger setting forcefully recalls for both characters and audience the age of high technology; the action takes place in the area of New Mexico where there is a good deal of nuclear testing going on. One character explains that a "dump site" is planned to the south; to the west are uranium mines and processing mills; waste is also being dumped into the Rio Puerco River to the east; to the south is the atomic reactor at Los Alamos and the missile base at White Sands; and "all kinds of things are seeping into everyone's water."
On the day of the action, at one of the mines approximately twenty miles away, a truck being loaded with "this yellow cake stuff" backed up and broke open a container. The wind blew the chemical over the workmen, and helicopters were brought in to transfer those still living to a hospital. The "yellow cake" is pure uranium, which is refined at the mill. The radio reassuringly declares that the level of pollution is minor, and, as one character says, "anybody not in the immediate area won't get sick for about twelve years."
Clearly the playwright is expanding a familiar theme here; the ruin through pollution of the natural landscape. In addition, the deaths that result are variations on his theme of the destruction of the American heritage. And although the villains are faceless and nameless, the play seems an indictment of a national policy that permits the development of a nuclear program at the expense of both life and the quality of life. For behind the local law officers (just outside the church but never seen) and the New Mexico State Patrol (heard through the loudspeakers in the helicopters) is the ominous presence of the United States government for which the uranium is being mined and which therefore bears responsibility for the leakage and pollution.
In this respect, Angels Fall may be Wilson's most obviously political play. The Catholic mission, traditionally a spiritual sanctuary, becomes briefly a shelter from a chemical storm, a man-made apocalypse that threatens four travelers and two local people, thus forcing them to become acquainted as altogether they examine their lives and confront the possibility that the world could end quickly and violently. This new twist on a familiar Wilson theme is approached through the "locked-room format," a device so traditional that reviewers of Angels Fall variously cited as ancestors of the play such theatrical works as Ten Little Indians, The Petrified Forest, and Bus Stop. Sartre's No Exit and the "Don Juan in Hell" act of Shaw's Man and Superman could be added.
Late on Saturday afternoon, four travelers retreat into a small church to take cover as instructed from nuclear fallout. Professor Niles Harris and his wife, Vita, are traveling from Rhode Island, where he has been teaching art history, to an Arizona clinic, where he is being sent to recover from "a traumatic nervous breakthrough." The second, more unusual couple is Marian Clay, the widow of a renowned New Mexico artist, and Salvatore Zappala, a young tennis player of great promise. They are on their way to a tennis tournament in California. At the mission, these four encounter Father Bill Doherty, who ministers to the local Indians, and Don Tabaha, a young American Indian doctor doing his internship, whose mentor the priest has been.
The plot follows traditional lines of exposition, confrontation, and resolution, but while all six characters have chances to present their personal stories, only three seem involved in conflicts that advance the plot. Most important is the young doctor's dilemma: shall he complete his internship and return to his home area to treat members of his tribe who are badly in need of his skill and knowledge, or shall he accept a lucrative and more attractive offer that will allow him to spend his life in research. His dilemma is intensified and complicated by the priest's strong insistence that, of course, he must return to care for his people.
Young Dr. Tabaha makes his difficult decision, and the priest learns to accept the fact that the younger generation not only has a right but a responsibility to make its own choices. Professor Harris realizes that, despite his disillusionment with a thirty-year teaching career, he is, after all, a teacher; he is "called" to that profession, as are the others to their professions or occupations, and to it he must return.
Theme: "What Manner of Persons…"
The theme of Angels Fall is so clearly set forth in the play that it might indeed seem to be preachment. As these six people face the possibility of an atomic apocalypse on a summer Saturday afternoon, the priest raises the question that might naturally occur to those suddenly on the brink of the grave: how ought people to live that they may calmly face death satisfied with their lives. As the priest whimsically refers to these civil emergencies (of which he has evidently seen several) as "rehearsals for the end of the world," he facetiously threatens them all with a sermon. The text, which comes from Peter's Second Epistle (3:10–11) in the New Testament, is a dramatic description of the apocalypse in terms that strongly suggest an atomic explosion. The core of this passage poses a question: "Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness…?" On the basis of this scripture, a warning of the destruction of the world and the end of time, Father Doherty finds it appropriate to remind them of their calling: "You are a teacher," he tells Professor Harris; "one of those professions, I've always thought, one is called to. As an artist is called, or as a priest is called, or as a doctor is called." Simply, one faces the end of the world—which is also a metaphor for he end of life—by pursuing one's calling "in all holy conversation and godliness," whatever that calling may be.
This is pursuing one's own salvation in a secular sense. Interestingly, Harris tells the priest that he "should have been a foot-washing Baptist," a term Wilson has been known to use to describe himself. It is very tempting to impose an autobiographical point of view on this aspect of the play. Wilson was raised a Southern Baptist, and Baptists believe that their ministers are "called" into the ministry; it is not just a profession they voluntarily choose. Wilson spoke of his own profession in similar terms in an interview in the early 1980s. Asked if he had been at all influenced by the midwestern Protestant work ethic, he replied affirmatively, adding, "if you have a gift, if you have something to give, it's a sin not to do it." This was "thoroughly ingrained."
This play is finally about finding our calling, our profession—our job, if you like. But also important, and reflecting Wilson's own Protestant background, is the second half of this theme: in finding our profession, we are able to face death in the knowledge that life has been lived well, that we have, to paraphrase 2 Timothy, fought a good fight, finished the course, and kept the faith (4:7). Certainly this is the theological implication of Wilson's theme: how to live life meaningfully and how to face death gracefully.
Doctor and Priest
The central conflict in Angels Fall is between young Dr. Tabaha and his lifelong friend and spiritual mentor, Father Doherty. Don is half-Indian, illegitimate, and quite bright. He has literally been raised in the church by his aunt who also cares for the mission. At eleven, he had knelt with the priest at the church altar to solemnize his call to medicine. He had planned to be a general practitioner, going from pueblo to pueblo to minister to his people, much as the priest does. As the play opens, however, he is going through what Father Bill calls "his lapsed phase." While doing his internship he had discovered a talent for research and a particular interest in cancer-causing agents. Now he is mulling over an offer to work in a prestigious research lab in Berkeley, California, a position that would prevent him from practicing medicine, thus depriving the area, already underserviced, of his much needed skills.
Father Doherty is disturbed that the young man may follow the lure of money and reputation, forgetting his true calling. Doherty is a lovable character who is on very familiar terms with God. He moves easily from serving lemonade to his guests to serving the host to his flock. When he is angry at the official lies of the government and local law officers (who say, for example, the roads are closed because a bridge is our where no bridge exists), he throws rocks at the helicopters that fly over the mission with loudspeakers blaring.
In the matter of Don's professional choices, however, Doherty is adamant and loses no opportunity of reminding the young doctor of his obligation to his people, an attitude Don tolerates, sometimes not so good-naturedly. The hour of decision is determined, perhaps too neatly, when the road is pronounced clear and Don is free to leave if he chooses.
In their final confrontation, Doherty accuses his protégé of being bought, insisting that he "has been a doctor since he was five years old," that he "has been called." He challenges the young man to say he has been directed to alter his course.
Don replies that he has discovered in himself "a very special talent for research; if that's hearing a call, then I've been called." Professor Harris points out that the priest does not seem to care for Don as a person: "You want that for you," he tells Doherty. "You cannot hold power over another man; even for his own good." The priest then admits that the professor is right. "I was thinking of myself. Well, well… vanity, vanity." He nevertheless has a parting shot at Don: "But I'm right, young man, and you know it." When they separate at the end of the play, Father Doherty admits, "I've been too fond." "Me, too, Father," Don replies, and he weeps gently as he leaves his mentor to follow a new calling.
Of these two characters, Father Doherty is the more likable and the better drawn. His adversary, Don, is both prickly and reticent; genius is difficult to dramatize. The struggle between them is not between good and evil; it is between two views of what is "good." Wilson's answer is that each must choose for himself, keeping in mind what manner of person he ought to be.
The Harrises: "A Nervous Breakthrough."
There is a quarter of a century in age difference between Niles Harris and his wife. He has recently interrupted a thirty-year teaching career during which he has authored three books of art history. The Harrises are on their way to Phoenix to what Don calls "a dude ranch psychiatric hospital," where he has been sent, "tuition paid," by the Board of Governors of his college. This enforced sabbatical came about as a result of a "nervous breakthrough," which occurred one day in class when he experienced a "crisis of faith, or a disturbance in my willful suspension of disbelief." This resulted, in part, from a rereading of his three books, an experience he found so disillusioning that in the presence of his class, he tore them up and announced that he no longer believed anything he had written. Niles is a man who has temporarily misplaced his verities.
As Father Doherty points out, however, a "willful suspension of disbelief is believing." This immediately leads him to his "little sermon" in which he reminds Harris of his calling: "you are a teacher. So you simply have to find a way to teach." At this New Mexico crossroads, figuratively a crossroads in the lives of these characters, Niles takes new life from Doherty's admonition. In the following scene, he "teaches" by reminding the priest that he may be acting selfishly in trying to dissuade Don. Both men are in positions to influence the younger generation, but Harris knows that teachers should not impose their own ambitions on their students. As he recommits himself to his calling, he finds the priest is his first student. In that he both teaches and learns, is both healed and helps others, Niles Harris is the most functional of the group.
Vita Harris, who writes stories for children, may be the nicest character of the lot. Having been Niles's student, she now seems entirely concerned with the care and feeding of this rather difficult and still quite brilliant man. Although some reviewers of the play pointed out that all the characters were in the midst of some kind of crisis of faith or at some decisive crossroads, Vita seems spiritually and emotionally a normal, healthy person.
Marion and Zappy: Mistress and "Boytoy"
Marion Clay and Salvatore "Zappy" Zappala are the other May-and-December couple; he is twenty-one, and she is over twice his age. Marion, owner and operator of the Clay Gallery in Chicago, has only recently disposed of her late husband's effects, including his studio located not far from the mission. She is not the kind of woman to live anxiously with a young lover, fearful he will leave her. Like Vita, she mothers her male, and young Zappy takes more than his share, for in addition to being a tightly strung tennis champion on the way up, he is a hypochondriac of the first order. He is entirely content with his mother-mistress; if he is a "boytoy," it does not bother him.
This odd pair seem to be in the play both to balance the other older-younger couple and to flesh out Wilson's theme. When Doherty reminds Professor Harris that he must find his way back to his "calling," Zappy, surprisingly for one so young and immature, enthusiastically agrees, recounting something that happened the first time he was on a tennis court. A total novice, he had embarrassed two high school players with his skill and intuition. "On the way home," he says, "anybody had asked me what I did, right there I'd have said, 'I play tennis.' Didn't know love from lob, didn't matter. That's what I am. 'Cause once you know what you are, the rest is just work."
Marion's case is simpler. No artist herself, she has spent her life exhibiting the art of others. "I want to show artists' work," she had told Zappy once, "like Van Gogh's brother." She has accepted that the more modest calling of dealer is as necessary in its right as the artist's. Marion is a happy and fulfilled woman who rejects young Zappy's frequent proposals of marriage. These two characters have no problems that luck on the courts and in the bedroom cannot solve.
Perhaps the playwright seems to urge his theme of the importance of "calling" as the answer to the scriptural question of "what manner of persons" we should try to be. Perhaps he skirts sentimentality in the rather easy answers his characters find at the crossroads as they wonder if an apocalypse is upon them. Perhaps the play, unlike life, leaves few rough edges and unanswered questions. This is the way of plays. Sound construction, a sense of the importance of moral and spiritual matters, and a strong sentiment for people, flawed and fallen, are not bad materials for a dramatist.
"Angels fall, but we muddle through," Wilson has said. People may, unlike angels, struggle, pick themselves up and try again. When angels fall, there is no crossroads; for most mortals, there are many crossings and many roads. Angels Fall—the title comes from "one of those incredibly crabbed poems" of Gerard Manley Hopkins—is a tribute to the human courage it requires to look for the right road, the right calling.
Source: Gene A. Barnett, "Angels Fall," in Lanford Wilson, edited by Warren French, Twayne's United States Authors Series, No. 490, Twayne, 1987, pp. 125–33.
Adler, Thomas P., "The Artist in the Garden: Theatre Space and Place in Lanford Wilson," in Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, Garland Publishing, 1994, pp. 3–20.
Alexie, Sherman, Reservation Blues, Warner Brothers Publishing, 1996.
Barnett, Gene, "Chapter Sixteen: Angels Fall," in Lanford Wilson, Twayne's United States Author Series, No. 490, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 125–33.
Berkowitz, Gerald M., American Drama of the Twentieth Century, Longman Publishing, 1992, pp. 181–84.
Bigsby, Christopher, "Chapter Ten: Lanford Wilson," in Contemporary American Playwrights, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 417–21.
Busby, Mark, Lanford Wilson, Western Writers Series, No. 81, Boise State University Press, 1987.
Cohn, Ruby, New American Dramatists 1960–1980, Grove Press, 1981.
Dean, Anne M., "Chapter Two: Concerns, Poetry, and Dramatized Experience," in Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994, pp. 30–60.
Del Tredici, Robert, At Work in the Fields of the Bomb, HarperCollins, 1987.
Herman, William, "Down and Out in Lebanon and New York: Lanford Wilson," in Understanding Contemporary American Drama, University of South Carolina Press, 1987, pp. 196–229.
Jacobi, Martin J., "The Comic Vision of Lanford Wilson," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 21, No. 2, Fall 1988, pp. 119–34.
Lawson, D. K., "Lanford Wilson," in Contemporary Gay American Poets and Playwrights: An A–to–Z Guide, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, Greenwood Press, 2003, pp. 451–60.
Roudané, Matthew, Drama since 1960: A Critical History, Twayne's Critical History of American Drama Series, Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 9–22, 151–54.
Ryzuk, Mary, The Circle Repertory Company: The First Fifteen Years, Iowa State University Press, 1989.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, No Exit and Other Plays, Vintage Books, 1989.
Smith, Susan Harris, "Angels Fall: An American Melodrama of Beset Manhood," in Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, Garland Publishing, 1994, pp. 103–18.
Wattenberg, Richard, "'Above Time' in the Present?: Emerson's 'Self-Reliance' and Lanford Wilson's Angels Fall," in Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, Garland Publishing, 1994, pp. 85–101.
Williams, Philip Middleton, A Comfortable House: Lanford Wilson, Marshall W. Mason, and the Circle Repertory Theatre, McFarland, 1993.
Wilson, Lanford, Angels Fall, Hill & Wang, 1983.
Barnett, Gene, Lanford Wilson, Twayne's United States Author Series, No. 490, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 125–33.
Barnett's book is a comprehensive study of the works of Wilson that includes detailed analysis of his early experimental works, his major and minor plays, work for opera and television, commissioned works, and biographical information.
Bryer, Jackson R., Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, Garland Publishing, 1994.
This anthology is the first to compile a range of critical articles on the works of Wilson. Besides critical analyses of his plays, the author also covers historical and social aspects of Wilson's work, interviews the playwright, and has compiled an extensive bibliography.
Busby, Mark, Lanford Wilson, Western Writers Series, No. 81, Boise State University Press, 1987.
This very brief work offers a succinct overview of Wilson's work that primarily investigates the influence of place on his plays. While providing biographical details that contribute to his analysis, Busby focuses on how aspects of the frontier myth are central to understanding major themes of Wilson's plays.
Herman, William, Understanding Contemporary American Drama, University of South Carolina Press, 1987, pp. 196–229.
Covering a number of major contemporary playwrights, Herman dedicates a chapter to Wilson, explaining not only his major themes but analyzing his major works. Whereas little is mentioned specifically about Angels Fall, the chapter outlines a general reception of his work by critics.
Ryzuk, Mary, The Circle Repertory Company: The First Fifteen Years, Iowa State University Press, 1989.
As a tribute to an important theatrical institution, Ryzuk's book provides an account of the Circle Repertory Company theater which Wilson helped to create and continues to be involved with since 1969. Covering its founders, productions, cast ensembles, and its ability to change with times, Ryzuk's book gives an insider's look at the historical and artistic development of an independent theater.