Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson

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WESTON: There’s this one folk story about this [Eskimo] family. They had all this caribou meat stacked outside their igloo. Frozen, see. But it got so cold that their whole winter’s supply of meat was frozen in one solid block of ice and none of the family could get at it. And they were all starving ‘cause no one could break off any of this meat. So in a kind of last-ditch heroic effort this young Eskimo warrior goes outside and lets off this tremendous, powerful fart.

                  SHIRLEY: Oh God.

                  WESTON: And thaws out all the meat.

                  JUNE: That is very gross.

                  WESTON: But it stank so bad none of the family could eat it. And they all starved to death. 

– from the play


This Fall, in the University’s Loft Theatre, the Department of Theatre and Dance shares a tale of family and renewal. The moral of our story: the best thing to do when life gives you rank caribou meat is to swallow your pride, hold your nose and chow down.

The Talley clan of Lebanon, Missouri isn’t quite as hard up as the reluctant Eskimos in Weston’s tale, but they are hardly “traditional” in the Norman Rockwell-meets-Mayberry sense of family. Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s are an eclectic bunch — old friends from college days whose Sixties activism has given way to “national malaise” of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate Seventies. Ken Talley is a leg-less Vietnam vet, his sister, June, a disillusioned anti-war activist. Their visiting friends, John and Gwen, abandoned idealism to pursue the twin American passions of money and fame. Eccentric Aunt Sally keeps her husband’s remains in a chocolates box and precocious adolescent Shirley has a belief in her own uniqueness that borders on the pathological. Meanwhile, Gwen’s musician buddy, Weston, seems to have digested every half-baked bit of anthropology and UFOlogy the supermarket tabloid rack has to offer.

And yet, however, aimless and dysfunctional the Talley’s may seem, they retain a fundamental optimism which we like to think of as characteristically American. When John tells Weston his Eskimo folk tale stinks (literally) because “the law of folk tales” is: “heroic actions must have saving results” he is shown, in a gentle way, to be wrong. Life–and family–are the thing. They represent continuity, through good times and bad, crisis or triumph, adversity and defeat. As Aunt Sally puts it, “There’s no such thing [as death]. It goes on and then it stops. You can’t worry about the stopping, you have to worry about the going on.”

More About . . . 

“national malaise”– In 1979, after ten days of meetings at the presidential retreat at Camp David with “people from almost every segment of our society-business and labor, teachers and preachers, Governors, mayors, and private citizens,” President Jimmy Carter delivered a speech that was to define his presidency. The persistent energy crisis which had fueled a long economic recession had taken its toll on American morale a “crisis of confidence” which he termed a “national malaise.”  The tone and nature of the speech was widely perceived as weak–an ineffectual response and an admission that the problems at the heart of American society were proving intractable to governmental solutions. The following year, Carter lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) – American artist whose style became synonymous with Americana. For over forty years, on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, was a showcase for his work. “Over the years he depicted there a unique collection of Americana, a series of vignettes of remarkable warmth and humor. In addition, he painted a great number of pictures for story illustrations, advertising campaigns, posters, calendars, and books. Of his work, Rockwell once said, “Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”

Mayberry – fictional town which provided the setting for The Andy Griffith Show, one of the most popular television series of the 60s.

A handful of other American plays about unusual American Families . . . 

Fashion; or, Life in New York (1845) by Anna Cora Mowatt

 You Can’t Take it With You (1936) by  George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

The Philadelphia Story (1939) by Philip Barry

 Arsenic and Old Lace (1941)  by Joseph Kesselring

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  (1955) by Tennessee Williams

The Boys in the Band (1968) by Mart Crowley

Baby with the Bathwater (1989)by Christopher Durang

Sixties Student Activism and it’s Aftermath:

Today, a burgeoning protest movement is sweeping college campuses and public buildings nationwide.  Since 1998, protests from Seattle, WA to Washington, DC have centered on protesting environmental destruction, Third World exploitation, the exportation of American factory jobs, and the corporatization of America.  While these issues are of great importance, the activism that surrounds them often relies on protest techniques from the 1960’s and the anti-Vietnam movement.

In The Fifth of July, the friends reuniting in Lebanon, Missouri are all graduates of the University of California at Berkeley, one of the West Coast centers of the student protest movement.  Berkeley received its reputation as a campus for radical activism after the rise of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) in Fall 1964.  A new Berkeley policy prohibited the “setting up of tables on University property to promote political or social action issues, or to solicit donations,” but furious students, who felt their First Amendment rights were being violated, continued to staff voter registration and political party tables near the student union.  One of these tables supported the Congress for Racial Equality, and when eight of its student staffers were suspended, students decided to organize against the administration.  Beginning at 3 am, December 3, 1964, over 500 students took over Sproul Hall and locked themselves in the building.  Twelve hours later, over 600 police arrived to clear the building, and made over 700 arrests.  On December 8, an emergency faculty vote overwhelmingly overturned the speech restrictions, and Berkeley students gained their first political triumph.

In succeeding years, and throughout the Vietnam War, Berkeley would prove a magnet school for student activism.  Sit-ins, marches, hunger strikes, draft-card burning, and other forms of non-violent protest were only a few of the now-familiar methods used to protest American involvement in Vietnam.  Many of the students who graduated from Berkeley in the late 1960’s moved into utopian societies, and experimented with communal living and “open” sexual relationships in the early 1970’s.  For the first time since the 1920’s, social and governmental norms were challenged on every level, and no policy, no ideal, no moral system was above questioning.

The idealism and enthusiasm of these student activists led them into non-conventional lifestyles, but the violence of Vietnam and the economic recessions of the mid-1970’s left a bitter taste of political realities in their mouths.  The issues that seemed cut-and-dried grew ever more difficult to understand, and simple answers grew harder to find.  The world of The Fifth of July is a world of people who are just discovering what it means to grow up, and to grow away from their old idealism, toward new, more complex understandings of their society, their community, and themselves.

1974: On the Air, On the Tube, On the Screen….

The Top 40 Singles of 1974:

1.         “The Way We Were,” Barbra Streisand  

2.         “Come And Get Your Love,” Redbone

3.         “Seasons In The Sun,” Terry Jacks 

4.         “Show And Tell,” Al Wilson 

5.         “Love’s Theme,” The Love Unlimited Orchestra 

6.         “The Loco-motion,” Grand Funk

7.         “Bennie And The Jets,” Elton John

8.         “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” The Stylistics 

9.         “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” John Denver 

10.       “T.S.O.P. (The Sound Of Philadelphia),” MFSB featuring The Three Degrees

11.       “Rock On,”  David Essex

12.       “The Most Beautiful Girl,” Charlie Rich

13.       “Spiders And Snakes,”  Jim Stafford 

14.       “Rock Me Gently,” Andy Kim 

15.       “The Streak,” Ray Stevens

16.       “Dancing Machine,” The Jackson 5

17.       “Band On The Run,” Paul McCartney and Wings 

18.       “You’re Sixteen,” Ringo Starr 

19.       “Let Me Be There,”  Olivia Newton-John 

20.       “The Joker,” Steve Miller Band

21.       “You’re Having My Baby,” Paul Anka 

22.       “Annie’s Song,”  John Denver 

23.       “One Hell Of A Woman,” Mac Davis 

24.       “Billy Don’t Be A Hero,” Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods 

25.       “Until You Come Back To Me,” Aretha Franklin

26.       “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” Stevie Wonder 

27.       “Nothing From Nothing,” Billy Preston 

28.       “Bungle In The Jungle,” Jethro Tull 

29.       “Midnight At The Oasis,”  Maria Muldaur 

30.       “Hooked On A Feeling,” Blue Swede

31.       “Dark Lady,” Cher

32.       “Top Of The World,” Carpenters

33.       “Time In A Bottle,” Jim Croce 

34.       “Sundown,” Gordon Lightfoot

35.       “Sideshow,” Blue Magic 

36.       “The Night Chicago Died,” Paper Lace

37.       “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John

38.       “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me,”  Gladys Knight & the Pips 

39.       “If You Love Me Let Me Know,”  Olivia Newton-John 

40.       “Hello It’s Me,” Todd Rundgren 

20 Popular Movies of 1974:

1.         The Towering Inferno

2.         Blazing Saddles

3.         Young Frankenstein

4.         Earthquake

5.         Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

6.         Badlands

7.         Chinatown

8.         The Conversation

9.         The Gambler

10.       Monty Python and the Holy Grail

11.       Airport 1975

12.       Buster and Billie

13.       Death Wish

14.       The Godfather, Part II

15.       The Great Gatsby

16.       The Last Detail

17.       Murder on the Orient Express

18.       The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

19.       That’s Entertainment!

20.       Phantom of the Paradise

The Top 20 Television Shows of 1974:

1.         All in the Family

2.         Sanford and Son

3.         Chico and the Man

4.         The Jeffersons

5.         M*A*S*H

6.         Rhoda

7.         Good Times

8.         The Waltons

9.         Maude

10.       Hawaii Five-O

11.       The Mary Tyler Moore Show

12.       The Rockford Files

13.       Little House on the Prairie

14.       Kojak

15.       Police Woman

16.       S.W.A.T.

17.       The Bob Newhart Show

18.       The Wonderful World of Disney

19.       The Rookies

20.       Mannix

 Sports Winners of 1974:

Baseball: The Oakland A’s beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series 4 games to 1.

Football: The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings 16-6 on January 12, 1975, at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans in Super Bowl IX.

Basketball: The Boston Celtics beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Championship Series 4 games to 3.

Hockey: The Philadelphia Flyers beat the Boston Bruins 4 games to 2 to win the Stanley Cup

With a one-stroke victory over Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino captures the Professional Golfers’ Association championship.

Muhammed Ali knocks out George Forman and regains his heavyweight title.


Designing the Fifth

When it’s time to design shows for the Loft Theatre, CU Technical Directors Bob Bovard and Steve McDonald like to give up-and-coming talent a chance. That’s how Boulder-native and Niwot High grad Liz Hoover was selected to design costumes for The Fifth of July.

Last year Liz, a junior double major in Theatre and English, designed the workshop production of One Flea Spare. That experience merely whetted an appetite for costume design born during her second semester of Technical Production–the costume shop semester. At the end of the year, she assisted experienced Main Stage designer Eric Smith in executing the demanding costumes for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

After speaking to Professor Janice Benning and asking for a chance to design in this season, Liz leaped at the opportunity to work with director Lars Tatom as part of a team of student designers to conceive and execute Fifth.  ” Sometimes more fantastic plays [like Forum] are easier to design, since you have more freedom. You aren’t restricted to certain guidelines, not to say that realism isn’t an artistic challenge. There are still ways to express yourself in your designs, you’ve just got to work within those specific guidelines. But realism” (at least as a set of technical and design choices for the stage) “isn’t something we see in this department often,” Liz says, “and working in a very specific period like this was challenging. The trick is to stay centered on the characters and their little quirks . . . to stay in the period without falling into the clichés. For example, the Seventies were a transitional period, fashion-wise. Bellbottoms were almost out–I’m not sure when they really went out, but they make an appearance in the show. One character is strongly influenced by Farrah Fawcett, from Farrah’s pin-up and Charlie’s Angels days.” (And as someone who actually lived through the Seventies, this writer can add — “who wasn’t’?”)

Designing costumes for a regular season production is a lot of responsibility. It begins with multiple readings of the script and continues through the run of the play, including involvement in every stage of production. “I read the script several times–looking for motivation and approach to character,” Liz told me. “One of the first characters I had a clear concept on was Gwen–the wealthy, drug addicted one. She owns a copper company, but is trying to break into a music career. She’s the only one in the play who appears in red, pink or gold. Very vibrant colors, to reflect her personality. Most of the rest of the characters appear in earth tones, to tie them to the house (the Talley family home in Lebanon, Missouri, where the action of the play is set) and the land.”

Initial conferences with the director and other designers (set, lights) can take place months before the show is cast and greatly influence the process. “Lars [Tatom, Fifth‘s director] had some very clear ideas about what some of the characters should be wearing and the whole creative process was great, because right away all the design team seemed to be on the same page…our ideas worked well together. We didn’t have any conflicting ideas.”

Although it isn’t always necessary with a show that is to be largely “pulled from stock,”[1] Liz wanted to go the extra mile. “I could have collaged the show, but went with original drawings because the characters were important to me and I wanted to give them a distinctive, original look.”[2] Starting with photo sources like Rolling Stone and Vogue magazines from the period, watching films and television from the Seventies and about the Seventies (the new film Almost Famous was helpful), Liz developed a complete set of drawings with attached fabric swatches, to indicate her preferences in that area.

As the designs evolved through readings and meetings and drawings, the other characters began to emerge. “John (Gwen’s husband) was clearly trying to be the slick businessman, stylish and clever, but he doesn’t quite succeed. I dressed him in flared pants, large collars and gold rim glasses with tinted lenses. If there were a villain in the play, he would be it. So I kept him in the glasses most of the time because he’s kind concealing, not too straightforward with his intentions.” With the rest of the family, “I kept the rest of the people more subtle and used color to tie the family together, especially with the other three women, Sally, June and Shirley. In the third act, Shirley puts on the shirt her mom wears in the first act. She’s the last Talley, the family’s destiny rests with her. All those earth tones tie them to the house and the land because, ultimately, the house becomes a character in the play.”

When the odd and extended Talley family of Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July come to life on CU’s Loft stage this month, a large part of the fabric of their lives will have been woven by the costume designs of Liz Hoover.

[1] Meaning that most of the costumes were to be found in the Department’s costume storage.

[2] The technique of finding photos that represent various aspects of a character’s clothing and creating a collage of clipped photos to suggest style, fabric and specific items he or she might wear.