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Wilson, Lanford. Fifth of July.



Kenneth Talley (32): Had both legs shot off seven years ago in the Vietnam war, uses crutches. Strong, good-looking; a touch cynical, but not deeply. Former teacher. Does not appreciate his lover as much as he probably should.

Jed Jenkins (25): Ken's male lover. Larger, stronger; an almost silent observer. Garden lover. Devoted to Ken, patiently bears his whims.

June Talley (35): Ken's sister. Ineffectual mother.

Shirley Talley (14): June's illegitimate daughter. Rebellious; sensitive, intelligent.

John Landis (33): Childhood friend of the Talleys. Businessman.

Gwen Landis (33): John's wife. Racy. Rich.

Weston Hurley (25): Friend of Gwen and John. Composer. Voracious reader. Listens late.

Sally Friedman (64): Ken and June's aunt. Not really batty; preoccupied.


Lebanon, Missouri. A prosperous southern farmhouse build around 1860. The family room and a large sun porch. Fifth of July, some time in 1970s.

Act One

Johnny Young: Ken sits at the desk working. He is listing to a tape recording which is an incomprehensible murmur to the audience. It is the voice of one Johnny Young, a boy genius, a mathematical prodigy. Ken works with him and tries to teach him to use his vocal organs properly. He could produce no comprehensible sounds when they started but now he has improved. Ken claims half of his problems is just tension. The boy comes from a large poor family who lives on charity. He is very shy, so Ken gave him a tape to tell about himself and record it. But the boy recorded a complicated science fiction story about the future.

Ken and Jed: Ken is very hung over. He has been partying all night with his friends John and Gwen, reminiscing about their wild Berkeley days of heavy drinking and drug taking. Jed has been working at his herb garden. Gardening is his hobby, he has a master's degree in botany. For the last three years he has been setting up an English garden, which takes a long time to grow to the desired shape. Jed is fond neither of parties nor of John and Gwen, so he went to bed early last night. Jed is worried about Ken's health. Ken apparently has to take some vitamin and mineral tablets regularly. Ken dismisses Jed's concerns.

Ken's Teaching: Ken spent last winter alone in St Louis, drinking himself to death, and coming to Lebanon to see Jed only twice. Jed went to St Louise to see Ken five times. Ken's exploits were terminated by his collapsing in the street and ending up in a hospital. Now Ken has returned to his physical therapy. He has signed a contract and after a six-year absence, he is returning to his job as a high school teacher this winter. This decision is apparently to do him good, though Ken is not very enthusiastic about it. He is not yet decided whether he is to keep the contract or to break it. He believes he has a number of other options open to him. He sought for a job with any accredited English Department outside the provincial town of Lebanon, but he did not succeed. He used to be an excellent teacher but he sees that his present crippled state does not qualify him to repeat his success. He fears to face the classroom again.

John and Gwen: John and Gwen consider buying a place in Lebanon and covert it into a recording studio for Gwen. They are looking for something away from Nashville, where the studios are very expensive. They are interested in Ken's house, which is the reason for their visiting Ken. Ken is ready to bargain but he keeps the business secret from Jed as yet. John manages a prospering copper company which formally belongs to his wealthy wife. Gwen is apparently too much of hot head to be able to run business, so John tries hard to keep her from her business. John encourages Gwen to a singing career so that she would be occupied and would not meddle with his business transactions. John and Gwen expect a call from Nashville. When the phone rings, John answers it but when Gwen wants to talk to the man, he claims it was not the one from Nashville.

Gwen's Singing: John and Gwen went to Lebanon to disappear and enjoy some peace, which is what Gwen actually does find here. Gwen has troubles with a mental block, she cannot open her mouth to sing when the microphones are on in the studio. She is not really convinced about her qualities as a singer, considering her age and the devastating way of life she led. Also she had to undergo a series of various operations, one the consequences being that she cannot have children.

Sally and Matt: Sally gives the impression of a confused fragile elderly woman who was badly affected by her husband's death. Matt has been dead for a year now but he has not been buried yet. Sally keeps his ashes in her bedroom. Matt did not want Sally to keep his ashes in an urn but Sally has not been able to give them up. Sally keeps the ashes in a large box, gives them airing every day, and even talks to them. She dried a rose in the box, which she procures for the funeral. Now she prepares to fulfil his last wish because she is selling her house and moving to a senior citizens enclave in California. Sally had herself persuaded to move to the retirement community by her brother Buddy. Buddy, who is June's father, and his wife Olive live next door to what is to be Sally's house.

Sally's UFO: Matt was a Jew and he was not afraid to speak his mind, so that he was hated by his Lebanon neighbours. He was very fond of the Lebanon countryside, so they spent there every vacation. He was fond of fishing, though he never caught anything. Sally suspects that he did not bait his hook on purpose because he did not want the responsibility. Matt did not express exactly what he wanted Sally to do with his ashes, so Sally decides to scatter them into the river at the boathouse where they first made love. It was on their second date, after they saw UFO from the porch. It was a long time before such things started to be discussed and it was during war, so they thought they were being invaded by the Japanese. They went to watch for the UFO regularly afterwards, but they never saw it again.

June and Shirley: June is trying to catch her daughter in the house, but Shirley does her best to avoid her. June does not keep in touch with Shirley's father, though the parents see her regularly on the day of Shirley's birthday and bring their granddaughter presents. June was actively engaged in the 1960s rallies. There were demonstrations for the end of the war, for banning the bomb, for the rights of blacks, women, and homosexuals. June is sorry that she gave up her daughter to be brought up by aunt Sally because Shirley does not respect her as mother now.

Shirley's Illegitimacy: John scolds Shirley for spying on him and Gwen at the window when they were making love a while ago. Shirley claims that she never saw anything so disgusting in her whole young life. Shirley is apprehensive about being an illegitimate child. She is repelled by sexuality, she claims she does not intend to have sex in her life and so defines herself strictly in opposition to her promiscuous mother. Gwen is excited about having an audience during the act of love making and she exclaims that Shirley ought to be always present to enhance her pleasure. Gwen seems to be fond of sex; she also makes a point of having lit a candle to thank God that Ken's sexual performance was not affected by his accident.

Shirley's Ambitions: Shirley was brought up by Sally and Matt, so she thinks of Sally rather than June as her mother. Shirley is highly sensitive and she cannot stand the adults talking calmly about scattering Matt's ashes. She regarded Matt as her father and believes that scattering his ashes in the river is disrespectful. She seems to have taken after her mother, for she is a smoker and drug user. She plans to devote her life to art, though she does not know which as yet, and to become the most famous native of the Midwest.

Matt's Funeral: Shirley wears her great-grandmother's old gown she found in the attic and is ready to wear this for the funeral of Matt. Gwen wears just a sheet when she enters the room. Gwen decides to accompany Sally to the funeral. She feels she owes much to Matt's positive influence on her life, therefore she thinks she is obliged to accompany him on his last journey. She goes to change into a flamboyant dress, following the example set by Shirley. Gwen was initially very ready to go to the funeral but now she thinks she cannot make it. She makes John comfort her and make her believe that there are no ashes in the box but chocolates that they are going to feed fish. Sally cannot find the box with the ashes and it is eventually discovered in the fridge. Sally after all decides not to scatter the ashes.

Eskimo Tale: Weston tells what he calls an Eskimo folk tale, but others think it is scatological, pointless, and vulgar. It is about an Eskimo family whose caribou meat froze to stone. One of them melted it by a fart but the meat then stank so badly that no one could eat it, so that the family died of hunger anyway. Weston does not engage in much conversation otherwise. He mostly meddles in the dialogues of others by taking idioms and proverbs literary and talking about various works of literature which he recalls in connection with the topic of the conversation. The act closes by his playing guitar.

Act Two

Sally at the Funeral: The following day is the day of the funeral of Harley Campbell. Aunt Sally attends. She was engaged to the man but she is happy that she did not marry him. Campbell was married twice and both his wives with their respective lawyers are present at the funeral. It is Sally's first time in the church since she was expelled from teaching Sunday school after her marriage to a Jew. Sally passes out in the church and is lead to doctor Anderson. She does not take her affliction seriously though it could have been a slight stroke. She claims she does not believe in death: "There's no such thing. It goes on and then it stops. You can't worry about the stopping, you have to worry about the going on."

Shirley and Jed: Shirley wonders who her father is. She talks with Jed and tries to find a flower to which she could compare herself. Jed suggests an anemone, a rare flower of Greek heroes, and Shirley likes the idea. Shirley reads aloud a letter that Jed is answering. It is from a major botanical garden, Sissinghurt Castle, Property of the National Trust, and it confirms and credits Jed with the important rediscovery of the Slater's Crimson China rose. Shirley prepares herself to leave with John and Gwen to Nashville for several days because she has never been beyond her home town. June forbids her going.

Ken at School: Two weeks ago, Ken was invited to the high school where he is supposed to teach from autumn. He met his former principal, now superintendent Mac McConnell. McConnell was embarrassed about Jed when he realized that Jed is Ken's lover. Ken was introduced to his three classes; he were not ready to face the pupils and the pupils were not prepared for the sight of a disabled teacher. Ken realized that now the young do not even know where Vietnam is. The incident affected him badly.

Ken before Vietnam: Ken blames John and Gwen for his having lost his legs in Vietnam. Fifteen years ago they were all living together in Berkeley. Gwen, Ken, and June were all in love with John. June was very promiscuous at the time. When Gwen and John moved to live with Ken in Lebanon, June left the house. She was then six months pregnant. She was estranged from them and became a militant activist. John, Gwen, and Ken planned to escape to Europe to avoid being drafted. John however told Gwen that Ken changed his mind and they left without him a week ahead. Ken did not follow them but waited several months until he got drafted.

Ken after Vietnam: Ken received five medals for Vietnam but he is not proud of himself. He was proud to go to Vietnam but not to have returned from there. He thinks that his actions in the war were to no purpose because a heroic action must have a saving result. He returns to Weston's Eskimo story and suggests that if the family ate the meat, they would be saved and the act of thawing the meat would have been an act of heroism. "Be that as it may, and it stank so bad that the family could hardly eat it, but they managed and survived, we could perhaps accept that as an unpleasant but not altogether vainglorious moment in the history of the Eskimo. ... So the saving grace --- would have been surviving. Don't choke on it, don't turn up your nose, swallow it and live..."

Gwen's Success: Gwen spends the morning on the phone, talking with people from the music business. Her inherited copper company is difficult for her to manage: she was celebrated by the workers whom she promised social securities but she could not keep the promise because the board of directors decided to invest in other improvements. The company is solely hers but the decisions are not. Gwen receives a call informing her that her record was accepted and will be issued. John is surprised because he arranged to push Gwen into the business but Gwen eventually managed on her own. Gwen reveals that she knows about John's secret doings but that she does not mind: "John's doing nothing I don't know about. You think I'm blind? I gotta have John. And if he needs to wheel and deal behind my back, then he's welcome to it."

Sally's Purchase: John presses Ken to arrange the purchase of the house. June is against selling it but the house is Ken's. Sally starts bidding against John's offers and wins the place. She will give it to Jed so that he could continue his garden and Ken is welcome to stay or to leave. Sally with Jed secretly scattered Matt's ashes in the rose garden in the morning. It is revealed that Gwen was not really interested in the house. Jed is especially disgusted by her idea of letting the garden and the weeds grow as they would. John apparently came to Lebanon to claim Shirley who is probably his daughter. June refuses to give Shirley up and Shirley eventually decides to stay with her mother.

Visionary Optimism: Gwen helps Ken to realize what he needs: "You think you don't need Jed, you don't need to be useful -- you'll sell the damn roof over your head to get out of facing yourself. You're on the edge of nowhere, baby, and you listen to me 'cause I been nowhere. Now are you gonna get to work or are you gonna lose it all?" Ken decides to stay with Jed in Lebanon after all. He tells the story from the tape by Johnny Young. The story describes people having found out that they are alone in the universe. The story concludes: "And they were very happy, because then they knew it was up to them to become all the things they had imaged they would find." Shirley realizes that the important thing is to find one's vocation and be good at it. Her conclusion is optimistic: "I am the last of the Talleys. And the whole family has just come to nothing at all so far. Fortunately, it's on my shoulders. I won't fail us." The characters are left full of plans for future.


The Form: It is a conversational play which contains little outward action. It is based on a series of confrontations among the characters who keep on coming and going to and from the family room. In Act I, Ken is the only who remains fixed in the room and so either actively engages in or just passively witnesses all the conversation going on in the play. Initially there is little background information about the characters. The nature of the characters and the character constellation is revealed only gradually by various hints scattered throughout the dialogues. All of the characters speak standard spoken English with some colloquial words.

The Title: Act I takes place on the fifth of July. The significant date of the beginning of the new American state may refer to the beginning of a new phase in the lives of the characters. Gwen embarks on a singing career and with John they plan to purchase a house in the country. Aunt Sally is to sell the house, dispose of the ashes of her husband, and move to a senior citizens enclave in California. All of these changes are painful for the characters, though at the end they are likely to turn out to be changes for the better.

The Message: The message of the play could be explained in terms of Weston's scatological Eskimo story. Ken later suggests a different ending for it and makes the family eat the stinking meat and survive. The moral is that one must not turn up one's nose at foul things but must swallow it in order to survive. That is what the characters eventually manage. Ken comes to terms with his injury and decides to return to teaching. Aunt Sally manages to scatter the ashes. Gwen after all will have her singing career. Incompatible characters are divided and the compatible ones remain together: John and Gwen leave, the relationship of Ken and Jed is reaffirmed, Shirley accepts June as her mother.


  • Author

    Wilson, Lanford. (b. 1939).
  • Full Title

    Fifth of July. 
  • First Performed

    New York: Circle Repertory Company, 1978.
  • Form



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