Burn This

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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 1998
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 4. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 15
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 37

Burn This


Burn This opened in Los Angeles, California, on January 22, 1987. Wilson’s play is a contemporary romantic drama, but it is not a happy romance, and even the resolution cannot be described as entirely happy. The two romantic leads, Anna and Pale, do not find love easy, and it is not easy for the audience to witness. Early reviews of the play were mixed. Although reviewers commended Joan Allen and John Malkovich’s performances, some critics questioned the credibility of an attraction between Anna and Pale. Nevertheless, the play has been generally well-received because the characters are interesting, particularly Larry, Anna’s homosexual roommate, who is funny and endearing. In a 1986 interview with David Savron, Wilson explained that Burn This is a love story different from any other love story because the characters do not say, “I love you”; they say, “I don’t want this.” This conflict, argued Wilson, makes the love story contemporary. Wilson spent time studying modern dance so that he could incorporate the atmosphere and style into his character of Anna. Burn This is Wilson’s thirty-eighth play, and he was willing to wait for nearly a year to put it on stage because he wanted John Malkovich to play Pale. He has stated that with this play he wanted to recapture the convoluted plotting of his earliest plays. Wilson relies upon dialogue to reveal the plot, and thus, the audience must pay close attention in order to follow the action. Burn This was not as commercially or critically successful as were Wilson’s Talley’s Folly or Hot I Baltimore, Page 38  |  Top of Articlebut it has been widely discussed as a depiction of a contemporary love story.


Lanford Wilson was born in Lebanon, Missouri, on April 13, 1937. He was five when his parents divorced. His father moved to California, and Wilson lived with his mother until 1956. Wilson attended Southwest Missouri State College from 1955 to 1956 and San Diego State College from 1956 to 1957; he planned on being an artist, although he had done some acting in high school. When he was nineteen, Wilson moved to Chicago, where he was employed as an illustrator at an advertising agency. He had been writing stories on his lunch hours and gathering rejection slips, when he suddenly realized that the story he was writing was not a story but a play. He has considered himself a playwright ever since.

Since he had no real knowledge about the writing of plays, Wilson enrolled at the University of Chicago to learn about plays and playwriting. After he moved to New York in 1962, Wilson became an active participant in the Off-Off Broadway theatre community. Several of his early plays were produced at the Caffe Cino or at La Mama Experimental Theatre, including The Madness of Lady Bright (1964) and Home Free (1964). These early one-act plays were followed by a succession of full-length works, beginning with Balm in Gilead (1965). In 1968, Wilson was a cofounder of the Circle Repertory Company, where most of his works have since premiered. Strong character development has become a hallmark of Wilson’s work. His characters often exist on the fringes of society, but as the play progresses, they demonstrate that they are capable of growth and change.

Burn This (1987) is Wilson’s thirty-eighth play. In a December, 1986, interview, Wilson stated that he considers Burn This to be the best work he has ever done. But he also explained that it is difficult to decide on a favorite, as his opinion sometimes changes when new productions of his works are staged. Wilson has been the recipient of several awards, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award in 1973 for Hot I Baltimore and in 1980 for The Migrants. Wilson also received the American institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1974, and in 1980, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Theatre Club, Inc. Medal, and the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award for Talley’s Folly. Wilson has received Tony Award nominations for Fifth of July (1979), Talley’s Folly (1980), and Angels Fall (1983). The Migrants (a collaboration with Tennessee Williams), Fifth of July, Lemon Sky, The Rimers of Eldritch, The Sand Castle, Wandering, and The Mound Builders have all been produced on television. Wilson has also written two original television plays, Stoop: A Turn and Taxi. Hot I Baltimore was adapted as a television series in 1975. Wilson received a Ph.D. in 1985 from University of Missouri.


Act I, scene 1

Burn This opens just after the death and funeral of Robbie, Anna and Larry’s roommate. The action takes place in the roommates’ loft, and as the play begins Anna is huddled on the sofa smoking, a drink in her hand. Burton arrives at the loft and is admitted. In the conversation that follows, the audience learns that Robbie and his partner, both of whom were gay, were killed recently in a boating accident. Anna was unable to reach Burton, who was out of town, and he has come to the apartment upon returning to New York and hearing the news. When Larry enters with groceries, the audience learns even more about the events of the past few days. The audience also learns about the nature of Anna and Burton’s relationship. Although he is supposed to be her boyfriend, he could not be reached by phone when she needed him, and his initial interaction with Anna seems distant. Both Larry and Anna take turns describing Robbie’s funeral and his family’s reaction to his death. The audience learns that Robbie and Anna worked closely together and that she had recently changed careers from dancer to choreographer. Robbie was an integral part of Anna’s new career, and his dancing was also a part of her choreography work. Thus, she has not only lost a friend and roommate, she has lost an artistic partner. Anna tells Burton that Robbie’s family, none of whom had never seen him dance, did not acknowledge that he was gay. Instead, they assigned Anna the role of Robbie’s girlfriend and treated her as his grieving widow. Both Larry and Anna are upset at this treatment by Robbie’s family, and the dialogue serves an important purpose of establishing this family’s background before the arrival of Pale, Robbie’s older brother, who appears at the loft later in Act I. Anna, Larry, and Burton Page 39  |  Top of Articlealso talk about Burton’s recent trip, the purpose of which was to help him find sources and inspiration for his next screenplay. Burton makes a great deal of money for the sale of his scripts, but apparently feels no great loss at their sale and would just as soon not know how Hollywood uses his material.

Act I, scene 1

The scene opens with a pounding on the door; it is the middle of the night. Pale, enters the loft; he is loud and obnoxious. His speech makes little sense to Anna and is filled with obscenities. It is revealed that Pale is twelve years older than Robbie and that it has been a month since the funeral. Pale creates so much noise that Larry is awakened but returns to bed. The conversation between Pale and Anna is confrontational and unpleasant. At times neither seems to be listening to the other person and the speech becomes almost a monologue. As he has been speaking, Pale has also been undressing. When he breaks down, Anna tries to comfort him. Pale lies down on the sofa; his conversation is peppered with sexual innuendo, and the lights fade. When the stage lights come back up in a few moments, it is morning. The conversation between Anna and Larry reveals that Pale slept in Anna’s bed. Anna states that Pale was like a bird with a broken wing that needed healing. Pale is anxious to leave and almost bolts from the loft, but first he tells Anna that he has a wife and children.

Act II, scene 1

It is almost two months later, New Year’s Eve. Anna and Burton are together. They are discussing their recent work when Larry returns early from a trip, interrupting what was obviously planned intimacy between Anna and Burton. The three begin talking and Burton tells a story about an anonymous quasi-homosexual experience he once had during a snow storm. The conversation ends when Larry opens the door and a very drunk Pale falls into the room. Pale is as rude as he was during his first visit to the loft, and a confrontation erupts between Pale and Burton, which escalates into a fight. Anna throws Burton out; she would like to throw Pale out, but he is too drunk. Anna and Larry leave the stage as each goes to bed; a sleeping Pale is left lying to the side of the stage. But before the lights fade, the audience sees Pale walking toward Anna’s bedroom. When the lights come back up, Larry is preparing coffee. Pale emerges and begins making tea, and finally Anna comes out of her bedroom. Anna states that she and Pale are like apples and

Lanford Wilson Lanford Wilson

oranges that do not belong together. Pale makes an effort to convince her that they do belong together, but she is determined to have him leave. Anna reveals that she is frightened of a serious emotional commitment. The scene ends with Pale leaving the loft and Anna leaving to be alone.

Act II, scene 2

Burton and Larry are alone on stage. Burton appears dejected and is holding his new script. It has been a month since the confrontation on New Year’s Eve. Larry reveals that Anna has been working on a new dance, but that she has not seen Pale. Burton

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Anna in a scene from a 1991 production at the University of Iowa Anna in a scene from a 1991 production at the University of Iowa

says that he has never had to deal with loss before; he had a privileged childhood and has always had what he wants. Burton cannot understand why Anna has thrown Pale out and then created a dance about him. Burton leaves his new screenplay with Larry to read and then leaves. The stage fades to black and when the lights come up in a few moments it is night and Pale is waiting as Anna enters and turns on the lights. Pale reveals that Larry invited him to see Anna’s new dance and that Larry gave Pale a key and a note asking him to come to the loft. Larry also gave Anna a note asking her to meet Larry there. Both Anna and Pale understand that Larry has set them up, and although Anna says that she does not want this, the play ends with the burning of Larry’s notes and Anna and Pale’s embrace.



Anna is a thirty-two-year-old dancer and aspiring choreographer. She is beautiful, tall, and strong. When the play begins she is grief-stricken at the recent death of her gay roommate, Robbie, who Page 41  |  Top of Articlehas just died in a boating accident. At the funeral, Anna is mistaken for Robbie’s girlfriend, since his family either did not know or refused to acknowledge that he was gay. In the opening scene, she is exhausted from the experience, is drinking, and has resumed smoking. When Pale appears in the middle of the night a month later, Anna comforts him, and after an initially rocky start the two share her bed. After Pale leaves, it is clear that Anna has not been left unaffected by his visit. The next act takes place two months later, with Anna, who has been thinking about marriage and motherhood, celebrating New Year’s Eve with Burton. After Pale once again spends the night, Anna asks him to leave and admits that she is frightened. For the next weeks she escapes into work, but what she creates is a dance about Pale. In the last scene of the play, Anna and Pale are reunited and both admit their feelings.


Burton is tall, athletic, and good-looking. He is a successful screenwriter and Anna’s boyfriend. In the opening scene, Burton is consoling Anna, but since she could not reached him earlier (he was in Canada), Anna attended the funeral without him. He is very focused on his work and appears to view screenwriting as a way of making a great deal of money rather than as an artistic pursuit. When a screenplay is sold, Burton never concerns himself with how it is produced. In the second act, when Pale’s sudden arrival interrupts Anna and Burton’s celebration of New Year’s Eve, he and Pale fight, and Burton learns that Pale and Anna were intimate. During the confrontation that follows, Burton is rejected by Anna and asked to leave the apartment. The next morning, Burton calls Anna, but when Pale interrupts the conversation, Burton hangs up. He reappears at the beginning of the next scene, and tells Larry that Anna has not returned any of his calls or responded to his messages. Burton admits he was a privileged child and that he has never lost anything important before. His loss of Anna is difficult for him to accept or to understand.


See Pale


Larry is another of Anna’s roommates. He is twenty-seven, very intelligent, and gay. Larry works in advertising. He is Anna’s good friend and confidant,

Sidebar: HideShow


  • There are no media adaptations of Burn This. A few of Lanford Wilson’s plays have been produced for television. These include: Stoop: A Turn (New York Television Theatre, 1969), Fifth of July (Showtime, 1982), and The Migrants (with Tennessee Williams; CBS, 1973).

and is aware of Anna’s love for Pale long before she is ready to admit it. Larry provides some light comedy that helps dispel the tension of the play. He also recognizes that Anna loves Pale, and so Larry arranges for Pale to see the premier of a dance she has choreographed. Larry finally uses a note as a means of bringing the two lovers together.


Pale is Robbie’s older brother who appears in the second scene to collect Robbie’s belongings. He manages a restaurant, but is vague and misleading about his life. He is separated from his wife and children, but does not admit it until later in the play. Pale is thirty-six and is described as very sexy in a blue-collar working-class kind of way; his language is filled with obscenities. He admits that he knew that Robbie was gay but is initially contemptuous and sarcastic about his brother’s lifestyle. Pale initially appears loud, rude, and obnoxious, but Anna thinks he is trying to disguise his pain at his brother’s loss. When he breaks down finally, Anna invites him into her bed. After spending the night with Anna, Pale rushes out the next morning. He returns two months later to interrupt Anna’s date with Burton. After the two men fight, Burton is forced to leave, and Pale spends the night. The next morning, Anna asks Pale to leave, and he does so reluctantly. Following his attendance of Anna’s dance premier, during which he realizes that the dance is about himself and Anna, Pale returns to Anna’s apartment after Larry provides him with the keys. In the final scene he admits to Anna his feelings for her.

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Three of the characters in Burn This have artistic careers. Anna has been a dancer, and as the play begins, she is trying to draw upon her experience as a dancer in a new career as a choreographer. Anna uses art as the creative outlet of her emotions and experiences. The new dance she creates in the last act is based on her relationship with Pale. For Burton, art leads to financial reward; he is not willing to take risks for art. He uses his experiences and the environment around him to create screenplays, but Burton’s attachment to his art is less personal than Anna’s. He easily sells his work and dismisses his creative attachment to it once the sale is completed. Larry is. a graphic artist for an advertising firm. He acknowledges that he sells his creative talents and that the intended purpose of his art is to make money and sell products. All of these characters in Burn This find a use for art, but art means something different to each one.


It is Robbie’s death that leads Pale to Anna. Wilson asks the audience to believe that Pale’s rude and socially inept behavior is camouflage for his grief at his brother’s death. In a very real sense, it is death that leads these two characters to re-evaluate their respective lives. Without Robbie’s death, the audience is led to believe that Anna, who is feeling the desire to marry and have children, would have chosen Burton. Pale’s emergence in her life forces her to confront her fear of emotional intimacy.


The friendship between Anna and Larry is the anchor in her life. It is Larry’s line, “Now you show up,” that reveals to the audience that Burton was not available to comfort Anna when she needed him, and so Larry creates the first questions about the nature of Anna and Burton’s relationship. It is Larry who helps Anna deal with Robbie’s death, and it is Larry who appears when he thinks that Anna needs rescuing from Pale. Most importantly, Larry seems to recognize, even before Anna, the growing importance of Pale in her life. And it is Larry who finally resolves the impasse, by using notes to bring Pale and Anna together.

Human Condition

Larry represents humanity’s attempt to confront modern life. One of the first examples of this is revealed in the story he tells about designing a Christmas card for Chrysler that must be so politically correct that the only thing that everyone can believe in is a car. Larry is cynical about his nieces and nephews, and he sees all these children as a result of a woman’s need to become a “baby machine.” Larry notes that all the wrong people reproduce, as has been the case throughout history. Anna represents humanity’s effort to confront prejudice. Her outrage at how Robbie’s family had removed themselves from his life establishes Anna’s sensitivity to her friend’s pain. But she is also trying to prevent more pain by distancing herself from any serious emotional involvement. Anna says she is sick of the age she is living in, that she is feeling ripped off and scared. While Pale can only curse at the indignities of urban life, both Anna and Larry are trying to find a deeper understanding of life and love and the demands of modern existence, which make uninvolvement more desirable.

Prejudice and Tolerance

An important theme is that of prejudice. Robbie’s family cannot acknowledge his homosexuality and so they negate his existence. They must create a fantasy life for him that is different from the one he actually led. Robbie is assigned Anna as a girlfriend and his career as a dancer is ignored. No member of Robbie’s family had ever seen him dance. Pale is concerned that Robbie’s death might be a criminal mob punishment for Robbie’s sexuality. Later in the play, Larry relates an experience from his recent plane trip in which a seatmate lectured him on the sanctity of the American home and family. Burton, who is heterosexual, relates an experience he had with another man while crouched in the a doorway. Burton’s story is meant to establish that he is open-minded and tolerant. That he must attach a disclaimer to the story to assert that the experience did not mean anything also establishes the influence of social prejudice.



In Greek plays the sections of the drama were signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans,

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • Wilson’s play relies upon his carefully crafted dialogue to carry the performance. Since there is little action on stage to define the characters, the audience is forced to listen to the words very closely. What does the dialogue in Burn This reveal about each character’s life, dreams, and fears?
  • Anna, Pale, and Burton each change and grow during the three months during which the play is set. Their relationships evolve and alter in several ways. What do you think these characters learn about themselves? About each other?
  • Research what it means to be a choreographer. What is required? Is schooling enough, or is experience as a dancer more important? Is this a difficult career choice requiring much sacrifice? What are the rewards?
  • It used to be argued that small towns were disappearing from the map because people were moving to the big cities. In recent years this trend is being reversed. How does living in the city differ from living in the country? Note the references to the small town in which Robbie grew up. What are those references meant to signify if Wilson is also lamenting the lack of humanity in a modern world?
  • Explore Wilson’s references to an alienating modern civilization. Are people required to fight progress so that they can preserve their humanity? Exactly what does technology mean to humanity?

and for Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen combined some of the acts. Burn This is a two-act play. The exposition occurs in the first act when the audience learns of Robbie’s death and the family history. The complication also occurs in this act when it becomes clear that Anna cares about Pale. The climax occurs at the beginning of the second act when Burton and Pale fight, and Anna throws Burton out and chooses Pale. The falling action, which is the result of the climax, occurs later in act two when Anna admits that she is frightened of emotional involvement. In the catastrophe, an old word for conclusion, Larry unites the two lovers.


The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multifaceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. “Characterization” is the process of creating a life-like person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. Burn This provides characters whose dialogue reveals their temperament and identity. For example, Larry uses comedy to confront life. It is a means of easing life’s pain.


Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Burn This is the story of Anna and Pale’s romance.

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The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Wilson’s play is a loft in New York City.


Sexuality and Disease

When Lanford Wilson was writing Burn This, the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic was a major issue for homosexuals. But Wilson never refers to AIDS; instead the play is a heterosexual love story. But AIDS was not far from the news in 1987; AZT, a drug to treat AIDS, was approved by the FDA. Although AZT was expensive, predicted to cost at least $10,000 per year per patient, it was the first treatment that offered hope for AIDS victims. Another effort to halt the AIDS epidemic was suggested by the United States Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who argued that condom commercials should be permitted to air on television. Koop’s suggestion was greeted with shock by those groups who argued that condom advertisements would encourage more illicit sexual activity. Some religious groups, who interpreted AIDS as God’s punishment of homosexuals, wanted total abstinence to be the official government position in terms of public service campaigns about the disease. Attempts to raise government spending on AIDS research created controversy, although homosexuals did demonstrate in Washington to demand that the federal government increase funding for AIDS. But President Ronald Reagan failed to act until he was forced to recognize that AIDS presented a risk to the heterosexual population as well as to gays. The sexual revolution that had begun in the mid-to late-1960s, and which had continued through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, finally peaked when it became clear that AIDS was more than a rare, “gay man’s disease.” By the end of the 1980s, fear of AIDS was making more people cautious about sexual relationships. Consequently, when Anna and Pale, who barely know one another, engage in a sexual relationship, the play’s 1987 audience was likely considering the risk involved in their behavior.


In many cases art was imitating life in 1987. Theatre and film releases echoed newspaper headlines. Racial and sexual intolerance and the growing perception that big business was uncaring and dishonest provided ample subject matter for entertainment. Although Burn This does not deal overtly with prejudice, one of its primary themes is intolerance. Wilson devotes a significant part of the text to establishing the intolerance of Robbie’s family. Later, Larry relates the story of his plane trip and the intolerant attitude of a seatmate who expounds upon the importance of the American family. In the years just before 1987, prejudice against homosexuality had become more visual, fed in part because of the increase in the number of people afflicted with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and AIDS. Fear motivated much of this intolerance, but the effect was an increase in hate crimes against homosexuals. When Burn This debuted, two other plays that dealt with discrimination were also first presented. August Wilson’s drama Fences looked at how discrimination could destroy a man’s hopes and dreams, and Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy demonstrated that people could rise above the social constraints placed upon them based on their class, race, and religion. On Wall Street, a rash of insider trading scandals provided material for both the front pages of newspapers and the entertainment page as Wallstreet became a hit Hollywood film. The film’s star, Michael Douglas, won an academy award for his portrayal of a cold-hearted businessman who is willing to sacrifice the American worker to increase personal wealth. 1987 brought inflation and depression as American farmers lost their livelihood. With the perception that life was out of control, that inflation, depression, business, and disease were eroding the American dream, all of these plays and this film end with the promise of justice and the hope of a better life. This was a period in which entertainment provided escape with films such as Moonstruck, Babette’s Feast, and The Untouchables. In 1987, American audiences were in desperate need of hope, either real or perceived.


Reviews for Burn This have been mixed: most have noted strong performances by actors appearing in the productions, but they have also faulted the play as weak in elements of plot and character development. Wilson has stated in interviews that he waited

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • 1987: Homosexuals protest in Washington, D.C., to demand an end to discrimination and to demand more federal funding for research of AIDS.

    Today: Homosexuality remains a basis for discrimination in many areas of life. In the military, homosexuality is a leading reason for general discharges, in spite of President Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
  • 1987: AZT wins FDA approval for the treatment of AIDS. The treatment will cost $10,000 a year, but it is not a cure and its side effects mean that many AIDS victims will not be able to take the drug.

    Today: The most recent AIDS treatment, a protease inhibitor, though initially promising, still fails to provide a cure. And, as has been the case with so many other treatments, newer drug combinations fail to help some patients while proving to be prohibitively expensive for many.
  • 1987: U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop asks that commercials for condoms be shown on television.

    Today: Although they are boycotted in some areas, a few condom commercials have aired on national television. However, there still remains a great deal of public resistance to the commercials.
  • 1987: India and Sri Lanka sign a treaty designed to end the ethnic violence that has persisted for four years. But the violence continues even with the treaty.

    Today: Ethnic violence in Bosnia continues to draw American troops to the area. Atrocities, especially against women, have been an central part of the Croatian-Serb War.
  • 1987: Beloved, a novel by Toni Morrison which details the story of a slave girl, is published.

    Today: Television host and actress Oprah Winfrey is scheduled to release the film adaptation of Beloved.

to premier Burn This until John Malkovich was available to play the role of Pale, and in reviews of the play it was Malkovich’s performance that was cited as one of the play’s strengths. Frank Rich, writing for The New York Times, assessed Malkovich as a “combustive figure on stage, threatening to incinerate everyone and everything around him with his throbbing vocal riffs, bruising posture and savage, unfocused eyes.” Rich continued to describe Malkovich, whom he declared, “delivers the firepower. . . while he is equally busy tossing a mane of long dark hair, hoping to arouse the carnal interest of the very pretty young woman.” But Rich was not complimenting Wilson’s character development; he was complimenting Malkovich’s performance. And after he devoted an entire column to celebrating the actor, Rich admitted that Malkovich’s performance “yanks us through this always intriguing, finally undernourishing three-hour play. . . more muddled than pointed.” One of the problems with the play, according to Rich, is that there is no real reason for Anna to choose Pale over Burton. The script offers little reason for her shift in interest from Burton to Pale, and since any sexual charge between Joan Allen and John Malkovich was missing, the audience remained unconvinced. Instead, Rich suggested that the almost happy ending was more a result of Anna’s biological clock forcing her to choose Pale. Rich did note that Larry gets to speak Wilson’s funniest lines and that the character is played with “warmth and wry intelligence.” Larry’s job is to comment upon the actions and lives of the other three characters. This character’s voyeurism and disconnectedness, asserted Rich, “seem to say more about the playwright’s feelings of loss and longing than the showier romance at Page 46  |  Top of Articlecenter stage.” Finally, Rich pronounced Wilson’s play as self-indulgent with excisable blind alleys and containing small details that substitute for plot contrivances.

Edwin Wilson, who reviewed Burn This for The Wall Street Journal, focused less on Malkovich’s performance and more on the plot; he also found fault with the playwright Wilson’s plotting of the romance. One of the major difficulties, explained critic Wilson, “is the shaky premise that Pale, underneath his rough exterior, is really a tender, caring man who has a healthy effect on others.” Anna is able to create her first successful dance after she spends two nights with Pale. Yet, “Pale’s behavior is so brutish that Anna discredits herself by taking to him.” Wilson noted in his review that Pale’s purpose may be to shake up people, especially Anna and Larry, who have a “basic grudge against the philistine, insensitive, materialistic straight world that rejects artists and homosexuals.” By having Anna choose Pale, Wilson suggested, the playwright may be suggesting that “art is not enough, that homosexuality is incomplete, that a woman like Anna is really hiding from her true nature with homosexual roommates, that a macho creature like Pale is, underneath it all, a real man and just what Anna needs.” Wilson concluded his review by citing the play’s direction, the witty dialogue, and Malkovich’s performance as the play’s strong points.

Newsweek reviewer Jack Kroll commended the play’s “voracious vitality and an almost manic determination to drive right into the highest voltage that life can register,” but also pointed to errors in logic and false leads as a problematic. In a mostly favorable evaluation of Burn This, Daniel Watermeier focused on the characters, whom he stated, are grounded against particular archetypes. Although he acknowledged that the ending is only “tentatively happy,” Watermeier characterized the romance as more satisfying than had Rich or Wilson, declaring: “Burn This explores the nature of eros in contemporary American culture, its relationship to death and to renewal and creativity in both life and art.” Watermeier considered Burn This to be Wilson’s “most complex, sophisticated, and daring play.” Finally, Martin Jacobi declared that Wilson is really only pointing out that sometimes men and women can only achieve limited happiness. Jacobi’s interpretation of the play allows for a more generous evaluation of the romance between Anna and Pale, and it makes the perceived inconsistencies of plot less important.


Sheri Metzger

Metzger is an adjunct professor at Embry-Riddle University. In this essay she examines the question of whether it is believable that Anna would choose to be with Pale rather than Burton.

In Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, the feminine hero, Anna, chooses Pale as her lover/partner rather than Burton. Setting aside the argument that love can sometimes make little sense of emotion, audiences, and especially women, are left wondering why she would make such a choice. Indeed, some of the play’s male reviewers noted the unlikeliness of this choice as well. In his review of Burn This, Frank Rich noted that Anna and Pale lack the depth of passion of other great romantic theatrical pairings. Wilson’s lovers “don’t fight to the death,” instead they “slowly settle down to make the choices facing those New York couples who inhabit the slick magazines,” Rich remarked. “What begins as a go-for-broke sexual struggle trails off into sentimental conflicts between love and career, unbridled passion and intellectual detachment, a loft life style and the biological clock.”

The question implied by Rich’s comments is why Anna would choose Pale. In their first meetings, he is rude, obnoxious, confrontational, emotionally unstable, and drunk. If her desire to have children is a factor, as Rich asserted, would not Burton make the better choice? He is wealthy, steadily employed in an artistic profession that compliments Anna’s own, emotionally stable, and in love with her. In recent years, biological anthropologists have insisted that women’s reproductive choices focus on a male’s ability to support a family, as well as physical attractiveness. If Anna’s concern is her biological clock, and the text bears this out, then Burton appears the more likely choice.

Pale is unemployed by the play’s end and his emotional instability should make him a less attractive choice. So why does Anna make this unlikely selection? In the stage directions for Burn This, Burton is described as tall, athletic, and good-looking. Pale is described as well-built and sexy. Clearly, Wilson intended that Anna’s choice should reflect a grand passion, a sexual intensity that she cannot resist; but, the dialogue of the play fails to supply the necessary ingredients. Rich described Anna and Pale’s relationship as “mechanical” and defined by “predictable conventions of breezy romantic

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  • Talley’s Folly, one of Wilson’s most successful plays, was first performed in 1979. Set in 1944, this play is about the romance between a thirty-one-year-old Midwestern spinster and a forty-two-year-old Jewish tax accountant.
  • Wilson’s Gingham Dog, written in 1969, is the story about the end of a marriage. Vincent and Gloria are an interracial couple and the end of their marriage focuses on issues of social change.
  • Serenading Louie, Wilson’s 1976 play, is about alienation, estrangement, and death. The focus is on two couples, neighbors who are enduring a crisis in each couple’s lives.
  • August Wilson’s Fences, written in 1987 but set in 1957, examines the effects of discrimination on a family. Although the discrimination that takes place in Fences is based on race, the idea of how love can survive in a world filled with pain and death is similar to the subject of Burn This.
  • Mordaunt Shairp’s The Green Bay Tree, written in 1933, was one of the first plays to deal with homosexuality. The play focuses on the relationship between a wealthy older man who adopts an attractive, working-class youth and seduces him with a life of luxury.
  • Harvey Fierstein’s 1978 play Torch Song Trilogy, is about a gay man who wants to be loved. The play, which won several awards, was later made into a successful film.
  • Fierstein’s On Tidy Endings (1987) is a short play about relationships. The play is not about AIDS, but it does focus on the loss that results from AIDS.

comedies.” However, the problem is that Burn This is not a breezy romantic comedy. It is a drama that Wilson intends be taken seriously, but its center is a romance that simply is not believable.

Rich is not the only reviewer to question the believability of Anna and Pale’s romance. In a review written for The Wall Street Journal, Edwin Wilson also pointed out the inconsistency of the romantic plot. E. Wilson declared that “[o]ne problem with Burn This is the shaky premise that Pale, underneath his rough exterior, is really a tender, caring man.” It is a significant problem, since there is absolutely no reason for Anna to think that Pale is anything other than what he initially seems to be.

The few moments in Act I in which Pale seems to break down are inconsistent with the rest of his dialogue. Rather than mourning Robbie, Pale’s tears appear to be more an act of feeling sorry for himself. Most of his comments about his brother are unfeeling and derisive. There is nothing to indicate that Pale is anything more than a drunk engaged in a crying jag. After she sleeps with him, Anna admits her attraction to Pale is a symptom of the “bird-with-the-broken-wing-syndrome.”

When Pale appears a second time, he is just as rude, just as drunk, and just as confrontational. And yet Anna throws Burton out and chooses Pale. Wilson noted that “Anna discredits herself in taking to him [Pale].” That assessment appears accurate, especially in the absence of any dialogue that would support Anna’s decision. Why Anna should love Pale remains one of the biggest problems in Lanford Wilson’s play.

In a critical essay on Burn This, Daniel J. Watermeier maintained that Wilson’s play is “concerned with how and why an unlikely pair ‘fall in love’; an ironic, sometimes uncomfortable, love story with a resolution that is only tentatively happy.” It is clear from his essay that Watermeier is an enthusiastic supporter who finds it difficult to offer negative criticism of Wilson, and yet he cannot ignore the difficult romantic story that lies at the heart of the play. This love story is not only uncomfortable for Anna and Pale, it is uncomfortable for

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the audience as well. And since, as Watermeier acknowledges, the play is about how and why these two fall in love, problems with that “how and why” cannot be ignored.

If the unlikeliness of Anna and Pale’s romance is a problem for the audience, Anna’s depiction of a modern woman trying to confront issues and make choices that plague her contemporaries presents special issues for women theatre-goers. In writing about the problems of gender in telling a woman’s story, Carolyn G. Heilbrun argued that women live the stories they read, that women use literature as a model for behavior. Thus, if as Heilbrun asserted, “What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that,” then women who view Burn This take something away that is cause for concern.

When Lanford Wilson has Anna choose Pale, he appears to be embracing the fiction that women don’t want nice or good men, that they are looking for “bad” boys to save. Heilbrun contended that “[i]t is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts.” But if women live by the stories they hear or read, is the image of Anna the story that women want as a model for their own lives? Anna is a woman who functions by emotion. Perhaps Wilson is making a statement about the artistic temperament, but he may also be embracing a dogma as old as man, which is essentially that women are emotionally-based creatures who do not make decisions based upon reason.

Mary Anne Ferguson echoed Heilbrun’s argument. Ferguson contended that “[l]iterature both reflects and helps to create reality. It is through their preservation in works of art that we know what the stereotypes and archetypes have been and are; in turn, knowing the images influences our view of reality and even our behavior.” Is Wilson reflecting real women in Anna? Male reviewers admit that there is no logic to explain her behavior and this, again, reinforces old debates (going back nearly two thousand years to early theology), that seek to restrict women’s choices by arguing that women are without logic.

The problem with depictions of feminine heroes such as Anna is, as Ferguson interpreted it, that “the popularization of literary images has increased their influence so that the distinction between imaginary characters and real people has become blurred in the minds of many readers.” This is, of course, a common phenomenon for movie and television stars, who find their audience unable to separate the real from the imaginary. But it can also be applied to literature and theatre. If educators are concerned with the development of self-image in young girls, and they claim to be, then Burn This might be accompanied by a disclaimer that young women should in no way find Anna’s choice to be a reflection of reality or appropriateness.

Women readers and audience members who question the romance between Anna and Pale should ask themselves, “Is this how a woman would speak? Is this what she would say and do? Does Wilson write a credible woman?” The answer would seem to be no. Julie Brown asserted that in reading the texts of women creative writing students, she has observed that readers too rarely question the authenticity of voice. Does a character’s voice reflect reality? Once again, the answer with Anna is no. Instead, Anna may reflect how Wilson thinks women behave, how he thinks they react. Anna may reflect what Wilson thinks women want from life.

My intent is not to question Wilson’s right to claim that he can create romantic fiction. Instead the question is whether he can create a real, credible woman, a woman other women would acknowledge as a model. He has failed to do this with Anna. As Brown noted, feminism is not concerned with challenging an author’s right to create a story, only with his or her ability to tell the story correctly. Brown’s concern is with her female writing students: the problem with male-generated texts is in their influence on the next generation of women writers, who have only the male text as models. Brown echoes the observations of Heilbrun and Ferguson that women use literary texts as models of behavior, and Lanford Wilson’s Anna fails as a realistic model for women.

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A scene from a 1991 Iowa Summer Repertory production A scene from a 1991 Iowa Summer Repertory production

Source: Sheri Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Richard Hornby

Hornby offers a mixed review of Wilson’s play, finding much to like about the cast and production and less to favor in the playwright’s actual words.

Lanford Wilson’s Burn This concerns three young people—two dancers and a copywriter—who share a Soho loft. The male dancer, a homosexual, has just died in a boating accident, and it becomes clear, in their grief, that the two remaining roommates were in love with him. The female dancer has a boyfriend, a successful screenwriter, whom she likes but does not really love; when the dead roommate’s brother arrives, a bizarre, drunk, long-haired, foul-mouthed individual, she falls into a passionate affair with him, despite their obvious differences in temperament and basic dislike for each other. In the end, the woman’s remaining roommate (the advertising writer) has moved out, leaving a scornful note ending with the words, “Burn this”; her exboy friend has gone to Hollywood; her new lover has lost his job as maitre d’hotel in a New Jersey restaurant and separated from his wife and family; and the two mismatched sweethearts are left alone with each other in dismay and despair.

Burn This displays the narrowness of scope and looseness of structure so typical of realistic American playwriting today. What elevates Wilson above similar writers like David Mamet, Marsha Norman, Michael Weller, or Tina Howe is his surer literary sense; behind the apparently shapeless slices of life in his plays are traditional literary devices that invigorate what would otherwise be tame pieces of reportage. The brother in Burn This is a traditional intruder figure going back to Aristophanic comedy, an alazon, or boaster and spoilsport, who tries to gain access to the feast; in Burn This he even interrupts a champagne supper between the young woman and the screenwriter. The love triangle, and the general movement from death and separation to a new union, are typical of Western comedy over the past two millennia.

Furthermore, Wilson gives all the traditional archetypes a sardonic twist. The intruder, who seems so bohemian, actually has a very middle-class job plus a wife and family, just as the dancers and writers, whom we would expect to have an unconventional lifestyle, seem very staid and bourgeois. The “happy” ending, with the couple united, is so bitter that it does not seem comic at all except in the ironic sense. Other white American playwrights today—whether commercial, serious, or avant-garde

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—are either all surface or all depth; Wilson’s plays have both an engaging surface and intriguing depths. He is not a great writer; he usually shrinks from even indirect treatment of major existential or social themes, and his dialogue lacks the distinction found, for example, in our black playwrights like August Wilson, whose Fences I reviewed here last fall. But he is a good minor playwright, which is about all he seems to want to be.

John Malkovich is so explosive as the brother that he has been compared to the young Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Like Brando, he comes on so strong that he threatens to overwhelm the play. In this case, however, the rest of the cast balances him beautifully. Joan Allen is sensitive, intelligent, and emotionally powerful; she also has the bodily control to convince you that she is a professional dancer. Jonathan Hogan gives a superbly detailed yet spontaneous performance as the screenwriter, and Lou Liberatore, as the third roommate, knows how to play a background role with skill and insight without ever calling undue attention to himself. Marshall W. Mason, one of our best directors of original plays, directed with his usual skill and care; John Lee Beatty’s magnificent setting of the loft with its cast-iron columns, set against a backdrop of windows showing a huge trompe l’oeil of a hazy skyline, deserves all the awards it will probably win.

Source: Richard Hornby, review of Burn This in the Hudson Review, Volume XLI, no. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 187-88.

Gerald Weales

Weales reviews Wilson’s play, praising it for its off-kilter performances and dark humor. While he appreciated the play text, Weales’s greatest plaudits went to the cast, particularly Joan Allen as Anna.

There is another darkly happy ending in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, and another closed, self-protective heroine who must be pried open by a relentless and relentlessly vocal male. Anna is a modern dancer, who was taking her first steps toward becoming a choreographer when the death of her friend, her mentor, her roommate brought her to a mourning standstill. Her grief and her apartment are invaded by Pale, the dead man’s brother, eloquently foul-mouthed in his denunciation of New York City and the world at large, as outraged—on the surface, at least—by the absence of parking space as by the death of his brother. Pale, who is about as artificial as grand grotesques tend to be, is some kind of natural force, simply riding over the other characters in the play—Anna’s more conventional boyfriend, her other homosexual roommate—and carrying the protesting Anna off to bed every time he (or the drink) bring him to her door. At the end, having agreed to separate, they are brought back together through the good offices of the roommate, a gay Mary Worth, and they accept what both suspect will be a union as disastrous and painful as it is necessary. Beneath this meeting of contraries, there is a subtheme about love, loss, and art. The dance that Anna creates out of the loss of her partner and the sexual energy of her nights with Pale is said to be forceful, commanding, a work of genius alongside the tepid exercises of the other choreographers on the same program, poor would-be professionals who presumably are unlost and underlaid. At the same time, Anna’s less vital boyfriend, a screenwriter who thinks that all movies are bad, writes the serious script he has always wanted to do, a contemporary love story (presumably Burn This) which the pain of his loss of Anna makes possible.

This recycled romantic myth of creativity need not be taken too seriously, for the heart of the play beats in Pale and Anna, less as characters than as roles for John Malkovich and Joan Allen. Malkovich is outrageous and totally fascinating. He roars, rages, and flutes his way through his part, modulating only to demonstrate how to make a proper pot of tea or to suggest that his hurricane temperament can calm into tenderness. Walter Kerr in a recent column (New York Times, November 15) suggested that Malkovich is wrecking Wilson’s play, and a Page 51  |  Top of Articleplaywright who shall remain nameless asked me the other day if I thought Malkovich would ever make his performance mesh with the rest of the cast. I think that Malkovich is the Pale that Wilson wanted, that his unmeshed excess is realizing not trashing the playwright’s intention. I miss only the note of vulnerability in the character, for the chinks in Pale’s armor, as Malkovich shows them, seem as calculated as most of the rest of the performance. That calculation, however, belongs as much to the character as the actor, for Pale is a self-created figure, always conscious of his costume, his gestures, his rhetoric. For me, the odd thing about Malkovich’s performance, which has received so much praise and blame, is that my attention regularly moved from him to Joan Allen. Not all that odd perhaps, because I watched her instead of Kathleen Turner whenever they were on screen together in Peggy Sue Got Married and I was startled at what a substantial character she made of Ann in the recent television production of All My Sons. Her Anna in Burn This often sits silently, her sentences broken off by Pale’s verbal avalanche. The play of reactions across her face is a joy to behold. It is her amusement, her impatience, her disbelief that gives force to Pale’s fury of words. Less is more in Burn This, as it is in Frankie and Johnny, and Joan Allen, like Kathy Bates, makes her play particularly worth seeing.

Source: Gerald Weales, “Send in the Clowns” in the Commonweal, Volume CXIV, no. 22, December 18, 1987, pp. 749-50.


Brown, Julie. “The Great Ventriloquist Act: Gender and Voice in the Fiction Workshop,” in Associated Writing Programs Chronicle, September, 1993, pp. 7-9.

Bryer, Jackson R. “Lanford Wilson,” in The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp.277-96.

DiGaetani, John L. “Lanford Wilson,” in A Search for a Postmodern Theatre: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights, Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 285-93.

Ferguson, Mary Anne. Images of Women in Literature, Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing A Woman’s Life, Ballantine, 1988, pp. 33-47.

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Jacobi, Martin J. “The Comic Vision of Lanford Wilson,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1988, pp. 119-134.

Rich, Frank. Review of Burn This, in The New York Times, October 15, 1987.

Savran, David. “Lanford Wilson,” in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, Theatre Communications Group, 1988, pp. 306-20.

Watermeier, Daniel J. “Lanford Wilson’s Liebestod: Character, Archetype, and Myth in Burn This,” in A Lanford Wilson Casebook, edited by Jackson Bryer, New York, 1990.

Wilson, Edwin. “Hot and Bothered: Malkovich on Fire,” in The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 1987.


Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson, Boise State University, 1987.

This short book—52 pages—is a biography of Wilson.

Byer, Jackson. A Lanford Wilson Casebook, Garland, 1990.

This collection of critical essays examine several of Lanford’s plays.

Gonzales, Doreen. AIDS: Ten Stories of Courage,

Enslow, 1996. This book contains brief biographies of some of the more famous victims of AIDS.

Shilts, Randy. And The Band Played On, St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

This book traces events related to the AIDS epidemic. It was made into a cable television movie in 1993.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692900013