Patti Hartigan’s “August Wilson: A Life”, the first major biography of America’s preeminent black playwright, is a masterpiece. Wilson was one of the most successful playwrights of the late 20th century, and Hartigan’s book, published on August 15 by Simon & Schuster, vastly expands our understanding of the complex forces that shaped his life and his illuminating plays. In Hartigan’s view, Wilson’s plays, in their incisive portrayal of the black experience, have transformed the American theater.
Hartigan grew up in Rye and was inspired to become a writer by her English teachers at Rye High School and by her mother, Nancy Irene Hartigan, a research librarian at the Harrison Public Library, to whom her book is dedicated.
A former Boston Globe drama critic and arts columnist, Hartigan met Wilson in 1987 and interviewed him periodically until his death in 2005. For her book, a six-year project, she interviewed family members, friends, and theater colleagues. She traveled to cities that were especially hospitable to Wilson’s creative urges (he lived for long periods in St. Paul and Seattle). And she visited regional theaters where his plays had tryouts before their Broadway openings and where, with Wilson’s advocacy, other black playwrights found venues for their plays.
What makes this debut biography exceptional is Hartigan’s own finely tuned sense of the dramatic and her critical insights into his plays. Wilson wrote ten of them, one for each decade of the 20th century, and Hartigan builds tension as she follows their progression from script to production. A perfectionist, Wilson believed every word of his plays had meaning. He would make changes in the script all the way to curtain time, and after. What’s more, he had a compulsive need to control all aspects of his productions, from makeup to costumes to lighting, sets, and sound. Hartigan makes us feel the anxiety that producers, directors, and actors must have felt before opening night.
Pittsburgh was Wilson’s hometown and the setting for nine of his plays. He lived in that city’s poor and mostly black Hill District, where he would sometimes spend days writing in longhand in bars and restaurants. The Hill District was where he absorbed the vernacular of its black residents and brought it to the stage through the voices of his characters.
Wilson learned to read as a gifted 4-year-old. Although he dropped out of several Pittsburgh high schools (at the slightest hint of racism, he would leave and never return), he acquired a library card that introduced him to the works of the major black writers and American and European literary classics. “I’ve dropped out of high school, but I did not drop out of life,” he commented.
Hartigan’s rigorously researched 531-page biography traces Wilson’s ancestry from slavery, and she has discovered family lore that Wilson himself may not have been aware of. Wilson claimed he did no historical research for his plays, Hartigan writes. “He wrote from what he called ‘the blood’s memory’, which was his way of saying that he felt the pulse of his ancestors. He just knew what they must have endured. He listened to his characters talk, and he wrote down what they said.”
Music was central to many of Wilson’s plays. A defining experience was playing a 78-rpm recording of Blues singer Bessie Smith on his antique Victrola. “In that moment, he discovered his muse,” Hartigan writes. In Wilson’s words, “It was the beginning of my consciousness that I was a representative of a culture and a carrier of some very valuable antecedents. The blues became, and remain, the wellspring of my art.”
Wilson’s relationships with family, friends, and colleagues were complicated and often troubling. His mother, Daisy Wilson, whom he adored, was never reconciled to his being a writer (his first works were poetry in the style of Dylan Thomas), even after his public acclaim as a playwright. “At sixty-two she remained the most important influence in his life,” Hartigan states, “and he desperately sought her approval, even as a grown man.” Hartigan’s admiration for Wilson is obvious, but she does not hesitate to point out his faults: his insensitive treatment of women, his “serial infidelity” (he was married three times), his chain smoking — even in the shower — and his excessive drinking.
Throughout his life, but especially after he achieved fame, Wilson was dogged by questions about his blackness: his absentee father, a ne’er do well named Frederick Kittell, was white. Hartigan describes a PBS television interview in which Bill Moyers “pushed Wilson to discuss his mixed-race heritage.” Wilson’s response put the issue to rest: “The cultural environment of my life, the forces that have shaped me, the nurturing, the learning, have all been black ideas about the world that I learned from my mother.” The Wilson-Moyers exchange showed that Wilson “could speak like a professor,” Hartigan says, but “in conversations with his theater friends, he would code-switch between the voices of his characters and the jargon of academe.”
Luck played a pivotal role in advancing Wilson’s career. “Wilson’s friend Rob Penny had sent him a brochure from the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, scribbling the words ‘Do this!’ on the pamphlet,” Hartigan writes. The Center, dedicated to the development of new works for the stage, offers playwrights the opportunity to present their plays as works-in-progress. Starting in 1979, Wilson sent five scripts to the Center, and all five were rejected. It was not until 1982 that his script for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was accepted.
In the audience at Wilson’s reading was New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. According to the Center’s rules, critics were welcome, but reviews were not. Still, in the Times the following Sunday was a review, Hartigan says, “and it was a rave like only Frank Rich could rave.” Rich wrote: “I was electrified by the sound of the author’s voice” whom he compared to Eugene O’Neill himself. Wilson, Rich wrote, had “the talent to go all the way and write [plays] like music. It is quite unusual in 1982 to find a playwright who is willing to stake his claim to the stage not with stories or moral platitudes, but with the beauty and meaning of torrents of words.”
The artistic director of the O’Neill Center was Lloyd Richards, the first black director of a Broadway play (Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun”) and dean of the Yale School of Drama. Richards sensed the raw talent in the young playwright and became a powerful advocate for Wilson’s plays. Five of them opened at the Yale Repertory Theater under his direction before reaching Broadway.
Hartigan’s portrayal of Wilson’s relationship with the inscrutable Richards and its tragic demise is a literary triumph worthy of a book or play of its own. Richards was Wilson’s director, mentor, father figure, and friend, and questions persist regarding Richards’ role in the development of August Wilson the playwright. A mourner at Richards’ funeral in 2006 argued, “There would be no August Wilson without Lloyd Richards.” Hartigan sees it differently: “Richards nurtured and launched Wilson, but he also reinvigorated his directing career with Wilson’s plays.”
Among Wilson’s plays, “The Piano Lesson” won a Pulitzer Prize; “Fences” won both a Pulitzer and a Tony Award. Two of his plays became successful movies: “Fences”, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.
Patti Hartigan’s Rye High School yearbook entry was a quotation from playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” With “August Wilson: A Life”, Hartigan has transformed her dream into a glorious reality.
Patti Hartigan will give a talk at the Rye Free Reading Room on December 6 at 7 pm. Save the date.