The central figure in Fifth of July is Ken Talley, a Vietnam Vet whose legs were blown off in battle. Ken was an anti-war activist in the '60's who, for reasons even he hasn't understood, enlisted in the Army. Ken is a man who doesn't get involved; as his sister June tells him during the play, "You have 80 different ways of not getting involved." Ken answers, "Only 6 or 7." Ken lives on the Talley farm that he inherited; he lives with his botanist lover, Jed. It is the Independence Day weekend and Ken's old activist friends from the 60's, Gwen and John, along with their composer friend, Wes, have come from L. A. to join them for the weekend.
Gwen is a neurotic rich girl who inherited her Daddy's business and is more interested in launching a singing career than attending to the family business. John, her husband, is a crafty, slick business manager who is negotiating deals behind his wife's back and is the prototype of what would be called a "Yuppie" within a few short years. Also down for the weekend is Ken's Sister June, a disillusioned activist of the 60's as well, and her daughter Shirley, a smart, self-possessed, perhaps precocious, child of thirteen who has dreams of becoming the greatest artist to come out of the mid west. Exactly what kind of artist doesn't matter, as long as she is in "the arts." The final character of the play is Sally Talley, Ken's aunt who has returned to her childhood farm to scatter the ashes of her late husband, Matt Friedman. Sally was the black sheep of her family and further distanced herself from her family by marrying Matt, a Jew.
For a girl from a southern family in the 1940's, "this was not done." The complications of the characters begin to unfold as we find out that Gwen and John have come down not only to visit Ken but to make him an offer to buy his farm and convert it into a recording studio for Gwen. Ken is open to the idea as he has his own plans of running away from a teaching job he has been offered because, he knows, the students will look at him funny. Jed, of course, has no knowledge of Ken's plans and continues to nurture the garden and lay down roots which will be fully matured and realized in 20 years. June has come to the farm with ideas of her own. She wants to see John whom we believe is the real father of Shirley.
What Lan ford Wilson has done is to create a commentary on the Vietnam War era of the 60's and the disillusionment, and the disappointment that followed in the post war years. During the war years, there grew a generation with a noble cause. A generation that understood that the war was wrong, and that it was immoral. This rallying of the generation created an amazing energy and openness to all that was good. But when the war came to an end, the generation was left with no cause, no rallying point, only rhetoric. The rhetoric seemed only to be built around the war, and without a war a new cause was needed.
The desperation led to a cause du jour. Soon the generation realized there were no causes left, and all the good seemed to depend upon all that was bad. Disappointment and disillusionment led many of the generation to go from Hippies, to Yuppies, to Enron Executives. But for all those of the generation who truly felt what they believed, they were left feeling betrayed. The Fifth of July is the day after the fireworks. The fireworks of the 60's ended and the 'morning after' had begun.
How these people deal with that reality is what Wilson is exploring. Wilson confronts us as Ken confronts Wes at one point in the play. Wes tells a story of Eskimos who were starving to death living in an igloo and had frozen Caribou meat outside but no way of thawing it out. One heroic Eskimo went outside and produced a tremendous fart which thawed out the meat. The Eskimos are too repulsed to eat the meat and die of starvation. Ken screams at Wes that this was not heroic on the Eskimos part, it was stupid.
They allowed themselves to die rather than "eat the fart-thawed meat and live." This is what Wilson is saying, release the past, forget the shattered dreams and involve yourself in the future. In the end of the play, this is the lesson that Ken learns; his future awaits him and he goes out to meet it.