The great Southern writer Elizabeth Spencer wrote her most famous story, “The Light in the Piazza, ” while living abroad. She had left the small town in which she grew up, Carollton, Miss., on a Guggenheim Fellowship for Italy. There she also wrote The Voice at the Back Door, about race relations in the South. This novel provoked the disapproval of her parents and her community.
As racial tension reached a boiling point, Spencer’s father had chosen to align with segregationists. Even her mother, who used to read to her and encouraged her to write, was appalled that her daughter had written so honestly about race in the South. The Voice at the Back Door was voted as the Pulitzer Prize winner in 1957, but rather than give it to her, the Pulitzer board decided not to bestow a prize that year.
Rejected by her parents and under constant pressure to stop writing, Spencer (who’s still with us at age 92) spent the next 25 years living in Europe and Canada. It is, perhaps, this distance that allowed her to write a deeply personal work about the strength it takes to defy the “moonlight and magnolia” romanticization of the white Southern patriarchy. The Light in the Piazza was Spencer’s first story about a woman, and for the rest of her career she continued to write specifically about women who break the rules.
The Light in the Piazza tells the story of Margaret Johnson, who has taken her mentally challenged daughter, Clara, on a trip to Italy. Clara falls in love with an Italian man, and Margaret must determine whether to let her daughter marry him, in defiance of her husband’s wishes. The story was made into a Tony-Award winning Broadway musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel in 2005. The musical is currently running at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.
Clara, whose disability is described vaguely as an inability to mature emotionally, clearly stands in for a young Spencer who, by virtue of being a writer, an artist and a woman with ambition, was marked early in her life as “different.” Like Clara, Spencer met the love of her life in Italy. Like Clara, Spencer’s father was not in attendance at or supportive of her wedding. But whereas the fictional Margaret chooses to endorse her daughter’s choice and enable her marriage to her lover, Spencer’s mother was as almost as uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s choices as her father was.
In The Light in the Piazza, Spencer has envisioned a world in which her mother’s support of her youthful creativity—her “difference”—continued into her adulthood. In reality, Spencer rarely visited Carollton, and her husband and her family never got along. But in the musical, Margaret Johnson manages to defy her husband and empower her daughter to follow her heart, come what may.
In a new documentary about her life, Landscapes of the Heart, named after Spencer’s autobiography, the writer cites a class she took in college in modern literature as a major inspiration. The modern sensibility of the The Light in the Piazza story is mirrored in the modernist music composed by Guettel, who is the grandson of Richard Rodgers. But unlike the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Guettel’s songs aren’t hummable. They are closer to something by Schoenberg: cascades of sound that never quite resolve. For the most part, it works–the music illuminates the refraction of identity at the heart of the story and hints at a musical realization of light.
Though Margaret makes the choice to defy her husband and support her daughter, the story ends without any real resolution as to whether Clara will actually be okay. Likewise, this production doesn’t quite complete itself; I didn’t even realize the finale was happening until the curtain call began.
As adorable as Clara and her Italian lover are, the story is clearly about Margaret. It is the mother’s choice whether or not to support her daughter’s rebellion that constitutes the central action of this story–not the innocence of her child or the sexy young man with whom she falls in love–making this an unusual plot for a Broadway musical. The modern music adds to the challenge of crafting a crowd-pleasing show, and the South Coast Repertory production suffers from a lack of focus on the central conflict. Moments that could have served to emphasize the central character’s rebellion– such as the revelation that she has her own savings account and the fact that she shares an illicit kiss with the married father of her daughter’s lover–are glossed over in favor of the younger characters’ love story.
The success of The Light in the Piazza (it won eight Tony Awards) proves, yet again, that stories by women—even women in their late 40s!—do sell tickets and do make great art. I look forward to a production of Light in the Piazza directed by a woman (both the Broadway and the SCR directors are male) that places Margaret firmly at the center of the story. Clara’s storyline may be unresolved, but Margaret has made her choice. She has said, essentially, “Fuck the patriarchy.”
The Light in the Piazza runs through February 23 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.