By Kristen Leinbach, Dramaturg
“The light. . . . The light in the piazza. Tiny sweet. And then it grows, and then it fills the air. . . . It’s rushing up. It’s pouring out. It’s flying through the air. . . It’s everything and everywhere!” (Guettel, pg. 50)
The musical The Light in the Piazza opened on Broadway on April 18th, 2005. But before we discuss the accomplishments of the playwrights Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas, we first have the opportunity to learn about the author whose novella, or short story, inspired the musical. The musical itself is based on a novella titled The Light in the Piazza written by Elizabeth Spencer in 1958 and published in 1960.
Describing her efforts in writing the novella, Spencer stated, “As I lived in Italy five years at the time of writing this, it was easy to include a vivid texture of daily Italian living. The settings of Florence and Rome were easily recognized by any number of readers and a pleasure to write about” (Spencer, Works). She also explains that “memories of the place itself were what saw this story [The Light in the Piazza] through” (Seltzer).
Elizabeth Spencer was born on July 19th, 1921 in Carrollton, Mississippi. After graduating high school she went on to attend Belhaven College. After receiving her undergrad she attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville where she received a Master’s Degree in Literature in 1943. After graduating she taught at Northwest Mississippi Junior College and then taught at Ward-Belmont until she took a job as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean in 1945. She then became a professor at the University of Mississippi and after receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship award left Mississippi to live in Italy for five years to focus on becoming a full time writer. Throughout her life, now at the age of 91 living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she has written nine novels, one non-fiction work, seven collections of short stories and a play.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until after Spencer left her five year trip to Italy that she wrote her best known work, The Light in the Piazza, set in Florence Italy. Before her trip, Spencer’s early works were set in Mississippi, where she was raised, and featured male protagonists who were grappling with their fates. After visiting Italy, her writing style shifted to reflect American female protagonists overcoming their difficulties as they traveled abroad. In regards to her experience writing The Light in the Piazza, Spencer stated
“Before I went to Italy I thought I would always be encased in the southern social patterns and lineage and tradition, and if the South changed, then I wanted to be part of that change. I didn’t see myself as separate from it. Then, especially after I married, I had to come to terms with a life that was going to be quite separated from that. I got to thinking that the Southerner has a certain mentality, especially Southern women-you can no more change a Southern woman than you can be a French woman; they’re always going to be French no matter what you do. So I thought that really nothing was going to happen to me as far as my essential personality was concerned, that I could broaden and include more scope and maybe get richer material. I looked at it from the standpoint of my characters, that the Southern approach was going to be valued no matter where they found themselves. It seemed to me that there wasn’t any need in sitting at home in the cottonfield just to be Southern, that you could be Southern elsewhere, in Florence, or Paris, or anywhere you found yourself” (Spencer, pg. x-xi).
After leaving Italy, The Light in the Piazza was written in 1958 while Spencer and her husband were living in Montreal Canada. The novella “so full of Italian light, was written in one month, under great compulsion, during a snowstorm her first winter in Montreal. It was partially inspired by Spencer’s memories of the light in Italy during that long dark Canadian winter” (Spencer, pg. x).
I wanted to provide you with these quotes found in the introduction to The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales because they eloquently captured the mentality found in Spencer writing the The Light in the Piazza. Even though it was only written in one month, this story has become Elizabeth Spencer’s best known work. It is a story that accurately captures not only, in my experience, the common stubbornness/determination of Southern women but also their compassion as we follow Margaret and Clara’s journey as they make decisions that will hopefully best serve the love they have as mother and daughter.
Elizabeth Spencer not only worked to capture the beauty of the Italian culture but the experience of two Southern women becoming integrated into that culture. Having grown up in North Carolina and now attending school in Utah, I can relate to Spencer’s experience of that unfamiliar, first cold winter in Canada. Regardless of who we are and where we are from, we carry our culture and our heritage with us. The Light in the Piazza successfully merges the experiences of two cultures coming together. But if I might add, the production will share more than two cultures coming together, because you, as the audience, will be bringing your own culture, history and experiences that will enhance the performance of The Light in the Piazza as we grow together.
“Elizabeth Spencer 1921.” Elizabeth Spencer, Mississippi Writer, Author of The Light in the Piazza. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2013.
Guettel, Adam, Craig Lucas, and Elizabeth Spencer. The Light in the Piazza. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2007.
Seltzer, Catherine. “Exploding the Canon/cannon: Elizabeth Spencer’s the Light in the Piazza.”Southern Quarterly 46, no. 3 (April 1, 2009): 100-27.
Julius, Novick. “The Light in the Piazza.” Back Stage 46 (May 5, 2005): 48.
“Passing the Pen: Generations of Southern Authors.” South Writ Large RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 July 2013.
Spencer, Elizabeth. The Light in the Piazza, and Other Italian Tales. Jackson, MS: Banner, 1996.
Spencer, Elizabeth. “Elizabeth Spencer – Works.” Elizabeth Spencer Writer.http://www.elizabethspencerwriter.com/works/thelightinthepiazza.htm (accessed February 28, 2013).