PASSING through New York a few weeks ago, I saw a play that took my mind off tickets, luggage tags and transfers and made me think about some of the subtler, more profound aspects of travel: the way we encounter foreign cultures and the prejudices we bring to them, and how emotion colors our responses to faraway places.
The play was “The Light in the Piazza,” at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. It’s a Tony Award-winning musical production of a 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer about a mother and daughter on a transforming trip to Italy.
Margaret Johnson, the wife of a cigarette company executive from Winston-Salem, N.C., is a graceful, cultivated matron who seems at first overly protective of 26-year-old Clara, especially when the girl catches the eye of Fabrizio Naccarelli, a young Italian, in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Only Margaret knows that lovely, wide-eyed Clara suffered a head injury many years ago, leaving her with the emotional and intellectual development of a 10-year-old.
Ostensibly, “The Light in the Piazza” tells the story of Clara and Fabrizio’s romance as it burgeons amid the medieval and Renaissance enchantments of Florence, from the Uffizi Gallery to the Palazzo Vecchio. More profoundly, though, it analyzes the moral dilemma Margaret faces as she tries to decide whether to let Clara marry Fabrizio, without telling him or his dignified Italian father about her condition. Margaret knows that she should reveal the truth and that her husband back in Winston-Salem, who has long wanted to institutionalize the girl, would be horrified about the affair. But she lets it continue because Fabrizio sees only Clara’s innocent beauty and offers her a chance for an almost normal life.
Margaret also falls under Italy’s sway, as Spencer writes in the novella: “She entered ... a conscious duality of existence, knowing what she should and must do and making no motion toward doing it. The Latin temperament may thrive on such subtleties and never find it necessary to conclude them, but to Mrs. Johnson the experience was strange and new. It confused her.... She had, in fact, come face to face with Italy.”
A major challenge of travel is becoming sensitive to and processing such subtle cultural differences, a theme that runs through literature, especially in fiction about Americans in Europe, from Henry James’ sterling “The Ambassadors” to Spencer’s bewitching “The Light in the Piazza.” In these works, Americans are portrayed as innocents abroad, clinging to a black-and-white worldview in which there are clear rights and wrongs. The Europeans they meet, like Fabrizio’s father, seem to be morally ambivalent products of a broader, more nuanced life experience. For example, Margaret’s promise of a tidy sum as a wedding gift helps him reconcile himself to the attachment between Clara and his son.
This fundamental Old World-New World dichotomy lingers, I’ve found in the two years I’ve lived in Paris. There, the reputations of former President Clinton and filmmaker Woody Allen are unalloyed, despite their personal peccadilloes.
When I try to explain why I’m uncomfortable with the idea of illicit sex in the Oval Office and Allen’s relationship with former girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, I feel like Margaret Johnson. Coming face to face with the more relaxed European version of morality has made me re-evaluate my own, with the answer seeming to depend on which side of the bed I get out of.
In “The Light in the Piazza,” it’s also fun to see the way Americans view Italians and vice versa. Margaret Johnson has clearly swallowed the myth of the oversexed Italian male, while Fabrizio’s father is doubtful about his son’s relationship with Clara because most of the young American women he has encountered are all-too-available floozies. Both estimations seem right. But as a friend once told me, all generalizations are true, except in individual cases.
Another great pleasure of “The Light in the Piazza” book and play is, of course, the setting. But, as with all travelers, Spencer’s two American women experience it as a consequence of the way they feel. They are captivated by glorious, sunny Florence, where Clara falls in love and Margaret imagines a hitherto unhoped-for happiness in her daughter’s future. When she separates Clara from Fabrizio by taking her to Rome, the glories of the Eternal City pale by comparison. They wander through the Vatican galleries and climb the Spanish Steps without the rapture I felt there.
Margaret finds Clara quietly sobbing on a fallen block of marble in the Roman Forum and decides to take her back to Florence.
I would rate Rome way above Florence, although I know that’s subjective, like all travel assessments. That is why I’m hesitant to respond when people ask me about my favorite place. I say it depends on the weather, whom you’re with and, especially, how you feel, before I say Venice.
I spoke by phone with Elizabeth Spencer, now 84, about “The Light in the Piazza,” the book and the play, and about her travels. She grew up in northern Mississippi and still speaks with a thick Southern accent. While in Italy on a Guggenheim grant, she met her English husband, John Rusher, and moved with him to Montreal, where she wrote the story in the middle of a snowstorm.
When I asked her where she got the idea for Margaret and Clara Johnson, she said: “I just made them up.”
Spencer and her husband went to Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1986 and he died two years later, leaving her mostly to stay home with her cats, she said.
After her first trip to Italy in 1949, she often returned, and she learned to speak Italian. Most recently, in 2002, she went back for a refresher Italian-language course in Perugia. “I’m quite fond of Italians,” she told me. She still adores the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria in Florence; the Pincio park and lower Via Veneto in Rome; and, like me, Venice. For Spencer, it’s been a lifelong love affair with Italy.
Susan Spano also writes “Postcards From Paris,” which can be read at latimes.com/susanspano.