TCG has just published Full Moon and Other Plays, the second collection of plays by award-winning novelist Reynolds Price. Like his dramatic trilogy, New Music (published by TCG in 1990), this new collection is graced with Price’s undisputed talents for compassionate characterization and lyrical prose. Spanning his professional playwriting career, the collection includes Full Moon (1992), Private Contentment (1982) and Early Dark (1977). All three plays are delicate examinations of love, faith, family and race, written in the eloquent and witty vernacular of North Carolina. In this essay, written in the summer of 1990, Price explores why he writes for the stage and screen.
The first sizable piece I wrote was a play–a Christmas play in December 1946 when I was in the eighth grade–and I wrote it on my own time, without a school assignment and with no hope of a stage production. I can’t remember why, beyond the fact that I’d grown up as an avid consumer of the lively films of the ’30s and ’40s and that a touring troupe had visited our small-town school only a few months before. (I saw them play both Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew and was deeply excited.) Even more crucially, I’d grown up in two extended families of excellent and epic conversationalists; so my taste for good talk was keen. And by the time I was into adolescence, I understood what serious talking skills were now required of me economy, interest, drama and wit. Apparently I’d also seen that similar skills could lead me from home and family to adult work and lasting rewards.
But for years I was slack. Early in high school I wrote a screenplay about St. Bernadette of Lourdes for a planned neighborhood home movie production that failed for lack of funds. Then my courting of a stage or screen audience cooled for a long time, to revive only when I was commissioned in 1964 to adapt my first novel, A Long and Happy Life, for a film. When that script also failed to reach production, I waited more than a decade before rethinking it for that stage as Early Dark. Then at last I was given a deep, sweet taste of the working theatre the WPA Theatre in New York gave Early Dark a nearly ideal production in 1978 and at last I was caught. I’d fallen in love, not only with the seductive, gritty air of the stage but with that art of playwriting, so different in its demands from the novel, the poem or the essay, and so refreshing by turns.
In the early ’80s then, I began a script for American Playhouse. That resulted happily in Private Contentment, which was broadcast in the Playhouse’s premiere season. Next, in the mid-’80s, a commission from Hendrix College elicited a play called August Snow, which was so perfectly played by student actors that I was quickly led to write two further plays about the same characters. The resulting trilogy, New Music, charts the lives of one married couple, their kin and friends as they advance through the years from the 1930s to the mid-’70s. It had a first and splendid production as a trilogy in the fall of 1989 at the Cleveland Play House, under a grant from the Fund for New American Plays.
Since then I’ve completed a sixth play, Full Moon, which had its professional premiere last spring at New Stage in Jackson, Miss.; and I’m presently mulling at least one more. The challenge of conveying to an audience of strangers an arrestingly fresh but partly familiar world, with only the help of stripped-down speech and thoughtful bodies, continues to engage me powerfully and in ways that none of my other work affords; so I plainly hope to work ahead, long years to come, in the narrow but endless frame of the stage.