Thoughts & Musings

In a New York Minute: Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss (1990)

The Humanities Post-Show Talkback will be after
Sunday, November 27’s matinee performance.

© 2016 by Eileen Warburton

O Wedding-Guest! This soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ‘twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

The boy and girl meet. The attraction blossoms. A little flirting, some serious conversation, a lot of laughter. The affair burns hot. The hopeful vows are exchanged. And then, love is tested and mastered in a way the young couple could not anticipate. To know the meaning of love requires encountering death. So many folktales inform this pattern.

In Swan Lake, for instance, Prince Seigfried is told that only a pure and brave love can break the enchantment over Odette, the Swan Queen. Recognizing the true Odette when wicked Odile appears disguised as Odette is also a test of the prince’s manhood and he must risk death to break the spell. In classical mythology, Eurydice dies on her wedding day and Orpheus must descend alone into Hades to bring her back. In so many fairytales and old ballads, the beautiful royal spouse-to-be is disguised as a monster, a foul frog, or an ancient, ugly woman and only the noble seeker’s loving acceptance, honoring a commitment, redeems the enchantment.

So it is in Prelude to a Kiss that the fair, though deeply pessimistic, princess, Rita, is turned into a frog by exchanging souls with the Old Man. Peter goes off on his honeymoon with this changeling who looks like Rita, is physically identical to his bride, is sexy and willing. But . . . the faithful Peter can’t find in this stranger the essential Rita, the woman he loved and more and more truly loves. Peter’s hero’s task becomes looking past physical beauty and youth to recognize the person he loves in someone transformed by age, by gender, by sickness, by decay, by mortality.

However, even when he has become his mature best self, Peter can’t restore his beloved. She must do that for herself. Rita begins as a sorrowing idealist, seeing the world’s horror so clearly, refusing to bring children into this world, and deeply fearing living. To break the evil spell, she must come to want to live a long, challenging life, to embrace uncertainty, and fully welcome the transformations that marriage to Peter will bring. The Old Man, Rita’s fairy godfather indeed, has his own journey to make of self-acceptance, which redeems his past and restores those loves to him.

In the early 1990s, when Prelude to a Kiss premiered to great acclaim, certain critics recognized that the impetus for the theme of the play may well have been the AIDS epidemic. Buried in the romance narrative of the straight couple is the story of a committed relationship between two men, one dying and deformed by life and one, Peter, continuing to love and care for his beloved in spite of disease, physical unattractiveness, and looming death. Now, as AIDS is a lesser threat, it’s apparent that the play can encompass both the concerns of that time as well as a more universal message about love and relationships of all sorts.

Playwright Craig Lucas was born in 1951 and abandoned as a newborn infant. The child was discovered in a car in Atlanta, Georgia and adopted by a conservative Pennsylvania couple. His father was an FBI agent and his mother, a part-time painter, was a Jew who hid her identity. Secrets shaped his life, as Lucas discovered in high school that he was gay. He recalls that coming out released him, making it possible to develop as a playwright and a person. He graduated from Boston University and was mentored by the likes of poet Anne Sexton and playwright-composer Stephen Sondheim. He has been successfully producing plays since 1981, often collaborating with composer-director Norman René. Besides Prelude, which was nominated for a Pulitzer and was nominated for both the Tony and the Drama Desk Award for Best Play, Craig Lucas’ works include Blue Window, Reckless, Three Postcards, The Light in the Piazza, God’s Heart, Amelié, Prayer for My Enemy, and a number of successful films. He is also a sought-after director for stage and film.

This essay was sponsored by the generous people at
Ocean State Urgent Care of Barrington.

The opinions expressed in this essay
are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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