William Berney

William Berney (1920-1961) was a dramatist who wrote in collaboration with Howard Dixon Richardson. Their best-known drama, Dark of the Moon, ran for nine months on Broadway. Berney was born on May 6, 1920, in Birmingham to William and Louise (Claibourne) Berney. He grew up in Albertville and graduated from the University of Alabama in 1941. While at the university, Berney was active in the Blackfriars drama group. His A Masque of Night; A Poetic Interlude, a short work featuring “Three Voices” (a musical composition arranged for a choir), apparently was presented on campus and survives in written form in the Hoole Special Collections Library of the University of Alabama.

Berney went on to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa. While there, he and Howard Richardson (1917-1984) became friends while fellow students in the graduate program in drama. After graduating, Berney took a position with an advertising firm in New York that handled the account for Boeing. He was influential in letting Life magazine have exclusive first pictures of the B-29 bomber. In exchange, writers for Life promised to give coverage to a Richardson and Berney play.

Their first collaboration and best known and most often produced work, Dark of the Moon, opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in July of 1944 and was reviewed in Life in September. It then opened on Broadway in March 1945 and ran for nine months. Loosely adapted from the poem “The Ballad of Barbara Allen,” it portrays a witch boy whose wish to become human so he can marry the beautiful Barbara is granted on the condition that she remain faithful to him for a year. After Barbara’s relatives contrive to have her sleep with a local man at a revival meeting, her not-yet-human husband returns to the witch world. Set in the Smoky Mountains and filled with religious hymns, chant-like dialogue, and regional dialect, the play owes much of its distinctive character and success to Berney, without whom, according to Richardson, there almost certainly would have been no Broadway production.

Two other dramas by Richardson and Berney subsequently played on Broadway: Design for a Stained Glass Window (which dramatizes the arrest and martyrdom of Margaret Clitherow, a sixteenth-century Catholic saint and martyr from England) in 1950 and Protective Custody (which follows the plight of a female foreign correspondent who is kidnapped by the Soviet Union and brainwashed) in 1956. Another pair of their co-authored plays enjoyed success in London: Mountain Fire in 1955 and Giselle in 1957. None of these plays, however, achieved strong critical acclaim.

After residing in New York, Berney moved to California around 1960 and wrote scripts and pilots for television. He died in Los Angeles on November 23, 1961.

Works by William Berney

Dark of the Moon (1945)

Sodom, Tennessee (1949?)

Design for a Stained Glass Window (1950)

Mountain Fire (1954)

Protective Custody (1956)

Giselle (1957)

Birds of Prey (1962)

Further Reading

  • Howard Richardson Papers, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.

External Links

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