DUTY REQUIRES that I should not see your face for some time. But we can pour out our hearts to each other in our letters. We can be companions, although the ocean rolls between us. And how delightful is the anticipation that your letters will be frequent and will be long! Remember to write to him who has given you his, undivided offections, and who expects the same.

So wrote Charles Colcock Jones to his fiance, Mary, in 1829, beginning a family correspondence that ended up as an extraordinary account of the South before, during and after the Civil War, as well as a unique record of social history. Twelve hundred of the letters were published a decade ago as. The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War," and a few years later more came under the title of "A Georgian at Princeton," both painstakingly complied by University of Maryland Prof. Robert Manson Myers. Now four plays that Manson fashioned from the letters will be presented as staged readings next weekend at the National Portrait and Renwick galleries, yet another life for the words of the Jones family.

The plays have been staged before, two in Washington, but never as a cycle. The excerpt above is from "The Courtship of Mary Jones," which opens the weekend Friday night and is composed of letters that have not been published. The second is a monologue formed from letters written home by one of the sons, a student at Princeton; the third is a quartet for mother, father, daughter and another son. The fourth is a monologue by the mother -- widowed, impoverished and facing the disintegration of society as she knew it.

"These letters make 'Gone With the Wind' look like soap opera," said director Ted Walch. "If one could attend all four plays, one would see how these people had all the world before them, were well-to-do, educated, were religious and good, and how external events and slavery keep eating away at their world... Some of it is very hard for modern audiences to take, but we mustn't rewrite history. They were good and decent people who were victims of an institution they unwillingly helped foster."

"How often do I think of the number of hands employed to furnish me with those conveniences of life of which they are in consequence deprived!" Charles, a theological student at Princeton, wrote to Mary during their 18-month courtship. "How many intellects -- how may souls perhaps -- withered and blasted forever for this very purpose! Did God design this?"

Although both abhorred slavery, they lived and prospered under the system, treating their slaves kindly, but in the end they were bewildered and embittered that "the Negroes" might choose a difficult life of freedom over a protected one of servitude.

"All history, from their first existence, proves them incapable of self-government; they perish when brought in conflict with the intellectual superiority of the Caucasian race...," wrote Mary to her daughter after the war, as she prepared to leave forever the plantation, now ruined, that she had lived on most of her life.

The the 2,000-page book (now out of print in hardback) was so successful, winning the National Book Award and numerous other accolades, hailed by one reviewer as an American "War and Peace," is a tribute not only to author Myers, but also to the epistolary skill of the Jones family. They wrote often and vividly, of lofty pursuits and mundane. Listen, for example, to Charles' account of a "hearty Yankee dinner" at his Princeton boarding house:

... a fine piece of corned beef, a piece of fat pork, fine fat chicken, cabbage, squash (like our pumpkin), potatoes, beets, bread, apple pies (tarts, we call them,) and cheese... When the folks in this country wish you to do anything for them, they do not say "Do this," or "Go there," but in a milder and politer way they say "Won't you do this?" or "Won't you go there?" They express their commands by wishes. We fall into the authoritative mode of commanding, as well as of speaking, from our habit of commanding slaves.

Furthermore, the family kept the letters intact for generations, providing Myers a treasure hunt that took 20 years to locate and assemble.

"I am a frustrated theater person," said Myers, whose dramatic way of speaking gives witness to his statement. He lives alone in a flawless and large apartment on Connecticut Avenue, furnished -- except for a small television set -- entirely in 18th-century antiques. Seated in his library facing a wall of 18th-century books, including bound copies of minutes from meetings of the Jane Austen Society, he described how he crafted the plays.

"[Transposing] letters onto the stage is a much rarer thing [than a book] and is, of course, a stunt. This is not a well-made play, as Lillian Hellman wrote, but it is a play, not simply a reading of letters. I have agonizingly gone through the letters, taken thousands of sheets of paper. You know the university offices have all this rough paper that is thrown away, used on one side. I tell the secretaries, don't throw it away, give to me. And I bring it home, this great mountain. What I do is go through, painstakingly, and see ooh, that line, that would be interesting for a person to speak. I just type it on the page, noting the reference. I end up with thousands of pages with interesting lines on them... Then I begin putting them into groups. I slowly, agonizingly, build interchanges.

"These plays use exclusively the words that were used by the people. I think it gives enormous strength to the experience for the audience to know that every word uttered is a word that passed through the consciousness of the person portrayed."

The dramatic life of "The Children of Pride" began shortly after its publication with an evening at the David Lloyd Kreegers' at which Myers himself read excerpts from the book. Walch, then director of the Trapier Theater, was among the 100 invited guests, and he was immediately attracted to the dramatic possibilities of the material. In 1976 Walch and Myers produced "The Courtship of Mary Jones," and a year later, "Voices of Pride." The final monologue, "The Night Season," was produced at the Kenyon Festival Theater in Ohio, where Walch now works, and "A Georgian at Princeton" is being premiered here.

"We also took 'Courtship' to New Orleans for a private performance for members of the family," Walch said. "It was like a scene out of Tennessee Williams, at an old home with the shutters nailed closed, owned by a woman who had been widowed 40 years ago and was still wearing black. They had to borrow china from the black servant because they'd given theirs all away... The next day we visited the grave of Mary Jones, and it was very moving."

Two descendants will travel from Arizona and New Orleans to attend the four-play cycle here.

Myers has written dramatic treatments of five Henry James novels, one of which was produced in London in 1969. It was a disastrous experience, he said, wincing, because the director "mutilated" his script. He tried to stop the performance on opening night and became an instant media celebrity. He still keeps an apartment in London and travels there four or five times a year. This relationship with Walch has been more felicitous.

Myers is so meticulous that he has kept notes on his writing since the age of 12. He also keeps a list of titles, "ravishingly beautiful titles," drawn from Biblical quotes or other sources of inspiration. The original title of his masterwork was "The Keepers of the House," drawn from Ecclesiastes, but his former student Shirley Ann Grau had the same inspiration for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book of 1965. "The Children of Pride" is from the Book of Job.

Myers has performed "The Night Season" himself, the last time at the Folger Theatre in 1977. But, even though the performance moved him to tears, he has given that up. Memorizing two hours of text was "exhausting" and, attracted as he is by the theater, his soul craves order and comfort; the "gypsy" life- of a thespian did not appeal.

When he talks about the "Hollywood people" who optioned his book for an 18-part television series, he recoils as though he were describing a squashed rat. The dramatization was unsuccessful, and even actress Joanne Woodward, who, he says, is a descendant of the Jones family, turned it down. The option has lapsed, and since Myers parts company with those who take liberties with fact in order to create more drama, the fate of "Children" as a televised epic is uncertain.

On a wall near his office at home he has hung framed copies of prizes his book won next to the four letters of rejection from major publishing houses he received when he first submitted the manuscript. His encounter with the Jones letters was "providential," he believes, in that he just happened to sit next to a woman at a New Orleans dinner party who mentioned them to him, that he was able to track down so many, that they were so good, and that he could view them with a novelist's eye rather than a historian's.

Symmetry is important to him -- so much so that he had a false door built in his dining room to match the one that leads to the kitchen -- and it is fitting for him that the last play of the cycle, "The Night Season," ends with the last words of the book:

The closing up of my life at home has been very painful. You will know when I ought to arrive, and I know Robert will meet me at the depot. Oh, how I dread the undertaking! It seems so strange! If I only knew someone to call upon in Mobile to see me on the steamer!... I have engaged a marble slab, and leave an inscription to be placed upon it. Wish I could have consulted you all, but I could not leave your father's grave uncared for, and I have done the best I could.