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An Immortal Poet, Resurrected: ‘The Belle of Amherst’

Julie Harris’ legendary performance is as close to Emily Dickinson’s physical presence as one could hope to get.

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype taken circa 1846-1847.

Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that—My Business is Circumference—

Emily Dickinson wrote that in July 1862 to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had published an article in The Atlantic Monthly encouraging young writers. She sent him some of her poems accompanied by an enigmatic tease: “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” So began a long correspondence between the two. After eight years Higginson finally came to visit her in Amherst. His recollection of the meeting shows his disorientation in her presence:

I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.

Scholars have devoted their lives to fathoming the enigma of Emily Dickinson, a seductive paradox of magnetic reclusion. In this year’s Lives Like Loaded Guns, Lyndall Gordon makes a convincing case that Dickinson was an epileptic. But no matter what details are pried by biographers her aura of mystery remains. It is because her voice is so singular, so consistently startling, that people ache to know how? How could this retiring spinster write so feverishly, so knowingly, of all of life?

Playwright William Luce spent years poring over Dickinson’s poems and letters, out of which he created his one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst. It premiered on Broadway in April 1976, starring Julie Harris as Dickinson. Harris won her fifth Best Actress Tony Award for her portrayal. In my mentioning this article to others, three of my family members recall attending the production like it was an event of the highest order. They speak of Harris the way old-timers would describe Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, or the way I felt when I saw Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens. Such performances are lifetime events that leave you feeling it was a miracle that you were there to witness them.

Cover art for the book of William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst”

The production was later filmed with a live audience for PBS, and was nominated for an Emmy. Directed by Charles Dubin, the filmed version captures the atmosphere of seeing it live on Broadway; we can sense the audience’s rapture as bursts of laughter punctuate its attentive silence. But it also manages to work as a film. The camera moves intuitively, anticipating when we want to go in close on Harris; and when we need to see her full body, the camera pulls back to capture it.

In the play, Emily addresses the audience as though they are house guests. She offers them cake, sharing the recipe: “Two pounds of flour, two pounds of sugar, two pounds of butter, nineteen eggs, five pounds of raisins …” As Harris goes on in a crescendo, the audience starts to laugh; as the final steps are uttered, one person claps in response. Harris mines the comic dimensions of William Luce’s script, which incorporates Dickinson’s actual words from letters and poems, At one point, she describes her Aunt Libbie as “the only male relative on the female side.”

In the course of her monologue Harris’ Dickinson wanders through all stages of her life. As a young schoolgirl, she flirts with boys at Amherst parties and suffers under the headmistress, referred to as “The Dragon”. She also portrays her as an elderly woman trying to face her own death with courage. The contours of Harris’ face actually change depending on what age she is portraying: when she was a young girl, she seems beautiful, lively; as an elderly woman you can see her spirit fading from a lifetime of dreams deferred.

The Belle of Amherst is an emotional piece of work, vast in scope, and yet ultimately grounded in everyday specificity. Julie Harris pours tea, walks with a book on her head, shows us the family portraits on the mantel, cuts a piece of cake, all while talking, talking, delivering an enormous amount of text. All throughout, the words simply flow. Sometimes Dickinson’s monologue elides into impromptu recitations of her poems and you don’t realize it until she is two or three lines in: Harris shows what it means to live one’s verse.

Ad for the original 1976 PBS broadcast of “The Belle of Amherst” starring Julie Harris

In his preface to the play, Luce writes that “Julie’s familiarity with Emily resulted from years of dedicated research into her life and works.” You can feel that intimacy in Harris’ performance. Emily talks of her father, (there is that chilling line from one of Dickinson’s letters: “His heart was pure and terrible, and I think no other like it exists”) and Harris appears to suppress a volcano of emotion. You can feel the love she had for this difficult stern man. Without dwelling on it, Harris reaches into her belt from time to time and pulls out a handkerchief to dab the tears that fall from her eyes when she talks of grief or loss. This is an incredible performance.

In The Belle of Amherst, William Luce’s crafts a version of Emily Dickinson whose “eccentricities” are carefully chosen based on the effect they would have on gossiping neighbors. This Emily Dickinson likes to be talked about. She confides: “I enjoy the game. I’ve never said this to anyone before, but I’ll tell you. I do it on purpose. The white dress, the seclusion. It’s all deliberate.” She signs her letters to Higginson “E. Dickinson,” giggling to herself, “It is provocative, isn’t it?”

Luce’s Dickinson is an egotist with a desire for immortality. Immortality in Dickinson’s forebearing New England world was largely a Christian concept, but for her it also meant worldly fame. In Luce’s view (one contested by some biographers), Dickinson was not someone who just scribbled her poems for her own satisfaction, or for posterity; she ached to be recognized in her lifetime (a bitter comment she makes about the “disgraceful” Walt Whitman conveys her jealousy.) Julie Harris brings out the ferocity of Dickinson’s hunger for fame and recognition: one moment she’s insanely excited about the prospect meeting Higginson, the next moment she’s reduced to shouting into the void wondering if anyone will ever hear. In one of the saddest moments in the play, she refers to her poems as “undelivered letters.”

One of Dickinson’s most frightening poems (and there are many that frighten) sees Death as a man in a carriage:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

What would she leave behind? Not children. Her work had not found an audience during her lifetime. But she had planned for the future, sewing up volumes of her poems that were found after her death. She died not knowing, but perhaps hoping, that future generations would find her verse “alive”. Shortly before she passed, she wrote a letter to her cousins, saying, briefly: “Little Cousins, — Called back. Emily.”

Emily Dickinson wrote that as a writer her “business was circumference”. “Circumference” was a word Dickinson loved, which she mentions in the play: “There are words to which I lift my hat when I see them sitting on a page … ‘Circumference.’” Circumference: the circular boundary around the eternal interior space. If Emily Dickinson’s business as a writer was circumference, then Julie Harris’ business as an actress is the same, circling over the particulars of a woman’s life in order to evoke her essence. No wonder people still say, over 30 years later, “I saw Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst” in a tone of pride that they were there, as close to Dickinson’s physical presence as one could hope to get.

Sheila O’Malley writes about movies, books and actors at her site The Sheila Variations

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