Contributor Samuel Leiter goes on a poet’s journey with The Belle of Amherst starring Joely Richardson.
The Emily Dickinson we see in William Luce’s one-woman biodrama, The Belle of Amherst, may not conform to any preconceived notions you have about the reclusive New England poetess. Aside from her immediate family, the real Dickinson (1830-1886) had barely any concourse with others except from behind a closed door from the late 1860s on. Luce, however, could not have written the play without taking liberties; his Emily is talkative, even gregarious. Despite announcing her fright at meeting strangers, she almost immediately warms to the task of hosting us on a two-hour ramble through her life.
Luce’s well-researched play, much of it based on Dickinson’s diaries and correspondence, premiered on Broadway in 1976, starring the great Julie Harris (whose Tony-winning performance can be viewed on YouTube); it is now receiving its first New York revival, at the Westside Theatre, with Emily in the elegantly capable hands of Joely Richardson, she of England’s fabled Redgrave lineage, under the smooth direction of Steve Cosson.
Emily, garbed in white, her auburn hair in a bun and parted severely down the middle, inhabits the Homestead, the family’s stately home, represented by designer Antje Ellerman’s sparsely furnished box set. Sometimes she behaves as if she’s chatting with an unseen family member or visitor; for the most part, though, she speaks directly to the audience. Her prose narrative frequently bleeds into a recitation of her poems, but there are plenty of opportunities for the poems to be isolated as specific examples of her writing, such as when she tries selecting one to submit for potential publication.
Displaying a warm conviviality, replete with wryly idiosyncratic commentary, she shares her recipe for black cake; talks of her beloved siblings, Austin and Lavinia (“Vinnie”); describes her stern but loving father, and emotionally distant mother; recalls her schooldays, during which she reveals her religious skepticism; chats about the considerably older men who courted her (she and Vinnie remained spinsters); grieves over the death of Austin’s son; explains her lengthy correspondence with the famous editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and of her disappointment when he chose not to publish her work; introduces significant friends and influences; reads from a newspaper the kind of sensational story her sister loved; expounds upon her love of words, saying that she “raises her hat to” the best ones, like “phosphorescent”; and otherwise touches on her relatively unexceptional Victorian life of quiet desperation, most of it lived within the same home in which she was born and where she died. Her anecdotal observations are underlined by David Weiner’s lighting, which seems driven by the need to heighten each alteration in the character’s emotional stakes.
The great tragedy of Dickinson’s life was her inability to find a publisher (only a handful of her 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime, and even those were revised by editors); at one point, she cites a literary contemporary who, despite his being constantly rejected, stuck to his guns and became a success. His name? Walt Whitman.
Although the piece begins in 1883, when Emily was fifty-three, the play moves freely around in time, ending in 1886, the year of her death. Emily’s attitudes are girlish, gossipy, naughty, sad, depressed, enthralled, hopeful, and even flirtatious (as a 17-year-old at a dance), as the circumstances warrant. There is definitely something rather modern about her, as when she confesses to having deliberately created her image as a local eccentric; her habit of dressing in white, for example, is a crucial part of her self-created persona.
The poems, lovingly and intelligently read, touch on themes of love, immortality, nature, and death. Richardson clarifies their ambiguities and syntactical difficulties to make them dramatically accessible. Tall and willowy, with razor-sharp features, she makes full use of her expressively graceful hands, neck, and body (she specifically requested that her costume—designed by William Ivey Long—leave her forearms and upper chest exposed for greater expressivity).
Perhaps because she was suffering from the sniffles at the preview I attended, and because she occasionally stumbled over her words (two hours of them, with a single intermission), Richardson’s performance resisted transcendence and, except for passing moments, remained earthbound. Nevertheless, she was always compelling, and for that I raise my hat to this latest belle of Amherst.
The Belle of Amherst
407 W. 43rd Street
Through January 25
Samuel L. Leiter is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit www.slleiter.blogspot.com.