The Belle of Amherst, most will have already deduced, is Emily Dickinson.
Belle of Amherst is a one-woman play by William Luce. Julie Harris portrayed Dickinson in the original Broadway production in 1976, for which she won a Tony Award. The play was written while consulting Dickinson’s poetry, diaries, and letters.
Watching a bit of Harris’s performance, it does seem entertaining. It is set in the year 1883 when Dickinson was 53 years old, only three years from her death. She explains that her middle name of Elizabeth is in honor of her father’s sister, Elizabeth Currier.
“Oh, how the trees stand up straight when they hear Aunt Libby’s little boots come thumping into Amherst. She’s the only male relative on the female side.”
She mentions that she’s not left the house in years and is thought of as the “half-cracked daughter.”
The neighbors can’t figure me out. I don’t cross my father’s grounds to any house or town. I haven’t left the house in years. The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door. Why should I socialize with village gossips. Oh, there goes one of them now. It’s Henrietta Sweetzer. Everyone knows Henny; she’d even intimidate the anti-Christ. Look at her. She looks more like a jar of sweet meats everyday.
Dickinson shares how she is the baker of the household and how her father will taste no other bread or cakes but hers. Then she proceeds to walk the audience through her recipe for black cake. “It’s easy,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.
Two pounds of flower, two pounds of butter, two pounds of sugar, 19 eggs, five pounds of raisins, one and one-half pounds of citrin, one and one-half pounds of currants, one-half pint of brandy (I never use father’s best), one half pint molasses, two nutmegs, five teaspoons of cloves, mace, and cinnamon; two teaspoons of soda and two good pinches of salt. Now you beat the butter and the sugar together, and then you add the 19 eggs… one at a time.
Throughout her career, Harris, who died in 2013, had an excellent talent for appearing vulnerable, snarky, cunning, and the mousey girl with the strength of a lion. She also had spot on comedic timing. From what we know of Emily Dickinson and have read of her poetry, we’ve never considered her having a sense of humor. This is quite an interesting angle; one we wouldn’t have suspected could exist.
Through April 23rd, Ferrell Marshall portrays Emily Dickinson in the production of The Belle of Amherst directed by Todd Nielsen at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
Nielsen actually saw Harris’ portrayal of Dickinson. He writes, “watching the incomparable Julie Harris” in The Belle of Amherst “remains one of the theatrical highlights I have been blessed to witness.”
Marshall is a “dear longtime friend” of Nielsen’s who approached him to direct her in this piece, which she is producing as well.
To collaborate and discover the piece again with a fellow artist brings the exploration of self and relationship back to experience Emily’s world all over again in a wonderful new light!
To quote from Luce’s author’s notes: “The essential Emily of my play is secretly saying to the audience, ‘Pardon my insanity, Pardon my jubilation to Nature, my terror of midnight, my childlike wonder at love, my white renunciation. Nothing more do I ask than to share with you the ecstasy and sacrament of my life.’”
—Todd Nielsen, SierraMadrePlayhouse.org
When I undertook the writing of The Belle of Amherst, it was my hope to depict the humanity and reasonableness of Emily Dickinson’s life. I say reasonableness because I believe that she consciously elected to be what she was – a voluntary exile from village provincialism, an original New England romantic, concisely witty, heterodox in faith, alone but not lonely, “with Will to choose, or to reject.”
Estelle Campbell is the managing director of SMP. “The Belle of Amherst, it is a show that is totally in keeping with our mission to celebrate the American Experience, and it’s particularly a moment in history when we need to be reminded of the quiet strength of the American female,” she says with a sly smile.
The Belle of Amherst
Through April 23
Thursdays & Saturdays, 8 p.m.
Sundays, 2:30 p.m.
Tickets: $17 to $30
Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. 91024
For more info, visit SierraMadrePlayhouse.org/belle-amherst
Or call 1.626.355.4318
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is one of America’s greatest and most original poets of all time. She took definition as her province and challenged the existing definitions of poetry and the poet’s work. Like writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, she experimented with expression in order to free it from conventional restraints. Like writers such as Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she crafted a new type of persona for the first person.
The speakers in Dickinson’s poetry, like those in Brontë’s and Browning’s works, are sharp-sighted observers who see the inescapable limitations of their societies as well as their imagined and imaginable escapes. To make the abstract tangible, to define meaning without confining it, to inhabit a house that never became a prison, Dickinson created in her writing a distinctively elliptical language for expressing what was possible but not yet realized.—PoetryFoundation.org
Escape is such a thankful Word
I often in the Night
Consider it unto myself
No spectacle in sight
Escape — it is the Basket
In which the Heart is caught
When down some awful Battlement
The rest of Life is dropt —
‘Tis not to sight the savior —
It is to be the saved —
And that is why I lay my Head
Upon this trusty word —
—Emily Dickinson, 1875
By the late 1850s the poems as well as the letters begin to speak with their own distinct voice. They shift from the early lush language of the 1850s valentines to their signature economy of expression.… In these years (late 1850s), she turned increasingly to the cryptic style that came to define her writing. The letters are rich in aphorism and dense with allusion. She asks her reader to complete the connection her words only imply—to round out the context from which the allusion is taken, to take the part and imagine a whole.… Opposition frames the system of meaning in Dickinson’s poetry: the reader knows what is, by what is not.
The first volume of Dickinson’s work was published posthumously in 1890—excluding her unusual dash marks. Thomas H. Johnson published her work in “his 1955 variorum edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Yet it wasn’t until 1981, when Ralph W. Franklin consulted with Dickinson’s 40 hardbound volumes of nearly 1,800 poems and “restored” her unique punctuation, that a collection of her poems was published as written and in order: The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press, 1981).