The Belle of Amherst
by William Luce
Performed by Julie Harris at A Contemporary Theatre, Seattle, November 2000
By Grant Hayter-Menzies
Much energy is given, in this age of surface appeal, to a performer's appearance. Every actor must flex his physical if not his aesthetic biceps, every actress march through at least one play or film stark naked, like so many Godivas protesting the restraints still placed on civilized behavior. We even see classical musicians posing like rock stars, star divas offering as many curves to the eye as voice to the ear. The easy access of "culture" - no farther away than one's television or computer screen, and the rules of those media regarding fitness physical if not artistic - helps determine and support these expectations. Considering the fact that Seattle is the City that Microsoft built, with all its twenty-something kajillionaires, it should come as no surprise that a local theatre critic bluntly described Julie Harris as being too old to play Emily Dickinson.
Let's do the math. Emily Dickinson died at 56; and as William Luce's play is set shortly before Dickinson died, ideally the actress playing her should appear to be somewhere near that chronological mark. Harris was in her fiftieth year when she first played Dickinson in 1976; and at the time, she appeared far younger than that. (After all, Harris played 12-year-old Frankie Adams in Member of the Wedding when she was 25.) So now that Harris is 74, a full twenty-one years older than the character she is playing - she even announces Dickinson’s age in the play's first act - the eye is going to detect a discrepancy that reverses the impression received by audiences during the play's original run. "I could not stop for Death," Dickinson wrote. Harris might well paraphrase that: "Time could not stop for me."
What is missed, however, by anyone who focuses entirely on the pointless issue of Harris' age, and not on her technique or her history with The Belle of Amherst, is her magical genius for stepping between the raindrops of Time - of becoming in a single moment a girl as bright with hope as a Christmas tree with tinsel, and a mature woman, who has been seared by a love almost too big for her own universe-sized heart. In short, Harris accomplishes in her performance what Dickinson does in her verse. She says what we all would say had we the devotion to truth that a poet has, had we the lighting-rod's ability to accept and transmute fire from heaven into a substance not too dangerous for us to behold, and had we the voice to speak the depths of our being in words of crystal clarity.
Through Harris, Dickinson's belief that words are given life when spoken, and that the chiefest and the best of them arrays the printed page in strings of jewels, makes the thinnest theatre air fairly glisten. But something besides words catches the eye when Harris is on stage. Because she is, without further ado, an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Her eyes have the piercing brilliance of a child's, opened for the first time to a world clotted with color. Is there anyone in a Harris audience who doesn't feel the actress is speaking with those eyes straight to his face, to his soul? And if she is no longer the boyishly lithe woman who dashed about the Dickinson parlor, hands fluttering like the birds whose flight the poet envied, what of it? She moves now with a deliberation that has about it the economy of Dickinson's poetry. She selects her moments with care, as Dickinson did her words, matching the pearls exquisitely. And yet, as unhurried as her pacing is, the electricity of Harris' presence is, if anything, more astonishing, even devastating, than anything we have seen before.
In her second act scene, in which Dickinson meets her "Beloved Master" in her father's parlor and then bids him farewell - "For that would be life, and life is over there, behind the shelf the sexton keeps the key to" - Harris' agony is of a heart wrenched from a living body. It is said that Dickinson had a frighteningly passionate personality, and she herself admitted that it was "dangerous" to love as she did. If Harris' interpretation is not a stunning example of this, we still know nothing about this poet and never will. So a great performance takes on the added frisson of a channeling session.
But the greatest achievement of Harris' performance is her uncanny analysis and interpretation of the passive-aggressive tensions of Dickinson's soul. Read her poems - you will find far more rebellion against established authority than in anything Whitman wrote. In her little room, at the small square desk, Dickinson swam through anarchic visions as lightning-slashed as anything in Revelations. Yet there is a cool, elegant irony about her world which tells you she'll hold your hand through the worst of the storms - ironic commentary on the passing glories of earthly splendor, the falling of crowns and diadems while the eternal constellations wheel overhead unperturbed, on the falsehood on which much of Christianity is built, on the one set of unimpeachable credentials - of God and Nature, the true bearers of truth, the true saviors of souls.
In the Russia of Dickinson's day, these verses would have earned her time in Siberia. To the staid congregation of Amherst, something approaching Siberia would have been offered Squire Dickinson's daughter had the good churchgoing friends of Dickinson's family known just what she was writing in that little room at the top of the Homestead. She took that risk, because far from being “the only kangaroo among the beauties,” Emily Dickinson was a completely formed artist, with all the urgent need to take risks that sets her kind off from the rest of the safe, secure world.
There is a Romantic worship of the ultimate that carries Dickinson - and through her, Harris and the audience - on the same wave that bears on its crest such aristocrats of soul as Milton, Shakespeare, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Shelley. They ask of us what the universe asked of them: Truth, and with truth, love. Dickinson said this in many different ways, but always, her god was love. "Unable are the Loved to die," she wrote in 1864, "For Love is immortality/ Nay, it is Deity." Dickinson loved her father, she loved her Master. Their thrones she would not topple. So with her love came that highest of human gifts - unconditional devotion. She would strive to preserve what she knew could not last, because her love was a thing meant to last forever.
Dickinson's god was a terrible one, but she made her peace with him. Her prayers of thanks are the poems which continue to astonish and move us to this day. And the shadow on earth of that god and of Dickinson is her eternal interpreter, Julie Harris: small like the wren, and so terrible as an army with banners.