The Belle of Amherst
directed by Charles Dubin, written by William Luce, 90 minutes, Kino Video .
Emily Dickinson’s was a voice seldom heard. As a recluse who rarely left her hometown, Amherst, and who died with most of her poems unpublished, Dickinson wrote that her work was “My letter to the world that never wrote to me.” William Luce’s play The Belle of Amherst lets her speak through the actress Julie Harris, who with her open face, prim bun, and charmingly dry and earnest wit shapes the poet’s distinctive voice in a beguiling and very personal way.
Harris’s monologue covers many aspects of Dickinson’s life, touching on her attitude toward the clannish locals, who called her “Squire Edward Dickinson’s half-cracked daughter” but coveted her cake recipes; her rejection of the Christian faith as a young girl, which would lead to a lifetime of searching for something to take its place; and her many passionate but unrequited loves. Life with her austere, demanding father, to whom she read her poems during his moments of leniency, her distant mother, and her sister and brother was something of a battle of the wills (“We all lived together like friendly and absolute monarchs,” Dickinson says), with Squire Dickinson always prevailing until the very end. Her long correspondence with Thomas Higginson of the Atlantic Monthly is effectively portrayed here as one of the greatest in a series of small devastations in Dickinson’s life. Though she was sure that Higginson would publish her work, he instead dismissed it as “spasmodic” and “uncontrolled.” “A great hope fell/You heard no noise/,” Harris reads in that context, “The Ruin was within.” The choosing of words is what consumes and fuels Emily Dickinson as she stockpiles poems in a trunk over the years, trying to create poetry that “makes you feel that the top of your head has been taken off.” Luce’s script makes pointed use of her verse, and when Harris recites Dickinson’s brief, loaded lines, she reveals more about the poet than the longest biography ever could.