The Belle of Amherst – Not Always a Vehicle For Success

Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to my blog!

I saw “The Belle of Amherst” starring Joely Richardson at the Westside Theatre on Broadway Oct. 23, 2014. Ms. Richardson portrays Emily Dickinson at the Dickinson home in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1883. Book by William Luce, the run time is approximately 100 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.

The full brunt of the performance rested on Ms. Richardson, who was entrusted with the Herculean task of  delivering a monologue including poems  and letters throughout the performance. Without interaction from any other actor, Ms. Richardson was the only dynamic element on stage. Furnishings were sparse and props were few. Conversations with nonexistent characters made it even more difficult to show emotion. At first, I thought she was delusional – having full conversations with people who weren’t there. Then I realized, that she shared her past and discussed her present in one-sided conversations. No actors were provided to play these roles, however small, so that her memories and musings could have an actual presence on stage to react to, interact with, take the pressure off her for even a minute to catch her breath, to rest her voice, to share the spotlight. Every minute on her and only her. And yet, she did a very good job emoting and gesturing, holding the audience’s attention and only flubbing her lines a few times.

Ms. Richardson, a member of the famous Redgrave acting family,  became increasingly exhausted and returned from intermission obviously spent from her first 45 minutes and getting more and more tired as the play progressed.  She accepted the role, did a very good job with it but the physical impossibility of the task at hand took its toll. I can only imagine that her energy level decreased as weeks passed. I don’t know this as a fact, but I can’t see it any other way. The play opened to previews on Oct. 7, 2014 with regular performances beginning Oct. 19.  Unfortunately, the play was scheduled to close Nov. 23 instead of Feb. 1, 2015 as expected.  I have not seen any explanation for this. American actress, Julie Harris won a Tony award for her performance in this play in 1976. How was she able to sustain the physical demands of the role?  Ms. Harris portrayed Dickinson as shy, but engaging. Maybe Richardson’s performance had too much physicality – walking frantically back and forth on stage, throwing herself on the floor – adding to her exhaustion. I don’t know, I’m only speculating. Maybe Richardson’s portrayal could be compared to a big cat pacing back and forth in its cage, reinforcing the idea that Dickinson was frustrated by her life, while Harris’ portrayal was less frantic, reinforcing a conscious acceptance of her life with her reticence intact?  I’m sure Richardson didn’t make this decision alone but was directed by Steve Cosson to play it this way. This may have served to undermine the play by making the actress too exhausted OR maybe Emily Dickinson is an anachronism who no one studies about in school anymore and who is virtually unknown, so who cares, anyway? Maybe it’s more about the limited attention span of the American theater-goer rather than the limitations of the actress?  But, no, that doesn’t make sense. The audience chose this play. They wanted to share in Dickinson’s story. Broadway theater-goers have long attention spans for what is excellent. So, what went wrong?

Maybe this is where a multi-media, bring it into the 21st century presentation, would spark interest. I wondered why the play wasn’t formatted differently. If they didn’t want to hire actors to portray the characters with whom she had conversations, then why not make use of modern technology with a slide show or a pre-recorded video clip – making it a multimedia performance?  Or have mannequins dressed as the characters mentioned and play a  recording of their voices in full conversation or in interactive conversation cueing each other as actors do? Basically, anything to take the pressure off the exhausted Ms. Richardson. Not everyone can function as a star. Some actors are better as co-stars or  ensemble performers.

I have to say I was surprised at the choice of Ms. Richardson to play the Belle of Amherst. I  always thought of Emily Dickinson as plain, frail, dark-haired, timid, reclusive with no desire to participate in life in the outside world. Ms. Richardson is pretty, very tall, athletic, obviously blonde but wearing a dark auburn wig, assertive, bursting with energy and desires. She portrayed Dickinson as a dynamic, ambitious figure frustrated by things life didn’t bring her: husband, children, an active social life, acceptance and acclaim for her poetry. We see Ms. Richardson watching life through her window, maybe a metaphor for Dickinson watching life pass her by as she waits and hopes for something or someone to come into her world to change its meaning. But no, the biographers tell us. She chose her life and lived it as she wanted it.  I didn’t feel she wanted it that way. From the portrayal, I believed her life panned out the way it did, and she reluctantly accepted it, played into it, becoming more and more what she was destined to be rather than what was bursting inside of her to break free. Maybe it’s this portrayal that did her in. The audience is held captive by her frustrations and emotional swings. The lines in her poems are recited in the same voice as her musings, without a change of emotion or a pause to let us know she moved from her thoughts to verse.

It’s a reminder of the passive existence of so many women in days gone by. Sheltered and protected, waiting to be chosen – either by a potential suitor or a publisher – waiting for life to include them – waiting to be acted upon. Biographers describe Dickinson as reclusive and morbid, perhaps suffering from agoraphobia. It’s hard to see this with Ms. Richardson’s portrayal. Doom and gloom were not communicated as much as hope and disappointment for what could have been. Although death is a main theme of Dickinson’s poems, this aspect of her life is played down and overshadowed by her optimism. Would the assessment of Dickinson’s life and work have been different if she were socially active? Married? What came first, society’s labeling her or Dickinson playing out the scripted life?

It was my understanding that Dickinson chose the circumstances of her life, but Ms. Richardson portrays Dickinson as a casualty of her circumstances. Dickinson was always labeled a spinster – a term that denoted unattractiveness, mental illness, social ineptness.  Dickinson would not have been judged so harshly in modern times. Marriage is a lifestyle choice, not a necessity. Many women still wait to be acted upon while others have chosen an alternate option.

Hopefully, we’ll be appreciated before we die unlike Emily Dickinson who never knew she would be remembered for her greatest passion – revealing her soul, putting pen to paper, capturing in a poem what others would pass without a second look if it were not for her perspective and introspective.

Maybe she’s in heaven, looking down and smiling. I hope so.

Please take a look at the videos below to compare performances by Joely Richardson and Julie Harris. You’ll see what I mean about frenetic energy vs. quiet introspection.

Please join the discussion and let me know what you think.

Next week’s blog: “The King’s Curse-Philippa Gregory: Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction”

© 2014  All rights reserved. No part of this content my be reprinted or used in any form without express permission from Elaine Donadio Writes.

Watch this video to see an excerpt from Joely Richardson’s performance.

Watch this video to see Julie Harris’ performance.


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Saturday, March 14, 2020- Barnes & Noble, Massapequa, NY 12:00-4:00pm

November 2014
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