THE BELLE OF AMHERST
Body Politic Theatre
Emily Dickinson has always presented problems for scholars. The egalitarian precepts of the romantic movement in literature introduced the thitherto-unknown (or long-forgotten) notion of a female poet, although they saddled this innovative creature with the potentially ridiculous characteristics of the genre–the egocentric hypersensitivity, the charismatic antirationalism, and the subliminal necrophilia that is the chief hazard of isolation. Yet Dickinson wrote with a blunt economy of language, retaining an almost scientific attention to the minute details of the natural world (describing a hummingbird as “a route of evanescence with a revolving wheel” and a “resonance of emerald”) and creating a sort of Protestant pantheism. Her austere verbal elegance was as completely at odds with the literary fashion of the time as her defiantly private life-style was with the social expectations of her day (“The soul selects her own society / Then shuts the door”).
That we know so little of Dickinson may be one of the underlying reasons for her popularity among academic theoreticians who are only too ready to project their own ideas of womanly genius onto this enigmatic figure–unearthing a hypothetical love affair or two when post-Freudian thought declared sexual fulfillment mandatory to creativity or later speculating on her lesbian tendencies when that was de rigueur for female artists.
Some of this impulse may be at work in William Luce’s biographical drama The Belle of Amherst. When Dickinson applied that title to herself in a letter written at the age of 15–“I expect that I shall be the Belle of Amherst when I reach my seventeenth year”–she may or may not have been conscious of the irony, a “belle” being a distinctly romantic-age personality. But certainly, speaking to us in later life, as she is assumed to be doing in this play, she would have been aware of it. Luce, however, is a man in love (after reading a collection of Dickinson’s letters he says, “I saw more clearly into the heart of the shy woman whose poems I had loved and admired for so long”). The first act of adoration is usually the reconstruction of the adored object in the image of the adorer’s ideal, and Luce seems intent on revealing the warm and vibrant humanity he sees behind the intense, solemn face in the sole existing photograph of Dickinson. But his view of what constitutes a whole and multifaceted woman includes recitations of cake recipes, medleys of Shakespeare’s more profane poetry, and a meeting with a longtime mentor that’s as comically gauche as the visit of the gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie.
There is, I suppose, no great ignobility in baking cakes or giggling over Elizabethan ribaldries. And Luce’s attempt to make Dickinson the girl next door might seem relatively harmless. But Albert Pertalion, director of the production at the Body Politic, takes Luce’s interpretation a step further. His Emily Dickinson (played by veteran character actress Maureen Gallagher) displays none of her professed indifference to the opinions of others; she does everything but sit up and wag her tail to show us how welcome we are. In no way solemn and reserved, this Dickinson bubbles over with enthusiasm, wearing a wide and sunny smile that won’t go away. In his program note Pertalion claims, “Miss Dickinson’s life was an extreme personal concentration of creative force.” Yet he has her character fragmenting, rattling on with hardly a pause for reflection. Her poems, into which she is supposed to have poured the revelations kept secret from even her close intimates, she eagerly shares with us, reciting them in childishly swift singsong. (Since Chicago has been the performance-poetry capital of the United States for five years, there’s no excuse for an actress making this sort of amateurish delivery.) Far from shy, she appears to revel in her own theatricality, even dropping to her knees–twice–during a particularly impassioned declaration of love for one of her apocryphal lovers. All this results in an impression of Dickinson as an engaging and likable, if slightly dotty, old maid–and certainly not the proud, pensive woman who wrote, “I had no time to hate . . . nor had I time to love.” However benevolent their intentions, Luce, Pertalion, and Gallagher have created a character who achieves her charm at the expense of her dignity. Dickinson deserves better.