Feature arts writer, The Laguna Beach CoastlineNews
and The Orange County Register
Julie Harris on Emily Dickinson: Actress
opens Playhouse 80th Anniversary season with a reprise of The Belle
By : Aimee Greenberg
The Laguna Beach CoastlineNews, September 1, 2000
Legendary Julie Harris brings out the "Belle"
to Laguna audiences. Based on the poems and letters of 19th century
poet Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst depicts one of Americas
greatest literary figures. The play provides an opportunity to peek
into the private world of a great poet and astounding mind. Julie
Harris has received five Tony Awards and five Tony nominations for
her work in the theatre. In film, the role for which she is best
remembered is Abra, opposite James Dean in Elia Kazans screen
adaptation of John Steinbecks East of Eden . Harris gave a
benefit performance of The Belle of Amherst at the Laguna Playhouse
in 1986. She is a resident of Cape Cod, where she is a board member
and actress of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.
The Laguna Playhouse production reunites the talented
trio of Julie Harris, director Charles Nelson Reilly and author
William Luce twenty-five years after The Belle of Amherst was first
produced. The play is being produced in agreement with Don Gregory,
the original Broadway producer and Newport Beach resident. The Laguna
Playhouse production will tour nationally for six months; spreading
the visibility of the local theatre nationwide.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with
Julie Harris during rehearsal.
AG: Obviously, you have a very personal and intense
connection to Emily Dickinson?
Harris: Emilys connected to all of us, for all
time. I think shes a great poet. A great soul.
AG: But I cant help but associate James Tyrone
in Long Days Journey Into Night and his obsessive relationship
to the repeated portrayal of the Count of Monte Cristo. Its
been twenty-five years since this play was first produced. Youve
enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, a national tour, a television
show and a Grammy Award-winning recording. Why resurrect the spirit
Harris: Somebody asked me: Do you have a death wish,
that you want to do this again? No, I would do Member of the Wedding
again, if I could. Or any great play. The Last of Mrs. Lincoln or
The Lark. To be able to do a part that you did twenty years before,
and come back to it, is a very interesting experience. Not only
is this a wonderful story about a wonderful spirit, but also I find,
in many ways, its as if Ive never done it before. I
have to find my way back to it, which isnt very hard.
AG: Could you recite one of your favorite Dickinson
Harris: This is one of my favorite poems. Its
not in the play.
|I measure every grief I meet with analytic eyes.
I wonder if it weighs like mine.
Or has an easier size.
I wonder if it wore it long, or did it just begin.
I could not tell the date of mine. It feels so old a pain.
I mean Wow!
AG: Yes, this is a wise soul.
Harris: And then theres a poem, we didnt
always have in the play, but we have now.
|Nobody knows this little Rose-
It might a pilgrim be.
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a bee will miss it-
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey-
On its breast to lie-
Only a Bird will wonder-
Only a Breeze will sigh-
Ah, Little Rose-how easy
For such as thee to die!
Everything she writes filters down like nature, like
the sunrise and the sunset.
AG: Its true. She is one of our greatest poets.
But, what about Emily the eccentric and sometimes morbid recluse?
Harris: People always ask me: "Wasnt she
unhappy?" Didnt she have a lonely life?"
She went through periods of great despair like all of us do. She
knew early on what she had to do. She had to be quiet and alone,
to be able to receive all of her words and images, like a Saint.
It wasnt a pain for her, it was pleasure. "I find ecstasy
in living," she said. "The mere sense of living is joy
enough. Take all away from me but leave me ecstasy."
AG: And yet, the culture persists in depicting her
as a tortured voyeur.
Harris: The pain of living for her was loss. Loss
of friends and family. Its a universal feeling.
AG: You two are kindred souls in a sense.
Harris: Yes, as long as I live, Ill have a connection
with Emily Dickinson. Shell never forsake me. Shell
always be a part of my life.
AG: You performed "My business is To Love"
with soprano Renee Fleming at Alice Tully Hall in New York this
Harris: Yes, it was thrilling. I read the poems and
Renee became my sister in the dialogue, Lavinia and then she sang
songs that were composed for the poems by Andre Previn and other
AG: Charles Nelson Reilly directed the concert. This
is another artist with whom youve had a long-lasting connection.
Youve done eleven productions together, including the recent
production and subsequent tour of "The Gin Game?"
Harris: Charlie is a great teacher, with a soul as
great as Emily. Hes an extraordinary man. We just have fun
together. Were finding new things in the play. He sees me
thinking and knows what Im going to do before I even try it.
And hell say: Go ahead, try it!
AG: How are rehearsals going? How has the passage
of twenty-five five years affected the process?
Harris: Well, the floor plan is there, so we just
have to follow it. But then Ill stumble on something new and
Charlie will encourage me to explore. There are so many elements
that were discovering now. It makes us wonder, why didnt
we see this before?
AG: How are you dealing with the age difference?
Harris: Well, Im not thinking about it. I am,
at this point, twenty years older than she was when she died. Thomas
Wentworth Higginson, the literary publisher in her life said at
her funeral that she looked like a child when she died.
AG: Theres a cruel joke about Emily, thats
built into the mythology of her persona, wherein its said
that she had become so obese from over-eating that when she died,
they had to break down the walls of her bedroom to retrieve her
body for burial.
Harris: She called herself Jumbo. She had Brights
disease, which is a kidney ailment that made her bloated. I dont
think people will think about the age. The time is the 1800s
and Ill be wearing a long white dress, with a nice wig. I
wont look as old as I am!
AG: What is your approach to creating a character?
Harris: Primarily, I use the given information in
the play. In The Belle of Amherst, you have a wealth of research
to investigate. Ive been to her house. Ive looked out
of the windows of her home. I know what her garden looked like.
For instance, I say:
|I hide behind the tree, with a garter snake in
Its not just any tree.
I hide behind the big maple tree in my garden.
Theres a beautiful maple tree in the garden
of her house. Ive been there in the fall, when its scarlet.
That identity is very specific for me. And, Ive read, I read
the three volumes of her letters. Thats the most powerful
way to learn about her, through her letters.
AG: And, of course, you use personal experience?
Harris: I look at that daguerreotype. Its the
only picture we have of her. To me, she wasnt plain, but at
the same time she wasnt like the prettiest girl in school.
Boys would pass her up. That was a hurt you felt as an adolescent
the boys would pay attention to the other girls.
AG: Why did you choose to perform a one-woman show?
Harris: It wasnt an active decision. At the
end of the fifties, I performed some of Emilys poems and letters
for the Caedmon Recording Company. It was my first connection with
her work since high school. At the same time, my son Peters
teacher asked if I would do a solo benefit performance for his fathers
church. I said: "I dont do that. I dont perform
solo!" But I asked him if I could do a program of Emilys
letters and poems. Well, he said yes and I was stuck with it, so
I went away that summer and created a piece in chronological order.
I performed the work at the benefit and Charlie Reilly came to see
it. He said it was beautiful and belonged in the theatre. We worked
on the material on and off for eight years. William Luce and Timothy
Hegelson joined the project. At one point, they wanted to perform
it with other people in the cast, like the family members. I kept
my mouth closed, but I wanted to do a solo show. We know what she
sounded like from her letters, but who knows what the family sounded
like. Its her point of view. And then, producers Don Gregory
and Mike Merrick were doing Darrow with Henry Fonda on Broadway,
and they overheard Charlie talking about his one-woman show at Sardis.
They read the script and agreed to tour it and bring it to Broadway.
AG: Who are your favorite directors? If I were an
actress in the fifties and sixties, I would have loved to work with
Kazan. He was so gifted at working with actors.
Harris: Yes, Mr. Kazan. Harold Clurman, John Van Druten.
They really spurred you on and knew how to trigger you. And Charlie,
Charlie, Charlie. Always Charlie. Hes the greatest.
AG: Im looking at the range of characters youve
played: St. Joan, Eliza Doolittle, Emily Dickinson, Sally Bowles,
Ophelia, and Frankie Addams. Is there a "Julie Harris"
character, quality or archetype?
Harris: Sometimes, when people say a Julie Harris
role, I think they mean a cross between Frankie Adams and Joan of
Arc. Sensitive, a little rebellious
Fragile, on the edge, with a strong inner
AG: The New York Times has called you "the greatest
living stage actress."
HARRIS: Who, where, how?
AG: The New York Times! How do those words impact
you? Is it a burden?
Harris: Its a burden and its not true.
Its not a truth. Theres no such thing as the greatest.
AG: But youve won five Tony Awards! Its
Harris: But I cant believe in it. I mean its a great
honor, but theres no such thing as the best.
AG: What was it like to work with James Dean?
Harris: He was beautiful and gifted and fun to be
with. He improvised a lot and kept things very exciting.
AG: Who are some of your most important influences?
Harris: Tolstoy, Mother Teresa, Eleanor Roosevelt
and Nelson Mandela.
AG: Whats next for you Julie?
Harris: Well, after this tour is over, Im going
to Chicago to do a new play: Fossils, by Claudia Allen at the Victory
Gardens Theater. And, then we hope to tour William Luces Lucifers
Child, the Isak Dinesen piece.
AG: So, after this tour, Emily will once again be
put to resttemporarily.
Harris: Yes, and Issak will emerge, hopefully. And
after that, I have a play called Staying On Alone, about Alice B.
Toklas that Id like to do.
AG: Youre very busy.
Harris: Well, theres no end to the wonderful
ladies you could portray. I hope Im around long enough to
do justice to them.