It was exquisite. Jennifer King’s second run of William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst” is a tour de force of wit, whimsy, poetry and sensitivity that only a rare few souls have taken the time to cultivate.
King’s Emily Dickinson is an angel, prancing around her heavenly white parlor, describing her life — her dreams, her despair, her joy and her cravings. Dickinson is alive once more, for only one weekend more. In American culture, we are only now shuffling of the coil of the tyranny of the male sex. And women have lived under this tyranny for millennia. For a time they have been resigned, but more and more they are infuriated, and refuse to allow their intelligence to be squelched by clueless, insensitive and myopic men.
Women, like Emily Dickinson, have been powerless. So they, like she, take what they have — a home, privacy and time — and create entire worlds for themselves in which the wings of their mind may soar on the winds of thought, and discover new lands, though they be within.
The first run of “Belle” at Sonoma Arts Live elicited a magical complexity. Since then, King’s performance has grown in complexity.
I don’t remember the humor in the first run. Dickinson is extremely funny. She has a refreshing self-awareness that makes you realize, she is not lonely, rather she is simply alone. She entertains herself like a sprite dancing around a meadow in a perpetual spring. She knows, at 30, that she is the town eccentric, and she revels in cultivating this perception, and we love her for it, as we do all the unabashedly strange people we know who self consciously refuse to settle for normalcy.
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One cannot see this show without noting how women in the 19th century were nothing if they were not attached to a man. Though since wives were considered property of their husbands, maybe the single life has always been preferable. But the social pressure for a young girl to marry is felt by Dickinson, to such a degree that she becomes, for a moment, distraught. She sends out 14 valentines, and gets none in return.
At a dance, she approaches James Francis Billings, and tries to sell herself as a potential, faithful, wife and mother. But she does this only because that is what she is told she is supposed to do. As she gets older, we prefer that she has shuffled off the wifely mortal coil. Especially since Billings, at that dance, is immune to Dickinson’s overtures and asks her if she knows the girl in yellow. He does this, most likely because he prefers to treat his women like chattel, rather than the actual intelligent companion Emily would be for him.And then there is Thomas Wentworth Higginson, another male authority figure as he is the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, the magazine in which Dickinson desperately wants to be published. Higginson treats her like a canary in a cage. Stopping by their home in Amherst, to dangle the prospect of publishing in her face, and then only arbitrarily to yank it away, as if only to demonstrate his power over women.
That is to say nothing of the ever so patrimonious Christian church that Dickinson, in her most honest and meekly defiant, in which simply can’t bring herself to engage. The “Dragon” Mrs. Woodbridge, her teacher at her finishing school — whereas her brother Austin went to Harvard — had as her main “concern” the girls’ spiritual education. But Dickinson knows that this “Christian education” is not the flexible education that leads to freedom, but rather a brittle indoctrination, only serving to keep the girls in line, to make them good wives and mothers and subservient to their husbands. This is not what Dickinson has in mind for herself.
The thing that is most inspiring, however, are the words, the language. Luce, the playwright, has channeled Dickinson’s language to such an extent that in the script, the poetry and dialogue intertwine. The show itself, is an epic—the definition of which is a work of poetry that tells a hero’s deeds. Why wouldn’t Dickinson be the hero of her own life, this play the tale of her deeds? Her black cake? Her gingerbread? Her valentines whose responses so hopelessly don’t exist?
“The Belle of Amherst” is an epic poem of an inner life we get to experience through the posthumous written word. Her poignant and clever descriptions of the human experience have proven so universal that even now, more than a century and a quarter after her death, she serves as an inspiration to girls everywhere, that you can be intelligent and eccentric and express your inner thoughts, and you can be taken seriously.
There is no more potent line, out of the many too numerous to retain, than the one that tells us where Dickinson’s paradise lies. It is a place we have all been, but seldom go. It is a place we carry with us, and can access anytime, but is often more scary than any place else. She says, with wisdom, “I’ve never had to go anywhere to find my paradise. It is within.”
“The Belle of Amherst” plays at Napa Valley College Studio Theater for one more weekend. Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 at performingartsnapavalley.org and you get two for one when you enter in code “PGE.”