Staging Emily Dickinson: The History and Enduring Influence of William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst

McFarland. Apr. 2023. 232p. ISBN 9781476689470. pap. $49.95. THEATER
The Belle of Amherst, which follows the life of Emily Dickinson at her home in Amherst, MA, between 1845 and 1886, has been delighting audiences and defying critics around the world since its less than auspicious Broadway opening at the Longacre Theatre in April 1976. This one-person show was the work of three talented individuals: playwright William Luce, actress Julie Harris, and director Charles Nelson Reilly, who, respectively, had never written a play, never performed in a one-person show, and never directed a stage performance. Although the play ran less than four months on Broadway, it won Harris a Best Actress Tony Award. Biographer Hayter-Menzies (Muggins), Luce’s mentee/literary executor and friend of Harris and Reilly, relates the story of the play from its inception to its status as an American theater classic. The book also contains heartfelt portraits of the play’s creators. The play has often been the target of academics, and Hayter-Menzies provides an informative survey of scholarly writing about Dickinson so that readers can draw their own conclusions.
VERDICT Bursting with anecdotes, personal stories, and careful research, this is an important contribution to American theater history. Readers who cannot imagine a life without stage performances will thoroughly enjoy this book.
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