Staging Emily Dickinson

The History and Enduring Influence of William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst


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About the Book

With a writer who had never written a play, an actress who had never taken the stage alone, and a director who had never headed a live performance, The Belle of Amherst managed to become an American theater classic. Despite being savaged by critics attending its opening night in April 1976, the play, which details the life of Emily Dickinson, survived its baptism by fire and went on to appear in theaters across the world.
This is the remarkable untold story of “the little play that could.” Covering the play’s humble beginnings as well as its pioneers—like writer William Luce, director Charles Nelson Reilly and actress Julie Harris—this work also documents the modern efforts to keep the play alive. Exploring the show’s enduring dramatic power, this book ultimately pays respect to the one-woman show that has triumphed for decades.

About the Author(s)

Biographer Grant Hayter-Menzies lives in British Columbia. His works include biographies of Charlotte Greenwood, Princess Der Ling, Sarah Pike Conger, Pauline Benton, and Lillian Carter, along with the life of a dog, military mascot Rags of the First Division in World War I. He is the literary executor of playwright William Luce.

Bibliographic Details

Grant Hayter-Menzies
Format: softcover (6 x 9)
Pages: 232
Bibliographic Info: 27 photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2023
pISBN: 978-1-4766-8947-0
eISBN: 978-1-4766-4903-0
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Foreword by Jordan R. Young 1
Prologue 3
Acknowledgments 9
1. Sober ecstasy 13
2. Julie 26
3. Charles and Bill 39
4. “Bitchy little spinster” 53
5. The play 66
6. Miracle on West 48th Street 77
7. Tour and television 93
8. Dickinson’s letter to the world 99
9. Play in a time of plague: The Belle navigating ­Covid-19 112
10. Julie: “A thousand summers” 120
11. Charles: “Save it for the stage” 140
12. William Luce, “Playwrote” 146
Epilogue: I will not let thee go 157
Appendix. Helen Kingsley Krauss: Her letter to the world 177
Chapter Notes 203
Bibliography 213
Index 217

Book Reviews & Awards

• “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. 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.”—Library Journal

• “Grant Hayter-Menzies was the companion, caretaker, and archivist of a great American playwright, but he is also a writer of uncommon perceptiveness and grace. In this book, Grant gives us a probing backstage look at William Luce’s most celebrated work; at the same time, he shows us a literary friendship that is in itself worthy of a play.”—James Gavin, author of Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne and Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee

• “Hayter-Menzies has composed a poetic, touching, and insightful tribute worthy of his subjects. Julie Harris, Charles Nelson Reilly, and the Belle herself would delight in their portraits, but most of all, this work reveals the gifted, glorious, funny, witty, sly, and brilliant William Luce. In the most heartfelt, honest, and compassionate prose, Hayter-Menzies has brought Luce into the light!”—John W. Lowell, award-winning playwright, author of Autumn Canticle and The Letters

• “In Staging Emily Dickinson, Grant Hayter-Menzies gives us the full story of how Julie Harris, playwright William Luce, and director Charles Nelson Reilly came together to give the world the beautiful and still-traveling play The Belle of Amherst. A book like this does not come along often. Make an appointment to spend time with it.”—James Grissom, author, Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog

• “Hayter-Menzies has given us a fascinating and fully realized look into how three artistic geniuses forged their creative prowess into one of the greatest American plays of the 20th century. Gorgeously told, with unstoppable cadence and powerful imagery, the book is refreshingly candid with an inspired blending of courage and grace. A valuable work for anyone concerned with the theater.”—Bill Haworth, crisis communications specialist, former award-winning broadcast reporter

• “Every page kept me spellbound. The anecdotes, the humor and pathos and intimacy all contributed in this book to a work of history that manages to be personal, revealing on a big canvas yet intimate and personal on a smaller canvas. What a remarkable and very valuable achievement!”—Rex Reed, film critic