The Belle of Amherst: An Interview with Margery Lowe
By Sheryl Flatow
In an author’s note to the script of The Belle of Amherst, his one-woman play about poet Emily Dickinson, William Luce called the piece “a love affair with language, a celebration of all that is beautiful and poignant in life.” Luce, who adored Dickinson’s work, said that “her poems and letters radiate an invisible light” and that he wrote the play hoping to “depict an individualist of the highest order” and “the humanity and reasonableness of [her] life.”   

Luce’s view of the beloved poet is far more upbeat than the traditional perception of her. It’s widely known that in her later years, Dickinson didn’t leave her home: reclusive is the adjective most often used to describe her. That word leaves the impression that she was gloomy and lonely. Scholars have speculated that she suffered from anxiety or depression, that she was fragile, that she was divorced from reality. But there’s another school of thought – the one that Luce endorsed – that she preferred solitude and was something of a rebel. He called her “a voluntary exile from village provincialism, an original New England romantic, concisely witty, heterodox in faith, alone but not lonely.”

Nearly every aspect of Dickinson’s life is open to interpretation, from her character to her sexual orientation, which is one of the reasons that, 135 years after her death, she continues to fascinate. “Her life is all guesswork,” says Margery Lowe prior to the start of rehearsals for the Palm Beach Dramaworks-Actors’ Playhouse virtual coproduction of The Belle of Amherst. “We can piece some things together, but ultimately we can only guess about so much of her life. And I think the reason so many people want to guess is because her work speaks to us in such an intimate way, regardless of who you are. Her words are so brilliant and she speaks to the humanity in everyone, which is why people who are complete opposites can say, ‘She’s just like me.’ I think that’s why everybody embraces her so passionately, almost to the point where they take ownership. It’s why all the books about her are so vastly different from each other: each writer sees her a certain way, and sets out to prove it. And they provide good analysis and can justify where they’re coming from. But ultimately, it’s all speculation. She’s an enigma. I love to do a lot of research in preparation for a role, because it’s a fun chance to get a mini-doctorate in whatever subject you’re working on. It’s a great perk of acting. In approaching Emily, there are all kinds of things you initially would like to cover, from her sexuality to whether she was strong or frightened. But you can’t. The bottom line is you always have to go back to what the playwright wrote. This is William Luce’s Emily, and his words are your facts. I’d say about 95 percent of the play is taken from her letters and poetry. So, the best way for me to find all her colors is from her words and from his script.”

Lowe played Dickinson once before, in the world premiere production of Joseph McDonough’s Edgar & Emily at PBD. In researching Dickinson for that show, she discovered two things that delighted her. “I learned that it’s estimated her height was somewhere between four-eleven and five-two,” she says. “I’m five-two. It was also confirmed that she was a redhead, and I found a photo online of a lock of her hair. It looks so similar to mine. I know that locks aren’t that different, but the way it’s curled is exactly like a lock my mom saved. The two pictures look identical. These are just fun facts, but they piqued my interest because there was a physical similarity.”

That was about all Lowe took away from Edgar & Emily that was useful in approaching The Belle of Amherst. Edgar & Emily is a fantasia, a meeting in 1864 between Dickinson and the long-dead Edgar Allan Poe, so Lowe put that Emily aside as she dug into The Belle of Amherst. She had never seen the play, and says the only thing she knew about it before she read the script was that it was “bright,” that there was a light-heartedness in the playwright’s approach to the character.
“That made me curious, because so many people think of Emily as dark,” says Lowe. “As I read the play, it was clear that Luce had written a celebration, as he said in his note. And that’s what you have to play. We know that in her later years she didn’t leave her home, and Joseph McDonough and William Luce have different ideas as to why. Luce doesn’t focus on as many negatives. He focuses on her fabulous sense of humor, which you see in her letters and in her poems. She was really witty in an intellectual way – she liked to mess around with people. She’s definitely mischievous and playful. I think Luce wanted to show that, yes, she had struggles and pain and disappointments in her life, but ultimately, it’s the fun, the joy, the passion, and the humor that this Emily clings to. As she says [in one of her letters], ‘My business is to love.’ So, I understand why he made the play so bright.” 

Like Luce, Lowe believes that Dickinson lived her later years as a recluse not because she couldn’t leave her home, but because she felt it was best for her not to leave her home. “I think it was an evolution for her,” says Lowe. “I think she was influenced by society and the limitations that it placed on her and on women at the time, on what they should or shouldn’t be doing. I also think she had such dedication to these words that she needed to express, and felt like that was her life, and that was where she had to be.

“The truth is, there were times she left her room,” Lowe continues. “She would go into her garden, or go next door to her sister-in-law’s. Those visits to her sister-in-law became the talk of the town, and I think it appealed to her sense of humor. She had fun with it. Until Luce wrote this play, all anybody knew of Emily was that she was a recluse, and I think he wanted to dispense with the idea that that was her life. As a child she went out and had fun, and the first section of the play is all about her childhood. She tells us, ‘I was really typical. Here I am at a dance. Here I am at a class, here I am meeting people.’ I’m purely speculating here, but I think that over time other things became more important than going out. There’s a story about how one day, her niece visited her in her bedroom. Emily pretended to lock the door, then turned to her niece and said, ‘Here’s freedom.’ So, I don’t think it was about fear of the outside. I think it was about the joy of the inside.”