Julie Harris, in the midst of a revival tour of her 1976 hit, The Belle of Amherst, says these are her farewell performances of the play.  She's not retiring from the stage - just retiring the role. "I'm 75 years old," she says, "and the character I'm playing [poet Emily Dickinson] is 55. I'm getting too old. When I started the play I was just 50."

  The play's length has been cut considerably for this tour.  Is the play taxing her strength?  "No, not at all.  When the curtain goes down every night, I wish it didn't.  I don't want it to end.  I'm flying, as if I were on a magic carpet ride.  I wish I could go on and on."

Harris made these, and other, ambivalent  comments about aging at a luncheon December 1 at the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, DE, where she is appearing at the Playhouse in The Belle of Amherst.  The luncheon took place the day before her 75th birthday, but journalists who researched that she was born in 1925 have been writing all year that she was that old. "People read that I'm 75 and they come backstage and ask if the play exhausts me," said Harris.  "I tell them no, and they ask why not?  And I say, because I'm 75.'  I'm in my prime.  I'm strong.  I'm healthy.  I take vitamins, I walk a lot and I take afternoon naps."
On the other hand, she speaks about mortality. "Like Dickinson, I think about death.  She thought a lot about death because it's part of life.  But I also think about life.  When I see a baby, my heart leaps out of my body.  I remember hearing about an old English actress who was in the wings, waiting for her cue to go on stage, and her heart just stopped. That's the way I'd like to die - waiting for my cue."

Harris has added a new Dickinson poem to this revival of the play - and that addition has significance because, other than that, the script has been cut down.  The poem, written in 1862, also refers, in a way, to death. In the middle of our conversation, she quietly speaks some of its lines:

"We grow accustomed to the dark /
When light is put away /
As when the neighbor holds the lamp /
To witness her good-bye..."

Harris talks about how the play originated: "Caedmon Records did a lot of spoken-word recordings in the 1960's, and they hired me to record some Dickinson poems.  In 1965 I was in the musical Skyscraper on Broadway with Charles Nelson Reilly.  During the run, some teachers on Long Island heard the LP and asked me to do a reading of Dickinson at their school.  I assembled the poems, and tested the program on Charlie.  He said: "I had no idea how amusing and moving her poems are,' and he and I and writer William Luce developed my little reading into a play about her life, in which I recite many of her letters and her poems.  We tried to sell it to Hallmark, for televison.  Hallmark rejected it."

"A few years later, Charlie was in a restaurant and he overheard two producers talking about how they'd like to put on a one-man, or one-woman play.  Charley went over to their table and told them he had such a play."

The Belle of Amherst opened in 1976.  Harris's performance earned her one of her unprecedented five Tony Awards as Best Actress.  Her major triumphs have been a 12-year-old tomboy in The Member Of The Wedding (1950), Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera (1952), Joan of Arc in The Lark (1955), a chic divorcee in Forty Carats (1968) and Mary Todd Lincoln in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (1972).  She also speaks fondly of performing in Lucifer's Child, Lettice And Lovage, a revival of A Gin Game and the bitter Irish mother in a Massachusetts production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

The daughter of a Michigan investment banker, Harris was educated at a finishing school and received her stage training at the Yale Drama School and at the Actors Studio.  She made her Broadway debut in 1945 in a play called It's a Gift.

Asked how she keeps her performances fresh, after so many times, Harris said: "I just start the play, as Emily and I think to myself, `Oh, is somebody here for tea?' - and I get caught up in it.  I bring out the tea tray and my mind starts skipping - `Oh, what will I talk about?  I'll tell you about my father.'  That's what the character does. She talks to her guest, wandering through her past."  Her delivery is conversational.  She treats the audience like a neighbor who has stopped by to visit.  "Charlie [Reilly, who also directs this revival] believes in exploring the moment, and I vary my timing, though I don't change the script.  I don't feel constricted.  She takes over.  It's her words, her spirit."

Harris loves Dickinson's poems and letters. "She overrides all time periods. She's really a millennium woman, because she has such a contemporary, creative spirit.  She's about love.  She left over 1000 letters, which are a reflection of her heart. I keep reading the letters and finding new things. She's a well you can go to and never come away thirsty."

With The Belle of Amherst winding down, and with no new parts announced, how is Harris spending her time?  She has a home on Cape Cod.  "My days go by so fast. I have so much to do, and I never have enough time."  

[END]

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Key Subjects: 
Julie Harris, The Belle Of Amherst; Charles Nelson Reilly
Writer: 
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
Date: 
January 2002
Subtitle: 
Julie Harris Has One Last Touch Of The Poet