The Belle Of Amherst Pays A Visit To Cotuit

GF_Belle of Amherst_030316The reclusive poet Emily Dickinson could hardly be called a “belle,” as in “belle of the ball.” But in William Luce’s play, she is the “The Belle of Amherst,” a reference to her allusion of herself at age 15, “I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year.”

Yet after a typical girlhood with school and friends, Dickinson retired to her father’s Amherst home and lived quietly, gardening, baking and writing poetry.

Luce’s one-woman play opened on Broadway in 1976, starring Julie Harris. Since then it has had thousands of productions all over the world. Cotuit Center for the Arts brings the play to the Cape in a production starring Linda Monchik, who has often performed as Dickinson in the play.

In Cotuit’s new Black Box Theater, an intimate space, Monchik/Dickinson, seems right at home, welcoming visitors to her life. The audience is so close to Monchik, it is as if you are part of the play. Monchik makes eye contact and treats us as if we had arrived for an unusual visit. As she says, she rarely entertains. But entertain she does in a loquacious monologue, telling her story.

Monchik is delightful, sometimes quiet and reflective, other times soaring in enthusiasm. We feel Dickinson’s presence; we get to know her. She is 53 when the play opens and she describes various people and events: her strict, demanding, ascetic father; her brother, Austin, whom she adored: schoolteachers; friends; and her sister Lavinia who, like Emily, remained single.

As Dickinson tells us in the beginning, she hasn’t been out and about in years. But that doesn’t stop her from describing an eventful life. The play is sprinkled with her poetry, appropriately inserted. And so: “The soul selects her own society, / Then shuts the door;/ On her divine majority/ Obtrude no more.”

Through Monchik’s performance of Luce’s insightful, witty and endearing play, we see Dickinson as a bright, droll. satiric, often quite funny 19th-century woman who preferred her own society to that of others. And so she wrote in the course of her 56 years (1830-1886) 1,800 poems, only a few of which were published in her lifetime.

“Words are my life,” she declares. And playwright Luce has used her letters, diaries and poetry to describe that life. She loves certain words, and Monchik sings out, “phosphoresence.” “That’s a word to lift your hat to.” And, “If I can stop one heart from breaking,/ I shall not live in vain. …” (Another line from a poem.)

Cotuit Center For The Arts

Monchick plays across the room, set with 19th-century furniture: a tea table with tea service; a plate of slices of her Black Cake, made with 19 eggs, 2 pounds of flour, 2 pounds of sugar and a lot more (the recipe is in the Cotuit program); a writing desk; photographs of her family; a trunk: and a box filled with her poetry. She sips tea, flutters a fan when she tells us about her girlhood years, balances a book on her head to show what she was taught in school, writes at her desk, flits and then settles down.

People in her life are incisively described: her father a headmistress, girlfriends, an editor, a minister whom she may have loved all in her quiet life.

A one-person play is always challenging. Yet Monchik lights up the room with her variety of emotions and expressions, from nostalgic and wistful (“I wish we were always children.”) to celebratory and reflective (“I never had to go anywhere to find my paradise.”).

The peppering of poetry throughout Luce’s script draws you to the greatness of Dickinson. “Because I could not stop for
Death—/He kindly stopped for me—/The carriage held but just Ourselves—/And Immortality.”

So Emily Dickinson lives on in her poetry, in Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst,” and in Monchik’s performance.

By Debbie Forman

“The Belle of Amherst,” at Cotuit Center for the Arts, 4404 Route 28 in Cotuit, runs through March 20. For information and tickets, you may call 508-428-0669; or online at

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