Bronte: A Portrait of Charlotte: Broadway and Beyond
A Solo Portrait of Charlotte Bronte and Audience Reaction
William Luce wrote Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte's nom de plume) Esquire for Julie Harris. For one night only, November 7, 1983, in Los Angeles, California, she performed this one woman show.
There was a sense of privilege at being present for such an occasion, and it was borne out by the transcendent performance of Miss Harris alone onstage through the entire full-length play. The actress held her audience enthralled with changes of mood and character: irony and bitter humor, gentle railing at old Auntie's "morbid little teapot"; sensitivity to such trifles as a lapwing's feather ("for every smallest thing there is sadness"); sharpness of bravely borne heartbreak and loss (the constant "business of dying and funerals"); forlorn hopeless passion for her Belgian professor, M. Heger.
Above all, her masterpiece Jane Eyre — "the story that would become my stake in life" —and the glory of great talent ("I know that I can write gloriously!") in this amazing fragrant Bronte flowering on the bleak moors. Charlotte Bronte wrote gloriously; Julie Harris acts gloriously and lays claim to the title First Lady of the American Theatre.
Matrix owner/producer Joseph Stem, appreciative recipient of the benefit, at the reception that followed presented his star with a special leather bound copy of Jane Eyre. He said later, "My feeling about that night? It was an affirmation of theatre's place in our culture, and I feel Julie Harris is the symbol of that.
So, when 'Bronte: A Portrait of Charlotte' arrived on Broadway theatre stage back in May, I had to check it out. Here is my mini-review and my first time seeing a one woman show!
The stage opens with a simple stage setting: an appropriate early Victorian living room replete with reproduction period furniture and metaphor of four empty hanging frames—at least until one of them is filled with the video narration that Charlotte can’t cover.
The single late afternoon and evening over which the two-hour play takes place are given over to reminiscing about the literary and otherwise limited lives of Charlotte and her sisters Emily and Anne and the dissolute and unfulfilled life of their brother Branwell. Throughout her rambling discourse, Charlotte picks up toys and other items from the Brontë childhood and recalls their significance, fusses over furnishings, writes to her friend Nell, calls loudly to the deaf and silent maid, and waits seemingly in vain for her one last gentleman caller, her father’s curate, whom she may have to marry out of desperation. She recounts a few book-related details, such as the failure of the self-published poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, and the trip she and Anne made to their incredulous London publisher, who hadn’t known that his successful authors were women. (“ ‘Wuthering Heights’ stayed home,” Charlotte explained.) They were outed to a wider public only after their deaths.
Maxine Linehan as Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Brontë, saner and less conflicted than Emily Dickinson, requires a stronger portrayer, and she gets one here in Maxine Linehan, who also seems much nearer the age Charlotte was when she died at not quite 40, in 1855. Linehan clearly has enthusiasm for her subject but at times seems a tad too animated to be the last survivor of six Brontë siblings and the dutiful caregiver of her cranky minister father, Patrick. Charlotte was a self-incarcerated prisoner in the bleak parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire, but one with no remaining hope of escape. Linehan sometimes plays her as if she could leave at any time.
The main problem with any one-person show is that the sole actor has no one with whom to talk or against whom to act. The usual solutions include conversing with an unheard offstage character, addressing the audience directly, reading a letter out loud, and debating with a ghost. “Brontë: A Portrait of Charlotte” employs all of them often, plus video title cards, and is minus any talking on the telephone, which had yet to be invented in 1849, when the play is set. These ploys were distractingly evident even when Julie Harris starred in this work. The script began life as a radio play, also starring Harris, in which talking directly to the listeners was the only option. Onstage Harris somewhat overcame this excessive use of unseen foils by re-channeling the repressed literary spinster she had so successfully employed as Emily Dickinson in her previous collaboration with Luce, “The Belle of Amherst.”