Viewpoint: Un-diva Power


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Spellbinding: Harris as Mrs. Lincoln

Julie Harris, who died in August at the age of eighty-seven, was one of the great American stage actors who started their careers in New York in the years immediately following World War II and changed the face of the theater during the 1950 and '60s. Harris made her Broadway debut at twenty, in a now-forgotten comedy called It's a Gift, and did a fair number of small parts until The Member of the Wedding opened at the Empire Theatre in 1950. Harris's role, Frankie Addams, was scarcely diva material: Frankie is a scrawny twelve-year-old tomboy, friendless and "unjoined." But Harris's edgy, physically fluid and emotionally transparent performance made her a star.

Modest and unassuming, Harris had no "great actress" airs or mannerisms. Her trademark, in a way, was her versatility: she was a chameleon who could play the heartless gamine Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, the self-sacrificing Joan of Arc in The Lark, by Jean Anouilh, or the libidinous Margery in The Country Wife. Harris had already won three Tony Awards by December 1972, when I saw her as Mary Todd Lincoln in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, a short-lived play by James Prideaux about the widow of the sixteenth President. I caught a Saturday matinée of the show at the ANTA Playhouse (now the August Wilson Theatre) during my freshman-year Christmas break from college, a time when I thought nothing of cramming four or five Broadway shows into a week, all of them viewed from the top of the balcony. For very little money, I saw a lot of wonderful acting, which I loved, and a lot of bad plays, which didn't bother me at all in those days.

Mrs. Lincoln wasn't the worst thing I ever saw, but it came close: Mary Todd Lincoln did little but cry and complain to anyone who would listen. It was fairly dreary stuff until Harris turned my world upside down with a monologue about how Mrs. Lincoln spent her wilderness years in Europe. Harris was seated at a table downstage, writing a letter and speaking the words aloud until the words took over the action and she spoke directly to the audience. I can't remember the exact text of the speech, but more than forty years later I can still see the people Mrs. Lincoln spoke about, because Harris could make her audience see what wasn't there. It was an act of imaginative power that I had never experienced before. And from the last row of the ANTA balcony, I could hear the thrilling sound of the theater getting quieter and then completely silent as Harris drew the audience into Mrs. Lincoln's world, word by word. Nobody moved; nobody rustled; nobody coughed. We had all been completely spellbound by the unhappy Mrs. Lincoln — and by the great Miss Harris. spacer 



Nico Muhly's opera Two Boys, which had its Metropolitan Opera premiere on October 21, is a coproduction of the Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera, not a co-commission, as stated in "Instant Message" (Oct.). Two Boys was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera/ Lincoln Center Theater/Music Theater Commissions Program.

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