The Tale of Rosemary Harris

Spring has most definitely arrived, and, along with beautiful blossoms and budding leaflets, spring has also brought some great acts and festivals to the Hollins campus.

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Back at the beginning of the month, we were very lucky to host a concert by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who performed an intimate concert completely acapella at Dupont Chapel. The acoustics in the church were incredible, the harmonies exquisite, and the arrangements chilling.

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In addition to musical performances, Hollins also celebrated the Lex Allen Literary Festival, bringing us the writing talents of Ricardo Pau-Llosa, Meghan Daum, and Tom Drury, who provided us with brilliant stories of West Coast eccentricities and 80’s movies-inspired existential crises.

We were also blessed with a visit and talk by actress Rosemary Harris. While you might know her best as Aunt Mae from the Tobey Maguire Spiderman trilogy (remember that time before Marvel started rebooting their comic book characters every two years?), did you know that she was also a famous Shakespearean actress, performing alongside theatrical legends Peter O’Toole, Derek Jacobi, and Sir Lawrence Olivier? This woman could and did tell some stories–everything from being thrown out of Katherine Hepburn’s parlor to losing her wig on stage in Jacobi’s armor.

My favorite part of her presentation, however, came at the very beginning, before Mrs. Harris had even begun speaking. Ernie Zulia, our theatre director, brought in a TV so that we could watch a recorded performance of Harris from forty years ago as a means of introducing us to her skills. I, the lone English major in a room full of talented theatre people, was lucky enough to nab a seat next to a theatre professor and co-teacher of my Shakespeare class, who could explain staging and parts of Harris’ history in terms I could understand: Macbeth jokes.

About halfway through the video, he nudged me and directed my attention away from the screen and instead toward Harris. A quiet and slight figure, she sat totally engrossed in the play and, almost unaware of it herself, began to mouth each of her lines with perfect fluidity. An old retired Broadway star, played by famous actress Eva Le Gallienne, who passed away in the early nineties, died on screen. As her body is discovered, slumped over in a chair, a script at her feet, tears ran down the sides of Rosemary Harris’ cheeks, both onscreen—and as she sat in her chair a few feet away from me. I stared, unable to look away. Her lips whispered words like a chant, an ancient spell; water continued to drip down her cheeks but, as if in a trance, she couldn’t pry her eyes away from the screen.

Something about that moment made my chest forget how to pump air into my lungs. Maybe it was because I couldn’t imagine having something so ingrained in my mind that I could remember it over forty years later. Maybe it was because it felt like watching ghosts, the ghost of Harris; the ghost of her friend; the ghost of her husband, who was acting alongside her at the time and died a few years after Eva did. Maybe it was simply reflex, an instinctive reaction to hearing her cue for tears. But, whatever the cause, the moment felt too personal, too intimate for a stranger to look upon. Whatever the reason, I started tearing up too.

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