#Woolfalong: Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between The Acts’

When the #Woolfalong reading challenge hosted by Heavenali popped up on my radar I jumped at the chance to read or re-read a number of Virginia Woolf’s novels over the course of the year. Having only recently re-read both Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse – the choices for January and February, I decided to skip those and join the party at the next stop. The subject for March and April is beginnings and endings – The Voyage Out,  Night and Day – Woolf’s first and second novels, or Between the Acts – Woolf’s final novel. I won’t lie, one look at the towering pile of books I have waiting to be read led me towards the latter as I’ve not read it yet and it’s the shortest.

Despite it’s length, Between The Acts wasn’t a quick read – I think all of Woolf’s novels benefit from a slower pace – and I found much to chew on. The novel unfolds over the course of a day, when friends and neighbours gather to watch an amateur open air performance of Orlando, staged and directed by Miss La Trobe. In the lead up to the play, we are introduced to members of the audience and the tensions in their relationships are revealed through their thoughts and interactions.

The play begins. Overseeing the action, Miss La Trobe is frustrated by how the will to communicate to others is somehow lost between the delivery of lines and the watchful eyes of the audience. The wind carries the words of the actors away before they reach the audience, so that only random words and phrases reach their destination. It is a fine analogy for the director’s thwarted efforts to communicate, and opens up another meaning of the title of the play. Between The Acts not only refers to the interval in the play, but also that chasm between the delivery of meaning by the actors and the audience’s fragmentary reception of it, that maybe frustrated Woolf as a writer, herself.

Despite the best efforts of Miss La Trobe and the cast, the audience, for the most part, tolerate the play rather than engage with it, and at its end, people drift away untouched by its message.

The words died away. Only a few great names – Babylon, Nineveh, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Troy – floated across the open space. Then the wind rose, and in the rustle of the leaves even the great words became inaudible; and the audience sat staring at the villagers, whose mouths opened, but no sound came.                                 And the stage was empty. Miss La Trobe leant against the tree, paralyzed. Her power had left her. Beads of perspiration broke on her forehead. Illusion had failed. ‘This is death,’ she murmured, ‘death.’

And again here.

She felt everything they felt. Audiences were the devil. O to write a play without an audience – the play. But here she was fronting her audience. Every second they were slipping the noose.

Despite all the thwarted attempts, there is one powerful moment of connection that happens due to a chance mishap. As young Bonthorp carries the cheval glass across the makeshift stage, it proves too heavy and he stalls, and all the procession with him.

He stopped. So did they all – hand glasses, tin cans, scraps of scullery glass, harness room glass, and heavily embossed silver mirrors – all stopped. And the audience saw themselves, not whole by any means, but at any rate sitting still.                                            The hands of the clock had stopped at the present moment. It was now. Ourselves.       So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how.

This moment struck me as encapsulating the very essence of what great art is about. It is like a mirror reflecting back at ourselves who we truly are. While the actors reflect back the audience, Virginia Woolf is also turning the spotlight on us.

 

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