World War II has been all over my reading: 2666, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, and now, though much differently, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, published posthumously in 1941 but begun several years before. In this novel, the war is in the distance, and only impending: Germany is on the march but England is not yet involved, the news not much more than a disturbing flicker at the back of characters’ minds.
Between the Acts narrates a June day at Pointz Hall, the home of the wealthy Oliver family for the previous hundred years. The Olivers are hosting a pageant play: an event where local villagers perform on an estate for an audience of the wealthy and middle class (and not, although I suspect it comes from a feudal tradition, so much the aristocracy—the Olivers are “new money” usurpers even if they are continuing older traditions) in order to raise funds (in this case, for electric lighting in the church). The play condenses a history of England from its beginnings to the narrative present, featuring within it short comedic pastiches of the drama of various periods. The novel, as you would expect from Woolf, shifts between the thoughts of characters—mostly Giles and Isa Oliver, Giles’s aunt and father, and occasionally visitors and estate workers—and gives us much of the play as it is acted. There are myriad subtle conflicts, but none of them really takes center stage enough to put at the center of a plot synopsis. For what I’m sure are necessary marketing reasons, the back cover of my edition chooses one, but while the choice is justifiable it ultimately misleads you into thinking this will be a novel primarily about a marriage suffering from infidelity. Much more it is a novel thinking through what this kind of event means. Can such a play fulfill any artistic function, or can it only offer a trivial jingoism based on quoting Shakespeare and Congreve? What should it be doing with a war looming around the corner?
I have to say, reading the excerpts of the play, it seems very dull, with the exception of its final bit. The audience is certainly not too excited about it: they seem there more out of a sense of duty (again, the feudal tradition) than out of any interest. Nonetheless, Woolf seems sympathetic in her portrayal of the playwrite/director, Miss La Trobe, and her agony over her production. Miss La Trobe’s most ingenious stroke (indeed, the part most enjoyable to read) is to disturb her audience with the final “modern” portion of the play, offering a Brechtian or otherwise modernist disruption of the fourth wall: first, she lets the audience sit with only themselves, nothing happening onstage, to their increasing discomfort, and then she parades a series of mirrors in front of them to show their reflections. She embarrasses her audience by showing them to be a fragmented set, full of secrets and follies as laughable as any from previous eras—the play ends with some doubt as to whether the form of community it is supposed to coalesce can exist. Miss La Trobe is torn between this vision and a sympathy with her audience, a desire to please and be liked, and as the audience is confronted by the initial silence, she berates herself: “Reality too strong,’ she muttered. ‘Curse ‘em!’ 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. Her little game had gone wrong.” But really, she’s upset because her trick is having just the effect she wanted it to have. Torn between sympathizing with her audience’s misery and wanting to inflict it to force some sort of realization, Miss La Trobe can only think herself a failure once it all ends. It is hard not to sense that Woolf is thinking through some of problems of reception of the sometimes difficult forms with which she and other modernists had confronted audiences—perhaps even this novel’s genre blending, which I found disappointing overall.
Much more enjoyable to read are the prose sections of the novel where Woolf gives us character as only she can. There are clunky moments in word choice, especially in opening pages, but her portrayal of Miss La Trobe’s anxieties over the play, Giles and Isa’s jealousies and desires, and the friendly antagonism of Giles’s elderly father and aunt (he a skeptic, she a believer, both somewhat silly) are wonderful. And, regarding homosexuality, what an antidote after Bolaño! We have Miss La Trobe, whose lesbianism is only briefly suggested though not hard to spot, but also William Dodge, a visitor dragged to the show by a married neighbor, Mrs. Manresa. Here’s William, observing Isa with her husband (whose attentions are on Mrs. Manresa, although William can only speculate):
Hirsute, handsome, virile, the young man in blue jacket and brass buttons, standing in a beam of dusty light, was her husband. And she was his wife. Their relations, as he had noted at lunch, were as people say in novels ‘strained.’ As he had noted at the play, her bare arm had raised itself nervously to her shoulder when she turned—looking for whom? But here he was; and the muscular, the hirsute, the virile plunged him into emotions in which the mind had no share. He forgot how she would have looked against vine leaf in a greenhouse. Only at Giles he looked; and looked and looked. Of whom was he thinking as he stood with his face turned? Not of Isa. Of Mrs. Manresa?
So sympathetically and lustily narrated, more so than either Isa or Giles’s forbidden desires for extramarital affairs, William is one of the most interesting characters here precisely because he is an outsider. Partially this is his homosexuality, which everyone seems to suspect with varying degrees of unspoken support or reproach, but more so it is his class: he’s just a clerk. Indeed, Mrs. Manresa tries to introduce him as an artist to justify bringing him along—a doubly telling choice because it would also be a way of vindicating his homosexuality to the circle of the novel—though he refuses to be misidentified.
This is not close to the first Woolf novel I would recommend to someone: too many dull spots, mostly the play, and the occasional stumble in the prose that makes you remember she had not made final revisions before her death. Yet at moments Woolf’s free indirect discourse gives us her characters’ consciousnesses as beautifully and sympathetically (and sometimes satirically, though hers is a light touch) as any of her fiction. Anyone who has enjoyed her other work will probably find a lot to like here as well.