Between the Acts

“It was a Summer’s night and they were talking.” So begins the last novel by Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts. The scene is a country play being put on for the benefit of raising money for electric lights in the church. It has no plot and the characters are not developed. The play is a hodgepodge of allusions, poems, flowery expressions and lofty sentiments. But it is the stuff that fills the breaks between the acts of the play which develop the sense and sensibility of this day in the life scene.

At once the text is on at least four levels: the actual history of England; the elements used in the play which are snatched from earlier writing; the play itself which depicts the history of England; and of course the lives of the players that strut their stuff on the stage. One reference that is hardly mentioned but at least symbolically casts a shadow over the entire play and audience is the seemingly unavoidable war in Europe which will tear apart the rustic simplicity of this pastoral scene.

The final act of the play is telling. Representing the current time, as opposed to the Shakespearean or Victorian periods represented in the earlier acts, the  play goes quiet and a procession of mirrors casts the audience’s images back to them. I find this a wonderful image and, although for far more gentle reasons than used by Cervantes, it reminds me of the “mirror” scene in Book 2 of Don Quixote. I suppose that in both instances the idea is to illuminate reality. But not all mirrors reflect reality, as Alice discovered.

The real enigma of this novel doesn’t appear until the final lines after the play is over, the players returned to their regular lives, and all the parts of the presentation dismantled and packed away for another year. Woolf ends the novel with a little twist:

“Then the curtain rose. They spoke.

Virginia Woolf is arguably the best female author of the 20th century and undeniably one of the top authors of all time. Many readers don’t like her writing because it is demanding on both the intellect and the senses. My favorite Woolf is The Waves but books like Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are commonly studied in college level courses … hopefully adding new readers to the large group of Woolf admirers. Woolf’s output is not great:

Novels

  • The Voyage Out (1915)
  • Night and Day (1919)
  • Jacob’s Room (1922)
  • Mrs Dalloway (1925)
  • To the Lighthouse (1927)
  • Orlando (1928)
  • The Waves (1931)
  • The Years (1937)
  • Between the Acts (1941)

Short story collections

  • Monday or Tuesday (1921)
  • A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944)
  • Mrs Dalloway’s Party (1973)
  • The Complete Shorter Fiction (1985)

Virginia Woolf, who had had bouts of mental illness, took her own life by drowning. She left this note:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V

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