“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.