Making history unrepeatable in Virginia Woolf's 'Between the Acts.'
It is always necessary for a woman to die in order for the play to begin.(2)
In a 1936 essay, Walter Benjamin states: "All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war." He continues to explain that one aim of Communism is to politicize art, in order to render untenable the mass destruction of mechanized war that Fascism promotes as beautiful.(3) In Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf politicizes theater as well as history by challenging perceived notions of the relationships between actor, audience, and character, and the audience's relationship to its own collective narrative. At the same time, the production authored by Woolf and staged by Miss La Trobe defies the mandate of stage realism expressed by Helene Cixous in the epigraph above. Cixous argues that realism represents the world at the expense of women; in other words, women cannot be imagined by realism. I will argue that these triple subversions - of theater, of history, and of realism - create the base for Woolf's feminist, pacifist polemic in this novel. The pageant is a failure in Miss La Trobe's eyes because through it she has been unable to share her vision with the audience. But it succeeds as a demystification of the history it ostensibly represents by subverting the ideals of femininity so intricately linked with the production and representation of that history. The collective vision played out in Between the Acts asks both audience and reader to imagine the radical possibility of how we can stop history from repeating itself as war.
Such subversion by feminist artists and critics is necessarily destructive and reconstructive. Men's traditional control over how history unfolds, how it is remembered and too often repeated, must first be recognized, then destroyed or at least significantly altered, and finally refigured. All three tasks can be undertaken by everyone who is a reader, critic, and maker of both the historical and its representations. But are women readers, in particular, outsiders to historical events, as Woolf describes them in Three Guineas? Woolf shows that patriotism must mean something different to men and to women because "[h]istory and biography when questioned would seem to show that [woman's] position in the home of freedom has been different from her brother's; and psychology would seem to hint that history is not without its effect upon mind and body."(4) The residue of the past insinuates itself into today, and historical differences between women and men make their cooperation conflicted, and at times impossible. Are women fortunate to be cultural outsiders and thus in a position of clear-eyed criticism of that culture, a position Woolf herself seemed to both value and resent? Or must our marginal position leave history always to repeat itself, with women paying the heaviest cost of this repetition? How might a feminist representation of history revise what gets remembered and what does not get reenacted?
A reading - through feminism - of the theatrical techniques in Between the Acts begins to answer these questions. Illustrating the distinction between epic and dramatic theater, a distinction later theorized by Bertold Brecht, Woolf uses the former to upset rather than to mirror reality. Many critics of Between the Acts have pointed to the novel's pageant as a discomforting dose of personal and collective inspection for its spectators.(5) Looking at the pageant as an example of epic theater, however, points to how this effect is achieved, and its implications for a feminist subversion of representation.(6) As Pamela L. Caughie argues, all of Woolf's women artists, from Mary Carmichael to Lily Briscoe to Miss La Trobe, create nonrepresentational works. Their art demands a degree of audience (or reader or viewer) participation that belies the tradition of great art emerging - with perfection - from an individual genius unconnected to his society.(7) In order to participate, however, the audience - both Woolf's and Miss La Trobe's - must be able to imagine that other side of reality that is always there but always hidden. This in turn requires a recuperation not only of a common yet unrecorded past, but of the feminine as well.
The feminine, like communal history, tends to be hidden on an other side or behind the mirror of representation. This is Woolf's argument in Three Guineas, where she connects the problem of women's invisibility to that of the working class more persuasively than in any other work. She writes of women: "Nor does the old word 'freedom' serve, for it was not freedom in the sense of license that they wanted; they wanted, like Antigone, not to break the laws, but to find the law" (18). Like the Greek heroine, Woolf understands that, until the law of the father in all its dimensions is fundamentally challenged, women, and by extension the majority of people who are powerless, will continue to suffer under it. But offering readers a newer, stronger, "improved" version of the feminine is not enough to crack the mirror holding women to men's normative vision. Nor is cracking the mirror sufficient, for once women have understood their representation to be a lie, they must create a different, more truthful one.
The feminine has traditionally been seen as unstable compared to the masculine, since it is closer to nature and fluctuates with seasons, tides, and other uncontrollable phenomena. According to Cixous, the feminine body must be repressed - a woman must die - so that mimesis can work. Imitative representation, such as that aspired to in realist drama, depends upon man's denial of his originary space, the maternal. This theory of representation based on a missing feminine is elucidated by Luce Irigaray when she rereads Plato's cave as the womb man rejects in order to imagine himself.(8) Such an erasure relegates Woman to the realm of the unreal and unknowable; she is ultimately unrepresentable, since it is on her that man's capacity to represent himself depends. He must see himself as originary, blinding himself to the maternal space from which he came, in order to enjoy the self that mimesis affords him. In other words, he can only represent himself through mimesis. He cannot represent what he has not imagined, and thus when he does draw the feminine, it is in terms of how Woman is not like himself. Man's image of the feminine consists of a negative image: not what it is, but what it is not, which is masculine.
The disappearing woman as the essence of (or excuse for) patriarchal aesthetics has long provided the backdrop for feminist theories of representation. Angelika Rauch argues that "the privilege of the aesthetic to convey a consciousness of life and the self is based on woman and her physical death."(9) This charge echoes Cixous' declaration that a woman must die in order for the play to begin. For man to show himself to himself, be it on stage or in painting, fiction, or any other representational venue, he must construct himself as an inventor, an originator, a giver of life. If he remembers his mother this delusion is impossible. In realism, man views himself as a whole person, for whom art is a mirror. Rauch writes that modern art, in contrast to traditional realistic aesthetics, represents the illusion of the unified subject's experience confronting the work of art. And because modern art is viewed from the perspective of the man who is no longer sure of himself, as the projection of fantasy, the connection of women and art becomes clear. Man's desire for wholeness, which he no longer sees reflected in art, is translated into the mysterious feminine. As Rauch puts it, the feminine "has participated in the same 'aura' as works of art by appearing to have transhistorical value and by embodying imaginary desires" (79). However, it is crucial that this version of the feminine be not a real, living person, but a one-dimensional surface onto which the male viewer projects himself. Art, then, both realistic and modern, depends upon women's absence.
This is the kind of art that Brecht and Benjamin tried to challenge - they wanted the audience to see through the artifice of representation in order to criticize its dependence on fantasy. The epic actor does not portray the illusion of a unified subject; the epic spectator does not entertain fantasies of himself or herself as a unified subject. Instead, they are all historical subjects living in a dialectical relation with culture, with the capacity for change. Where Woolf both anticipated and expanded this argument was by paying attention to the feminine's role in art. Once the absent woman is refigured into representation, art's capacity to move out of the realm of fantasy and into political change is, if not assured, then at least made possible. This possibility - theorized by Woolf in Three Guineas and illustrated in Between the Acts - foresees Benjamin's goal of politicized art making Fascism impossible because it makes it unimaginable.
Miss La Trobe's untitled pageant, a brief history of England in several chronological but otherwise disjointed scenes, does not follow the rules of mimesis or of great art. Nothing in the play imitates life. Nor does it seem to follow the rules of history, leaving out every ruler except Queen Elizabeth and never mentioning a war, scientific discovery, or famous work of art. As one spectator, Colonel Mayhew, asks his wife, "'Why leave out the British Army? What's history without the Army, eh?'" (157). What indeed, if not the hodgepodge of ordinary unnamed people going about their daily lives, like the ever present "diggers and delvers" in the play's background. The unrehearsed gesture of a Mrs. Elmhurst dropping her program - signalling the start of history as it does - is as significant a moment in time as is the firing of a canon. And unlike history, which is contained neatly within the past, this historical pageant concludes with "The Present Time. Ourselves" (186). Armed with borrowed mirrors, Miss La Trobe's amateur players confront the spectators with, literally, themselves and the hypothesis that the past is only as explicable as the present.
Thus, a few years before Brecht published his strategy for creating political theater, Virginia Woolf vicariously staged an epic theater piece. The pageant succeeds in alienating its audience to the point of criticism, of it and themselves. Voicing her confusion, Etty Springett calls the play "cheap and nasty" (173), as the scene of the Victorian home is rolled up and removed from view. But why had the home perished, Mrs. Lynn Jones asks, "like a bit of meat gone sour" (174)? For despite the comforting recognition of her father's home and the glory that was the British Empire, she also recalls its underside: "children did draw trucks in mines; there was the basement" (164). Home and hearth came at a heavy price - apparently paid by others - but in fact souring this spectator's memory of her own history.
Such alienation was achieved by using many of the methods espoused by Brecht. Brecht enjoined actors of the epic theater to remind their spectators again and again that they are only actors pretending to be somebody else:
. . . Give your acting That progression of one-thing-after-another . . . permitting the spectator To experience this Now on many levels, coming from Previously and Merging into Afterwards, also having much else now Alongside it. [The audience] is sitting not only In your theatre but also In the world.(10)
He insisted that theater be experienced in the present, without an invitation to nostalgia or foresight, so that the audience can discover for itself how the action on stage relates to its past and future. Brecht's central concern with epic theater was to change the relation of the audience to what happened on stage, with the ultimate goal of changing this relation in society - that is, of the working person's relation to historical events. Woolf wanted to change women's role in history in the same way: the forces of history would damage women less once they became actors in it rather than spectators, critics, and victims.
While Brecht's ideal spectator is, literally, a man of science, Woolf's is a rationalist tempered by empathy. Brecht's scientific approach to theater seems contradicted by many of his own plays, most notably Mother Courage, in which a central character enlists the emotional support of the audience. Because of the critical reaction to early productions of Mother Courage, in reissuing his Short Organum for the Theater in 1953 (originally written in 1948), Brecht amended numerous points refining the utility of the Verfremdungs or alienation effect. He writes:
This technique [A-effect] allows the theatre to make use in its representations of the new social scientific method known as dialectical materialism. . . . [This] method treats social situations as processes, and traces out all their inconsistencies . . . [regarding] nothing as existing except in so far as it changes, in other words is in disharmony with itself.(11)
Occasional empathy with a character's situation, for Brecht, was not enough to negate the spectator's rational faculty for social criticism once it was enlisted by the play. As long as emotional interest remained subordinate to intellectual observation, epic theater retained its dialectical edge. And if some spectators remembered Mother Courage as a hapless individual influenced solely by uncontrollable social forces, rather than as a willing cog in the capitalist machinery of war, this was their fault and not the play's.(12)
Woolf, on the other hand, is less troubled than Brecht by empathy's potential influence on the spectators' interpretation. If Mrs. Lynn Jones's memories of her own imperfect Victorian home, inspired by the play, lead her to question the justice of her culture at large, empathy has served a political purpose. I will argue later that such a politics of criticism is, for Woolf, inseparable from a feminist renegotiation of the past. And non-realistic, epic theater provided an ideal form with which to express this renegotiation.(13)
Even when its characters did remind individual audience members of themselves, epic theater opposed the attempt to trick its audience into believing what they witnessed mirrored real life. Some critics of Woolf have argued that Miss La Trobe's outdoor staging, combining real cows and swallows with costumed actors, dissolves the traditional space between performer and spectator.(14) But such a dissolution would counter the Brechtian ideal of critical theater in which the audience never doubts the temporal, illusory nature of their experience. Although the pageant's audience has no curtain or proscenium dividing it from the actors, an understood division exists. And Miss La Trobe's experiment of disrupting the illusion fails. Faced with nothing but the view uninterrupted by actors, the audience fidgets and she mutters, "'Reality too strong . . . Curse 'em!' [Here] she was fronting her audience. Every second they were slipping the noose" (179-80). Although no one watching the pageant has mistaken stage events for reality, they want the pageant to look like entertainment, and when it ceases to, they ignore it instead of thinking about it. As Patricia Klindienst Joplin argues, La Trobe's failure is Woolf's triumph: "For the first time in Woolf's career, she seizes hold of the gap, the distance, the interval, and the interrupted structure not as a terrible defeat of the will to continuity or aesthetic unity. Rather, she elevates the interrupted structure to a positive formal and metaphysical principle."(15) I read "interrupted structure" as alienation: both devices force witnesses to renegotiate their expectations of representation.
Brecht distinguished between epic and dramatic forms of representation because epic demands a critical response from the audience, whereas drama elicits only emotion and passive empathy with its characters. Traditional, realistic drama created a stage that invited the spectators to imagine they were looking into living rooms like their own (or their social superiors'). Brecht, however, used an alienation effect that portrayed the stage as an artificial and temporary environment. In this way the theater space would become one of activity, filled by actors and involved spectators, rather than the static realistic set with its fourth wall removed, over which the audience had no control. Although the pageant's outdoor setting is real, it is in no way realistic. Imitating neither the eighteenth-century drawing room nor the bustling Victorian street implied in the program, it looks to be what it is, a pretense. The audience refers several times to La Trobe's "limited means," but it accepts the scouring pads used to make Queen Elizabeth's cape shine. Eliza Clark the shopkeeper, the performer, "looked the age in person. And when she mounted the soap box in the centre . . . her size made her appear gigantic. She could reach a flitch of bacon or haul a tub of oil with one sweep of her arm in the shop" (83). Eliza as Elizabeth plays her part well; representing the age but not the individual, she invites historical critique.
As the stage space reformed itself, for Brecht, so were the actor and the spectator urged to change their expectations of each other. The actor should no longer "be" a character; now he or she showed the process of acting out the character. Brecht likened the actor's skill to the athlete's, involving demonstration and not transformation. Miss La Trobe's village actors, like Eliza Clark, splice their characters onto their own identities. In this way the ages of England are shown as more than fixed memory; they are as malleable and flawed as the present time because they are occurring now.
A Brechtian (and by extension, La Trobian) performance is nothing more than that: it is demystified by presenting itself as strange and unusual, as theater is supposed to be. And when history's representation is divorced from the kind of book Lucy Swithin reads, detailing the mastodons and mammoths populating primeval London, it can become a collective enterprise. As Judith L. Johnston puts it, Lucy's Outline of History is a parody of the evolution of man's bestiality.(16) The book explains humanity's rise from the mud of prehistory to the glories of colonialism, but Lucy's preference for primordial ooze points to Woolf's ironic position toward such historical schemata. Like all the characters in the novel, Lucy is drawn with a combination of satire and affection. She finds prehistory more appealing than recorded time, apparently preferring mastodons to men. Woolf connects prehistoric mud to the essential England celebrated by the chorus in Miss La Trobe's pageant, but - via Lucy - satirically points to that mud's insufficient value as a touchstone for English history. The mud, uninhabited by people, is outside historical reckoning, but it is a necessary element in Woolf's revisionary portrayal of that reckoning. According to historical materialists such as Brecht and Walter Benjamin, history and its representation are indivisible. Expanding upon his famous statement that every document of civilization is also one of barbarism, Benjamin stresses the significance of how documents are "transmitted from one owner to another"; the historical materialist must "brush history against the grain" (257), in order to locate what and who have been covered up by documentation.(17) Woolf performs this "brushing against the grain" in Between the Acts, but as a writer she remains aware of the paradox in which she engages: producing a document to discredit our faith in documentation. When history is reported by someone outside the dominant elite of armies, banks, parliaments, and universities, it changes dramatically, both in terms of what is remembered and how those involved in it recast their own roles.
Brecht disdained conventional drama because it reiterated the exclusive practices of society and the past while lying about what theater was doing. He wrote, "The theatre as we know it shows the structure of society [represented on the stage] as incapable of being influenced by society [in the auditorium]."(18) But if the spectator learns to criticize the actor rationally instead of merely empathizing with or despising the character enacted, this newly acquired intellectual ability can be utilized to change the spectators' lives outside the theater. The play as a controlled production must be compared to history as a similarly controlled and controllable production, one requiring thought as well as tears to alter.
Benjamin's elucidation of the difference between German Trauerspiel (literally "game of mourning") and classical tragedy in The Origin of German Tragic Drama clarifies Brecht's and Woolf's experiments with theater. For Benjamin, Trauerspiel treats the history of monarchs and people, and not a heroic past populated solely with great men. He calls the Trauerspiel dramatist an expert historian, because the interest of the tale of the death of a king or a tyrant lies in the community's ability to withstand the death.(19) Continuity defines the ritual of mourning: the public mourns a lost ruler even while it replaces that ruler, so that the history of the people is never in danger of complete disruption or closure. Benjamin describes the Trauerspiel as a self-conscious game celebrating the after-life of death. The game never truly ends because the hero's death represents less an end to time than a beginning of public mourning, a recognition that as one historical episode ends, another one begins (135-36). We can substitute the Trauerspiel's self-consciousness for epic theater's Verfremdungs effect: both challenge the Aristotelian prescription that drama have a closed, circular form. Neither do they invite the catharsis of Greek tragedy, in which the spectator becomes lost in and transformed by the hero's pain. Both demand audience participation in terms of self-recognition of the individual as a group member and of the group's history as a communal undertaking. Miss La Trobe's pageant, likewise, invites its audience to consider England's history as something other - something at once richer and more pedestrian - than the affairs of great men.
Several critics of Between the Acts have called this "something other" a utopia, an imaginary space and time beyond the political and social realities of pre-World War II England.(20) But neither the novel nor the pageant imagines a utopia. They question whether a better, saner, more just reality might not hide in the ruins of "real" (patriarchal) history. Woolf does not argue for an alternative reality, but more complexly, for another reality within but obscured by history books and newspapers. For Benjamin, the politicizing of art is the opposite of the aestheticization of politics and is therefore a weapon against Fascism. I read La Trobe's experimental theater, and Woolf's rendering of it, as just such a weapon. The non-realistic, non-representational form of the pageant makes it a tool for escaping the constricting mirror of man-made human history. When Isa reads and recalls the newspaper account of a girl's rape by soldiers in Whitehall, she alerts Woolf's readers to the side of war that is rarely historicized. Whether or not a woman represents a nation, like Helen of Troy, her body usually acts - literally - as the spoils of battle.
History portrayed in the pageant bears a distinctly feminine face. Medieval England is a singing girl dressed in pink, Elizabeth of course represents the Elizabethan age, and the eighteenth century is commanded by the female figure of Reason. Only the Victorian period is patriarchal, with a London bobby directing the scene of a young minister and his bride, Eleanor Hardcastle (a good Dickensian or even Shavian name), as they prepare to convert the heathen in the colonies. England's history, then, seems to have been defeminized as medieval innocence, Elizabethan grandeur, and eighteenth-century rationalism tempered with humor gave way to the class division and false sentimentality - Mrs. Lynn Jones's father's home with its basement - of the nineteenth century.
Miss La Trobe's interpretation of history is one with which many in the audience are uncomfortable, especially when the pageant ends with the mirrors bringing England's past up to the immediate present. The actors holding mirrors "[squat]; malicious; observant; expectant; expository" (186). But the spectators' general indignation at being thus shown up is interrupted by an authoritative, invisible voice on a megaphone, scolding them even harder than did the mirrors and reminding them that "a tyrant . . . is half a slave" (187). Although Miss La Trobe may consider herself a slave to her audience, she also desperately wants to tell them what to think. While not particularly beautiful, the director's domineering, mechanized voice in some way imitates the Fascist use of art that Benjamin deplores. Her attempt to aestheticize her politics of blame marks the pageant's ultimate failure. The gramophone voice asks the spectators to look at themselves, "[then] at the wall; and ask how's this wall, the great wall, which we call, perhaps miscall, civilization, to be built by (here the mirrors flicked and flashed) orts, scraps, and fragments like ourselves" (188)? Her question is astute, but its method of presentation ruins the otherwise collective ideal of the pageant. According to Patricia Klindienst Joplin, La Trobe's ultimate abandonment of her mechanized voice represents Woolf's hope that art can maintain a communal identity.(21) When the gramophone voice falters - "[a] hitch occurred" (188) - technology gives way to the actors' human power to momentarily engage their audience.
"Orts, scraps, and fragments" have, throughout the play and novel, provided a revisionist, collectivist history for both actors and spectators. Critics have debated whether, as Woolf's final statement in fiction, Between the Acts promises historical unity or disunity. The protagonists in the narrative, Isa and Giles Oliver, progress through discord into deeper discord - the possibility of their final sexual union being beyond the book's last page - and the pageant providing the narrative's context ends in a cacophony of music, actors' words, cows lowing, and the buzz of military airplanes. Such a conclusion appears initially pessimistic about the future, but as a staging of community interaction it is also potentially revolutionary. Like Miss La Trobe's play, the novel fails ultimately as a utopian vision, not for the reasons most critics offer, but because it remains grounded in the politics of reality as well as imagining a real future growing from that ground. The absence of unity by the end is not necessarily a cause for despair, but may be a reason for cautious hope. Both pageant and novel challenge our received notions of historical process and the inevitability of wars started by monomaniacal individuals.
Woolf was painfully, angrily aware of how communal passivity and a mute acceptance of elitist historicism breeds dictators. In her pacifist polemic, Three Guineas, she comments on a photograph of the prototypical European dictator in his regalia:
[The picture] suggests that the public and private worlds are inseparably connected; that the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other. . . . It suggests that we cannot disassociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure. It suggests that we are not passive spectators doomed to unresisting obedience but by our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that figure. . . . How essential it is that we should realise that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. (142)
The public and private spheres are chillingly unified by Woolf through the image of the dictator. If men remain tyrants toward women at home in addition to keeping women subordinate in public, they will continue to wage wars with each other. Voiceless women will continue to bear the burdens of these wars, in addition to bearing soldiers, until they can refigure their own roles in history. Home and the world are divided in history's representation, with home as a footnote at best, but to see them forcibly united as Woolf does is to begin to reimagine that history.
As I have mentioned above, more than any male character, Miss La Trobe exhibits the most dictatorial traits in Between the Acts. Judith L. Johnston points out that she and Hitler both came to power in 1933 because this her seventh pageant takes place in 1939.(22) But despite Miss La Trobe's apparently tyrannical use of her director's voice, she has managed to subvert the history of great men. Her method of aestheticizing politics is finally too mechanized to overcome the human elements she has illuminated at such personal cost. Rationalism untempered by emotion is not a strong enough force to inspire change. Some critics see Miss La Trobe as a unifying artist, like Woolf herself, or a goddess figure reminding the audience of their pagan past.(23) She is more complexly, I think, all of these things: would-be dictator, would-be savior who puts together the orts and fragments into a cohesive entity, and finally, artist with a vision. Like Woolf, Miss La Trobe doubts both her vision and her ability to communicate it, but this torturous questioning adds to the polyphonic nature of her art. If cohesion is too much to ask in an England between the acts of catastrophic wars, then we must reconsider the plurality of people and acts that define this apparently doomed civilization.
Melba Cuddy-Keane describes Between the Acts as an amiable comedy with a restorative rather than a corrective intent, elevating the communal, choric voice over that of the individual. While I am less convinced of the novel's amiability, I agree that the individual voice is muted, especially that of the omniscient artist, be she Woolf or Miss La Trobe. Cuddy-Keane suggests that the novel provides a model for a leaderless, even anti-epic society in which the epic hero as de facto ruler is displaced by a chorus of cooperative leaders.(24) Due to its exploitation of Brechtian methodology, the pageant of Between the Acts does present an alternative to the passive group and active leader dynamics that destroyed Europe twice. According to Sandra D. Shattuck, the pageant's finale is "Woolf's urgent call to her readers to take up their unacted parts . . . by speaking out against the atrocities of nationally sanctioned murder and fascism."(25) In order to act, however, readers (and Miss La Trobe's audience) must be able to imagine that other side of reality that is always there but always hidden. This in turn requires a recuperation not only of a common, collective, unrecorded past, but of the feminine as well.
Recuperating the feminine, however, showing it as it is rather than as how it has been imagined by men, is not enough. Representation without an agenda based in real life is irresponsible, according to socialist aesthetics. Benjamin writes that the success of Fascism has been due to its aestheticization of politics - more precisely, its ability through propaganda films to "allow the masses to express themselves," to show themselves to themselves. As he puts it, "Mass reproduction is aided especially by the reproduction of masses."(26) In the final spectacular scene of Miss La Trobe's pageant, the producer appears to be doing just this. The "riff-raff" emerge from the bushes holding mirrors, tin cans, and other reflectors held up to the audience. The narrative voice exclaims, "Ourselves! Ourselves!" (184). But the masses are not reproduced here as they might be in a propaganda film such as Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. First, Miss La Trobe's audience is made up of every class while the individual voices with which the reader has been familiarized are upper class. The producers of this vision are themselves the workers. And secondly, the selves reflected are the fragmented realities of the modern (and modernist) human subject for whom unity is only a fantasy. The voices continue: "Ourselves? But that's cruel. To snap us as we are, before we've had time to assume. . . . And only, too in parts" (184, ellipses Woolf's). They see not the seamless body politic of the roaring crowds in Triumph of the Will, but the human subject who no longer believes himself or herself to be whole. Only if the masses delude themselves into seeing culture as an all-powerful unit over which they have no control, can Fascism triumph.
The epic nature of Miss La Trobe's historical pageant continues to its chaotic, disembodied finale. We must remember that, despite its collective performance, the pageant is originally the creation of one woman. In going beyond Brechtian prescriptions, she has successfully alienated her audience from their illusions, including that of unitary subjectivity. Not only must they question themselves, but history as well has been put under a critical lens. Like the Trauerspiel artist, Woolf rejects closure in order to construct a new and disordered order, and nowhere is this beginning at the end more explicit than in the final scene of her final novel, when the curtain rises on the protagonists' dialogue on the last page. The novel ends where Isa's and Giles's performance and our potential reading of it (were it ever to be written) begins. Woolf, to paraphrase Rachel Blau DuPlessis, writes beyond the ending to show her characters' story as a process of their own malleable lives.(27)
Between the Acts challenges form in other ways, mixing the genres of narrative and drama and subverting artistic, authorial authority. Woolf spent her career dismantling traditional definitions of art and the artist, writing against the fixity of plot, character, and intention. She never wrote conventionally unified novels of classically tragic heroes because tragic unity describes only the aspirations of the patriarchal elite who demanded constantly that Woolf, the self-taught woman writer, stay in her place. Characters like Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, Percival in The Waves, and Giles Oliver in Between the Acts fulfill mock-heroic roles for Woolf, representing British nostalgia for lost colonial might at its weakest and most ridiculous. In a gesture both pathetic and violent, Giles stomps on a snake devouring a toad and hopes that the blood on his shoes will speak to his wife in words that he has lost. Woolf shows heroism as farce, with the hero unable to communicate or even to act except through petty destruction. With this image of Giles and his blood-stained foot, she suggests that the final end, the "unity" of history, remains no more significant than a snake writhing beneath a man's shoe.
Within this critique of historical totality lies another question about the order of narrative and memory. Must a story's - or history's - plot always be chronological? What happened when may be less significant than what happened to whom and its lasting effects. In the midst of the pageant's mock-Elizabethan play of mistaken identities and child-switching, Isa wonders: "Did the plot matter? . . . . The plot was only there to beget emotion. There was no need to puzzle out the plot . . . the plot's nothing" (90-91). The play fragment involving the ancient crone who had hidden the rightful prince in a basket points to the insignificance of any one particular narrative. The crone dies, the prince is reunited with the princess, and the priest combines the ceremonies of funeral and wedding. Death and rebirth form an essential "plot," one disrupted by history only when a culture learns to forget its past.
From Isa's perspective, the plot involves the fragment of a newspaper story she glimpsed that morning, the story of soldiers raping a girl at Whitehall. This image underscores Isa's conviction that the only emotions worthy of plotting are love and hate, both of which she feels for the husband whose conventionality has kept her from ever finishing a poem. Her stereotypically feminine concern with emotion points to the need to channel this strength of feeling into a more rationally critical perspective. Emotion, or the spectator's empathy with which Brecht was so uncomfortable, should not be divorced from the ability to criticize. When it is, and is disregarded as feminine weakness, people and cultures forget the pain of the past. As a failed poet, Isa may represent the woman artist manque, but her intuition concerning the significance of the girl's rape connects her to the feminist conclusion about the disappearing woman. The rape of a girl symbolizes war; it also symbolizes how man has lost his way in artistic renditions of the past.
Woolf implies that the image of the girl's rape by soldiers is as historically eventful as the airplanes zooming over the idyllic landscape of Pointz Hall. Both aspects of war interrupt the pageant's atomized depiction of British history as well as the concentration of the spectators. The rape appears to be a private act, available to the reader only as a fragment of a newspaper article glimpsed by Isa, while the airplanes manifest war's public face. But Woolf has argued in Three Guineas that such a facile separation of spheres is dangerously naive. If the body of a woman, figurative or real or, more commonly, both, lies at the center of war, then war can be challenged only through that body. For Marcus, Between the Acts argues "that the militaristic patriarchal state needs the collaboration of women to make war."(28) Once women realize this and refuse their collaboration, war might become history's unrepeatable ghost.
We read in 1992 of Bosnia's "rape" by Serbia, but we also know of rape-centers constructed in prisoner-of-war camps in the former Yugoslavia. As a European Community fact-finding mission in the Balkans put it, "'rape cannot be seen as incidental to the main purposes of the aggression, but as serving a strategic purpose in itself.'"(29) Rape in the Balkan context often meant and may still mean a literal application of ethnic cleansing, in which Serb soldiers told Bosnian and Muslim women that they expected them to create little Serbs ("Chetniks"). One woman's response to this was, "I only know that I am not going to give birth to a Chetnik. Either I will have an abortion or I will kill myself."(30) Choosing death over forced collaboration is an extreme application of Woolf's demand in Three Guineas, but in either case the woman disappears and the war can go on.
What might happen if the woman didn't disappear, in either history or its representation? During the ten minutes of reality Miss La Trobe imposes on the pageant, when nothing artificial occurs on stage, Mrs. Swithin muses that she doesn't believe the Victorians ever existed. William Dodge replies, "You don't believe in history," as Mrs. Swithin retreats into a meditation which concludes that "all is harmony, could we hear it" (175). Only Lucy Swithin, who can imagine London as a prehistoric swamp populated by mastodons, understands the holistic imperative of historical process. She recognizes, if only vaguely, the artist's effort to represent not unity but fragmentation, how the disparate elements of the pageant create neither a nation nor a people, but something larger and impossible to define. This something exists in a collective understanding that men and women need not picture themselves, imagine and remember themselves, over the body of the destroyed mother, because human beings together are more than a group of lost children.
When Mrs. Swithin meets Miss La Trobe during an interval, "ignoring the conventions" saying she must play her role as a spectator and not go back stage (152), the two women almost communicate. Woolf writes, "Their eyes met in a common effort to bring a common meaning to birth. They failed" (152). But this failure, which haunts Miss La Trobe and hangs over the novel like the threat of war, also provides a measure of hope to spectators of the pageant and to readers of the novel. Miss La Trobe and Mrs. Swithin - like Woolf herself - are two women who live beyond the norms of femininity. Unlike Isa, who murmurs fragments of poetry but who will never have an artist's vision because she is trapped in the conventions of playing wife and mother, they reject roles. Lucy Swithin's nickname among the villagers is "Batty" and her brother refers to her as Cindy. Such a lack of fixed identity makes her, like the bossy, lesbian, foreigner La Trobe, free to be someone beyond definition.
Isa's identity, however, while more conventional, is also imperfectly fixed. It is she - the only mother among the novel's primary characters - who questions the value of plot and thus the conventions of realism, and she who recognizes the significance of an unnamed girl raped by soldiers. And finally, Isa adds to her assessment of the important emotions, love and hate, a third: peace (92). Peace would seem to be a state of existence, a political term, not an emotion. But for Isa it is the feeling following the exhaustion of love and hate, the feeling Woolf holds out for her after the unwritten fight she will have with Giles. Unlike love and hate, peace is the antithesis of war and cannot coexist with it. Peace in the novel's final scene is tenuously aligned with conception, as the narrator informs us that "after they had fought, they would embrace. From that embrace another life might be born" (219). Isa is not an artist, but she is the potential creator of a child who will both embody and represent her, Giles, and their common culture. Just as Isa takes maternal responsibility for the peace that will ensue after her domestic war, Woolf demands that the readers of Between the Acts accept responsibility for the international war about to engulf England. People who make life - women and artists - should never acquiesce to the antithesis of peace. Pacifism, then, can be the result of a critical recuperation of the feminine and a culture's collective past. Despite her own despair, Woolf holds out the hope that when the documents of civilization are rewritten by those whom history has acted upon, those documents will not also be records of barbarism.
University of Colorado Denver, Colorado
1. Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1941; rpt. Leonard Woolf, 1969), 126. All further references to this text will be made parenthetically.
2. Helene Cixous, "Aller a la mer," trans. Barbara Kerslake, Modern Drama 27 (1984):546-48, 546.
3. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, 1968), 217-59, 241, 242.
4. Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1938; rpt. Leonard Woolf 1966), 9. All further references to this text will be made parenthetically.
5. Many critics have also rightly pointed to the pageant's affinity with medieval and earlier English theater and spectacle. See Judith L. Johnston, "The Remedial Flaw: Revisioning Cultural History in Between the Acts," in Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury: A Centennial Celebration, ed. Jane Marcus (London: Macmillan, 1987), 253-77; Brenda R. Silver, ed. "'Anon' and 'The Reader': Virginia Woolf's Last Essays," Twentieth Century Literature 25 (1979):356-435; Judy Little, "Festive Comedy in Woolf's Between the Acts," Women and Literature 5 (1977):26-37; and Sallie Sears, "Theater of War: Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts," in Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant, ed. Jane Marcus (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983), 212-35, for only a few examples.
6. At least three other critics mention Brecht as a model for reading the pageant, but Sandra D. Shattuck refers exclusively to the Greek elements of epic theater, "The Stage of Scholarship: Crossing the Bridge from Harrison to Woolf," in Marcus 1987, 278-98, while Herbert Marder simply calls attention to the similarity of Woolf's use of "inner distances" in the novel's satire and Brecht's alienation effect, "Alienation Effects: Dramatic Satire in Between the Acts," Papers on Language and Literature 24 (1988):423-35, 433. Kathy J. Phillips compares Woolf and Brecht as modernists, citing their similar montage style of representing the present as a historical development of distinct moments, Virginia Woolf Against Empire (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994), xvi-xvii.
7. Pamela L. Caughie, "'I must not settle into a figure': The Woman Artist in Virginia Woolf's Writings," Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poetics, Politics, and Portraiture, ed. Suzanne W. Jones (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1991), 371-97.
8. Luce Irigaray, The Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985).
9. Angelika Rauch, "The Trauerspiel of the Prostituted Body, or Woman as Allegory of Modernity," Cultural Critique 10 (1988):77-88, 79.
10. Bertold Brecht, "Portrayal of the Past and Present in One," Poems 1913-1956, eds. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (New York: Methuen, 1976), 307-8.
11. Bertold Brecht, "A Short Organum for the Theatre," Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang; London: Methuen, 1964), 179-208, 193.
12. Brecht, "Short Organum," 221.
13. David McWhirter calls Between the Acts' "deliberately structured dialogue of abstract and empathetic perspectives" an attempt by Woolf to reconsider collective history: "The Novel, the Play, and the Book: Between the Acts and the Tragicomedy of History," Papers on Language and Literature 24 (1988):423-35, 807. He states further that this dialogue undoes the binary between abstraction and empathy, which is a useful way to think of epic theater's political aim: communalizing empathetic responses to make them politically significant.
14. See Daniel Ferrer, Virginia Woolf and the Madness of Language, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (New York: Routledge, 1990), 100 and Maria DiBattista, Virginia Woolf's Major Novels.' The Fables of Anon (New Haven: Yale UP, 1980), 194.
15. Patricia Klindienst Joplin, "The Authority of Illusion: Feminism and Fascism in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts," South Central Review 6 (1989):88-104, 89.
16. Johnston, 258.
17. Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Arendt, ed., 253-64, 256.
18. Brecht, "Short Organum," 189.
19. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: New Left Books, 1977), 63.
20. Madeline Moore laments Woolf's inability to either "forget her history [or] rewrite it," The Short Season Between Two Silences (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1984), 147; Sallie Sears compares the pageant's finale to a failed sixties Happening, in which a better tomorrow and the means for achieving it are supposed to be intuited by the audience (226).
21. Joplin, 99.
22. Johnston, 264.
23. See Moore, and with some variation on this argument, Silver, 398.
24. Melba Cuddy-Keane, "The Politics of Comic Modes in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts," PMLA 105 (1990):271-85, 274.
25. Shattuck, 291.
26. Benjamin, "The Work of Art," 251.
27. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985).
28. Jane Marcus, "The Asylums of Antaeus: Women, War, and Madness - Is There a Feminist Fetishism?" in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York: Routledge, 1989), 132-51, 134.
29. Cited in Laura Pitter and Alexandra Stiglmayer, "Bosnia: Will the World Remember? Can the Women Forget?" Ms 3 (1993):19-23, 20.
30. Pitter and Stiglmayer, 21.
Catherine Wiley is co-editor of the anthology Homemaking: Women Writers and the Politics and Poetics of Home (Garland, 1996), as well as the author of essays on playwrights Alice Childress, Elizabeth Robins, Cherrie Moraga, and Brian Friel. Her poems appear in Kalliope, Women Studies/Thinking Women, and several anthologies. She teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver.
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