Exploring Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts
Exploring Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts

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4 Genre

What did Woolf believe? She was brought up to have no conventional religious conviction. In her family that was the norm, but elsewhere too there was a general sense of loss of faith, especially after the First World War. As a result, Woolf and other writers like her rejected the kind of third-person narrator who is often also referred to as ‘omniscient’: god-like and all-knowing. Such a position seemed too authoritative. How realistic is the idea of a plot, where complex lives and events result in tidy and neat endings? Is life really like that? Such questions provide ways of thinking about Woolf’s own dissatisfactions with fiction, and help to explain why she constantly sought new ways to express what life is.

Between the Acts has so far been referred to as a ‘novel’, but the term is a convenience, used for want of a better word. The title of Woolf’s essay ‘Poetry, Fiction and the Future’, published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1927, demonstrates her intense and continuing interest in change and innovation in writing: ‘It may be possible’ she says:

that prose is going to take over – has, indeed, already taken over – some of the duties which were once discharged by poetry…and that in ten or fifteen years’ times prose will be used for purposes for which prose has never been used before….We shall be forced to invent new names for the different books which masquerade under this one heading. And it is possible that there will be among the so-called novels one which we shall scarcely know how to christen. It will be written in prose, but in prose which has many characteristics of poetry. It will have something of the exaltation of poetry, but much of the ordinariness of prose. It will be dramatic, and yet not a play.

(Bradshaw, Selected Essays, pp. 79–80)

Those last sentences give you some idea of Woolf’s preoccupations. There are few things more prosaic than a discussion of a cesspool, which is how Between the Acts begins. But the use of repeated motif, of rhythmic and rhyming prose, the incorporation of Miss La Trobe’s open-air pageant with dialogue, stage directions and nature in the form of swallows, cows, and the weather all playing random parts, lifts it beyond conventional expectations of what a novel might do.

To take just one of those techniques, motif has always played a part in prose fiction. Dickens for example, writing over a period of time for serialisation, repeated phrases so readers would instantly recall characters, tone and events. Woolf’s use of repeated phrases is quite different and has multiple effects. For example, before the pageant begins Mrs Manresa hears ‘laughter, down among the bushes’ (Between the Acts, p.54); later Isabella thinks ‘They’re getting ready. They’re dressing up in the bushes’ (p.57). Even in the very last section Mrs Swithin wonders ‘The looking-glasses and the voices in the bushes….What did she mean?’ (p.192).

Activity 2

There are many other instances and variations of laughter in the bushes in the text, what function do you think such repetitions might serve?


One simple answer is that a repeated phrase provides a pattern. In the examples quoted above, three separate characters use the same words, so that might suggest a connection between them. You could come back to this question again later when you have more information, but the idea of pattern and of connection is key to Woolf’s thoughts and beliefs.

In her essay ‘Sketch of the Past’, Woolf describes her beliefs:

That behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.

(Schulkind and Lee (eds), 2002, p.85)

The idea that ‘we are the thing itself’ is at the heart of Between the Acts. The laughter in the bushes functions in the text as a way of patterning and structuring it. The word ‘motif’ describes a repeated musical phrase, and in the absence of plot, she presents instead aesthetic organisation.

Activity 3

Now read the passage below. With the idea that ‘we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself’ in mind, identify the techniques Woolf employs to convey a sense of unity and life as ‘the thing itself’.

The audience was assembling. The music was summoning them. Down the paths, across the lawns they were streaming again. There was Mrs Manresa, with Giles at her side, heading the procession. In taut plump curves her scarf blew round her shoulders. The breeze was rising. She looked, as she crossed the lawn to the strains of the gramophone, goddess-like, buoyant, abundant, her cornucopia running over. Bartholomew, following, blessed the power of the human body to make the earth fruitful. Giles would keep his orbit so long as she weighted him to the earth. She stirred the stagnant pool of his old heart even – where bones lay buried, but the dragon flies shot and the grass trembled as Mrs Manresa advanced across the lawn to the strains of the gramophone.

Feet crunched the gravel. Voice chattered. The inner voice, the other voice was saying: How can we deny that this brave music, wafted from the bushes, is expressive of some inner harmony? ‘When we wake’ (some were thinking) ‘the day breaks with its hard mallet blows.’ ‘The office’ (some were thinking) ‘compels disparity. Scattered, shattered, hither thither summoned by the bell. “Ping-ping-ping” that’s the phone. “Forward!” “Serving!” – that’s the shop.’ So we answer to the infernal, agelong and eternal order issued from on high. And obey. ‘Working, serving, pushing, striving, earning wages – to be spent – here? Oh dear no. Now? No, by and by. When ears are deaf and the heart is dry.’

Here Cobbet of Cobbs Corner who had stooped – there was a flower – was pressed on by people pushing from behind.

For I hear music, they were saying. Music wakes us. Music makes us see the hidden, join the broken. Look and listen. See the flowers, how they ray their redness, whiteness, silverness and blue. And the trees with their many-tongued much syllabling, their green leaves hustle us and shuffle us, and bid us, like the starlings, and the rooks, come together, crowd together, to chatter and make merry while the red cow moves forward and the black cow stands still.

(Between the Acts, pp.107–8)


Music runs throughout the passage, from the sounds of voices which ‘chattered’ and feet which ‘crunched the gravel’ to the rhythm and repetition of ‘Scattered, shattered’, ‘seeing, pushing, striving, earning’, which gives shape and coherence to the prose even while the description is of disparity. In the last paragraph, subordinate clauses, adding details of flowers, trees, birds, a group of random people, show that all are connected, ‘coming together’ in a visual image where even the choreography of the red cow and the black cow conforms to a pattern. Woolf’s joyous hyperbolic language, together with music from the gramophone, transforms Mrs Manresa into a goddess with a profound effect on Giles and Bartholomew.

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