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

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8 The artist in the text

As Isa tries to get a grip on what is happening in the pageant, she asks herself:

Did the plot matter? She shifted and looked over her right shoulder. The plot was only there to beget emotion. There were only two emotions: love; and hate. There was no need to puzzle out the plot….Don’t bother about the plot: the plot’s nothing.

(Between the Acts, p.82)

You might like to think back to the earlier section on ‘Genre’ and Woolf’s preoccupations with the modern novel and what it could do, as these might be seen to surface in Isa’s thoughts here. What is certain is that anything that goes on between the acts of La Trobe’s pageant is just as important as the acts themselves, for audience and pageant are interdependent. Again, you might like to think back to Woolf’s belief that ‘we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself’ expressed in ‘Sketch of the Past’, the idea that our collective lives as we live them are a work of art.

Bartholomew tells Mrs Manresa that ‘Our part…is to be the audience’ (p.54). At times ‘There was nothing for the audience to do’ (p.60) but the ‘tick, tick, tick’ of the gramophone ‘seemed to hold them together, tranced’ (p.75). In the interval, by direct contrast:

the music chanted: Dispersed are we. It moaned: Dispersed are we. It lamented: Dispersed are we, as they streamed, spotting the grass with colour, across the lawns, and down the paths: Dispersed are we.

(Between the Acts, p.86)

That phrase is repeated over and over again, it is a ‘valediction’ (p.88). Woolf’s artist in the text, Miss La Trobe, feels satisfaction at first as she watches the audience disperse:

she had held them together….Hadn’t she, for twenty-five minutes, made them see? A vision imparted was relief from agony … for one moment … one moment. Then the music petered out on the last word we. She heard the breeze rustle in the branches. She saw Giles Oliver with his back to the audience. Also Cobbet of Cobbs Corner. She hadn’t made them see. It was a failure, another damned failure! As usual. Her vision escaped her.

(Between the Acts, p.88)
Photograph of a historical pageant, captioned ‘Bradford Historical Pageant. 1931.’ Crowds of people are shown gathered on a field near some trees. A group of people are dressed like they are about to give a performance of a historical battle.
Figure 3 Historical pageant, Undercliffe, Bradford, West Yorkshire. Captioned: ‘Episode 2. AD 628’. Photographed by Walter Scott, Bradford. Photo: © Mary Evans Picture Library 2015.

The artist in the text aspires to show her audience the ‘hidden pattern’, and that, as Woolf said in ‘Sketch of the Past’, ‘all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art’. It is the most impossibly ambitious aim, yet it can be summed up in the simplest of terms: a member of the departing audience is overheard to say ‘it brings people together’ (p.143). The Reverend G. W. Streatfield says much the same: the pageant indicates ‘that we are members one of another. Each is part of the whole’ (p.172). This seems reasonable and uncontentious, but in 20th-century modernist fashion, the author absents herself from her work: ‘La Trobe was invisible’ (p.172). Not only will she not explain, but she was ‘excruciated by the Rector’s interpretation, by the maulings and the manglings of the actors’ (p.183). Her vision of meaning in the world is inexplicable; it can only be understood through art. Setting two opposed beliefs against each other, in a comic irony, her pageant raises money ‘for the illumination of our dear church’ (p.173).

In a letter to Roger Fry, whose biography Woolf was writing alongside Between the Acts, she wrote ‘Directly I’m told what a thing means it becomes hateful to me’. This is also La Trobe’s response, and takes us back to the opening quotation from Woolf’s letter to Eliot where she praises his verse saying ‘I’m held off from understanding by magic’ (Nicolson, 1980, p.29). Isobel Grundy comments on Woolf’s hatred of interpretation and what it means for her work:

[it is not] wilful obscurantism, but a statement to be taken seriously, related to other important opinions: that words live not in dictionaries but in the mind, that not a ‘single word has the same meaning for two people’, that the writer has to take one thing and let it stand for twenty.

(Clements and Grundy (eds), 1983, p.200)

The penultimate section of the text sees La Trobe alone. Fleetingly, ‘Glory possessed her’, swiftly to be replaced by the feeling that it was ‘a failure’ (p.188). Standing looking at the now-deserted space where her pageant had been, as a flock of starlings ‘attacked’ a tree, she dwells on what she suffered, ‘triumph, humiliation, ecstasy, despair – for nothing’ (p.189). But then, in her despair:

something rose to the surface. ‘I should group them,’ she murmured, ‘here.’ It would be midnight; there would be two figures, half concealed by a rock. The curtain would rise. What would the first words be? The words escaped her.

(Between the Acts, p.189)

The creative impulse is indomitable; drowsing at home as ‘the cheap clock ticked’ (p.191) echoing the ‘tick, tick, tick’ of the gramophone throughout the play, the vision of her next work takes shape:

There was the high ground at midnight; there was the rock; and two scarcely perceptible figures. Suddenly the tree was pelted with starlings. She set down her glass. She heard the first words.

(Between the Acts, p.191)

Experience and imagination come together, and her next work begins, for Between the Acts is about the process of creation. Is Miss La Trobe’s belief that she ‘suffered…for nothing’ (emphasis added, p.189) over-dramatised? Perhaps, but if art is to take the place of religion, then can anything be more important than communicating connection, pattern, and the value of life for its own sake? Woolf herself went through periods of profound depression after she finished each novel and as we saw at the start of this course, this one was written for the most part while war raged. ‘The pressure of this battle wipes London out pretty quick’ (Bell, p.292) Woolf wrote in her diary on 9 June 1940. ‘It struck me that one curious feeling is, that the writing ‘I’ has vanished. No audience. No echo. That’s part of one’s death’ (Bell, p.293).

Activity 7

War is not foregrounded in the text, but is implicit throughout. Read the following short passage from near the beginning of Between the Acts. What is the effect?

For [Isa’s] generation the newspaper was a book; and, as her father-in-law had dropped The Times, she took it and read: ‘A horse with a green tail…’ which was fantastic. Next, ‘The guard at Whitehall…which was romantic and then, building word upon word she read: ‘The troopers told her the horse had a green tail; but she found it was just an ordinary horse. And they dragged her up to the barrack room where she was thrown on the bed. Then one of the troopers removed part of her clothing, and she screamed and hit him about the face…’

That was real; so real that on the mahogany door panels she saw the Arch in Whitehall; through the Arch the barrack room; in the barrack room the bed, and on the bed the girl was screaming and hitting him about the face, when the door (for in fact it was a door) opened and in came Mrs Swithin carrying a hammer.

(Between the Acts, p.18)

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If you found that passage powerful or shocking, you are not alone. It is in fact, as Isa thinks, ‘real’: it was an actual event, which resulted in a widely reported and highly influential court case. This is one instance where Woolf incorporates fact in her fiction, and her contemporary readers would have recognised it immediately. The newspaper article’s vivid description has a profound impact on Isa’s imagination, which immediately projects the image of the trooper’s violence against the girl on the door of the room in which Isa sits and reads. The intrusion of such a shocking event into that domestic space can be seen as a metaphor for the effect of war on everyday lives. If you were to read the whole book, you would see that Isa’s reading colours the rest of the day for her with an image of violence. In spite of the ‘chime’ of repeated rituals associated with the annual pageant, this year in addition she hears: ‘The girl screamed and hit him about the face with a hammer’ (p.20).

Conscious more than the other characters seem to be of impending war, Giles is absorbed with a ‘vision of Europe, bristling with guns, poised with planes’ (p.49). He reads in the newspaper that ‘sixteen men had been shot, others prisoned, just over there, across the gulf’ (p.43). Consequently he is furious that while war builds in Europe, good manners decree that he can do nothing but watch the village pageant. He is equally furious with himself for complying. The words ‘We remain seated’ and ‘We are the audience’ which he hears from the others resonate in his mind not with the pageant, but serve as metaphors for British inactivity at a time of crisis: ‘Words this afternoon ceased to lie flat in the sentence. They rose, became menacing and shook their fist at you’ (p.85). Giles feels impotent, ‘manacled to a rock’ and ‘forced passively to behold indescribable horror’ (p.55) as he watches the pageant. It is the same each year.

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Among the pages of scraps and fragments of the audience’s reported speech after the pageant, one voice is heard to say:

‘The Brookes have gone to Italy, in spite of everything. Rather rash?...If the worst should come – let’s hope it won’t – they’d hire an aeroplane, so they said…’

(Between the Acts, p.178)

The comment is buried in trivial talk of flower shows, effects of pageants on grass, friends greeting each other. And then, inconsequentially, another voice says:

‘I agree, things look worse than ever on the continent. And what’s the channel, come to think of it, if they mean to invade us? The aeroplanes, I didn’t like to say it, made one think…’

(Between the Acts, p.179)

Evidence of conflict is everywhere; set against it is Woolf’s belief in art.

Miss La Trobe, imagining her next work, offers one moment of hope; Giles and Isa, at odds throughout the text, suggest another. They ‘must fight’, but ‘after they had fought, they would embrace. From that embrace another life might be born’. In the last words of the novel ‘audience’ and Miss La Trobe’s creative imagination come together, as Isa looks out of the window:

It was the night before roads were made, or houses. It was the night that dwellers in caves had watched from some high place among the rocks. Then the curtain rose. They spoke.

(Between the Acts, p.197)

And Mrs Swithin has resumed reading her Outline of History.

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