Bloomsbury at Play

Article excerpt

The authors have sent me, and asked me to say They beg all your pardons for writing this play, And hope none of our audience consider us rude Either those we've no time for, or those we include. So please don't object to the tales we have told For they're all of them true and they're most of them old. Besides, before blaming us, think of the pain Which we might have inflicted, and yet we refrain.

--Julian Bell, 'Epilogue' to unidentified play, King's/JHB/1/12

An evening's entertainment in Bloomsbury could range from Shakespeare to can-can dancing; from ballet to bawdy music-hall ditties; it could be meticulously planned or entirely spontaneous; topical or historical; serious, but generally silly. The participants in and subjects of these dramas often included Leonard and Virginia Woolf; Vanessa, Clive, Julian, Quentin and Angelica Bell; Adrian, Ann and Judith Stephen; Lydia Lopokova and John Maynard Keynes; Desmond and Molly MacCarthy; Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Jane Bussy and David Garnett, though the theatrical evenings often widened their cast to include any visitor (in one instance a German refugee was asked to give a parody of Hitler [Bell 21]). One of the large variety of theatrical pieces performed in Bloomsbury was Freshwater: A Comedy, the only piece of theatre exclusively written by Virginia Woolf. (1) To date critics have scarcely considered the significance of private theatre in Bloomsbury and yet it performed a number of interesting tasks, while masquerading as comic family entertainment--revealing secrets, lampooning embarrassing idiosyncrasies, flattering, criticizing, resolving disputes and soothing hurts.

The theatricals exposed as much about the participants' attitudes and opinions as many of their letters, diaries and autobiographies. Plays written and privately performed by the group of friends revolved around their sexual and social relationships; their political and artistic stances and their response to their Victorian upbringing, all of which were explored through a miasma of allusion, parody and satire. The primary function of this form of entertainment was to allow the authors and performers to bring the impermissible into the open. This could be to comment on a friend's folly; to explore the latest scandal; launch an attack on the social, moral, political and artistic structures of their parents' generation; or to criticize the current hierarchy. In Performance Theory, Richard Schechner describes this process of theatricalization as

a reflection of, or mediation among [...] interactions, freed as they are by theatrical convention from being "really real." Instead, actions are segregated "in the theatre" where through exaggeration, repetition, and metaphorisation they can be displayed and handled. (Schechner 243)

The relationships between the group of friends, family and acquaintances, and their reactions to the world at large, were often dramatized in comic skits which, as Schechner avers, allowed disagreements or sensitive subjects to be "displayed and handled," explored and occasionally resolved in a safe environment. The safety of this theatrical environment was largely secured through the use of jokes and the creation of comedic situations, which, as Simon Critchley points out in On Humour, act as "small anthropological essays [...] defamiliarising the familiar, demythologising the exotic [and, one might add, the taboo] and inverting the world of common sense" (Critchley 65). Critchley argues that by setting up this fictional frame colored by comedy, humor reveals the hidden, and forces both audience and performer to confront their reality with the aim of either celebrating it or altering it. As the private productions written by members of the group took inspiration from the group itself, comedy, which as Henri Bergson notes is "situated on the borderline between art and life" (Bergson 150), was the most suitable tone to strike. Thus humor, combined with the performance frame, allowed for the safe exploration of difficult subjects, not only in the therapeutic sense propounded by Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer, whose work on humor considered the comic to provide a physical feeling of relief, (2) but also in a Freudian sense, whereby rebellion against others and their ideas was made safe by the comic performance, (3) as well as in a Bergsonian disciplinary sense, whereby laughter contains "an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently to correct our neighbour" (Bergson 136). …