Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"So They Fidgeted": The Modernist Twitch of between the Acts

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"So They Fidgeted": The Modernist Twitch of between the Acts

Article excerpt

Virginia Woolf's 1941 novel Between the Acts depicts the restlessness of post-Victorian, pre-World War II Britons and suggests, as much of Woolf's work does, that people are both individual fragments and electrically united to one another. In a diary entry from the period of the novel's composition, Woolf encapsulated this idea of frayed unity, writing that we are "all waifs & strays--a rambling capricious but somehow unified whole" (D5 135). Set against the backdrop of encroaching fascism, though, fascism represented by ominous bombers overhead, this novel's treatment of that wholeness takes on a new dimension, as Miss La Trobe--both militaristic and marginal--stages an historical pageant for the gathered village crowd. This pageant forces the audience, especially Isa Oliver and Lucy Swithin, to consider their individuality and their commonality, their relationship to (and split from) English history. In bringing her anxious characters together so that they share an experience of a sometimes-alienating, sometimes-unifying piece of theater, Woolf addresses, in her own strange piece of art, the dangers and opportunities of group identification on the eve of war.

Before the pageant begins, Woolf lets us know that communion between people, and the difficulty of that communion, will be stage-center in her novel. She describes the setting of the pageant as "a church without a roof [...,] an open-air cathedral [...]" (45), suggesting that the celebration could be a new kind of liturgy, a chance for the audience to become one body without having to endure the dusty trappings of the Church of England. The members of the audience--Isa and her dominating husband Giles; Giles's father, Bart; Bart's sister Lucy Swithin; and friends of the family, Mrs. Manresa and William Dodge, among others--sense that they've become a sort of congregation, too. A hush comes over them. Mrs. Manresa declares humorously, "We must possess our souls in patience" (45), and the characters feel linked, though uneasily so, as Woolf gives us their collective review of the pre-scene beat: "Their minds and bodies were too close, yet not close enough" (45). While the characters want to feel private unity with one another, then, want to be "close enough," the notion of being publicly yoked to their neighbors causes anxiety in them. They hope to be conscious of themselves as part of a group, but they would prefer isolation to any relinquishing of personal identity. In other words, they have conflicting feelings about being an audience at all. In "Virginia Woolf and the Concept of Community," Brenda Silver explains how Woolf may have thought of this audience-as-character:

      There are, according to Virginia Woolf, two types of audience:
   the audience present at the medieval pageant or at the Elizabethan
   play, composed of all classes of society, participating in a
   communal experience; and the reader, who almost by definition is
   solitary, separate, alone with her book. (292)

The particular crowd in Between the Acts, waiting for the beginning of the pageant, seems to embody both types; they want to participate together, and yet they seem separated: "Old Mr. Oliver sighed profoundly," "Isabella felt prisoned," and "Mrs. Manresa longed to relax and curl in a corner [...]" (46). They are ambivalent about one another--"too close, yet not close enough"--and seem to want to be alone.

Later in the novel, Woolf characterizes this individualist instinct with a bit of narration from the point-of-view of the audience that shows their unified reaction to the play:

   But what could [Miss La Trobe] know about ourselves? The
   Elizabethans, yes; the Victorians, perhaps; but ourselves; sitting
   here on a June day in 1939--it was ridiculous. "Myself"--it was
   impossible. Other people, perhaps ... Cobbet of Cobbs Corner; the
   Major; old Bartholomew; Mrs. Swithin--them, perhaps. But she won't
   get me--no, not me. … 
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