Making History Unrepeatable in Virginia Woolf's 'Between the Acts.'

By Wiley, Catherine | CLIO, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Making History Unrepeatable in Virginia Woolf's 'Between the Acts.'


Wiley, Catherine, CLIO


Mrs. Elmhurst dropped her programme. The play had begun.(1)

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. …

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