Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 885
Between the Acts was completed without final revision before Virginia Woolf’s suicide in 1941; in it, she returns to the tightly controlled structure, the classical unities of time and place, used before in Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Between the Acts takes place in a single day, the day of the annual village pageant, and in the house or on the grounds of Pointz Hall.
In the novel, Woolf presents a critique of patriarchy, militarism, and imperialism, themes familiar from her earlier fiction and nonfiction. Woolf’s critique of male socialization becomes clear when George, Isa’s small son, searches the flowerbeds and grasps a flower “complete,” only to have his moment of being with the natural world shattered by the insistent presence of his grandfather Bartholomew, “a terrible peaked eyeless monster.” George must identify with the patriarchal forces embodied in his Grandfather, who waves the same newspaper in which Isa will later read of the rape of a young girl carried out by soldiers.
Isa’s husband, Giles, and Bartholomew are particularly identified with the powers of imperialism and male dominance, especially when Giles stamps on the snake eating a toad in a moment of parody of the militaristic man-of-action. To Woolf, the cult of masculinity contributes to the causes of war. It is against the background of a possible German invasion of England that Woolf sets the central event of the novel: Miss La Trobe’s historical pageant.
Like Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse (1927), Miss La Trobe represents Woolf’s ideal of the androgynous artist, a creator who is “woman-manly.” As a lesbian, however, Miss La Trobe knows a level of personal frustration and artistic anguish over the success of her pageant that is foreign to the more tranquil and asexual Lily Briscoe.
Struggling to impose an artistic unity on the chaos around her and on the tendency of the audience to “split up into scraps and fragments,” Miss La Trobe’s vision of history seeks to show how the past informs and shapes the present. At the pageant’s conclusion, she has her actors flash mirrors before the audience in which they glimpse their own faces and forms. This suggests that the present can only be understood in the context of the past. Miss La Trobe’s project in presenting her pageant is strikingly similar to Woolf’s own project in all her fiction, which is to insist on the world’s being both unified and fragmentary, on the persistence of the past in the present, and on an understanding that only through art can the world become conscious of itself.
The title of the novel suggests some of the ironic possibilities Woolf thought existed in the interplay between art and life. Between the Acts refers to the precarious time between World War I and World War II. It also refers to the events, relationships, and conversations that take place between the acts of the village pageant. Finally, the story occurs between the times when the estranged couple Giles and Isa truly communicate. Significantly, the novel’s last lines are: “Then the curtain rose. They spoke.” The couple’s performance together merges with Miss La Trobe’s artistic vision to suggest that all human lives are concerned with role playing and illusion.
The impending war, although seldom mentioned directly, is always in the background in the novel; it is briefly referred to in the spectators’ conversations and more directly in the sound of airplanes at the end. The reality of war does not trivialize the efforts of the villagers to put together their amateur pageant, but instead stresses the power of art to give humanity order and meaning in times of crisis.
World War I fragmented Western civilization both socially and psychologically, and the spectators see themselves in the pageant’s mirrors as fragmented and isolated. For a moment, however, Miss La Trobe creates a unity in the audience by means of music. A state of harmony is reached wherein male and female, the one and the many, the silent and the speaking, are joined. Woolf was always searching for such a unity in her art, a way to reconcile opposites.
The novel is filled with cryptic and portentous symbolism. Written during the early years of World War II, it presents with poetic and fragmentary vision an outline of stark human drama against the backdrop of history. In Woolf’s handling of background there is always an awareness of the primitive and historical past, conveyed in images of the flint arrowhead, the Roman road, or the manor house, which is the scene of the novel. England, rather than time, gives the novel its underlying theme. The pageant that presents a picture of English history from the Middle Ages to 1939 is only an interlude between the acts. The true drama is found in the lives of the trivial, selfish, stupid, frustrated, and idealistic people who watch the pageant and in the end are brought face-to-face with themselves. These people are actors in a drama that is older than Miss La Trobe’s pictures out of the past. They are more important than the threat of war to come in the planes droning overhead. The novel represents Woolf’s final affirmation of the artist’s vision, the ability to distinguish between the false and the true.
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