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The Theatrical Woolf
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IN A 1910 LETTER, Virginia Woolf complained that Bernard Shaw “kept us on the rack for 3 hours” with his new play Misalliance, attributing to the playwright “the mind of a disgustingly precocious child of 2—a sad and improper spectacle to my thinking.” Her prickly ambivalence towards GBS notwithstanding, the response might seem indicative of Woolf’s general view of the theater. The spectacles she witnessed on stage often disappointed her, paling in comparison to what she called “theatre of the brain.” Nonetheless, while she often avowed her preference for being an imaginative reader rather than a viewer, Woolf frequented theatrical and operatic performances. The drama held a mysterious lure for modernists proficient in other genres. While there are a handful of crossover successes, including William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot, many scriptural efforts remain eccentric curiosities scattered among prose masterpieces, as is the case with James Joyce, E. M. Forster, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. The conventional view is that Woolf belongs in the latter category with Freshwater treated as merely an extension of Bloomsbury role-playing and a tosh of inside jokes. Steven D. Putzel’s Virginia Woolf and the Theater assays to revise this view, claiming not that her play has been undervalued necessarily but that her relationship to the theater, both personally and professionally, is much more complex and far-reaching than biographers and scholars have estimated. In fact, his book’s unusual turn in its second half intimates that contemporary female playwrights as well as practitioners who seek to adapt Woolf’s prose for the stage help to restore a fuller sense of how she transfigured theatrical dynamics for the page.

Putzel’s introduction maps out a critical genealogy focused on Woolf’s relationship to the drama, beginning with the pioneering work of Jane Marcus and Louise DeSalvo and extending through recent studies by Penny Farfen and Georgia Johnston. Yet he maintains that an accrued silence persists in the scholarly conversation around Woolf’s theatrical influences that belies their crucial role in shaping her technique. As a remedy, the book seeks to recover a record, culled from a variety of sources, of Woolf’s theatergoing and practice. Its first half is composed of a loosely chronological gathering of extracts from juvenilia as well as notebooks, diary entries, essays, and letters interspersed with bits of theater history and speculative reconstruction. Together they fill in a side of Woolf’s life that Putzel maintains has been underemphasized by previous biographers including her responses to the productions she attended as a child. In the opening chapter, Putzel catalogs references to witnessed performances of plays, minstrels, operas, and pantos, identifying significant elements of production style that resonate in her novels. Framed by the narrative of her meta-theatrical relationship with Lytton Strachey, eloquent analysis in chapter two convincingly lays the groundwork for his argument about the influence of the Play-Reading Society and other private Bloomsbury performances on Woolf’s later prose. The third chapter documents Woolf’s connections with the Actresses’ Franchise League and a handful of prominent actresses, but, as with the first two chapters, the commentary gingerly navigates around significant discrepancies such as, for example, Woolf’s lack of interest in the surging work of female playwrights. What emerges from these chapters is a clear sense that she is engaged not with the material theater but with the concept and practice of theatricality itself. If theater is an imitation of an action, she found what happened between the acts more compelling. Frustrated by the overwrought, plot-driven theater of her time, she was intrigued by the art form’s semantic gaps, semiotic multiplicity, and the circumscription of meaning by audiences and performers. Her interest in actresses, in the ways in which they suture what Woolf refers to as “the scattered sketches” that make up identity, demonstrates that theater for her models the performative conception of selfhood. As such, Putzel’s first three chapters recover the early makings of a sensibility that will eventually synthesize dynamics of both seeing and practicing theater.

The material, especially Woolf’s periodic diary experiments in crafting play ideas and stage...



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