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Personalizing History Gautam Dasgupta Orlando SchaubUhne, Berlin (1989) IT WAS INARGUABLY an inspired aesthetic convergence, the meeting of Robert Wilson and Virginia Woolf, when the former decided to adapt for the stage his predecessor's fanciful mock-biography Orlando.Whether or not the choice was Wilson's, here was a text that was eminently suited to his artistic creed. Since the late sixties, Wilson has distinguished himself with a style of theatricalized biography that is singularly of his own making. His eccentric forays into the lives and times of Einstein, Freud, Stalin, the King of Spain, and Queen Victoria are by now the stuff of theatrical legend. What he did for these mythic personages on stage had been envisioned earlier in literature by Woolf. Setting out to write a biography, it was, as she wrote at that time, an attempt to "tell a person's life/from the year 1500 to 1928. / Changing its sex. / Taking a different aspect of the character / in different Centuries: the theory being / that character goes on underground before / we are born; & leaves something afterward also." Ostensibly the story of Vita-Sackville West and her ancestral home, Knole, Woolf created, as Rebecca West put it, "the only successfully invented myth in English literature of our time." As in Woolf, Wilson's grand "biographical" spectacles were no mere chronicles of the lives of his subjects, but a curious amalgam of visions and dreams picked out of the world's history to cohabit, interpenetrate, and give substance to his larger-than-life characters. In keeping with their mythic status, these lives refused to be contained within their bodies. Overflowing their mortal encasement, they oozed out into the world, mak31 ing their presence felt in its ongoing history and geography. Where Wilson, drawing upon figures of mythic proportions, invented worlds of fantasy with which to surround them, Woolf took the converse tact of building upon playful illogicalities and improbable solutions to create her biography . In both, we find history-the subject's and the world's-tamed and shackled to artistic creativity, answerable neither to time's forward march nor to nature's laws. Woolf's portrait begins with Orlando as a sixteen-year-old boy in Elizabethan England dreaming of adventures in remote lands, and ends on "midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight" with him as a twentieth-century thirty-six-year-old wife, mother, and poet. In between sexes and the wide swath of history, Orlando has occasion, in dual genders, to fall in and out of love, dream of and live out chivalrous exploits, be of service to king, queen, and country, patronize (and, in turn, be patronized by) men of letters (Pope, Addison, Swift, Johnson, Boswell, and a host of minor literary ticks), work on a poem, "The Oak Tree," and marry and bear a child for reasons dictated more by Victorian exigencies than for any personal gain. There is, of course, more to this literary oddity than the above random sampling of episodes suggests, but for our purposes it should suffice, for what it does underscore is the remarkable similarity between Woolf's strategy and that of Wilson. Both of them, to begin with, choose to denude their subjects of their ontological essence, preferring instead to dissolve them in the solvent of history. Personal history is reconfigured imaginatively, the substance of a life attenuated to a degree where only the subject's shadowy presence, its mythic residue, lingers on in the imagination. Not biographies as a report card on a life, but biographies of a life's imaginative realm, a life dreamed into existence. Nor are these lives circumscribed by temporality. They carry within themselves times past, present, and future, transcending physical limitations and dispersing their singularity over a history without a specific beginning or end. As such, these biographies are the settings for history's dreams. A more appropriate name for them would be "bioscapes ," for that is what they are, biographies in and of a landscape inscribed with the history of the world, a history which, serendipitously, is coeternally existent with the life and imagination of an individual. History has always been Wilson's pre-eminent...


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