Baroque Gaze in Woolf’s Between the Acts

Theatre-MysteryIn 1940 Virginia Woolf finished Between the Acts, a novel close to The Waves and very clearly belonging to her last years in style and narration. Indeed, Woolf’s last novels are characterised by a strong presence of symbolical meaning and language, a very intuitive perception of the world, something which brings her narrative close to Ricoeur’s understanding of the text as a world to be deciphered by means of words and images. Very symbolical and metaphorical as well as very modernist, Between the Acts is a work within a work, more exactly, a play inside a novel.

The meaning of this novel is more apprehensive by intuition than by logical thought, and the interrelation between the play and the novel belongs, I dare to say, to a metaphysical realm. The whole book describes, or re-describes -using Ricoeur’s concept- the meaning of a single day where a play takes place. The play is a historical one, and it shows the  Elizabethan England, that is, the English Golden Age -calling to some world’s conception; and it is displayed between the wars, in 1939. What is put on stage is life in a fictional realm and in the real one, where the reader finds himself. While the novel’s characters are looking at the stage, the reader is looking at them and beholding the whole scene of looking as a theatre. The sense of scenario is strongly presented to the reader, and it implies a sense of volatility, illusion, in the very least, falsehood. Woolf killed herself a year after writing this novel, and it is very interesting to see how the sense of spectacle permeates the text. In A Sketch of the Past, an autobiographical text written by Woolf during the years 1939-40, she outlines the feeling of being in the world as a spectator, as an outsider. Between the Acts expresses this feeling metaphorically presenting life as a play and making of both, the characters and the reader, spectators; she is sharing her existential experience.

Fiction becomes here the only possible world to create a pre-experience of suicide, of despair. A whole day has become a pageant, and this day is linked to the world through the historical moment represented in the play. The idea of being on the stage so properly of the Baroque epoch comes into play in 1940, where death and futileness were present again in a sense of decadence. Shakespeare and Calderon de la Barca make this point central, life is a stage, however, the difference resides in the extension of the drama: in the Golden Age it was cosmological, in Modernism it is individual. It is Virginia Woolf who is properly experimenting her existential inconsistency, and her novel involves daily characters in a normal day. It is daily life what becomes nonsensical, the individual existence is affected by a non-real experience -maybe this same feeling led Walter Benjamin to write The Origin of German Tragic Drama in 1925. But baroque authors were concerned with a world vision theory, so to say, not with a personal experience of annihilation.


One thought on “Baroque Gaze in Woolf’s Between the Acts

  1. Sometimes the closer a look one takes, the farther the thing recedes. This is especially true of great books, the real landmarks of literature. Woolf, a tireless critic and analyst herself of others’ work, is a perfect example. When all is said and done, literature works on you, you feel it, respond to it, and criticism/explication is after the fact and not as rich or satisfying as the experience of the book itself (sigh). Wonderful novel. Great post

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