Between the Acts

By Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.
THE quest of every artist is to impose order upon chaos. There is Life to begin with: life in all its obvious multiplicity and muddle; the welter and variety of human experience, the passions of the human heart, the triviality of daily existence, the forces of the elements, the beauty and ugliness of nature, the conflicting values which man incessantly pursues. And there is the artist: observing, sorting, selecting; finding maybe a pattern within the flux, a meaning in the muddle, but concerned primarily with the shaping of a vision into a work of art, the embodiment of perceptions into concrete and harmonious form.
Virginia Woolf’s vision has always been unlike that of other people. Early in her search for reality she concluded that life never built itself into the convenient symmetry of a plot, and that her art should be the search to ensnare its essence in a form which should reflect as much as possible of its infinite subtlety and mutability. She sees experience and character as the slow silt of innumerable fleeting instants of consciousness, and there is no one who can evoke these instants with greater precision and poignancy. Yet, in spite of the fact that she sees it is of the very nature of life to be inconsequential and inconclusive, her mind is perpetually at work to sense a spiritual significance which transcends mortality; to find a principle dominating change — the permanent behind the eternal flux. All her later novels pose this problem, and it is the central theme of Between the Acts, the book which rings down the final curtain on her own work.
The action of the book takes place during twenty-four hours in a country house where a historical pageant is performed by the villagers. By this means she encloses the present and the past, life, time, society, and art, in a single concentrated vision, and obtains an economy of presentation which she has never achieved before. It is the shortest of her novels, but much of the essence of Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and The Tears is distilled into its 200-odd pages. The centre of the scene is her usual group of well-to-do English gentry. Old Mr. Oliver, living in memories of his young and active past; his son and daughter in law, Giles and Isa, loving and hating one another; his widowed sister, volatile and vagrant of mind, but determined to find an anchor in religious faith; Mrs. Manresa, jovial and primitive, the incarnation of ‘ the jolly human heart’; William Dodge, her friend, ultrasensitive and self-conscious; Miss La Trobe, the author of the script of the pageant. We are vividly aware of each, as an entity in the external scene, and even more vividly aware of the unexpressed cross-currents of thought and sensation woven behind the external scene, spinning them together in a web of human relationships and at the same time isolating each within the liberty and the prison of his own consciousness.
No one is happy: each suffers ‘poor mortal longingness,’ each is groping and frustrate. And over and around them hovers the meditative intellect of man. ‘What did it mean?’ asks everyone at the end of the pageant; ‘ Dispersed are we,’ sings the gramophone, over and over; ‘ What we want is a centre, something to bring us together,’ chatter the departing guests. What is the answer? Where is the pattern? ‘Mrs. Mayhew protested that one mustn’t ask too much. . . . There was the view. They looked at the view.’ The view brings sadness: ‘ It will be there when we are gone,’ says another character.
Yet Nature gives an answer. The starlings, whizzing into the tree, make it ‘a rhapsody . . . a vibrant rapture, branches, leaves, birds, syllabling discordantly life, life, life, without measure, without stop. . . .’ And Art gives an answer: Miss La Trobe is sunk in despair at the failure of the pageant: 1 If they had understood her meaning . . . if they had known their parts, . . .’ As an artist she feels an outcast: ‘Nature had somehow set her apart from her kind.’ Yet, as she sits over a drink in the evening, a new vision shapes itself: ‘There was the high ground at midnight; there the rock, and two scarcely perceptible figures. Suddenly the tree was pelted with starlings. She set down her glass. She heard the first words.’ And humanity answers too. Giles and Isa, big with enmity and love, sit together in the darkness. ‘ Before they slept they must fight; after they fought, they would embrace. From that embrace another life might be born. . . .’ The unchanging principle behind all life, natural, sexual, spiritual, is the principle of unity springing from diversity, the principle of eternal rebirth.
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