I’ve not read “Orlando” since university so in my memory it felt like one of her more flighty and playful novels focusing on gender. It is that but there is so much more in the novel I’d forgotten about or missed when I read it the first time. I think Woolf’s highly stylised prose that are packed with so many ideas make her an especially interesting author to revisit at different stages of your life. Orlando is famously about an individual who begins as a teenage nobleman in the Elizabethan era and who lives through a few centuries aging little and swapping genders. It’s remarkably inventive and forward thinking. The character was perfectly realized by Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s 1992 film and I recently visited the Charleston Trust where they are currently celebrating the book’s 90th birthday with different events and exhibits. I relish visiting the Charleston House and Monk’s House whenever I can. I saw writer Olivia Laing and the artist/writer La JohnJoseph give an interesting performance responding to the book. Seeing different modern takes and interpretations of the novel has given me a whole new appreciation of Woolf’s vision alongside revisiting the text itself.

Something I didn’t recall from my first reading of the book was the way Woolf pokes fun at and satirizes being a writer throughout the novel. Orlando aspires to be a poet working on a poem about an oak tree for a few centuries. But Orlando’s opinions about writing and the literary community change over time. Orlando encounters Alexander Pope and other literary figures who disillusion him/her about being a writer and Woolf marks how writers’ reputation and stature changes dramatically over time. The book recounts how insular some literary circles can be (how little has changed over time!) and how Orlando is drawn to only writing for himself and then abandoning writing altogether to just appreciate nature, but Orlando is eventually drawn back to working on that epic poem. There’s a lot of ironic humour when Woolf contemplates how “once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls in easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.” Woolf herself is such a fixture in the literary canon now that I feel this statement really humanizes her. The way she writes about conflicted feelings about the meaning and pursuit of literature makes me consider how she must have felt so conflicted herself despite her stature as a highly stylized writer devoted to the arts.

Connected to that is the whole premise of “Orlando” which is ostensibly a biography of this fantastical figure. The novel frequently makes references to the problem of writing a biography and the difficulties of trying to summarize someone’s life when really a person is infinitely more complex than recounting the facts about their history. This feels especially poignant since Woolf’s own father Leslie Stephen was a biographer himself. When Orlando considers biographical information about Alexander Pope it’s observed how “every secret of a writer’s soul every experience of his life every quality of his mind is written large in his works. Yet we require critics to explain the one and biographers to expound the other. That time hangs heavy on people’s hands is the only explanation of the monstrous growth.” It’s so interesting how Woolf seems to be skewering literary criticism and biography here which can only give a subjective interpretation of a writer’s work. But also the observation about people having too much time on their hands when Orlando is in some ways plagued with an immortality which forces him/her to continue forth without ever discovering answers or true revelations. All that changes is the proliferation of literature which increases when the development of mass printing takes place and Orlando studiously orders all the latest literature available.

I was also excited by noticing imagery and symbolism in Orlando which recurs in other books by Woolf. So, as in “To the Lighthouse” she makes the same metaphor about a lighthouse beam temporarily illuminating something just as our fleeting thoughts give a fleeting insight into our being. She also portrays an individual observing waves and toy boats at the Serpentine and then imaginatively inflates these to much larger events and occurrences in civilization. The character of Rhoda does the same thing rocking paper ships in a basin of water in “The Waves”. It’s interesting seeing how Woolf reworked certain metaphors over her different novels to assiduously probe the questions about life which were most central to her endeavours. Also, since I read Cavendish’s “The Blazing World” for the first time this year I was struck by how part of “Orlando’s” boundary-breaking imaginative influence must have come from this earlier 17th century novel. This is despite Woolf’s dismissive tone about how Cavendish “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly” as she wrote in her essay “A Room of One’s Own”.

Orlando frequently refers to an emerald frog throughout the novel

Orlando frequently refers to an emerald frog throughout the novel

Of course, one of the brightest and most striking things about the book is how Orlando changes sex halfway through. But I’d forgotten how several other characters in the book also have a more fluid sense of gender and swap their sex at certain points. One of the great points that Laing and La JohnJoseph made in their talk was how enlivening it is to read a story about a character who swaps genders without their being oppressed for doing so and there’s something liberating and freeing about the way Orlando simply wakes up one day as a woman. Of course, Orlando does experience social trouble for the way the question of his/her gender is taken to court, there’s the issue of property ownership and how restrictive female clothes become for Orlando over time. But overall, it’s seen as a positive natural thing. One of the strongest statements Woolf makes about this is “Different though the sexes are they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness while underneath the sex is the very opposite from what it is above.” This powerfully marks the subtly of gender identity, but I was struck by how Laing observed that Woolf also frequently makes moving statements about how (as well as the question of gender) she portrays the way we’re all ever-changing beings beneath the identity on the surface. Later on in the book, Orlando frequently changes back and forth between male and female clothes and takes on a proliferation of identities to suit Orlando’s mood and the occasion. It feels like this character is an early proponent of how everything about the way we socially present ourselves is a form of drag.

I really appreciated the emotional and intellectual pleasures of this novel by revisiting it after such a long time. As much as I’m inspired by many aspects of it, I could also argue with Woolf’s perspective and point of view. One of the most notable the privileged and classist attitude Woolf exhibits through the novel and her other writing. She makes questionable statements about the worth of teaching the working class to read and at one point when Orlando goes out to try to appreciate the world he/she condescending exclaims “I like peasants. I understand crops”. But it would be easy to argue that Woolf is highly aware of writing from a position of privilege and mocking this state within the novel. Nevertheless, these opinions make Woolf all the more interesting and worthy of revisiting as a writer who contains infinite complexity and who is endlessly enjoyable to discuss.

You can watch more of my reaction to revisiting Woolf in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_brld3IHRq4

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesVirginia Woolf

It's a bold challenge to translate the life and writings of Virginia Woolf into dance. When I was at university I took a course which investigated how prose could be translated into drama. I wanted to take on the challenge of trying to make my favourite novel “The Waves” into a play, but it seemed impossible. Any attempt to convey the vibrancy of Woolf's writing in a physical form felt flat. I was proven wrong several years later when The National Theatre and Katie Mitchell successfully adapted “The Waves” into a play which effectively expressed the progression of life and subconscious speech in this novel through a clever use of sets, staging and mixed media. Wayne McGregor and The Royal Ballet have created an even bigger project which conveys the feeling of Woolf's life and writing through ballet. It's a heartfelt, dramatic and stunningly beautiful production.

The ballet is split into three parts. Each is inspired by a particular text: “Mrs Dalloway,” “Orlando,” and “The Waves” respectively. These three acts all have extremely different tones in their style of dance, lighting and music. But each is suffused with a sensation of Woolf's grappling to find an adequate form of expression for the world around her. The first act 'I Now, I Then' begins with a recording of Woolf's voice speaking about the nature of language, how it is under a continuous process of reinvention and only comes to have meaning when reformed. Through the dancers' movement and use of shape this sense of process comes through. The sounds and projections of photos of London give an atmosphere of Woolf’s life. There is a scene of men at the warfront, but I had the sense that these men were projections of the public’s consciousness at the time with thoughts of war consuming everyone’s thoughts. Throughout much of this and other scenes we see dancer Alessandra Ferri as a kind of Woolf figure wandering through scenes observing and interacting. There is a sense she is a part of this world, but at a remove struggling to find her place within it and find a way to appropriately represent it.

The second part ‘Becomings’ begins with a feeling of formality with dancers attired in rich gold metallic Elizabethan dress. Just as the novel “Orlando” leaps through time and gender so do the dancers change moving through segments of the stage created with lasers and the sexes become mixed as performers wear genderless flesh-coloured clothing. This section of the production has a much more celebratory feel as the performers feel liberated from the constrictions of place, time, gender. Smoke swirling in the laser beams creates an eerie mirror-effect with the dancer’s movements. It’s as if both the molecular nature of life is being portrayed alongside a grand view of civilization as a whole.

The final part ‘Tuesday’ begins with Gillian Anderson reading the suicide letter Woolf wrote to Leonard. Looming in the background is a large slow-motion video of waves curling and crashing into themselves. Six young dancers emerge mimicking the six characters in “The Waves” who start as children. Gradually, these six are replaced by older dancers and then six more. They fall into pairs or groups as do the voices in the novel sometimes favouring particular individuals and other times coming together as a whole. There is a feeling of these individuals being tossed and turned through life moving through states of joy and sorrow. Most striking are scenes when the dancers come together to hold a pose and it seems like an ardent wish to capture a perfectly articulated expression or moment of being. A melancholy music pervades this part as the dancing figure of Woolf is eventually portrayed as drowning or sinking. The dancers become like characters hovering in the author’s consciousness as they bob up and down in the background shadows.

While watching this production I had to frequently remind myself not to strictly interpret what I was seeing as a narrative, but rather take it in as an expression of feelings inspired by the texts. I don’t often see dance and have only gone to the ballet a few times in my life, but of course I was drawn to seeing this production because of how passionate I feel about Woolf’s writing. As can be seen from the excellent exhibition on Woolf's life at the National Portrait Gallery last summer, the public is also fascinated by the woman herself and this production shows the same preoccupation with Woolf's life. Once I let go of my impulse to “read” what I was seeing and experience the effect of the overall performance I was tremendously moved by it. A lot of care and passion has gone into this production to honour Woolf’s vision. It was a dazzling experience that will stay with me.

The production is played at the Royal Opera House until May 26th 2015. It's being given its first revival from Jan 21-Feb 14th 2017: http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/woolf-works-by-wayne-mcgregor

AuthorEric Karl Anderson