"The Severed Parts Together": Adaptation, Mediation, and Textuality in Waves

On March 10, 2006, reporter Dominic Cavendish of the London newspaper, The Telegraph, interviewed director Katie Mitchell, who was in the middle of rehearsals for her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves. When asked why she decided to work with this particular novel, Mitchell stated:

“I’ve been fascinated by it since university [Oxford] where I did my special paper on Woolf. It’s like a very beautiful poem. I’m still not sure how to do it … The aim is to capture what happens inside people’s heads, and we’re going to be using dance and video and sound to do that. It’s an impossible thing… But every once in a while, you need to do impossible things.”[1]

Waves opened at London’s National Theatre on November 16, 2006 and ran until January 13, 2007. It was later revived for a limited engagement in New York as part of the Lincoln Center’s 2008-2009 season of the Great Performers “New Visions” series. The production ran from November 12-22, 2008 at The Duke Theatre on 42nd street. It was here that I first encountered Waves. My original reaction was one of overwhelming awe and emotion — and surprise. I am a big Virginia Woolf fan, so my highly affective response should not have come as a shock. However, what struck me most strongly, what brought me to tears several times in fact, was not the text, nor the actors’ performance of it: rather, it was the ensemble’s intricate and chaotic maneuverings of the live video equipment and various props, sets and costume pieces that moved me. Never before had technical work brought me to tears: I was perplexed.

What was it about the ensemble work in Waves that affected me so strongly? In her attempt to “capture what happens inside people’s heads” on a stage, what else did Mitchell and her company produce? How does it correlate with Woolf’s equally difficult and equally, though differently, beautiful late novel? Mitchell’s Waves articulates the central philosophical tension in Woolf’s The Waves. The question of our experience of existence, whether or not it is an isolated or communal experience, is brought to fruition in Mitchell’s performance, primarily in the technical work of the ensemble on the stage, or what could also be considered the form of the performance.

The Waves: Formal Experimentation and Ambiguous Identities

“I am telling myself the story of the world from the beginning.
I am not concerned with a single life, but with lives together.”

The Waves

The Waves
(London: Hogarth Press, 1931)

Often considered to be Virginia Woolf’s most experimental and most accomplished novel, The Waves traces the lives of six friends, Bernard, Jinny, Neville, Susan, Louis and Rhoda, as they grow up and age, but only through moments of interiority, the inner reflections of each character in turn, at various moments through his or her life. The novel (or play-poem, as Woolf preferred to call it) is comprised of nine unmarked chapters. At the fore of each chapter, written in italics, is a short “interlude,” a description of the progression of the sun over the course of one day as it rises and sets over a seaside home. The position of the sun always corresponds with the lives of the characters: it rises at their genesis at the top of the novel, is at its full height at the height of the characters’ careers and lives, and sets in their old age. As the novel is comprised primarily of interior monologues, the characters appear unable to break out of their own minds and fully connect: because there is no dialogue and no description from an omniscient, unifying narrator, and more often then not, the characters deliver their monologues in moments of solitude, there is this sense that the characters are profoundly isolated from one another. Furthermore, the subject matter of the characters’ contemplations often delves into bleak descriptions of grief, despair and loneliness: “‘Drop upon drop,’ said Bernard, ‘silence falls … For ever alone, alone, alone … I, whom loneliness destroys, let silence fall, drop by drop’”.[3] Yet, multiple elements work in tension with this sense of isolation. It is perhaps most conspicuous within the characters’ analyses of themselves and their relations to one another. For example, midway through the novel, at a dinner party that brings all six characters together, Louis says, “We differ, it may be too profoundly … for explanation. But let us attempt it.”[4] But the tension becomes more complex and intriguing with consideration of other formal elements at work. Throughout the novel, the writing runs “homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves”[5] because Woolf does not create distinct stylistic voices for her characters. It is therefore often difficult to discern which character is speaking. The most obvious indications are the moments in which the monologues, entirely in quotes, are interjected with the words “said Bernard” or “Jinny said.”

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  1. Cavendish, Dominic. “From Heroine to Villainess,” The Telegraph, October 30, 2006.
  1. Woolf, Virginia. Holograph Drafts, quoted in Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. London: Harcourt, Inc. 2005, 243.
  1. Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1931, 224.
  1. Ibid, 127.
  1. Woolf, Virginia. A Writer’s Diary. London: Harcourt, Inc., 1982, 156.

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