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

The Woolf in Waves makes references to both strains of the author’s presence in the novel. At the dinner party scene, the actor portraying Bernard recalls his trip to Elvedon, but it is the actress who portrays Woolf who speaks the last line of this monologue: “And the woman sat writing.”[22] A subtle acknowledgement of the link between Woolf and the woman at Elvedon. During the scene in which she is filmed looking into a mirror, text is read from “A Sketch of the Past,” a recollection of Thoby:

I loved his voice on the stair, his old shoes and moments of being together. I think of death sometimes as the end of an excursion which I went on when he died. As if I should come in and say well, here you are.

Waves script, 37

On the other side of the mirror appears a ghostly image of a young man: a visual memory of Thoby to accompany the verbal/textual one. The actor portraying Thoby in this scene is the same actor who portrays Percival, highlighting the connection between the character and the person.

But we as audience are given more glances into bits of Woolf: the other selections from “A Sketch of the Past” that the actress portraying Woolf reads shed more light on elements of the author that may have gone into the novel. Early on, she tells us of her “delight in putting the severed parts together,” and her desire to make shocking experiences “real” by writing about them.[23]

In one section, Woolf recalls memories of her mother, fading memories of a woman long dead. In another, she muses over the mundanity of everyday life, the vast amounts of non-being that fill up a day. Near the end of the performance, we see a suffering Woolf, unable to lift her head, as another ensemble member reads:

To tell you the truth, I have practically no emotion left. I… have not even troubled to clean my nails. I have not done my hair. I can’t believe in being anyone. When I read a book, I cannot finish it… vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

Waves script, 97

This last section may have come from one of many periods in Woolf’s life in which her struggle with mental illness took a particularly dark turn. The inspiration for The Waves came from such a moment of darkness, in fact. All selections are significant, in that they all gesture toward aspects of Woolf’s life that were important enough to show up thematically in much of her fictional work. Not all of these elements influenced The Waves as blatantly as the death of Woolf’s brother, yet they were significant enough to permeate all her work in one way or another.

In the production, Woolf’s presence in Waves indirectly addresses the central tension of isolation versus communion. Woolf as author and creator is necessarily isolated and separate from her characters. She is from a different “world,” so to speak. This is reflected in the performance whereby she operates under different “rules” than the characters. She is also isolated from the ensemble on the stage as she performs alone, and exists as a character in a space where no other characters exist. Again, someone from a different world with different rules. Yet, Woolf the character is portrayed by an ensemble member who becomes part of the ensemble, the flesh of the world of The Waves, the moment she ceases to portray Woolf, and, like the characters on the screen, is always a part of the full spectacle of the performance. It makes sense that Woolf exists within the flesh of the world, or on the stage, as the author is very much a part of the creation of the world of The Waves: in a sense, it is her writing that connects the characters. She creates the form, the flesh, of the novel. And yet Woolf, as author, is merely a part of that which makes up the work of art that is the world, a minor character in the performance. Though isolated as author, she is ultimately part of the flesh of the world, the same flesh of the world as her characters, as her novel. Woolf’s presence in the performance ultimately reaffirms the primacy of the flesh that connects everything and everyone.

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  1. Script for Waves, 49. Adapted by Katie Mitchell and Company from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Directed by Katie Mitchell. Performed by Kate Duchêne, Anastasia Hille, Kristin Hutchinson, Sean Jackson, Stephen Kennedy, Liz Kettle, Paul Ready and Jonah Russell, at Duke Theatre in New York, on November 15, 2008.
  1. Ibid, 54.

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