"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.”

Woolf’s choice to use the word “said” rather than “thought” or “said to herself” is significant: it implies that these interior monologues are being said to someone or for someone other than the speaker. But to whom? The reader, perhaps, or possibly the other characters. The latter seems possible when paired with observations made by Julia Briggs, author of Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. She notes that there are moments in the novel when “even though their monologues are silent, the characters seem to reach each other through them, at times speaking in chorus”[6]. She mentions a particular point in the novel when all six characters come together to say goodbye to a mutual friend, Percival, who is about to leave for India. In this section, the characters’ monologues become choric in the sense that they take turns describing the same moment, with one character starting where the previous had left off. Louis says, “the circle in our blood … closes in a ring. Something is made.” The characters go on to describe what is within this something, this ring:

“Forests and far countries on the other side of the world,’ said Rhoda, ‘are in it; seas and jungles; the howlings of jackals and moonlight falling upon some high peak where the eagle soars.’ ‘Happiness is in it, ‘said Neville, ‘and the quiet of ordinary things.’”

The Waves, p. 145

Rhoda and Neville (and the other characters in turn) are referring to the ring image Louis introduced. The reader would not know to what the “it” in the other characters’ monologues referred without Louis’ monologue. Here, the characters come together to describe something they are making collectively.

In the final chapter, the tension between isolation and communion becomes magnified, both within the thoughts of the character(s) and what happens to the form. In this chapter, Bernard, the character that loves telling stories and aspired to be a writer when young, attempts to sum up all that takes place in the course of the novel. It is the only chapter in The Waves in which only one character speaks, fully isolating Bernard from the others, and yet somehow Bernard “sweeps [the other characters] into his own consciousness”[7] speaking for and as all of them, and the boundaries between characters and individual identities become very unclear:

And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know … we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them … This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome.

The Waves, p. 288

The tension between isolation and connection is amplified to an extreme in this final chapter, as the boundaries between the characters are dissolved and then reinstated in Bernard’s final soliloquy. The tension is left unresolved.

In Umberto Eco’s work, The Limits of Interpretation (1994) he offers a way of thinking about imagined worlds in his “Possible Worlds Theory.” According to Eco, possible worlds are worlds constructed by human beings, excluding that which we understand to be the “real” world. These possible worlds have their own set of rules that may or may not differ from the rules of the “real” world. In fiction, all possible worlds are necessarily “incomplete and semantically unhomogeneous: they are handicapped and small worlds,” meaning not every aspect of the possible world is explained for the reader. The reader is supposed to be flexible and superficial, accepting the world as it is explained and filling in the unexplained gaps with knowledge of the rules of the “real” world.

In fiction, all possible worlds are necessarily ‘incomplete and semantically unhomogeneous: they are handicapped and small worlds,’ meaning not every aspect of the possible world is explained for the reader.

Eco outlines three types of small worlds that may exist in fiction. First, there are small worlds that appear verisimilar, where the rules of the world coincide with the rules of the “real” world. Next, small worlds that are possible but nonverisimilar. As an example of this, he mentions stories in which animals can speak: impossible in the “real” world, but easily imaginable and conceivable with a certain amount of flexibility on the part of the reader. Finally, Eco mentions worlds that are inconceivable, worlds that “… however possible or impossible they may be — are in any case beyond our powers of conception, because their alleged individuals or properties violate our logical or epistemological habits…”

Various aspects of the world of The Waves correlate with each of these types of small worlds. The plot is entirely verisimilar: the characters grow up, get jobs, marry, have children, age and die, operating by the same rules as the rules of the “real” world. The fact that the characters can “hear” and respond to one another’s inner thoughts at times falls into the realm of a nonverisimilar world: while in “the real world,” telepathy may be considered impossible, it is certainly not inconceivable. However, in order to understand the complexities of the final chapter, and furthermore, the novel as a whole, it is necessary to think of it in terms of inconceivable worlds (which Eco also calls impossible possible worlds). In The Waves’ final chapter, when Bernard is somehow simultaneously all six characters and still himself, a man sitting at a coffee shop, the reader is presented with an inconceivable reality that is difficult if not impossible to imagine.

Eco goes on to discuss interpretation as it relates to these worlds. According to him, a text may be interpreted semantically or critically. In a semantic interpretation, the reader reads a text and “fills it up with a given meaning,” responding to the text on a primarily affective level. A critical interpretation is “a metalinguistic activity which aims at describing and explaining for which formal reasons a given text produces a given response.” Any fictional text is capable of being interpreted either semantically or critically, but only certain texts incite a desire for critical interpretation. Texts that offer “both the illusion of a coherent world and the feeling of some inexplicable impossibility” on the semantic level do just this.

After a first read of The Waves, the reader is indeed left with “both the illusion of a coherent world and the feeling of some inexplicable impossibility,” thus encouraging the reader to explore the novel further and interpret it critically. On further investigation, one finds that the “inexplicable impossibility,” Bernard as simultaneously one person and every person in the final chapter, is ambiguous because Bernard himself is not sure of his identity: “Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know”[8]. Bernard’s wavering understanding of himself leaves open the possibility that he is one, many, or both at once.

Something that adds to the ambiguity of this last chapter is the particular form of the novel: it “stand[s] further back from life,” giving “the outline rather than the detail” in the way in which a piece of poetry has the freedom to do.[9] Therefore, the world of The Waves is an open possible-impossible world, leaving room for contradictions to exist simultaneously. Thus, the reader must accept that in the world of the novel, the characters are somehow impossibly separated as individuals and intrinsically connected as fluctuating parts of a whole in a way that is unique to The Waves.

Waves: Formal Adaptation

“It gives me … a great delight to put the severed parts together.”[10]

Imagine a scene of orderly chaos. Ensemble members, dressed in black, move swiftly around the space. Center stage, a woman sits on a long table. She has just thrown on a button down, collared shirt over her black tank top. As she stares down into the lens of a camera, held by a fellow actor, another actor waves a large piece of cardboard, creating a breeze that gently blows her hair off her face. Two other actors stand behind her, holding a large blue board. Downstage right and left, other actors stand; one holds an upturned bell and slowly runs a violin bow over it, creating a muffled, otherworldly sound, as if heard in water; another makes seagull sounds into a microphone; a third recites the following text from The Waves:

I launch out now over the precipice. Beneath me lies the lights of the herring fleet. The cliffs vanish. Rippling small, rippling grey innumerable waves spread beneath me. I touch nothing. I see nothing. I may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.[11]

On a large screen upstage center, these various pieces come together to produce an image of a woman standing on the edge of a cliff by the sea on a bright blue day, looking down at the waves, contemplating and fearing its beauty, its indifference. The woman leans forward and disappears from the screen, but the actress can still be seen onstage, ripping off her collared shirt and preparing to perform a new task. On the screen, the woman is alone, isolated, lost in thought. On the stage, she is a part of an ensemble, a dancer in a complex dance, a single bee in a swarm, working collectively, chaotically, rhythmically.

Isolation and permeation. Solo and ensemble. Whole and diffuse. The boundaries of existence and interiority shift and blur in Waves, Katie Mitchell’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves. Mitchell’s challenge in devising the work was to find a way to put a novel on stage that is comprised entirely of interior monologues: thoughts in the minds of the six characters. In collaboration with her company of actors and scores of designers and technicians, Mitchell set out to develop a theatrical form that would not only tell Woolf’s story but echo the specific style and structure of the novel. To do so, they ended up incorporating technically advanced video equipment as well as old-time radio sound effect techniques. The piece functions as follows: the ensemble of eight all work simultaneously to produce the image of a character thinking, which is projected on a large screen hung upstage. Each ensemble member performs a separate task: one actor is filmed as the character, while another recites the text, the character’s thoughts, into a microphone. Some operate camera equipment, some establish the scene with lighting or set pieces, while others create sound effects through foley techniques.[12] All is happening onstage, in front of the screen, in full view of the audience.

Kate Duchêne as Susan
PHOTO BY Stephen Cummiskey
(National Theatre, Waves, 2006)

Through these live film and foley techniques, Mitchell manages to find a way to stage what at the outset seemed unstageable: interiority. But more importantly, the form of Waves reflects a deeper, thematic element of Woolf’s novel: the tension that exists between extreme isolation and extreme communion, an essentially philosophical, existential tension that Woolf explored throughout all her work in experiments with both form and subject matter, but perhaps most radically with form in The Waves. With the use of live video equipment, ensemble members create images, moving portraits of the various characters which appear on the upstage screen. If an audience member focuses solely on the screen, she sees the image of a single character within a frame: extremely cut off from any other human being, unmoving, unspeaking, lost in thought. If she moves her attention from screen to stage, she sees eight actors moving, speaking, touching, all working in sync to create the isolated image. Due to the connection between these two images, one cannot focus on one at a time, but must view them simultaneously, not only as two events occurring in the same space, but as parts of a whole; the image on the screen is created by the ensemble on the stage, who works off of the image to continue to feed it.

For productions that incorporate technological media in such a way, Greg Giesekam uses the term “intermedia,” which he introduces as an alternative to the word “multimedia.” Giesekam acknowledges that the incorporation of various media in live theatre does different kinds of work depending on how it is used. In his book Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre, he differentiates between multimedia and intermedia works in order to focus on intermedia, “where more extensive interaction between the performers and various media reshapes notions of character and acting… and where often the interaction between the media substantially modifies how the respective media conventionally function and invites reflection upon their nature and methods.”[13] This is significantly different from multimedia productions, where the primary purpose of technology is to aid in forwarding plot and character.

The live video in Waves transforms the way the characters are presented on the stage and the way the story is told. Further, the live action on the stage and the image on the screen mutually rely on one another: the ensemble’s complex dance on the stage serves only to create the image on the screen, an image that would not exist without the dance on the stage. Finally, it is within the relationship between the ensemble on the stage and the characters on the screen that the central concern of the novel — the isolation/communion contradiction — is articulated and explored. Therefore, Waves can be firmly situated as an intermedia production.


BY Katie Mitchell
(Oberon Books, 2009)

It is in fact Mitchell’s choice to present Waves as an intermedia production that makes the isolation/communion contradiction central to it. Giesekam discusses how intermedia productions shift the audience’s focus from character or plot to the form of the piece. He states that intermedia productions “generally demand a response predicated more on reading the interrelationships between different sources than on empathetic or emotional responses.”[13]

This is the case for Waves: the form of the production, or the way the characters are presented and the story is told through the use of live video, becomes more important than the narrative or the characters. This is not to say that the narrative and characters are lost within the intermediacy of the production, but they are of secondary importance to the production’s form. The narrative and characters work to enhance the philosophical, existential exploration that is most fully played out through the use of technology, just as in multimedia productions, technology is used to enhance the narrative and character development. Therefore, the tension between extreme isolation and extreme communion is made the central focus of Waves through its form as an intermedia production.

Read through a philosophical lens, the form of Waves can be understood as a visualization of a way of perceiving the world that is very connected to the tension between isolation and communion in Woolf’s novel. In his last, unfinished work, The Visible and the Invisible, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in an attempt to understand our relation to objects in the world, introduced the term “flesh” as that which connects sentient beings to everything that is visible and tangible. Between the subject and object, flesh is “the tissue that lines them, sustains them, nourishes them, and which for its part is not a thing, but a possibility, a latency, and a flesh of things.”[14] Flesh exists without our awareness or acknowledgement of its existence. To borrow Merleau-Ponty’s example, it is that which allows us to know that a red dress is red, and not just red, but a particular shade of red, different from the red of an apple or a fire truck, yet from the same source, or what Merleau-Ponty calls field, as the red of the apple, the fire truck, the Revolution of 1917.[15] Merleau-Ponty goes on to say:

The look, we said, envelops, palpates, espouses the visible things. As though it were in a relation of pre-established harmony with them, as though it knew them before knowing them, it moves in its own way with its abrupt and imperious style, and yet the views taken are not desultory — I do not look at a chaos, but at things — so that finally one cannot say if it is the look or if it is the things that command.[16]

I use the concept of flesh to help articulate the particular relationship between the images on the screen and the ensemble on the stage, by considering the ensemble to be the visual representation of the flesh of the characters’ reality: that which sustains, nourishes and connects the characters.

We can consider the ensemble onstage to be the flesh of the world on the screen: the ensemble sustains and nourishes the world, hidden from the world and its inhabitants, but ever present.

In devising Waves, the company set up strict guidelines for itself that delineates between the world on the screen and the action on the stage. Actors only perform as characters from The Waves when being filmed. The moment an actor moves out of the frame of the shot, she ceases to portray the character. Thus, the characters only fully appear on the screen. Further, the characters on the screen never acknowledge or appear aware of the action going on onstage. However, the actors onstage often look directly at the screen, particularly when it is their job to create sound effects, in order to match sound with image at the correct moments. While the characters on the screen are unaware of the ensemble onstage, the ensemble onstage is not only aware of the world on the screen, its sole task is to continue to create that world, to make it cohesive and complete. We can consider the ensemble onstage to be the flesh of the world on the screen: the ensemble sustains and nourishes the world, hidden from the world and its inhabitants, but ever present.

The ensemble as flesh also connects the characters to one another. Though the audience often sees only one character on the screen at a time, it is the same ensemble using the same equipment and objects in different combinations and assemblages that creates each “isolated” character. The characters are not isolated after all. The flesh connects. Merleau-Ponty asks in The Visible and the Invisible, “Why would not the synergy exist among different organisms, if it is possible within each?”

He continues, suggesting that “this is possible as soon as we no longer make belongingness to one same ‘consciousness’ the primordial definition of sensibility.” Are not the characters in The Waves trapped within their belief in consciousness, their conviction that they are isolated within their own thoughts and reflections?” “‘We differ, it may be too profoundly,’ said Louis, ‘for explanation.’”[17] “Life stands round me now like a glass round the imprisoned reed [said Susan].” ‘Drop upon drop,’ said Bernard, ‘silence falls … For ever alone, alone, alone…’” The characters will always accept “the age-old assumptions that put the body in the world and the seer in the body, or conversely, the world and the body in the seer as in a box,” an assumption Merleau-Ponty rejects. But in Waves, flesh is “rendered visible” by the ensemble on the stage, allowing the audience to see the connective tissue that unites the characters, despite their inability to break out of the box of the screen.

In thinking of the ensemble as the flesh of the world of The Waves, it is important to remember that it is an aspect of this world normally invisible. Because in the performance the audience is able to see that which connects, the process of creating the image on the screen, it is this process that becomes the focus. While it is clear that the characters on the screen feel hopelessly disconnected from one another and are shown alone on the screen more often than not, the ensemble on the stage offers a different possibility of existence, something beyond the character’s grasp, perhaps, but possible, even attainable, for the audience.

The Woman Writing: Textuality in Waves

After the lights go down at the Duke theatre on Saturday, November 15, 2008, an image appears on the screen hung upstage: the waves breaking on the shore. Sea-sounds come through speakers. Onstage: bodies moving in the dark, quickly, quietly, barely discernible. The image disappears. A moment of darkness, and then, the sound of a match being lit: a hand is revealed, and the face of a woman seated at a table with a cigarette in her mouth. Once her cigarette is lit, she takes a drag, and then reaches forward, turns on a table lamp, and, in an upper-middle class British accent, begins to recite into a microphone an excerpt from the opening interlude of The Waves. “As they neared the shore each wave rose, heaped itself, broke and swept a thin veil of white water across the sand.”[18] Throughout the performance, she appears in the same manner: from darkness, the light of a match reveals her face, her cigarette (or sometimes cigar) is lit by the hand holding the match, she takes a drag, turns on her table lamp, and begins to recite text — either from an interlude in The Waves, or excerpts from “Sketches of the Past,” Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical essay. The smoking, the accent, and the text make it clear that, in these moments, this actress is portraying Virginia Woolf.

In thinking of the ensemble as the flesh of the world of The Waves, it is important to remember that it is an aspect of this world normally invisible.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Virginia Woolf operates under different rules than the other characters in Waves. The actor that portrays Woolf portrays her primarily onstage rather than onscreen, and primarily alone, without much aid from the rest of the ensemble, though even these “rules” are bent and broken throughout the course of the performance. Once, she is filmed looking in a mirror. At another point, she appears onstage but does not speak: instead she rests her head in her hands, and another ensemble member, with her hand on Woolf’s shoulder, recites her text. When the actress portraying Woolf is not doing so, she melts seamlessly back into the ensemble, assisting in the creation of the other characters. Thus, Woolf is separated from the other characters, but the boundaries are blurry, they shift and sway as often as she appears.

Early on in The Waves when the characters are still children, Bernard and Susan come upon an estate called Elvedon that Bernard imagines to be an unknown land, which Briggs identifies as “another version of Eden.”[19] In the house, they see a lady who “sits between the two long windows, writing.”[20] Bernard and Susan recall this woman writing at several points throughout the novel. As Briggs says, this woman is “an image of the novelist writing the book … her written words correspond to Bernard’s spoken phrases.”[19]

Though the appearance is brief, Woolf inserts herself into The Waves, as writer, as creator. But her presence can be found beyond this cameo. Like all Woolf novels, various characters in The Waves can be traced back to key figures in Woolf’s life. Susan resembles Woolf’s sister Vanessa, Louis is reminiscent of her good friend T.S. Eliot (born in St. Louis), and she gives Jinny her own childhood nickname. All characters resemble some aspect of Woolf, though some more than others: Bernard, in his love of phrasemaking and desire to be a writer, and Rhoda in her “self-doubt and social anxieties as a young woman, as well as her recurrent failures of confidence, her nervousness and impulse towards death.”[21] Percival, a character whose inner thoughts the reader never receives, but is nonetheless central to the text (as all the other characters love and admire him), is modeled after Woolf’s brother Thoby, who, like Percival, died at a young age.

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.

Waves ends on a dark note. Just after the appearance of the defeated Woolf, the ensemble’s dance on the stage slows to a near stop. Each character appears on the screen, one at a time, and sheathed in darkness, staring straight ahead, looking grim. Little else is happening onstage: two actors film and work a flashlight, one speaks text, and the rest watch the screen and wait their turn. While the actor portraying Neville appears on the screen, the final words of the piece are spoken: “‘The door will not open; he will not come,’ said Neville. ‘And we are laden. Being now all of us middle-aged, loads are on us. Let us put down our loads.'”[24]

Mitchell and company decided to cut the final chapter of The Waves: Bernard’s identity crisis is not included in the performance. The choice to exclude this final chapter seems to resolve the tension between isolation and communion in the performance — in favor of isolation. The piece ends with little happening on the stage, and all focus on the extremely isolated characters on the screen. There is no amalgamation of all characters into one, seemingly nothing but despair and loneliness.

Waves, its chaotic, whirling, dancing ensemble, its beautiful, complex form, is the singing of Woolf’s view of the world, and its melody is hopeful, remaining with the audience, stuck in our heads, as we return to inhabit the habitable world.

And yet, after leaving the Duke theatre on November 15, what remained with me was not a sense of despair, but the thrill and excitement I felt watching the ensemble create the image on the screen. It did not matter that the characters were defeated. What stuck with me was the process of creation, the connective tissue, the beauty of making the work of art that is the world. The form of Waves is what is central to the performance, not character and plot. Through its form, Waves presents the possibility of an ever-present connection between everything in the world, made visible by the ensemble on the stage, offering a perception of the world beyond the grasp of the characters on the screen. Beyond adaptation and mediation, Waves is a philosophical proclamation. Virginia Woolf wrote in a journal entry, “If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.” Waves, its chaotic, whirling, dancing ensemble, its beautiful, complex form, is the singing of Woolf’s view of the world, and its melody is hopeful, remaining with the audience, stuck in our heads, as we return to inhabit the habitable world.

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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.
  1. Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. London: Harcourt, Inc., 2005, 288.
  1. Ibid, 260.
  1. Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1931, 288.
  1. Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. London: Harcourt, Inc., 2005, 241.
  1. Woolf, Virginia. “A Sketch of the Past,” Moments of Being. London: Harcourt, Inc., 1985, 72.
  1. Script for Waves. Adapted by Katie Mitchell and Company from the text of 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. “Foley artists work in film and TV. They are brought in after a movie or programme has been shot to provide any required sounds that cannot be sourced from sound libraries… For instance… if during [a] shot a car crashes into a lamppost, the Foley artist would create the sound of the crash, ensuring the movement of the car and the exact moment of impact into the lamppost were accurately timed.” Kerbel, Lucy. Waves Workpack. London: The Royal National Theatre Board, 5.
  1. Giesekam, Greg. Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  1. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968, 132-133.
  1. Ibid, 132.
  1. Ibid, 133.
  1. Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1931, 127.
  1. Script for Waves, 54. 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. Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, London: Harcourt, Inc., 2005, 244.
  1. Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1931, 17.
  1. Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, London: Harcourt, Inc., 2005, 250.
  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.
  1. Ibid, 98.

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