When Illusion Suceeds
Ms. La Trobe says it best in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts: ‘This is death, death, death – when illusion fails.’ (p. 180) Various characters in the novel create illusions to escape from the reality that grieves them. And those illusions are continually interrupted by other characters who purposely or accidentally clear away the smoke and blow real air into the dreamers’ faces. Ms. La Trobe is probably correct: when illusion fails, it probably is death. But she also probably went too far: Between the Acts reveals to us the resiliency of illusion, and the difference between a dream interrupted and a dream destroyed.
The scene in the Pointz Hall library is laden with illusions created and shattered. First we see old Bart dozing in his chair, dreaming of ‘himself, a young man helmeted, and in the sand a hoop of ribs, and in the shadow of the rock, savages; and in his hand a gun.’ (p. 17) It is a poignant juxtaposition: a wearied old man in his comfortable chair in his sheltered home in England and the same man, many years earlier, undomesticated in his untamed India. Is it this his old gun in his hand, or only the arm of his ‘chintz-covered chair?’ (p. 17) Isa enters. ‘Am I interrupting?’ she asks. (p. 18) No, Isa is not merely interrupting, she is ‘destroying youth and India’ for Bart, wrenching him from the turf of his virile youth, the grounds on which he acted instead of slept and fought men rather than his sister, and thrusting him back into the quiet library of Pointz Hall.
Bart doesn’t let Isa get away with this: ‘Your little boy’s a cry-baby,’ he says (p. 18) He does it to upset her, true, but he also does it to comfort himself, to remind her and himself that he can still bully someone. Bart is a classic bully with a classic bully motivation. He belittles Lucy, his dotty sister, and frightens George, his nervous young grandson, both easy targets. He is seeking some shadow of his youth, of his India, of his masculinity. He is attempting to escape his old man’s body.
Isa is also preoccupied with youth, but she doesn’t attempt to escape her years through memory as Bart tends to do – she denies memory. Isa is ‘book-shy’; ‘for her generation, the newspaper was a book.’ (p. 19) She doesn’t care to read Spenser or Keats or Yeats – she can’t read anything more than a day old, she refuses to be sucked into the past. Isa is afraid to realize her 39 years, afraid to put them in the context of history, afraid to put her 39th year somewhere on the ever-growing timeline of her own life. Her relationship to her children, the true youths in her life, is a heart-breaking manifestation of her abstract fear. She is forever tapping on the window glass, attempting to summon their attention as they enjoy the garden outside, but they never hear her. We never see Isa interact with her children, though she does speak of them. Their presence always eludes her.
In the library scene, Isa escapes into a rape fantasy, a dream of aggression. For a moment, she avoids her real surroundings which are filled with books, those ancient things, and goes somewhere realer to her, ‘so real that [she saw] on the bed the girl – screaming and hitting him about the face.’ (p. 20) The rape corrupts the domestic, the maternal that she loathes, and perverts the stasis she fears falling prey to until Lucy Swithin and her hammer enter and interrupt Isa’s reverie.
Lucy Swithin is the third member of the trinity of illusion artists in the library. Lucy’s escapism, like Bart’s and Isa’s, shows a fixation on time, but whereas Bart seeks to return to the past and Isa desires to obliterate the past entirely, Lucy longs to unite the past with the present and the future – to connect everyone and everything throughout history and prehistory. Hence her faith in the Christian God, Creator of all, Overseer, Unifier. Lucy enters the library giddy with her talk of nailing a placard on the Barn to raise money for the Church. She’s afraid rain will force the upcoming pageant indoors. ‘We can only pray,’ she says. (p. 23)
The third blow to an illusion in the library: ‘and provide umbrellas,’ Bart retorts sarcastically, mocking Lucy’s faith. (p. 23) And the destruction of protective delusion has come full-circle: Bart is interrupted by Isa; Isa is interrupted by Lucy; and now Lucy is crushed by Bart’s bullying. And again: ‘What’s the origin – the origin – of that?’ she asks, referring to the practice of touching wood. ‘Superstition,’ he answers. She is slightly hurt ‘as once more he struck a blow at her faith,’ attempting to destroy the shelter of her illusion and expose her to reality. (p. 25) And all the while during this scene, as each person carries out his or her role in the creation and interruption of illusions, they gaze out the window, ‘[seven] times in succession,’ (p. 22) past each other and their immediate surroundings, the surroundings so unfriendly to their delusions. Ms. La Trobe perfectly captures their sentiment later in the novel: ‘O, the torture of these interruptions!’ (p. 79) These interruptions destroy fantasy and pull the dreamers back to the reality they seek to avoid.
Enter Mrs. Manresa, active and dynamic, into their bubble. She is a reinforcer of illusions. Isa ‘destroy[s] youth and India’ for Bart, but doesn’t Mrs. Manresa ‘restore to old Bartholomew his spice islands, his youth?’ (p. 41) For this, he is grateful to her, he is captivated by her, he even plays along with her superstitious game. Counting out their cherry pits, Mrs. Manresa confirms that she is a ploughboy, a ‘wild child of nature’ (p. 50); Bart discovers that he is a thief. The life that Mrs. Manresa brings to Pointz Hall ‘[makes] old Bart feel young.’ (p. 43) She ‘confer[s] youth upon [Isa]’ with her gaze (p. 41), also. However, Mrs. Manresa’s own illusion, her game, is one of sex, where she is playing against fellow ‘conspirators’ of her own sex (though not maliciously) for the temporary affections of men. (p. 41) She acknowledges Isa’s youth, but she can’t let Isa know this.
Mrs. Manresa’s escape from monotony is her highly sexualized action. ‘She’s said it, she’s done it, not I’: everyone feels this in her presence. (p. 41) This is because Manresa’s illusion is an external one: she draws everyone into her game, she makes them all players, whereas people like Bart and Lucy and Isa keep their illusions, for the most part, internal. Manresa laughs and chats and makes herself up and ‘over-dresse[s] for a picnic.’ (p. 41) She flirts with Bart and Giles and they play along, captivated. We don’t know the real Mrs. Manresa at all; or perhaps the real Mrs. Manresa is exactly what we know – a woman who perpetually plays the part of seductress. Perhaps Mrs. Manresa, the truest illusionist in the Between the Acts, is also the truest character because she makes no attempt to hide her illusions. She wears them like she wears her rubies and emeralds.
The scale of Mrs. Manresa’s illusions is rivaled only by the scale of Ms. La Trobe’s. With her play, Ms. La Trobe attempts to force her audience to consider the history of England. Lucy and Isa prefer to maintain their illusions. ‘[Time] doesn’t exist for us, we’ve only the present,’ states Lucy. To Lucy, linear time doesn’t exist; it’s all the present, all of history and pre-history, the whole future; it’s all now. Isa thinks that time doesn’t exist ‘for us, who’ve the future.’ (p. 82) No past for Lucy, only future. Ms. La Trobe considers her efforts after the dispersed are we scene and deems them ‘another damned failure! As usual. Her vision escaped her.’ She acknowledges the fact that ‘she hadn’t made them see’ the illusion of time. (p. 98)
The culmination of La Trobe’s efforts to expose the big lie about time (whatever that lie may be), comes at the end of the play, when she tries to show the audience themselves. The cans and candlesticks and mirrors reflect their clothes and the sky and perhaps a bit of a face but every member of the audience refuses to look at him- or herself directly. But why? They all know what they would see; they look at themselves in the mirror daily, surely. It is not because they are afraid of what they will see, it is because they bristle at what La Trobe is trying to do. None of them is stupid; each recognizes the abstract import of showing a person what they really are. They refuse to look at their reflections because they deny Ms. La Trobe the right to interrupt their illusions, their carefully played games. They all ‘evaded or shaded themselves,’ all except Mrs. Manresa, of course, for whom a mirror was part of the game. She ‘powdered her nose’ in one of the mirrors, and ‘moved one curl, disturbed by the breeze, to its place.’ (p. 186) Mrs. Manresa is showing up Ms. La Trobe. She uses Mrs. La Trobe’s illusion-exposing tools against her; she uses them to continue her act. ‘Magnificent,’ declares Bart. (p. 186) A magnificent evasion it is, certainly.
It is certainly telling that Bart advises Lucy to ‘thank the actors, not the author, or ourselves, the audience.’ (p. 203) Thanks the stage actors and the real-life actors, not the usurper of illusion. ‘A failure,’ she laments after the audience has left; it is hard to say whether she is referring to her play or herself. (p. 209) She had wanted to show them themselves, ‘as they really were. She held mirrors to their faces and their faces turned away. She hadn’t accounted for the fact that they could simply turn away.’
After the play, the Olivers retire to Pointz Hall. Lucy fingers her cross and peruses her Outline of History. She speaks of last year’s pageant, when it rained. Isa, true to form, dreamily denies last year: ‘this year, last year, next year, never?’ (p. 214) When? There is no when for Isa. Only now. Bartholomew echoes Mrs. Manresa in his sleep: ‘tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor’ (p. 217) As Between the Acts ends, we see Isa and her husband Giles alone for the first time. The tension in their relationship is tangible. They go through the acts of fighting and reconciling to avoid addressing reality. The last lines reaffirm La Trobe’s failure at exposure, and the audience’s refusal to give up the act. ‘Then the curtain rose. They spoke.’ (p. 219) The illusion continues.
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