The Books: “Virginia” (Edna O’Brien)

Next in my Daily Book Excerpt:

That does it for the compilation of Odets’ plays – although I do have some more individual plays of his, which I will get to later. Of course you will, Sheila!

VirginiaEdnaOBrien.jpgNext play on the script shelf:

Edna O’Brien’s Virginia: A Play.

Novelist Edna O’Brien created this play about Virginia Woolf. I say “created” because not one word in it is O’Brien’s – every single piece of it is taken from the writings (including letters and diaries) of Virginia Woolf, as well as the writings of the two main people in her life: Leonard (her husband) and Vita Sackville-West (her lover). And what’s amazing about the accomplishment here is that it is not just a series of dueling monologues … O’Brien actually creates scenes, and dialogue … but again; only out of writing that already exists. Amazing.

Virginia Woolf, though, of course – is the lead. She speaks to the audience in long introspective monologues – and sometimes in the middle of a scene with Leonard or Vita, she will suddenly break out of the moment, and turn to the audience and speak – describing her emotions, or clarifying something, or whatever.

I understudied both the roles of Virginia and of Vita in a great production of this play. Understudying is great but it’s also one of the most nerve-wracking things in the world – especially if you are understudying a ginormous part like Virginia (and actually, Vita’s a pretty huge part, too). You have limited rehearsal. You have to learn all the lines. You sit in on rehearsals, and take note of the blocking – but you rarely get to practice it. You have to be on call for the run of the show. You have to always be ready to go on. Oh, and in the case of this play, you must keep your English accent impeccable. You must be ready to speak in an English accent, convincingly, at any moment. So the mindset is a very odd one. You have a lot of leisure time, and yet you have to maintain the mentality of readiness. I walked around talking in an English accent. I recited the lines to myself obsessively, every day. And then one day, I’ll never forget it – I was out and about with Mitchell, and I stopped off at the McDonalds opposite Wrigley Field to call home for my messages. (Pre cell phone). There was the director, saying to me, “Kelly [the actress playing Virginia] is going to take a week off next week … so … er … you’re going on.” I am not kidding when I say I almost pissed my pants. I felt my knees go weak. Literally. In the McDonalds. The director was generous enough to give me 2 or 3 rehearsals – he was awesome. I got to say the words out loud, on the stage, I got to do the blocking … but the anxiety!! Also, because the actress playing Virginia had been getting rave reviews and was known in the Chicago theatre – I was nervous that audiences would show up and be disappointed it was me. And of course, some people were. Whatever. My Virginia was different than her Virginia. Necessarily so, since we are different people. So I ended up performing the show for a glorious week. Oh my GOD, it was so amazing. I have never been so proud of myself in my life. Honestly. I DID it. And not only did I DO it, but I enjoyed every stinking second of it. Taking my curtain call was incredible, because I really really felt like I had earned that applause, and I had no problem with taking my moment to bow. I was so damn proud. Because, I’m telling you – Virginia has 5 page monologues in this play. Mkay? And also … it’s Virginia feckin’ Woolf, so I had to go mad, I had to sink into despair … I had to hit those emotional moments or the whole thing would have sucked. The other 2 people in the cast were so supportive of me, and so wonderful with me, that I will never forget them. They just leapt right in, and accepted that I was Virginia, they were welcoming, and warm … And Kelly [the “real” Virginia] sent me flowers on my first night. It was so damn nice. I didn’t have much contact with Kelly, and I didn’t know her at all, but in the 5 minutes that we met, she said, “All you need to do to succeed is remember 2 things: You are the star. And you are crazy.” hahahahaha

Anyway, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for this play.

Here’s a piece of one of Virginia’s monologues – that comes early on. When there is reference to “The Man” – that is her father, I believe.

EXCERPT FROM Virginia: A Play, by Edna O’Brien.

VIRGINIA. Eros came on dirty wings. My half-brother George was taking me to Lady Sligo’s Ball.

My dress was made of green stuff bought at a furniture shop because it was cheaper and also more adventurous. The carriage waiting, the pavement silver in the new moon, half insane with shyness and nervousness, I entered the Ball … And gallopaded around the room discussing oratory and the Garter with young men from the Foreign Office. Dancing, feeling the queerness and the strangeness of being alone with a complete stranger, striking out this way and that like a beginner on ice. My half-brother George danced with al the ladies and then bowed to them, then brought me home.

I went up to my bedroom, unfastened the brooch that he gave me and then: the door opened and in the dark someone entered — “Who?” I cried. “Don’t be frightened,” George replied, “and don’t turn on the light, oh beloved.”

He flung himself on my bed and took me in his arms. Something in him burst, reticence, you could say, or decency or etiquette, the things that middle-class men are supposed to possess. “Besides I love you, I must have you,” he said.

The division in our lives was most curious. There was my father in the next room teaching me the humanities and the sciences, the rules against error. All theory, vapid, theory.

I am unlearned. Make no mistake, the Greeks are for men, the Treasury is for men, Whitehall is for men, the world belongs to men.

[She looks at The Man]

I wanted a mind, a man, a sparring partner, but they were all in Cambridge. My brother Thoby was in Cambridge.

If the spirit of peace dwelt anywhere it was in those rooms in Cambridge, those courts, those quadrangles, colors burning in the windowpane like the beat of an excitable heart … all the books and smoke and drink and deep armchairs … the urbanity.

The dignity.

MAN. The privacy.

VIRGINIA. [ignoring him] My brother Thoby knew the most interesting fellows, apostles and geniuses.

[Very excited]

Lytton Strachey, a wit, Sidney Turner another, slept all day and read all night, Woolf a strange wild man, a Jew; Clive Bell an atheist and what is more a muscular atheist, who not only wrote poems but had Edna May to lunch in his rooms, dammit, while we famished at home and tackled Greek and did bookbinding and laid the table and were polite to women, to Aunts, women in constant lachrymose attendance for every death and every deathknock.

MAN. Ginia, you are such a comfort to me, so good to me.

VIRGINIA. If you must die, why don’t you?

[Virginia turns as if she is about to recall him but doesn’t. She crosses and snaps closed the book that he was reading.]

VIRGINIA. His life would have entirely ended mine — no writing, no rooks slicing the air, no stories, inconceivable.

It was a question of throwing out all the old things, the stacks of letters, the pictures, the Past, and moving to Gordon Square. It was a most beautiful thing to have distempered walls and bright chintzes, to have coffee instead of tea.

And Nessa and I no longer in white satin but in colored dresses like Gauguin painted.

And so began our Thursdays. The bell would ring after dinner and in they glided, Strachey and Sidney Turner and Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell. Clive Bell, a mixture between Shelley and a country squire. Lytton Strachey.

[Ponderous voice] “Do you hear the music of the spheres.” and then fainting; and Sidney Turner, who only spoke the truth, the absolute truth.

And I had to hide the matchboxes because they clashed with the colors.

They would settle themselves in corners and gaze into the distance and for a long time say nothing.


“No, I have not seen it.”

“No, I have not been there.”

“No, I do not agree.”

Until they got on to something really interesting such as beauty or whether intimacy led to a dust of the soul.

Every word had an aura. Poetry combined the different auras in a sequence.

I would think I am a story, he is a story, she is a story, but how to get it. Not just the theory and the argument, holding the thing — all the things — the innumerable things together. Phrases for the moon, how people looked, dropped their cigarette ends. And then Strachey, who hadn’t spoken for ages, suddenly pointed to a stain on Nessa’s skirt and said, “Semen?” Can one really say it, I thought. And suddenly we were all laughing. Nessa laughed the most. How beautiful she was and how ready.

She was the sunlight and I was the twilight. Love was not mentioned. Anyhow the great artist was Androgynous. I had known that there were buggers in Plato’s Greece but it never occurred to me that there could be buggers in our drawing room in Forty-six Gordon Square.

James is in despair, Rupert has been twice jilted, Morgan isn’t coping.

Marriage was a lowdown affair and yet


“Miss Buss and Mr. Beale
Cupid’s darts do feel.”

I never dreamed it would happen.

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