A Room of One’s Own
Writer: Virginia Woolf
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Venue: Belvoir Street Theatre
September 16 – October 18, 2020
While it was a joy to be back watching a live theatre performance, we might ask is there need for yet another stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s well-known and loved defence of women’s need for creative freedom. If audience reaction is an indication, then Carissa Licciardello and Tom Wright’s latest adaptation has been completely validated, not by a noisy standing ovation but by something much deeper, a few seconds pause, an intake of breath, the sound of thinking before the clapping begins.
The publication of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in 1929 caused quite a stir and it is easy to see why when in 1938 Max Meldrum, Melbourne artist and respected art teacher, was quoted in the Brisbane Telegraph as saying: “Men and women are differently constituted; women are more closely attached to the physical things of life – they cannot help it – and to expect them to do some things equally as well as men is sheer lunacy. A great artist … becomes great only by exerting himself to the limit of his strength the whole time. Such a life is unnatural and impossible for a woman.”
Today, while women have access to education, the capacity to earn decent salaries, to be promoted to positions of responsibility, and support the Me Too movement, we might assume Max Meldrum’s views are completely antiquarian. However, as Julia Gillard observed, “women are not where we thought we might be” a few decades ago. Any why not? Because, as Woolf discerns, patriarchal control of the creative world is deep and diverse. Women can exert themselves to the limit of their mental strength but “not the whole time”.
Woolf’s exploration of her topic, women and fiction, is brought to us by Anita Hegh. Sitting on a black chair dressed in form-concealing dark clothing and feet in neat black low-heeled shoes, her hair pulled back into a knot, we are given an impression both of Woolf’s anxiety and of an appealing and comical self-deprecation. Hech captures without imitation of either her voice or mannerisms, Woolf’s paradoxical mixture of knowing her own value but at the same time a nervous and assumed apprehension that her opinions are fragmentary observations. By varying her tempo, at times a sudden rush of words, at others a more considered emphasis, Hech gives both passion and conviction to what is, in fact, Woolf’s strongly felt and substantiated views.
Initially, and a good example of her oblique technique, we learn of Woolf’s agitation on being invited to speak on women and fiction at a women’s college, and her struggle to clarify her thoughts as she walks towards a luncheon appointment in “Oxbridge”. Excited by an idea – that fish-like darted hither and thither and immersed in pursuit of it – she strays from the gravel path and onto the soft turf, is intercepted by a male authority figure who sends her back to the gravel as the grass – which had been rolled for 300 years in succession – is reserved for “Fellows and Scholars”. As a consequence of the interpolation of patriarchy and tradition, her little fish “went back into hiding”.
In this single interlude we find her freedom to walk immersed “in whatever meditation was in harmony with the moment” denied her by a tradition designed to enclose the male thinker in a “miraculous glass cabinet” protecting him from the world’s rough intrusions. This need of the male for a private thinking space is deeply engrained in the female psyche and revealed by several curious practices: misconceived pride in their ability to multi-task, support for “man-caves” and the male privilege of watching television uninterrupted.
Woolf’s pretence that she can’t fulfill the first duty of lecturer – handing the audience a nugget of truth after an hour’s discourse – but rather wishes to show how she arrived at her idea that in order to write a women needs her own space and the money to provide it, enables her to ask some hard questions, questions that contemporary women writers might well address. Are they writing, like Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, as women who have forgotten they are women, “holding fast to the thing as they saw it” and not in response to current values and ideas? Are they simply being “clever girls” whose books will be pulped by the publishers in ten years time? Have they moved beyond writing that is basically autobiographical? Are they striving to write more than competently, to write sentences that explode in the mind and inspire all sorts of other ideas?
The device of illuminating a glass cabinet revealing various figures (Ella Prince), perhaps as imagined by Woolf, and then blacking out, suggests the women depicted within it had the desire and capacity to write and to explore new frontiers but not the circumstances. Woolf’s own desire to write was reined in by advice that her mental health was too delicate to bear the strain of a producing a novel, advice we might feel reflects the notion that creativity somehow threatened women’s stability, that is, disrupted the order that caters to the needs of the male.
The final illumination offered by the glass cabinet, a modern young woman confidently inhabiting her private space and reading a draft at leisure, owes much to
Woolf’s work. This debt is beautifully acknowledged by the silent meeting of Hech and Prince, bringing the performance to a moving conclusion. And yes, tissues were in evidence.