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Orlando: Man, Woman, Novel, Play
October 19, 2010

Soon after Wendy told me we had tickets to see Orlando at the Classic Stage Center in Manhattan, The New York Times published a review. I discovered that the play is an adaptation by Sarah Ruhl of a novel by Virginia Woolf in which "a young English nobleman goes to bed one night a duke and wakes up a duchess."

I confess that I knew nothing of Virginia Woolf apart from Albee's 'Whose Afraid of…' and a few titles on the spines of books in our upstairs bookcase. When I read that the duke would emerge from his (her?) bed "absolutely unclothed and indisputably female", I figured I needed some preparation.

I found the novel in the St. Joseph's College library and read the section describing the metamorphosis. Woolf's language was so unexpectedly engaging that I determined to read the entire book before we saw the play. I almost succeeded.

Woolf's narrative is like a dream (she calls it a 'miasma') in which time, place, and identity depart from their usual customs. Orlando's life spans more than three hundred years, but when she reaches the present (11 October, 1928), she is only thirty-six. She has been an imaginative boy, the passionate lover of a Russian princess named Sasha, a poet, and a Duke. The first months after her transformation (or is it his transformation?) are spent among a band of gypsies where she is barely cognizant of how radically her life has changed. It is only during the long sea voyage home to England that she has time to reflect on the mysteries of womanhood. During the next six (or is it three hundred?) years she spends time as a socialite, a companion of Alexander Pope, a transvestite, a wife, and mother. Through it all he/she is a thinker and writer of poetry. In fact, it is Orlando's capacity for deep thought that allows him/her to think for years while scarcely aging at all.

Transforming Woolf's unruly novel into a play cannot have been easy. Ruhl solved the problem through simplification. She abstracted out all the phantasmagoria - "widow's weeds and bridal veils, crystal palaces, ..., Christmas trees, telescopes, extinct monsters, globes, maps, elephants and mathematical instruments" - leaving whiteness in their place. She cut entire chapters: Orlando's encounters with the poets, her life with the gypsies, her years running around with prostitutes, even the birth of her child. She presented what she retained in Woolf's own words - a safe and successful decision - though most of the novel could not fit into the play. At least Ruhl found a niche for Woolf's wonderful description of the Great Frost: "Birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground."

The theatrical production, directed by Rebecca Taichman, was thoroughly professional. The men of the ensemble (Gibson Frazier, David Greenspan, Tom Nelis), alternately characters and chorus, emanated sufficient levity to balance the earnestness of Francesca Faridany's Orlando and Annika Boras's Sasha. The performance, set to music by Christian Frederickson & Ryan Rumery, was as strictly choreographed as a ballet.

Vita Sackville-West
Orlando, the novel turned play, is as complex as Orlando, the man turned woman. It is a prolonged love letter to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's lover and the model for the novel's protagonist. It is a feminist tract, an experiment in modernism, a history of English culture, an exploration of gender and identity, among other things.

One key to unlocking the deeper mysteries of Orlando can be found, oddly enough, in the Symposium of Plato. While the androgynous half-man, half-woman described by Aristophanes seems a suitable prototype for Orlando, the true inspiration for Woolf's tale lies more probably in Diotima's account of regeneration.

In the Symposium Diotima explains that all human beings seek immortality, which they can attain only through generation - leaving behind "a new existence in the place of the old." The cycle of regeneration occurs not only between generations, but within the life of each individual. In the interval between youth and age, Diotima explains, each person undergoes "a perpetual process of loss and reparation" as body parts, habits, tempers, and ideas pass away and are replaced.

The drive to generation is driven by love, and love is driven by beauty. Each act of generation is an attempt to reproduce beauty: the beauty of a lover's body, the beauty of an idea or institution, and ultimately to reproduce absolute and everlasting beauty in a changing and imperfect world - the work of the thinker and poet.

Orlando is driven by the love of beauty - the beauty of Sasha, the beauty of poetry and the institution of marriage, the beauty of the eternal truth he/she contemplates under the oak tree. Orlando's regenerations take liberties with time, space and identity, but each reproduces her preceding selves; each is driven by love or loss of love; and each is an attempt to reproduce undying beauty in a world dominated by change.

Two brief notes:

I did my best in this piece to use as many polysyllabic words as possible, conscious of Woolf's statement that "only the most profound masters of style can tell the truth, and when one meets a simple one-syllabled writer, one may conclude, without any doubt at all, that the poor man is lying."

The link between Orlando and Plato requires a stretch - perhaps a leap - but I swear it's there. If I had the intellectual resources to explore the connection, I would link Orlando to Alfred North Whitehead, Whitehead to Plato, and Woolf to Whitehead through the Bloomsbury Group, attempting at all times to avoid the fallacy of undistributed middle.