“It’s hard not to feel humourless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things”…”The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
Following a sold-out premiere season, Peta Hanrahan’s stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own, returns to fortyfivedownstairs next month and is not to be missed.
Woolf’s significant feminist essay of the late 1920’s champions recognition for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men. Akin to Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Woolf addresses traditionally viewed gender roles as well as the restrictions placed on women to seek higher education at a time when women’s intellectual aspirations were dismissed by many. This work is relevant, thought provoking and inspirationally potent to a modern audience.
Read on as Hanrahan discusses all things Woolf and much more.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf is not just a play to me; it is a personal treatise as to why the historical and contemporary female narrative in our world is so undermined in every culture on earth. To read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir or The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer – standard reading texts in Feminist literature, is a heart-breaking discovery for any woman. The comparative importance of Virginia Woolf and her novelette is that she expresses great truths through a more delicate articulation, using poetic prose, fiction and humour. We are invited on a journey of rational thought, an unveiling of truth and we are asked to choose what we want of it, not told what we have to consume.
“Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them. It is for you to seek out this truth and decide whether any part of it is worth keeping, if not, you will of course throw the whole of it into the waste-paper basket and forget all about it”.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.
I discovered the book when I was 27 years old and it changed everything. I know that sounds a little dramatic, but it is the plain truth.
I grew up in a house with domestic violence, perpetrated by the dominant male in my life and I couldn’t understand why. Apart from profound sorrow, there was a deep and red anger that boiled away constantly, just under my skin. Retaliation was also futile, I was a kid, I had no weapons of protection – the only thing available to me was to find meaning in it. Somehow I thought, if you know why a person behaves as they do, you are a step closer to analyzing and measuring it. Maybe you could even find a way to stop the violence.
In that time I looked for answers and it seemed that art, most strongly theatre, gave me the tools by which to start sorting through those questions. I was able to walk through the scripts of other lives and experiences; other ways of thinking and analyzing through story and expression. Theatre brought into being a way by which I could start unraveling the mystery of this obvious injustice.
And then I found Virginia Woolf’s novelette of A Room of One’s Own. It did not speak to me of other people’s lives; it spoke to me of mine! All of the feelings I harbored; all of the thoughts that were without conclusion or solution; the overgrown morass of confused and unfinished questioning – now found order. Somebody, Virginia Woolf, had found a way to understand, through a rational and logical thought process, why men hurt women and children and ultimately, each other.
There is such movement now. I see it on social media, in the newspapers and on the screens of our cinemas and televisions. The #MeToo campaign has reached out all over the world and has been embraced by everyday women and celebrity alike. All communication mediums are no longer owned and dominated by the financially agenda driven few. We can read articles written on blogs or live footage taken on iPhone’s by women living in other countries or even sitting in their bedrooms in a suburb not far away. The whole world of women can now educate themselves, perhaps not formally in a lot of cases, but we now have access to our own story, being played out in real time. We read and watch what we choose, not what has been chosen for us.
And one of the major themes in A Room of One’s Own is about just that, education. Women historically have been isolated from education and learning because to not do so, in the minds of the patriarchy is to relinquish power; education means liberation. In the book and the play of A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf we follow Woolf’s line of logic as to what and why that happened historically in Western Culture.
It has served all male dominated societies very well to keep women ignorant, uneducated and submissive. Assigned as a chattel for the use and service of men, we have never had the opportunity to develop social, cultural or economic structures that support the potential leadership and expertise of new generations of women. Women are, in the 21st Century without historical mentors. We have no tradition of self-made excellence for us to look back on; to take our cue’s from. Every woman you see today, in politics or science, art or sport are there simply because they have chosen to fight for the right to be there, and unbelievably, they do still have to fight. It would be a rare thing indeed, if any woman in those positions had an historical female mentor that they have followed into the fray.
I am a rehearsal room mensch! I love actors. My favourite thing in the world is great, mind-blowing, heart rendering, soul corrupting acting! To live each breath of your performance in the present and to believe in who you represent, what you are saying and why you are saying it – is everything. Every story one tells in theatre is of its own spirit, its own life. Sometimes you need four actors; sometimes you need forty to express that story and that life in the most powerful and provoking way.
I do not see the gender of my actors through the lens of preference. I see them as great loves, as human beings that have come to the room to open their minds, their guts and their hearts to an adventure into the realities of our existence. Acting is scary and actors are the bravest people I know. They jump out of emotional airplanes, very often without a parachute and trust that I, we, and the truth will cushion the blow of impact; that through the experience of honesty and self-confession they will totally corner-the-market in an exceptional and life changing theatre experience for you.
Well, I’m actually interested to hear what the audience has to say about the relevance of the male character. There are two fundamental reasons; one, Virginia herself gives you clues in the play, and I will leave it to you to discover. The second is about now, our contemporary, new generationally steered future.
My socio-political intention is to move forward with contemporary feminist ideals. And within that idea is to offer a different way of fighting. One of those ways is to ask men to join the conversation, not exclude them from it anymore. To invite men into feminist discourse we as women leading this idea must set down the rules of that conversation but also restrict anger, blame and shame. We must accept that we women have been coveting, through our own pain, that discourse and we will never move forward if we don’t ask men, the other side of the issue, to join us. The only way to keep men inside the conversation is to stop punishing them with anger.
And ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is where I found the opportunity to do that. This is not a passive piece of theatre, it will ask you some pretty important personal take-home questions and I am overjoyed that you may, with your friends or peers, have a new conversation in response to what you experience.
How do mothers and daughters share their time together in 2019? I’m not sure. Do they sit and talk about their day, their week, probably. Do they go out together? Maybe sometimes? What do they share that significantly belongs to their relationship? The provocation behind this statement is an acknowledgement of female friendship, a celebration of women coming together as each others support network, confidante and happy time. That mothers and daughters can talk about big issues together, without judgment and in the spirit of sharing stories. Intergenerational conversations between women, so much can be learned by both age’s. A Room of One’s Own is about you and me, my mother, your mother, my daughter, sister, teacher, student and the woman who drove the tram that I caught to get to the theatre tonight.
The thing I enjoy most about Virginia Woolf’s writing is the poetic nature of her prose. I believe in theatre we have the very great opportunity to use language not just for delivering story, but to detail the way thought, rhetoric and expression are felt, as well as understood. We can be more expansive in the use of language, something that film, built on the style of naturalism, very often cannot do. Language is powerful, the art of the orator can lead army’s to war or sway nations to peace. Virginia Woolf is one of the 20th Century’s finest writers, as she is able to lead you with carefully sculpted language to peer thoughtfully through the looking glass of her world. She builds pictures in your mind, while disarming you with humour, colour and elegant rhythms.
A Room of One’s Own was written as a series of lectures by Woolf, who stood before the lady students herself and delivered these words to the young women of Girton and Newham colleges in Oxford and Cambridge in 1928. Technically what was written on the original pages of the novelette was a performance. As a text dramaturge, or script editor, or dramatist or adaptor (you choose), it wasn’t as difficult as it might have been if it was a non-fictional book.
The novelette text of A Room of One’s Own has been delivered by Woolf as a piece of non-fiction – written fictionally. It is simply a series of thoughts and actions that lead to more thoughts and actions. One does not see initially where these movements are going; we just see her traversing the terrain of her own experiences, immediately and in the present. She seems to be travelling around in circles of thought, but in her genius, she is actually circling around at specific markers to pick up the thread of her directional intent.
It is those markers that I have chosen to thread together to create a logical through line for this adaptation. But as I am a lover of poetic prose and visually stimulating language, I have also kept as much of her personal artistry as possible. Her charm and wit seep through her language and rhetoric so for me to adapt Virginia Woolf’s work demanded me to be totally available to her unique craftsmanship of articulation.
In saying this I have also been questioned about the gentleness of my adaptation. Whether it is significantly just the fashion of Australian theatre to be bold and aggressive or that anger is still such a dominant emotion surrounding the subject of women’s emancipation and contemporary western feminism, or that the artistic structures and normatives we as women are learning and working with are inherently male, I cannot say, but the almost ethereal nature of some of the passages of the novelette were very intentionally kept from my perspective.
I have spent most of my 35 years as a theatre practitioner looking for and delivering stories that tell us the truth of ourselves. I have learned a lot about the violence we inflict on each other and the breakdown of psychological reckonings. The stories we tell ourselves so we don’t have to suffer the humiliation of failure, the transgressions of our own behavior as an individual and a culture, a society and a country. Theatre is the beginning of stories in so many circumstances, it is generally unsanitized and raw, risky and diverse. I have always looked for the grit in a story, the hard cold truth of things. This happily has never changed. But I also adore the delicacy of words and the beauty of ideas translated into physical form. Sometimes beauty for its own sake is enough, layer that gently with purpose, and you have magic.
Why come: I think that I will leave that up to one of our audience members who contacted me via Facebook a few years ago after she saw the Creative Development of the show.
“Hey I don’t think you know who I am but last night I witnessed a beautiful piece of life… Your play.
…your show last night was so deep and intense and I feel so completely different about the world.
I was speechless for the rest of the night. I felt every emotion possible and there were several points where I wanted to jump up and cry because it had a complete profound effect on me emotionally. I felt like I was listening to the voices in my head argue in this dream like world above anything I’ve ever known. Not only did I feel angry and pissed off when… (The actors)… spoke about the wife beating but completely motivated and confident about being a woman and accessing Shakespeare’s sister within me. My interpretation was that Shakespeare’s sister was the suppressed woman hidden, that every woman has ingrained in her, and I now feel that it’s my responsibility to allow that woman within me to come through. I am just about to go into my year twelve exams and I have realized that your play has been more educational and worthwhile towards understanding the socially flawed world than anything I’ve learned all year…
…Each element of your show worked perfectly within itself and at no point did I feel excluded from any part of the play… And it worked amazingly to have audience on both sides! You have done a brilliant job… Well done to everyone involved.” (Name withheld).
Peta Hanrahan is an adapter and Director. An award winning graduate of directing from the Victorian College of the Arts, she been the artistic Director of The Dog Theatre as well as having directed with Red Stitch, Melbourne Theatre Company, La Mama and Melbourne Workers Theatre. She is now singularly devoted to the advancement of this work, advocating for cultural and institutional change.
July 17 – 28