The Process of Unity in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts

By Hayley E. Tartell
2015, Vol. 7 No. 07 | pg. 2/2 |

Similar to Woolf, Kant emphasizes communicability as the condition of possibility for communication. Communicability is not yet communication or a filled-in representation on an empty stage but, rather, signifies a condition of possibility for many representations to appear on that stage. There exists a fundamental difference between possibility and achievement of that possibility as a fixed meaning. Through her text, Woolf pulls the spectators away from unity and towards the actual process of unification, otherwise known as a condition of possibility for unity.

The fact that the spectators turn to one another in the ultimately fruitless process of unification implies a sense of movement back towards a potentiality of meaning and away from the ossification of fixed meaning. Woolf suggests that their shared potentiality for unity can be likened to a potentiality for a form of social and political organization and sense of unity. Through emphasis of the experience of unification, irrespective of whether unity actually results, Woolf suggests the importance of the process rather than the effect.

Focusing on the audience and its state of unpotentiated flux throughout the play allows Woolf to emphasize the process or potentiality for a multiplicity of meanings rather than the outcome. Woolf’s ideas in this novel reflect with precision certain ideas from Kant about the spectatorial determination of history, devaluing the arrival at a stable understanding of the world and emphasizing the importance of a prehistoric potentiality. She focuses on the experience of recovering a state of unity. Therefore, Woolf’s view seems to align with Kant’s view of universal communicability, in the sense that, like Woolf, Kant views the process of “becoming” or moving towards communication as transcending the act of communication itself.

Woolf’s audience often chooses to not pay attention to the action in the Ms. La Trobe’s play, particularly when members of the audience turn their senses away from the play and orient them towards their food and drink: “While the chorus was sung, the picnickers assembled. Corks popped. Grouse, ham, chickens were sliced. Lips munched. Glasses were drained. Nothing was heard but the chump of jaws and the chink of glasses” (Woolf, 115). The first line suggests that the audience’s attention is diverted away from the stage and towards their picnic. Their distractedness facilitates a shift towards unification via interaction amongst one another, albeit they never actually attain unity.

Therefore, one can construe that this decision to deliberately not pay attention to the play represents a kind of potential for a new way of being, namely a state of existing “in between.” Woolf raises the theme of inattention to the play to intimate that distraction serves as a means for achieving unity. By turning away from the stage, people regale themselves through the acts of convivial drinking, singing, and eating. They become immersed in another condition of being, namely their “distractedness,” which endows them with a potentiality for achieving unity or “becoming” united. The spectators’ state of existing “in between” functions as a kind of flux that has not yet arrived at stability. This spectatorial process imbued with loose, unpotentiated meaning reflects forms of social unification, as both have not yet arrived at a fixed rigidity. Specifically, Woolf implies that social unification has not yet culminated in a final, stable sense of national identity.

Upon close examination of the interaction between Giles and Mrs. Manresa, one can discern a state of distractedness away from the stage and the spectators themselves – a way of being that serves as a means for unity. For instance, Mrs. Manresa, evidently preferring social interaction to the play itself, orients herself away from the act and unsuccessfully tries to ensnare the gaze of Mr. Giles: “‘Freely, boldly, fearing no one’ (she pushed a deck chair out of her way). ‘Youths and maidens’ (she glanced behind her; but Giles had his back turned). ‘Follow, follow, follow me…Oh Mr. Parker, what a pleasure to see you here! I’m for tea!’” (Woolf, 66-67). As illustrated, Woolf exposes recurring themes of spectators distracting themselves from the action on the stage by focusing on their sexual interests. Woolf conveys Mrs. Manresa, much to her chagrin, as unsuccessfully attempting to engage in flirtatious conversation with Mr. Giles by performing a kind of theatre in front of him, essentially chatting with a random man named Mr. Parker in order to make Mr. Giles envious. Giles’ body gesture indicates a lack of attention towards the act onstage as a means for achieving unity.

As evidenced in the text, Mr. Giles literally orients his back towards the stage, redirecting his gaze while choosing to look elsewhere. The notion of purposiveness in one’s actions away from the stage redounds to the idea that the spectators, in a way, become actors on a stage for each other, as they view and often try to interact amongst one another. However, demonstrated through Giles’ body gesture, distractedness often creates a barrier between the action on stage and the spectators while concomitantly erecting a barrier between the spectators themselves. Therefore, Woolf emphasizes distraction as a means to form social bonds and amalgamate into an indivisible, harmonious unit. This focus on aspiring towards a cohesive whole promotes a shift in political thought towards the process of social unification rather than a stable sense of national identity.

The spectators exhibit an attempt to move towards unity, shifting the focus towards a process, irrespective of the fact that they fail to achieve the end goal, namely, unity. The role of distraction in social relationships among spectators ultimately echoes the role of the empty space on the stage. In effect, the role of distraction is transposed to the relationships between the spectators. The empty stage allows for the spectators to turn away from it and distract themselves. Therefore, the empty stage allows them to turn towards one another, which just as much reproduces the distraction, as evidenced by Giles.

In terms of acting, an empty stage produces a potentiality for many roles. Just as the stage represents a barren abyss, the villagers or actors’ mouths represent a hollow cavity, specifically when their words dwindle: “The words died away…the audience sat staring at the villagers, whose mouths opened, but no sound came…And the stage was empty” (Woolf, 96). In this passage, the reference to the emptiness of the stage ensuing the description of a hollow cavity raises the notion of a gap or sense of immersion in the “in-between,” a condition wherein polysemy prevails over fixed, stable unity.

Turning away from the empty stage allows the spectators to look to each other and attempt to amalgamate into a cohesive unit. However, the spectators fail to realize a set of shared fixed values reflected in each other, thereby failing to unite. Nevertheless, the key to understanding the significance of spectatorial distractedness lies not in the outcome, namely a lack of unity, but, rather, in the process of becoming united. In essence, Woolf stresses the process of spectatorial activity and its instrinsic potentiality for many meanings. The spectators’ state of being, specifically, their distractedness, is a way of residing in the “in-between,” as it accentuates the idea of “becoming” rather than “being.” Just as the spectators have not yet achieved unity and still exist in a realm of potentiality and flimsy directionality, the members of society may still be in the process of choosing a form of social organization and shaping a national identity, namely one capable of subverting a dictatorial regime such as Hitler’s.

Literary scholar Wilkinson states that the characters experience a sense of “connectedness of all by virtue of their being related to the same problem.” In effect, she suggests that the process of becoming distracted or dispersed unifies the characters. However, as evidenced by the text, this way of “becoming,” in fact, only serves as a means for unification. The fact that the characters share this condition of being distracted or dispersed signifies the potential for unity, rather than the actual achievement of unity itself. Rather than emphasizing the process of becoming unified, Wilkinson appears to define her principle of unity in terms of its outcome. Though Wilkinson concedes that this novel is characterized by flux versus stability, she dwells on unity as an outcome with fixed, stable meaning rather than a loose flux containing the potential for a multivalence of meanings.

Woolf raises the notion of a process of unification by, once again, alluding to an “empty stage.” In so doing, she suggests that ossified plot is not necessary: “Nothing whatsoever appeared on the stage” (Woolf 57). The stage was empty” (Woolf, 119). The text suggests that a progression towards unified plot is chiefly important. This notion of development mirrors the progression towards social unification and a sense of stable national identity, necessary to preclude the rise of a dictatorial regime.

Woolf seems to insist that that stage remain empty so that emphasis can be placed on the spectators rather than the events of the play itself: Woolf explicitly alludes to the insignificance and “confusion of the plot” such that Isabella “could make nothing of it” (Woolf, 63). In a similar vein, this emphasis on the people may represent a societal prerequisite necessary for arriving at a stable form of government chosen by the demos and for the demos, rather than a fascist regime that subverts the people.

In the text, the plot is described as being “nothing” (Woolf, 63). This nothingness intrinsically tied to the plot itself seems to reaffirm the idea that distraction among the audience members transcends distraction of the audience away from the actors. According to Woolf, the worth or the substance of this distraction derives from its potential for progress towards unity. The notion of a process of unification permits a potentiality for a range of meanings regarding unity, not only in the text, but also in terms of social organizations and national identity. Furthermore, the notion of a dispersed audience is considerably prevalent throughout the text, particularly when the audience explicitly chants the phrase during the interval in between the acts: “Dispersed are we” (Woolf, 66). This reflects a fragmentation of the social body in society, emphasizing the need for a process of unification. Therefore, Woolf indirectly strengthens and draws attention to the idea of progression towards a stable national identity.

Woolf further enriches her text with the motif of progress towards unity, particularly in reference to religion. Lucy is portrayed in the process of praying, a state of not having fully arrived at the terminus of prayer: “‘We can only pray,’ she added, and fingered her crucifix. ‘And provide umbrellas,’ said her brother…Lucy flushed. He had struck her faith…She half covered the cross with her fingers” (Woolf, 17). In this scene, Lucy in the process of attaining unity with G-d through prayer, as evidenced by her incomplete prehensile grip on the cross. Christianity as a means for unity is also suggested in a similar way, as Lucy uses the pronoun “we” to describe the process of prayer as an amalgamating activity.

The fact that Lucy’s process of prayer is not yet complete is manifested by this notion of only doing something half-way. Essentially, Woolf illustrates the theme of progression towards unity by alluding to religion as a means of unification. Lucy further redounds to the degree of looseness of meaning indelibly saturating the text, as the very word “loose” is echoed upon pronunciation of the name “Lucy.” Lucy’s name also harkens back to the word “lucidity” or “lux,” meaning light and a sense of luminosity. Given the process of praying and the etymology of Lucy’s name, Woolf seems to insinuate an illumination of the idea of progressing given the association between process and light. Thus, once again, Woolf reinforces the notion of progress wherein an indeterminate flux prevails over a stable sense of meaning.

Woolf enriches the concept of potentiality associated with the process of “becoming,” or a way of being “in between” mental dispersal and ultimately unified action. Mrs. Swithin is depicted talking while entering the kitchen: “‘The sandwiches…’ said Mrs. Swithin, coming into the kitchen. She refrained from adding ‘Sands’ to ‘sandwiches,’ for Sand and sandwiches clashed. ‘Never play,’ her mother used to say, ‘on people’s names’” (Woolf, 23). This process of entering parallels the Mrs. Swithin’s process of translating her cognitive intent into a stable action. The word “within” is even embedded within Mrs. Swithin’s name, indicating that she is enveloped by a process, rather than being outside of it, and associated with the outcome. Of note, the word outcome contains the word “out,” directly contrasting the sense of “within” mentioned previously. Mrs. Swithin is in the act of entering, emphasizing the development associated with becoming.

Woolf centralizes the theme of spectatorial activity as a process focused on a loose flux. In this passage, Mrs. Swithin’s thought is evolving into unity in the form of rigid intent manifested through action, particularly “refraining.” Thus, Woolf bolsters the importance of the process of achieving unity, which is inherently intertwined with a condition of potentiality rather than the effect, or unity itself. The appendage “-ing” attached to verbs reaffirms that thoughts are being translated into unified action and actions such as “refraining” are unfolding. Woolf’s diction further implies a sense of looking back towards the process, as she uses the phrase “used to say” rather than employing the present tense, “use.” Therefore, Woolf amplifies this concept of a process and an unpotentiated condition of possibility for meaning.

Woolf literally embeds this motif of dispersion in the play when the spectators chant, “Dispersed are we” (Woolf, 66). This statement suggests an opportunity for unity, as all of the spectators share the same state of being, namely their dispersed condition. The spectators in their state of “in-betweeness” seem to wield a potential for aspiring towards unity given their collective reference as “we.” Their dispersed state represents a means for achieving unification. Accordingly, this process of moving from dispersal towards unification reflects the importance of a condition for a multivalence of meaning as opposed to a stable meaning. This loose meaning throws into question the flux or possibilities for social unification in society. The possibility for unity, engendered by spectatorial activity and the act of becoming dispersed, mirrors Woolf’s contemporary society’s potentiality for adopting a social organization among a host of others.

In conclusion, the text offers manifold examples of means for unity, including a sense of becoming “distracted” and “dispersed,” as well as religion. Kant’s theory of universal communicability also strengthens this idea of a state characterized by a sense of “in between,” wherein there exists a loose potentiality for unification. With regard to this theme, literary scholar Ann Yanko Wilkinson argues in “A Principle of Unity in ‘Between the Acts’” that a principle of unity is everywhere present. She describes unity as an effect that is ubiquitous.

However, in contrast to Wilkinson’s view, the principle of unity appears to actually consist in the process of attaining unity as an “in-between” flux devoid of stable, fixed meaning. Owing to the aforementioned evidence, the principle of unity seems to imply the evolving process of “becoming” rather than “being” unified. Unity needs to be viewed as something that has not yet been attained. By looking to the process of unification, one can truly understand the nature of the “principle of unity” and its condition for the possibility of a stable social and national identity: this may ultimately preclude emergence of those tyrannical regimes that threatened both Woolf’s world and world view.


Kant, Immanuel (2007). Critique of Judgement. Oxford University Press.

Woolf, Virginia (2008). Between the Acts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Wilkinson, A. Y. (1966). A Principle of Unity in "Between the Acts." Criticism, 53-63.

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