ORLANDO: A DEEPER DIVE

Sarah Ruhl (Photo by Rebecca Greenfield)

FROM THE PLAYWRIGHT

My encounters with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a queer classic, have been encounters with joy. Woolf apparently wrote Orlando with more joy, buoyancy, and speed than any of her other novels. The character of Orlando, based on Virginia’s lover Vita Sackville-West, famously begins life as a man in the Elizabethan era, trots through a couple more centuries, dodging various lovers, and in the 18th century, after a long sleep, wakes up, a woman. Woolf wrote in a letter, “I have written this book quicker than any; & it is all a joke; & yet gay & quick reading I think; a writer’s holiday.”

Woolf apparently had so much fun writing the book it felt like a holiday, like not-work, a triumph over the melancholy and writer’s block that sometimes plagued her. Woolf wrote in a letter to Vita, “Yesterday I was in despair…I couldn’t screw a word from me; and at last dropped my head in my hands; dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: a biography. No sooner had I done this than my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas. I wrote rapidly until 12.” That spark of joy in the work is what first attracted me to the novel—the palpable feeling of joy in the speed of Woolf’s invention–that rush of language—an incandescent and yet almost physical quality. For one thing, it’s funnier than her other books. I can almost feel Virginia willing Vita to laugh over her shoulder while reading the pages.

Orlando was light years ahead of its time (1928) in terms of its expansive, fluid, liberatory views of gender and sexuality. Conversations around gender have changed monumentally in the culture since I first adapted this novel in 1998. At times it feels as though we are only now catching up to Virginia Woolf, who wrote in A Room of One’s Own that the “androgynous mind is resonant and porous…transmits emotion without impediment…is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided.”

Though I added one word to Orlando last week, I wrote the first draft relatively quickly, twenty-five years ago, aided by the intrepid speed of youth. I was asked originally to adapt the novel when I was just out of Brown University, where I had studied with the great Paula Vogel, and where I decided to become a playwright. Another mentor, Joyce Piven, with whom I had studied acting, asked me to adapt Orlando for her theater company in Evanston. At my tender age, I already was a Woolf devotee, and had devoured and loved the novel. I had looked to literary models of expansive non-fixed desire and liberatory views of gender to make sense of my own growing-up self, and I had already inhaled Woolf. I said yes to Joyce immediately. Lucky for me, I was too young to be daunted by the epic scale of the novel. When people ask me how I distilled the novel, I answer that, though there were complexities along the way, the first draft was simple: I chose my favorite, most theatrical bits and then put them in an order.

What a profound joy to finally land here at Signature Theatre, twenty-five years later, with the incredible director Will Davis. When I first met Will for coffee to discuss Orlando, among other possible theatrical ventures, and we talked, and talked, and talked, I thought: where has this artistic collaborator been all my life? We seemed to share a language and a mission. Working with Will post-pandemic, he reminds me why I ever wanted to do theater in the first place—a conjuring of joy, possibility, community, and transcendence.

Building an ensemble production around the divine center of Taylor Mac has been a profoundly happy experience. I’ve known Taylor since we were at New Dramatists (down the block) together as playwrights. I’d always admired Taylor as a writer and performer, and when I saw the seminal 24-Decade History of Popular Music, with Taylor moving through the centuries and in and out of genders, in Machine Dazzle’s epic costumes—I gasped inwardly, thinking—Taylor Mac must play Orlando someday! This production has managed to include so many writer/performers I have long admired, including Lisa Kron–fitting for a story with writing at the center of it.

Just before we started rehearsals at Signature, I had the pleasure of seeing (and hearing) my almost grown-up daughter, Anna, in the play, playing the violin and the bass, at her high school. To see kids I had known since kindergarten now inhabiting these roles with such life-affirming playfulness was a trip. I thought of Orlando’s line “This must be middle-age. Time has passed over me…” I know of no better definition of growing up than the one provided by Woolf in Orlando: “I am growing up. I am losing some illusions, perhaps to acquire others.” The director of that high school production, Laura Barnett, pointed out that the word “love” is used thirty-six times in the text, and Orlando is thirty-six years old by the end of the play.

I have always been a sucker for a good love story. Vita Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicholson said of Orlando that it was “the longest love letter in history.” I am beguiled by artistic works of dedication that are intrinsic gifts before they ever reach a wider audience. I am of the belief that the wider audience gets a taste of the initial gift. Thanks to this extraordinary group of performers and collaborators for putting this work into your hands, in the present moment.

Acknowledgments:

I would love to acknowledge with gratitude the many productions I’ve seen of Orlando over the years that have shaped the text, some with dear collaborators like Polly Noonan, Jessica Thebus, Rebecca Taichman, David Greenspan, Esperanza Rosales Balcarcal, Annie-B Parsons,Frankie Faridany, Howard Overshown, Tom Nelis, Katie Lindsay, the guiding wisdom and friendship of P. Carl, with the greatest of gratitude to Joyce Piven for asking me to do this in the first place!


– Sarah Ruhl

THE LOVE LETTERS

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s relationship spanned nearly twenty years, during which they wrote letters to each other that captured their love for each other. These letters are not only a key in to their profound feelings for each other, but are also a way for us to witness Woolf’s process of writing Orlando, a character (and narrative) inspired by her love for Vita. 

‘Now at the age of 60, a year older than Virginia was at her death, and 10 years short of Vita’s age when she died from cancer, I am struck by another aspect of the letters: the dogged fortitude of these women as they kept on going in the face of loss, illness, disillusionment and change. After a period of drifting apart, the two grow closer again as fascism spreads across Europe and the threat to their personal and intellectual freedom comes closer and closer to home. It has now been almost a century since Virginia and Vita fell in love, and strangely, that time feels much closer than it did when I was younger. Perhaps that’s the perspective of age, perhaps it’s because the world seems once again to be approaching an inflection point. But it’s also a tribute to how intrepidly Vita and Virginia cast off the old forms and traditions of relationships to improvise something new’

Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist and writer, best known for her graphic memoir, ‘Fun Home.’

Excerpts from Love Letters: Vita and Virginia

LETTER #1

Letter from Virginia

52 Tavistock Square, 9 October

Yesterday morning I was in despair […] I couldn’t screw a word from me; and at last dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: A Biography. No sooner had I done this than my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas. I wrote rapidly till 12 […] But listen; suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita; and it’s all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind, suppose there’s the kind of shimmer of reality which sometimes attaches to my people, suppose, I say, that Sibyl next October says ‘There’s Virginia gone and written a book about Vita’ […]

Vita Sackville-West (left) and Virginia Woolf (right)

LETTER #2

Letter from Vita

Long Barn, October 11

My God, Virginia, if ever I was thrilled and terrified it is at the prospect of being projected into the shape of Orlando. What fun for you; what fun for me. You see, any vengeance that you ever want to take will lie ready to your hand. Yes, go ahead, toss up your pancakes, brown it nicely on both sides, pour brandy over it, and serve hot. You have my full permission. 

‘Lady with a Red Hat’ portrait of Vita Sackville-West by William Strang

DIARY EXCERPT

Diary from Virginia

22 October

I have done nothing, nothing else for a fortnight; and am launched somewhat furtively but with all the more passion upon Orlando: A Biography. It is to be a small book, and written by Christmas. I walk masking up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the thick of the greatest rapture known to me. Talk of planning a book, or waiting for an idea. This one came in a rush.

I am writing Orlando half in a mock style very clear and plain, so that people will understand every word. But the balance between truth and fantasy must be careful. It is based on, Vita…

‘Orlando about the year 1840’: Vita Sackville-West photographed by Vanessa Bell & Duncan Grant, 14 November 1927.

LETTER #3

Letter from Vita

24 Brucken-allee, Berlin

24 Brucken-allee, Berlin 14 March

That’s my life, not as exciting as yours, no doubt, but I think a lot about Virginia…and have been loving Virginia enormously lately – in an intense, absent way (absent in distance, I mean) which has been a great satisfaction to me – like a tide flowing in and filling a lot of empty spaces. Orlando, I am glad to reflect, compels you willy-nilly to spend a certain amount of your time with me. Darling, I do love you.

The original cover of the novel (left) and Virginia Woolf (right) 

LETTER #4

Letter from Virginia

52 Tavistock Square, 20 March

ORLANDO IS FINISHED!!!…

Did you feel a sort of tug, as if your neck was being broken on Saturday last at 5 minutes to one? That was when he died – or rather stopped talking with three little dots…

The question now is, will my feelings for you be changed? I’ve lived in you all these months – coming out, what are you really like? Do you exist? Have I made you up?

On Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando By P. Carl 

Euphoria

Several years ago I transitioned genders. Though there was no finish line or single characteristic that signified I had transitioned, I distinctly remember it happening on March 17th. That day it was as if I had snapped my fingers and every “she” became a “he.” I had arrived. I was euphoric. Euphoria is a beautiful word. It combines a feeling, intense happiness, with a personality trait, self-confidence. My personal euphoria was the happiness that came from knowing my feet, my body were firmly planted for the first time in my life. I could finally begin to grow roots.

In Sarah Ruhl’s beautiful adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, we follow Orlando through genders and centuries. As Orlando travels through time and circumstance their yearning to be a poet, to write one great poem about the Oak Tree travels with them. The words to the poem, however, remain elusive for most of the play.

Orlando would have given every penny to write one little book and become famous—and yet, all the gold in Peru would not buy him the treasure of one well-turned line.

Isn’t this every writer’s yearning, to write one great line, a string of words so perfectly crafted that they land and grow roots and those roots offer purpose and meaning for others? The well-written poem provides a reader insight and a place to rest where the unknown feels known, at least temporarily.  Art, poetry, theater, books—can tether their audience in the strongest of winds, the tumult that inevitably comes with living. The roots anchor the tree. The poem about the tree, if it delivers that well-tuned line, can give its reader happiness and self-confidence—a euphoria that in the moment feels as if it will hold forever. When Orlando finally writes their poem toward the end of the play, they are overcome, “Done! Done! It’s done!” Orlando has moved from one place to another, moving beyond binaries of time and gender. The poem finally takes shape, ready to be heard. 

Sarah and Orlando are kindred spirits. As I move from one of Sarah’s plays to the next, from one of her poems to another, I have moments of landing, of sinking deep, of transitioning from one view of the world to a new and brighter version. Sarah’s adaptation of Orlando is grafted from Woolf’s oak tree and a renovated version is produced. 

As a transgender person that day, March 17, when I finally felt seen, I was anchored for the first time. I had roots. I landed as myself in time and space. But the winds never stop blowing, the earth is constantly shifting, and euphoria is a temporary state. It is the role of the poets, the playwrights, the Orlandos and the Sarah Ruhls, to return us to or to find our place in the world. In this place we can, like Orlando, be ready and open to the possibility of understanding.  

P. Carl is a theatermaker, writer, and the founder of the online journal, HowlRound. 

Excerpt from Sylvan Oswald’s essay, “Towards A Trans Theatre”

Trans theatre artists are also working in the wake of a rich queer theatre history, albeit one that has not always seen them. Queer Theatre’s history, well-told elsewhere, has been most welcoming to camp, drag, and cross-dressing, forms that can posit gender as something one ‘puts on’ (and, presumably, takes off), rather than who one is. These techniques have been essential for a community that has had to balance celebration with loss and liberation with assimilation. Camp, drag, and cross-dressing merge well with a straight, largely white theatre eager for diversity as entertainment, and for events that begin, end, and exist outside of daily life. When Queer Theatre centers on sexuality, it may be an entirely cis affair. Trans identity is not an event. Trans identity does not end. It is the trans experience of infinite time that troubles the inclusion of the ‘T’ in the LGB acronym.

Sylvan Oswald is an interdisciplinary artist originally from Philadelphia who creates plays, texts, publications, and video. Read the full essay.

Excerpt from Carmen Maria Machado’s introduction to Orlando: A Biography

‘Orlando is, like its eponymous namesake, many things at once: A satire of English literature. A text that sends a singular figure pell-mell through and against history like a genderqueer Forrest Gump. A bildungsroman about a person coming of age in impossible ways. A fabulist fantasy novel that rarely receives that label…A tribute to Woolf’s lover, the author and aristocrat Vita Sackville-West. The “longest and most charming love letter in literature,” according to Sackville-West’s son Nigel. The ‘first English-language trans novel,’ according to novelist Jeanette Winterson…It is playful, funny, sharp; full of knockout sentences and sumptuous lists, not to mention laugh out loud witticisms about gender and art-making and metaphors.’

Carmen Maria Machado is a short story author, essayist, and critic. Read the full introduction to Orlando

Top