The occupants of a British manor house usually become the focus of a novel due to whatever particular machinations are at work to drive the narrative. Those machinations usually range from throwing suspicion of a murder onto one another in order to avoid becoming a suspect themselves to acting on behalf of their own romantic desires amidst various entanglements, seductions and plans to land the right marriage partner. In the case of Virginia Woolf’s last completed novel, Between the Acts, that singular generic convention is effectively toss to the ground like a discarded cigarette butt and its last remaining glow of usefulness extinguished under the trampling of an elegant heel.
Or, put another way, Poyntz Hall may join a thousand nearly identical British country estates appearing in a thousand other works of fiction, but it stands uniquely apart from all that came before. There is murder to be solved. There are not romantic subplots to be entangled for a happily ever after. Even the slightly less regular generic conventions such as the village celebration or the entertained either staged by or at the manor house for the entertainment of the lower social classes is subverted in this most subversive of novels taking place at a British country estate.
The lives of the owner and tenants of Poyntz Hall are essentially unchanged and even unimpacted by the central event of the story: the annual pageant celebrating British history. The play really is the thing in Between the Acts. The assortment of specific types of entertainment that also mark the mark of British history ranging from songs to recitations to parody to an experimentally avant-garde climax work seamlessly with the historical time to bring the past irretrievably into the present and remind the audience that the present is already dependent upon the past. To suggest that no significant changes take place among the members of the Oliver family as they make their ancestral home open to the people of the village is only to assert that no one gets murdered or married.
The reality is that past and present, fiction and history, illusion and reality weave a sophisticated fabric connecting the owners of Poyntz Hall to the Bohemian Mrs. Manresa and her effeminate friend Mr. Dodge every bit as much as it connects the shopkeeper playing Queen Elizabeth to the actual Queen Elizabeth. Underscoring the lighthearted atmosphere of attending the pageant at Poyntz Hall is lack of apprehension of the point of the entertainment is the fact that nobody in attendance has the slightest clue that British history is about to undergo one of its most dramatic tests of strength as the 1939 version of this annual tradition is likely to be the last of its kind. At least for the next few years. That avant-garde conclusion to the pageant that baffles the audience is marked by the dramatic flourish of those on stage turning the mirrors they hold so that those not on stage must see themselves.
That is exactly what this dazzlingly original foray into the often trite land of British estates and simple country villages such as astonishing capper to life of a visionary writer whose death was so premature as to be the stuff of historical tragedy.