Mainstage Dramaturgy: Woolf's Assemblage of Adapted Characters in Orlando
The characters of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando shape a fantastical exploration of a young poet of the same name, Orlando. Drawing on a variety of sources to create these characters, Virginia Woolf took inspiration from both historical figures and her own life. The direct references to significant historical figures—like Queen Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, or Christopher Marlowe—ground the novel in a specific era, but the historical perspective provided by those “real-life” figures becomes even more complex when Orlando encounters people inspired by Virginia’s real life.
Orlando himself—based on Virginia Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West—has many layers. Vita led a multi-faceted life; she was born into the aristocracy, but also wildly adventurous. She was a writer, an explorer, and a lover of many. Like Vita, Orlando is a passionate poet, full of emotion and eager to see the world. The people Orlando encounters push and pull him in many directions, often framed by the way Woolf saw Vita. In writing Orlando, Woolf distorted elements of Vita’s real life while still also taking inspiration from actual people in her life, creating an amalgamation of reality and fantasy that thwarts Orlando in his journey for self-actualization.
One of Orlando’s first lovers is a beautiful girl named Euphrosyne, which means gleefulness or amusement and ties back to a Greek myth. Based on a minor Greek goddess, Euphrosyne is one of the “Three Graces'' who accompanied Eros and Aphrodite, bringing joy and pleasure to the world. Although she only appears in a few pages in the novel, Euphrosyne is a distinct character based on an existing goddess who has been immortalized in many media across art and literature. With such a particular mythical figure present in Orlando’s story (whether she is really a goddess or, more likely, a girl with the name of a goddess), the specifics of Orlando’s identity become harder to pinpoint. While Orlando struggles to distinguish own identity, Woolf’s small details about the people he encounters cloud his journey more. Sasha, the Russian Princess, is another lover of Orlando, and based on the vibrant and boisterous Violet Trefusis, a former lover of Sackville-West. In real life, she was strong-willed and independent, which influences the character of the Russian Princess. On the other hand, Sasha is to some degree a parody of the real Violet, warped in a way that further convolutes Orlando’s journey and identity. Making Sasha cold, mysterious, and mildly scandalous, Woolf writes a Russian princess who brings passion, pain, and innumerable new experiences for Orlando.
Leaning on highly theatrical conventions—such movement and choral narration—Sarah Ruhl’s stage adaptation of Woolf’s words provides the perfect distortion of real life. Orlando is not one thing, and Woolf has created a story with so many layers and details, creating the sense that he could never be one-dimensional. Virginia Woolf folded all kinds of layers of complexity and chaos into her writing. In a theatrical context, Woolf’s attention to detail in each character creates countless possibilities for telling the story of Orlando.
Orlando runs October 27-30 in the Newhart Family Theatre, Mundelein Center for the Fine and Performing Arts on the Lakeshore Campus. Purchase tickets HERE.