Masterpiece Theatre presents an exceptional hour of Virginia Woolf

Television

January 03, 1991|By Michael Hill

Masterpiece Theatre checks in Sunday night with an extraordinary one-part, one-hour, one-woman show as Eileen Atkins plays Virginia Woolf in "A Room of One's Own."

This is essentially an edited recitation of a lecture Woolf gave in 1928 at one of Cambridge's quasi-official women's colleges, though, as Alistair Cooke notes in his informative introduction, Atkins is not doing an impersonation of Woolf.

While Atkins may resemble Woolf with her elongated face and the proto-Annie Hall look favored by this brightest star of the literary constellation known as the Bloomsbury Group, Cooke points out that Atkins' trained dramatic voice is much, much better than Woolf's high-pitched tremble.

As a result, Woolf's points are driven home all the more forcefully and, especially, her humor comes across with the pointed potency that it possesses on the printed page.

"A Room of One's Own" came about because Woolf was asked to deliver a lecture on women and writing. As she explains in the text, instead of giving a generic overview of the members of her sex who contributed to English literature, Woolf decided to go back and examine the status of women during the centuries when the writing field was so totally dominated by men.

Interestingly, in her research, Woolf found that women continued to be scrutinized, analyzed and otherwise pigeonholed by a variety of male authors. But rarely was there any thought given to the basic status of women in British society.

What follows is essentially Woolf's economic -- dare one say Marxist? -- analysis of the reasons that women's presence in literature was almost non-existent until 1800 or so, and indeed, an appreciation for just what a miracle it was that any women were able to overcome the stunning boundaries that would keep their thoughts and ideas from the printed page.

Woolf finds small parallels in her own life as the men of Cambridge barred her from the grass portions of the quadrangles and from the library itself without special permission. But, most tellingly, as she grieves for a dead sister of Shakespeare, she laments the centuries of geniuses whose words we never read, whose thoughts we never encountered, because of the economic oppression of women.

As Atkins uses her considerable skills to turn a witty but complex text into a compelling and captivating narrative, it becomes clear why "A Room of One's Own" is considered such an important feminist document.

For here, at a time when men were still analyzing the feminine temperament and finding it at fault when compared to their own lofty outlook on life, Woolf was saying plainly and simply, "Give us some jobs, let us earn some money, free us from our financial shackles, let us have our own room, and we'll show you something about the feminine temperament." Margaret Thatcher was just being born.

Woolf, of course, can stand as a witness for her own sermon as she is one of the greatest writers of the English language in the 20th century. But "A Room of One's Own" shows that far from possessing a delicate artistic temperament that managed to capture the muses' butterflies and preserve them between the pages of her books, Woolf brought to her work a perceptive, analytical insight and a clear view of the lessons carried by history for women.

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