LIANE HANSEN, host:

Virginia Woolf is in that league of novelists whose work is required reading - in other words, very, very serious. But she had a silly side - and it came out in her only play, "Freshwater." It receives its professional premiere tonight off-Broadway. Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN: In those days before big-screen TVs, Wii and the Internet, people had to create their own entertainment. And British novelist Virginia Woolf and her Bloomsbury circle of free-spirited artists read each other's work and entertained each other with plays and pageants. And that's what "Freshwater" was. It was given one performance in her sister's art studio, on January 18th, 1935, and then went back into a drawer, undiscovered until 1969. Last year, producer Julie Crosby placed the script into director Anne Bogart's hands.

Ms. ANNE BOGART (Director): And it burned my hands because I just started leafing through it, and the language just popped off the page, even before I had the plot. And my entire being said, yes, I want to do this. This is great. Because the idea of Virginia Woolf writing a play for her family to perform for their friends is so full of like the exuberance of theater in the first place, you know, the amateur spirit that actually makes theater happen.

(Soundbite of play, "Freshwater")

Unidentified Man #1: At 2:30, we start for India.

Unidentified Man #2: On my word. You don't say you are really going.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, yes, Alfred. At 2:30, we start for India.

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, that's to say, if the coffins have come.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Unidentified Woman #2: Take my sponge, girl. Now go and see if the coffins have come.

Unidentified Woman #1: If the coffins have come.

LUNDEN: "Freshwater" is a loopy, hour-long satirical farce. The characters include several real-life artists from the late Victorian era: Woolf's great-aunt, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron; painter George Frederic Watts and his very young bride, the actress Ellen Terry; and the great poet Alfred Tennyson. Woolf was lampooning an earlier generation, says Barnard professor Mary Cregan.

Dr. MARY CREGAN (English Professor, Barnard College): She's very lovingly poking fun at these people who were so eccentric, and at the same time, they were all artists as well, just as she and her friends are.

(Soundbite of play, "Freshwater")

Unidentified Man: Don't move. Ellen, make yourself perfectly still - I'm struggling with great toll of (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: I've been struggling for six months. It is still not drawing. But I say to myself, the utmost for the highest, keep perfectly still.

LUNDEN: Woolf started the play in 1923, but set it aside and then rewrote it in 1935. Julie Crosby, artistic director of The Women's Project, says this production combines both versions.

Ms. JULIE CROSBY (Artistic Director, The Women's Project): We read both scripts aloud and then it was about, where do we get it? Where don't we? And each script had something different to bear. The 1923 script, in many ways, was far more vivid about character, but had very little plot. And the 1935 version had far more dramatic plot, but it was much harder to center some of the characters.

LUNDEN: Still, "Freshwater" isn't exactly long on plot, says director Anne Bogart.

Ms. BOGART: The plot is that here are these high-faluting oldish, long-bearded Victorians, one of whom, the painter Watts, has married Ellen Terry as a young adolescent. And it's essentially the story of Ellen Terry's escape from this place.

(Soundbite of play, "Freshwater")

Ms. KELLY MAURER: (As Ellen Terry) If only I could escape. For I never thought when I married Mr. Watts that it was going to be like this. I thought artists were such jolly people, always dressing up and hiring coaches and going on picnics, and drinking champagne and eating oysters and kissing each other and - behaving like the Rosetees(ph). As it is, senor can't eat anything except the grizzle of beef minced very fine, passed through the kitchen chopper twice.

LUNDEN: Actress Kelly Maurer plays Ellen Terry. She says working on the piece was challenging, since the play is filled with references to both the Victorian and Bloomsbury artists. So all the members of the acting company did research on their characters to help the audience navigate what was originally a series of inside jokes.

Ms. KELLY MAURER (Actress): I do believe that we've built a piece and relationships amongst these wacky people that, even if you don't get every single reference, you will get a feeling for them and the family that they are and the struggles that they're going through, and how unique and funny and moving they all are.

(Soundbite of play "Freshwater")

Ms. KELLY MAURER: (As Ellen Terry) Here, porpoise, take that.

Unidentified Man: Lord now, now you've gone and done it. The porpoise has swallowed your wedding ring. What'll Lady Mount Temple(ph) say to that?

Ms. MAURER: (As Ellen Terry) Now, you're married to Mr. Watts, porpoise. The utmost for the highest, porpoise. Look upwards, porpoise, and keep perfectly still. I suppose it was a female porpoise, John.

LUNDEN: Woolf scholar Mary Cregan says the serious-minded author was aiming for giddiness in her only play, and was very happy with its one performance during her lifetime.

Dr. CREGAN: She thought it was a great lark. She said it was tosh, which is sort of slang for frivolous and silly. And it is, it is that. And that is very much a part of her sense of humor.

LUNDEN: And that little-known side of Virginia Woolf's personality is why Women's Project artistic director Julie Crosby has produced "Freshwater."

Ms. CROSBY: It needed a production. A script is only a blueprint for what you build on the stage. And Anne Bogart has built a very beautiful play from the blueprint left to us by Virginia Woolf.

LUNDEN: Today is Virginia Woolf's 128th birthday, and "Freshwater" opens at the Julia Miles Theater off Broadway tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

HANSEN: And you can hear a scene from "Freshwater" at our Web site, npr.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.