Theses Doctoral

The Theatre of Anon: Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia Woolf, and the Performance of Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King

Melville, Joan Virginia

Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred Tennyson, and Virginia Woolf: three major figures of British art and letters who have received much critical attention individually, but have not yet been studied together. In this project I consider the valedictory works of these artists at their convergence, first through their obvious geographic, familial, and aesthetic relationships, then in more subtle, deeper, and overarching dimensions. The chief texts that are the focus of this dissertation are Tennyson's Idylls of the King, plus five of the Laureate's most popular poems; Cameron's photographic illustrations of these poems; and a selection of Virginia Woolf's late work, with a focus on "The Searchlight," Three Guineas, Between the Acts, and Anon. The dissertation also makes use of apposite poems, essays, life writing, and fiction created by these artists. Since "The Theatre of Anon" focuses primarily on Cameron's Illustrations, a chapter containing photographs of all the books' pages concludes the dissertation text. An additional selection of images is included as an appendix, in support of the central thesis of this project. The complex friendship between Tennyson and Cameron inspired the latter's only published book, a collection of poetic excerpts accompanied by images of his poems staged as scenes from amateur theatricals. The photos, with the photographer acting as their playwright-director, evoke the literary pageant in Woolf's last novel. In photographing the Illustrations, Cameron took control of the Laureate's poetry, metaphorically assuming the role of Vivien stealing Merlin's poetic spells. This dissertation traces Woolf's perception of her great aunt as it evolved over the decades, beginning with the eccentric, affected, and comical Cameron of Freshwater (1926) and ultimately portraying her as a dynamic, determined, and creative artist who helped provide inspiration for the character of the playwright-director Miss La Trobe of Between the Acts (1940). I argue that her great aunt's work influenced Woolf to create the figure she called Anon as a counterpart to Tennyson's King Arthur, and to place La Trobe's pageant-play at the center of her last novel, Between the Acts, as a final act of homage to Cameron. An aggregate of all anonymous minstrels, artists, and authors who ever lived, Anon appears in the guise of Miss La Trobe, whose communal, participatory art demonstrates how the traditionally monocular "eye" of history can be enlarged in community theatre from a single "I" to a collaborative project accommodating multiple perspectives. The Arthurian chivalry to which the ideology of Anon is set in counterpoint represents a conservative point of view based on the belief in a divinely-ordained social order headed by a monarch, with prescribed roles for each of its members. Valor in combat and devotion in courtly love, chivalry's two chief expressions, are the basis of Arthur's knightly code, which has influenced British national character and identity from the country's founding. Arthur reached his Anglophone apotheosis in the nineteenth-century's Gothic revival, epitomized in Tennyson's Idylls of the King. At the end of her career, at the start of the Second World War, Woolf came to believe that theatrical performance offered a better paradigm for social organization than the chivalric hierarchy at the root of the patriarchal British Victorian culture in which she had grown up. She saw in the community theatre a gathering place that could foster moments of transcendent unity, intellectual freedom, and imaginative inspiration, and in drama an art form resilient enough to withstand an audience's interruption and disillusionment. Performance provided a collaborative alternative to the conservative constraints that were her Victorian legacy; history, she felt, could be more accurately portrayed through the accretion of expressive theatrical performances than by the monolithic, linear narrative it had become as the official transcript of the nation's past. The theatricals scenes of La Trobe's pageant and Cameron's Illustrations - both composed of scraps and fragments of quotidian life rearranged and recombined - offer a new visual conception of the past. Working at the level of what Walter Benjamin has called photography's optical unconscious the dissertation demonstrates how Cameron's photographs reveal a reconstellation or reconfiguration, of the dominant British narrative from defamiliarized versions of the past that resonate with La Trobe's pageant. I propose that Cameron's photos re-envision canonical texts, inspiring a new mythology for Woolf, one that reflects a fluid and elastic version of the British national story. Challenging the received Carlylean conception of history as the biographies of great men, Woolf's counter-history, like Cameron's book of illustrations, features ordinary men and women playing extraordinary roles. The legendary Arthur, traditionally credited with uniting the country's thirteen tribes, founding Britain, and shaping the nation's identity, is but one actor among many in Woolf's pageant of history; his starring role in Tennyson's Idylls of the King is reduced to a few key scenes in the Illustrations and a cameo appearance in Between the Acts. Woolf implies that though there may still be room in history's narrative for heroic men, they will no longer dominate it. With its evolving, democratic nature, the community theatre created by Anon offers a paradigm of citizenship and social organization that Woolf believed could encompass British history, re-envision it, and offer the world's citizens hope for the future.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Meisel, Martin
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 1, 2013