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Leonard Woolf’s The Hotel (1939): The Singular Art of Unifying Contraries

The Hotel de Leonard Woolf: l’art singulier de l’unification des contraires
Leila Haghshenas

Résumés

The Hotel, l’unique pièce de Leonard Woolf fut publiée en 1938. En dépit de ses efforts, l’écrivain britannique ne parvint jamais à la mettre en scène. La pièce de Woolf traite des questions importantes telles que la responsabilité de l’individu dans la formation du destin collectif et la nécessité du dialogue et de la collaboration dans un monde globalisé très complexe. Cet article se penche sur le choix que fait Woolf d’un hôtel comme lieu de rencontre et chambre d’écho. Il examine d’abord ce choix à la lumière de la ‘logique du lieu’ et de la théorie de l’agir du philosophe japonais Kitarô Nishida puis se focalise sur le lien qu’entretient la pièce avec le théâtre politique d’avant-garde de Joan Littlewood, le Theatre of Action.

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  • 1 As Victoria Glendinning mentions in Leonard Woolf: A Biography, ‘Both in Cambridge and London, Leon (...)
  • 2 Woolf was indeed very much concerned about the emergence of conflicting forces around the globe. In (...)

1Throughout his life Leonard Woolf considered himself as playing a part on the great stage of the world.1 It therefore comes as no surprise that he chose to set his only play, The Hotel (1939) in the Hôtel de l’Univers et du Commerce, an emblematic place with a revolving door where each and every individual regardless of their beliefs and political ideologies could enter, interact with other individuals, and determine the destiny of their community. Woolf wrote The Hotel in 1938, right before the outbreak of the Second World War. The play was initially published by the Hogarth Press in 1939 and then by the Dial Press (U.S.) in 1963. Its political content reflects Woolf’s anxiety about the growing tensions that were threatening peace and security in an already agitated global context.2 Composed of three acts, The Hotel is a multi-layered allegory addressing such issues as Judeo-Christian values, the destructive power of unfettered capitalism, and the political chaos that led to the second global conflict. Vajoff, the proprietor of the hotel who is also an arms dealer, has stocked munitions and machine guns in his establishment. Packed in crates supposed to hold pianos and refrigerators, these armaments are to be sold to anyone who is ready to ‘pay the price’. Vajoff’s trade results in tragedy when his son, Christopher, a self-sacrificing young man intending to prevent the actual use of these weapons, gets shot by a Nazi who mistakes him for a communist agent. At the end, everyone goes through the revolving door leaving the place that had welcomed them in a worse condition than when they entered.

  • 3 In a diary entry dated March 1938, Virginia Woolf wrote ‘L. writing his play—the one he’s brewed th (...)
  • 4 In a letter dated October 22, 1938, Stephen Spender judged the hotel as ‘tremendously funny’. In hi (...)
  • 5 In two distinct letters respectively dated November 21st, 1963 and March 12, 1965, Rev. Rawlings ju (...)
  • 6 The letter is dated 28th February, 1967 (Woolf, SXMS-13, 1, L, 8).

2Woolf’s belief that his play would be both realistic and symbolic when performed on stage could never be tested, despite the positive appreciations it received from Maynard and Lydia Keynes and Virginia Woolf herself.3 Indeed, despite Woolf’s repeated attempts to have The Hotel staged, his dream was never realised. For about 30 years (from 1938 to 1968), Woolf looked in vain for a company willing to produce the play. Letters preserved in the Leonard Woolf archives (Sussex) show that he was in touch with Stephen Spender (1938),4 the agent Walter Peacock of the Group Theatre (1939), Robert Marby of the Dial Press (for a possible production of the play in the States) and Rev. Kenneth Rawlings of the Theatre Club. In a letter dated August 7th, 1962, Robert Marby of the Dial Press informed Woolf that it would be possible to include Woolf’s play in their modern drama series which they intended to get performed in America (Woolf SXMS-13, 1, L, 8). About a year later, having received no further information and as eager as ever to see his play performed, Woolf tried his luck with the Lewes Little Theatre (Theatre Club). In his letter to Rev. Kenneth Rawlings, dated November 15th, 1963, Woolf apparently tried to appear more convincing by telling a white lie. He wrote that he had never before attempted to have his play performed. Rev. Rawlings judged the play ‘first rate’ and ‘very relevant’ to the political context of the time. Nevertheless, he was unable to persuade any of his producers to stage the play.5 In a last attempt to have The Hotel produced, Woolf asked the then BBC drama director, Martin Esslin, to consider his play both for radio and television (1967). 6 Esslin refused to consider the play for production on the grounds that it could not be considered a play and that it lacked interest for the audience of the time who would not have lived through the events preceding the Second World War. He also provided Woolf with a list of questions that a present-day audience would no doubt also have:

  • 7 See Esslin’s letter of April 4th, 1967 about Leonard Woolf’s play (Woolf SXMS-13, 1, L, 8).

There are too many loose ends, and the background of the action is far too vague: in what country does the hotel stand? How can the hotel-keeper get hold of munitions which are so important that they are fought over by the representatives of the Great Powers? Why should important personalities going to an international conference have gone by boat—even in 1938?’7 (Woolf SXMS-13, 1, L, 8)

  • 8 Martin Esslin is the author of the most influential theatrical text of the 1960s entitled The Theat (...)
  • 9 Steven D. Putzel believes that several factors including the outbreak of the Second World War contr (...)
  • 10 See Bert Cardullo, ‘Introduction’, Theories of the Avant-garde Theatre: A Casebook from Kleist to C (...)
  • 11 See Peter Brooker, ‘Key Words in Brecht’s Theory and Practice of Theatre’, The Cambridge Companion (...)

3The questions listed by Martin Esslin, though surprising from the inventor of the term ‘Theatre of the Absurd,’8 point to the fact that Woolf was ahead of his time. According to Putzel, Woolf’s introduction of absurdist theatrical techniques in his play is evidence of his advanced views about theatre.9 Indeed, The Hotel borrows from the language of avant-garde theatre such as the Theatre of the Absurd. Like absurdists such as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Arthur Adamov and Jean Genêt, Woolf abandons the cause-and-effect relationship that governs the incidents in a play,10 hence the arrival of all characters by boat even in the 1930s and the possession of dangerous weapons by an ordinary hotel keeper. In my view, Woolf’s decision to leave certain details unexplained can be explained by his desire to produce estranging effects in order to create a sense of astonishment and thus incite the reader to further engage with the play. Woolf’s approach is reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation technique11 which consists of dissociating the events and characters from real-life incidents and people. This way, Woolf awakens the curiosity of the audience and encourages the spectator to engage with the spectacle. In a way, Woolf anticipated Brecht’s dialectical approach to theatre. As Esslin’s reaction makes clear, Woolf’s use of absurdist or Brechtian theatrical techniques did not help garner the play favourable critical interest.

4My paper sets off in pursuit of an answer to Woolf’s singular choice of the hotel as both a meeting point and an echo chamber. I argue that this choice relates to Woolf’s philosophy of the world as a stage and can be explained with the help of Kitarô Nishida’s concept of ‘logic of place’ and his theory of action that I will study in relation with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre of Action. As I will demonstrate, Woolf’s eagerness to see his play performed is related to his desire to engage with the audience which in turn reflects the dialectic nature of his play.

Globalization, Woolf & Nishida

  • 12 See Leonard Woolf’s book International Government (1916). Initially presented as a report for the F (...)

5Cuddy-Keane identifies Woolf as one of the first intellectuals to have addressed the issue of globalization and its consequences.12 Since its first appearance in the 1960s, the term ‘globalization’ has been used to refer to ‘a process, a condition, a system, a force, and an age’ (Steger 7). Even if the term is recent, the concept itself refers to the connectivity of the world’s economies and cultures in the late 19th century and early 20th century. In ‘Modernism, Geopolitics, Globalisation’, Cuddy-Keane maintains that ‘Cultural globalization is distinguished by a consciousness of dwelling in the world, and a conception of that world as a fluid, interconnected, conflicted, and dynamic whole’ (Cuddy-Keane 553). To use Cuddy-Keane’s words: ‘Cohabiting globalization fosters the construction of home identity not as a centre but as a region of the world; it correspondingly promotes an understanding of the world as a pluralistic home of diverse individuals’ (Cuddy-Keane 551).

6The primacy of place in The Hotel as a means of uniting individuals within a mutual space can therefore be linked to Woolf’s perception of the global community. Placed in a common field, the traditional opposition between the ‘I’ and the ‘other’ disappears and gives way to a relational association between the individual and other members of the global community (Cuddy-Keane 551). The play’s opening scene highlights Woolf’s understanding of the world as a home for disparate individuals. When the curtain is raised, spectators are confronted with Peter Vajoff, the proprietor of the hotel, who stands in the middle of the entrance hall expressing his regrets about the ‘faded magnificence’ of his establishment:

In the beginning […] in the beginning […], no, I can hardly remember how it all began. But I do remember this (looking round the room)—it was a fine place then—by God, a fine place. Hôtel du Paradis—Grand Hôtel du Paradis that swine Stanovich wanted me to call it and now—the paper peeling off the walls and the leather peeling off the chairs, and bugs in the beds—yes, it’s come to that. The Grand Hôtel du Paradis became the Grand Hôtel de l’Univers et du Commerce, and the Universe and Commerce have been reduced to—bugs in beds. No, it isn’t worth it: I shall leave the beds to the bugs or the bugs to the beds—and clear out. (8)

  • 13 ‘I run this hotel on business principals, and this, as I have told you gentlemen before, is purely (...)
  • 14 If the spacing between the doors is small enough, the revolving door can be used as a security devi (...)
  • 15 In the play, Madame Pichon describes the hotel as her home: ‘I have stayed in this hotel times out (...)

7Once a very beautiful and grandiose place, the Grand Hôtel du Paradis is being transformed into the Hôtel de l’Univers et du Commerce, a name that reflects the fate of the establishment under the influence of unregulated capitalism and devastating ideologies.13 Capable of uniting a plethora of personalities from diverse social, cultural and ideological horizons, The Hotel is an extraordinary place for improbable encounters. A centrepiece of the place, the revolving door is the potential locus of all those encounters. Composed of several doors attached to a shaft, the revolving door restricts entry to a single person at a time14 while allowing large numbers of people to pass in and out at the same time. As in real life, the circulation of people and thoughts is guaranteed by the permanent rotating movement of the door. Furthermore, the ever-circulating movement of the door reminds the spectator of the earth and its orbital movement, as if the hotel were a synecdoche for the world as well as being a second home for the residents.15

8The reader soon learns that following a shipwreck in the Adriatic, a handful of important and influential personalities that Vajoff sarcastically nicknames ‘bugs’ are going to enter the hotel: Sir George Hepburn Jones (British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), Charles Ledbury (Private Secretary to Sir Hepburn Jones), Igor Vassilevsky (a Russian communist agent), Antonelli and Schwartzer (Nazi agents). Are also welcomed in the hotel, a wandering Jew named Samuel Jacoby and Madame Madeleine Pichon, a double agent serving both the Nazis and the Communists. In this way, Woolf manages to gather under the same roof different political systems and ideologies.

  • 16 Once an obscure figure, the Japanese philosopher Kitarô Nishida (1870–1945) is now considered as on (...)
  • 17 During his stay in Ceylon, Leonard Woolf was greatly influenced by Buddhism. In Growing (1961), his (...)
  • 18 See Zhaoming Qian, ‘Introduction’, Modernism and the Orient, New Orleans, The U of New Orleans P, 2 (...)

9To my mind, Woolf’s conception of relational otherness is based on an ethics of connection and relationality and as such can be analysed through Nishida’s ‘logic of place’ which is inspired by the Buddhist philosophy of togetherness. Nishida’s situation was very similar to that of Woolf’s epoch. Nishida16 lived in a period when Japan was struggling hard to find its place within a world heading towards globalization. Like the Japanese thinker, Leonard Woolf was greatly influenced by oriental tradition and came to consider Buddhism as ‘a civilized and a humane dream of considerable beauty’ (Woolf 1961, 159).17 Woolf’s contemporaries were also inspired by oriental culture and philosophy. The Irish playwright and poet, W. B. Yeats also acknowledged the influence of Japanese Noh drama on his own work as early as 1916. In a 1913 speech in praise of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, he explains his fascination for the oriental culture by claiming that it corresponds to ‘our own image’.18 As internationalism began at the turn of the twentieth century, writers broadened their horizons and reached beyond the borders of the Western world.

  • 19 As Krummel explains in Nishida Kitarō’s Chiasmatic Chorology: Place of Dialectic, Dialectic of Plac (...)

10Assimilating a complex range of philosophical values originating from the confluence of Eastern and Western civilizations, Nishida created and developed the original concept of ‘basho’ which is considered as the keystone of his philosophy. ‘Basho’ means ‘place’, ‘field’ or ‘ground’. Primarily developed in response to the two tendencies of substantialism and dualism19 that characterise Western philosophy, the logic of ‘basho’ or ‘place’ helps bridge the gap between the subject and the object by means of a place of unification. That is, the ‘basho’ can simultaneously envelop both the subject and the object. In other words, conflicting elements that are placed within the same space can connect with each other thanks to their presence within the same place. For the Japanese philosopher, the very concept of place is intrinsically linked with the idea of unification as it is based on a non-dual conception of otherness. Nishida’s philosophy of place broaches such essential issues as the place of the individual in the midst of others, his relationship to other individual human beings as well as his position within the locale or topos the individual occupies.

11Nishida distinguishes different types of ‘basho’, the last of which he names ‘true’ or ‘absolute’ nothingness. This final ‘basho’ is the one that envelops everything without sharing any of the qualities of what it surrounds. It is therefore true nothingness or emptiness. Since it is empty, it can incorporate every other types of ‘basho’ and connect them together. This all-inclusive ‘basho’ envelops every opposition and is composed of smaller ‘bashos’. The smallest and most independent ‘basho’ corresponds to what Nishida identifies as ‘object of knowledge’ which corresponds to individual objects or people.

12If we consider the Hotel de l’Univers et du Commerce as a distinct ‘basho’ that envelops other individual ‘bashos’, in this case individual human beings, the role of the hotel as a place of unification becomes evident. One example of encounter between Schwarzer, the Nazi agent and the Jewish character Samuel Jacoby helps grasp the significance of Nishida’s non-dualistic conception of world and self. Schwarzer and Jacoby’s love for Mozart, makes them forget their differences and brings them momentarily together so much so that they cry unanimously: ‘Ach Motzart! leave it on, leave it on’, ‘Ach Motzart! Don’t turn it off, don’t turn it off’ (66). The Hotel seems to be in tune with Nishida’s theory of place. For the Japanese philosopher, the ‘logic of place’ responds to the need to break the isolation of opposing individual human beings by means of connecting them with their environment and with the people who occupy the same space.

The Hotel as a Place of Union

13Occupying space is the dominant theme of The Hotel. The play starts with a reflection on the deplorable condition of the Hotel de l’Univers et du Commerce and ends with the somewhat ironic phrase ‘What a place! What a place!’ Indeed, the hotel as a living space plays a central role in the life of the people who inhabit it. During the whole play, characters are struggling with the limits imposed on them by their surrounding space. Failing to find enough space for the whole stock of bombs and munitions, Vajoff’s son, Christopher has to put them in the boiler’s room. Surprised by the arrival of so many people in his hotel, Vajoff has to do his best to avoid the encounter of communist and fascist agents. His efforts though turn out to be futile as the explosive encounter between the two destructive ideologies takes place and results in the destruction of the hotel and the death of Christopher. It is worth noting that the use of spatial expressions such as ‘being in a tight place’ by characters also highlights the importance of space in Woolf’s drama. Woolf’s choice of the hotel as a meeting place and its vaguely indicated geographical position is telling. As Esslin notices, Woolf gives us but little information about its location. As mentioned in the stage direction that opens the play, the hotel is situated on ‘a rocky headland overlooking a bay and small harbour in the Adriatic’ (7). It is therefore located somewhere between the earth and the sea, at the crossroads of different countries and confluences. The choice of the Adriatic Sea, which both separates and unites the Italian and the Balkan peninsula is also revealing of Woolf’s intention to place his drama in a strategically important part of Europe. Woolf’s treatment of space ties in with the approach used by some modernist playwrights like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. For both Pinter and Beckett, to occupy space is to confirm one’s position as a human being in the universe. Indeed, Woolf’s locational approach to theatre and his conception of the play as an echo chamber is linked with the avant-garde practices. In a sense, Woolf anticipated the deep changes that were about to transform British theatre.

14Woolf’s choice of a hotel as a literary topos also needs to be clarified and put into context. In the introduction to the U.S. edition, Leonard Woolf explains about his long-standing dream to write a play set in a hotel:

I had never written a play before I wrote The Hotel. But for a long time I had wanted to write one in which the scene would be the entrance hall of a hotel, with the revolving door through which a string of heterogeneous characters would have their entrances and their exits. It is a scene in real life which always seems infinitely dramatic. And then one day in 1938 I suddenly saw that my hotel on the stage might be both realistic and symbolic, the Grand Hôtel du Paradis which had become the Grand Hôtel de l’Univers et du Commerce, with Peter Vajoff, the proprietor, standing in front of the fire—and with bugs in beds. (5–6)

  • 20 There are two hotels in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: the authentic Ritz on the Place de Vendôme (...)

15In the above passage, Woolf makes it clear that he envisages the entrance hall of the hotel as both a meeting point for people of different nationalities, religious creeds and ideologies and a universal stage for individual and collective dramas. As Monika M. Elbert and Susan Schmid remark, it’s ‘the liminality of hotel space’, ‘the tension between being at home and not at home’ and ‘the friction between Self and Other’ that renders it attractive for writers (Elbert et Schmid 6). It’s worth noting that in the early twentieth century, fictional hotels took on importance as more writers chose hotels as their ideal settings. E. M. Forster’s Room with a View (1908), James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), Proust’s In Search of Lost Time20 (1871–1922), Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel (1927) count among literary works that are known for their use of this topos. This trend was given further impetus after the First World War when important hotel novels were written. Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy (1924), Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull, Vicky Baum’s Menschen im Hotel (1929) are key texts in which this topos is used.

16One of the reasons behind its popularity is its ambiguous status as both a home and a ‘not home’. In The Hotel one can capture resonances of the theme of placelessness through the Jewish character Samuel Jacoby. Chased from his homeland, Jacoby wanders around the world in search of a ‘happy land where people have forgotten their grandmothers’ (18). Vajoff, the manager, clearly denies the existence of such a place. ‘You’re asking a lot’, he says. ‘If all I hear is true, you won’t find it in these parts. All round here people are killing one another because of their grandmothers, and when they’re not killing one another, they’re committing suicide’ (18). As the play unfolds, the spectator learns that the cause of Jacoby’s displacement is the predictable absence of tolerance on the part of such Nazi supporters as Schwarzer who contest the presence of Jacoby in the hotel. This brings us to Woolf’s conception of the hotel as a place of action and interaction that I will study in relation with Nishida’s theory of action and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre of Action.

  • 21 Nishida searches the root of logic in the structure of the world’s continual flux, what Heraclitus (...)

17In The Hotel, opposing individuals placed in the same material environment constantly affirm their individuality through active opposition to each other. I suggest that Nishida’s theory of ‘action-intuition’ helps understand the ethics of relationality that underlies Woolf’s play. Envisaging the world as a place of mediation for acting individuals, Nishida proposes his theory of action. According to him, human beings fully participate in the dialectical logos21 of the world through what he calls ‘action-intuition’. He characterises the individual as being completely independent and constantly in opposition to other individuals. As he claims these contradicting elements express themselves and the world that surrounds them by means of action. As the Japanese thinker explains, it is not that ‘I exist because I think but rather that the ‘I’ exists because it exists by acting’ (Nishida 1936, 154). In Woolf’s play, a considerable number of characters are entangled in an interminable chain of action-and-reaction that dominates their relationships with each other as well as with their environment. Conscious of the dangerously explosive nature of their union, Vajoff confirms that he ‘can’t have a meeting of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin in the Hôtel de l’Univers with bombs in the cellar and only Sir Jones between them and the bombs’ (14). Nonetheless, that is exactly what happens. Determined to obtain the munitions, Antonelli and Schwartzer accidentally kill Christopher and blow the hotel up, thus destroying the world that had welcomed them. The murder scene exemplifies how individual human beings determine the fate of a whole community through their actions. Mutual actions between Christopher, his father and other characters lead to a dramatic tragedy that brings about the destruction of the hotel and Christopher’s death. Woolf here highlights the influence of human beings and their actions on the self-formation of the world. As Nishida claims: ‘This world of the historical reality is not just the world from which we are born and in which we are going to die, but it must be the world where we create things and creating them we are created by them’ (Nishida quoted in Cestari 191). The Hotel demonstrates the dialectical dynamism of human existence vis-à-vis the world and our responsibility to act responsibly.

The Question of Responsibility in The Hotel: ‘Guilty your Lord’

18Indeed, The Hotel broaches the question of the responsibility of individual human beings in shaping the world as well as that of God. In the play Vajoff is said to ‘look at things as God Almighty looks at them’ (34). Whereas for his son, Christopher, God is the symbol of compassion and mercy, Vajoff’s godlike attitude towards humanity is that of an indifferent creator who leaves his creatures to their own devices:

I am Peter Vajoff, proprietor of the Hotel de l’Univers et du Commerce—that is all. These people they come in through that revolving door and they go out again. I bow them in and I bow them out. I am ready to provide them with anything which they demand and I can obtain, bombs or beds, machine-guns or mayonnaise—it is all one to me. What they do with their bombs is no more the concern of Peter Vajoff than what they do in their beds. I am proprietor of the hotel; my affair is business, the business of the hotel. (35)

19As Vajoff clearly states he is only concerned with his own material gains and is in no way interested in the destiny of those who might suffer as a result of his cynical philosophy. At one point, Jacoby and Vajoff discuss the nature of God in the modern age and his responsibility towards his creatures. Jacoby claims that no one can believe in the ‘old gentleman’ anymore: ‘there are so many fools and knaves whom one can see all around one turning the world into hell that there’s no point in taking the trouble to invent an invisible super-fool or super-knave in order to put the blame on him’ (89). The message Woolf’s Jewish character aims to convey is simple and clear: human beings as actors of their destiny should start to assume their own responsibilities as regards the destiny of the world and its inhabitants instead of blaming it on a super powerful God above them. Vajoff thinks too that people are to blame for the disasters that befall humanity. Denying his own responsibility as regards the murder of Christopher, he says: ‘Blame? Yes, that’s the point. Who’s responsible, Samuel? That’s the point. You say God, if there is a God, and people themselves, if there isn’t one’ (96). According to Jacoby, Antonelli and Schwarzer are guilty of murder and other clients such as Madeleine Pichon are ‘clever fools’ caught in society (98).

  • 22 The essay ‘Please, Sir, It was the Other Fellow’, is published in the collection of essays entitled (...)

20As far as Vajoff is concerned, clients of his establishment are to be held accountable for what happened. Stanovich, his hall porter suggests that Vajoff too carries some responsibility. Addressing the audience, he says: ‘Last time it was Absalom’ (74), putting thereupon the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of Vajoff. Woolf refers to the policy makers’ lack of courage to assume their part of responsibility in triggering a world-wide conflict. In his essay entitled ‘Please, Sir, it was the other fellow’ (1927), Woolf shows how policy makers and politicians refused to take responsibility for the war by holding others accountable for it. The inevitable conclusion according to Woolf is ‘that they were all of them wrong and all responsible for the war, and that if they or people like them are allowed to control policy again, the same thing will happen again’22 (Woolf 1927, 211). Leonard Woolf’s position concerning the question of responsibility applies to the hotel as well. In a letter to Rev. Kenneth Rawlings, dated 24 November 1963, Leonard Woolf explains the moral of the story and expresses his opinion about the inevitable destiny of the hotel:

Personally I do not agree with Peter Vajoff or with his method of running the Hotel. The moral of the play in so far as it has one is that if you run a hotel on his lines the moment will come when nothing can be done but close it down. I myself would be all in favour of a new management. But as things are, I cannot pretend to see much sign of it coming. (Woolf SXMS-13, 1, L,8)

21As the author maintains, the solution to such global crisis is dialogue and collaboration on an international level. In his influential book, The International Government (1916), Woolf pleads for the necessity of creating an international organisation in charge of settling conflicts between countries. In The Hotel, Woolf refers to the absence of judicial organisations by confirming that ‘there are no police in these parts’ (77). The experience of cohabitation in the hotel highlights the necessity for international collaboration and peaceful dialogue that can be made possible only through a place of union.

Woolf’s Theatre of Action

  • 23 It’s worth noting that for Nishida, the body is not a mere object at the service of human conscious (...)

22The fact that Leonard Woolf chose to make his dream of unification come true by resorting to the literary form of a play is in itself significant. Of all literary forms, drama is the only one that requires a fictional or real place in order to stage the action. This in turn relates to theatre’s quality as a ‘community space’ wherein performing bodies address other individual living bodies23 gathered in the same place (Rancière 9). In a relatively obscure article entitled ‘The Pageant of History’, Leonard Woolf lays emphasis on the role of the individual human being and his ideas in shaping the history of the world. The title itself suggests a comparison between history and a pageant, as if the world were a great stage upon which ordinary people could play. Woolf’s conception of history as a pageant goes hand in hand with the writer’s increasing awareness of inhabiting an extremely complex and interconnected world.

  • 24 The company was initially called Theatre of Action and was founded in 1931 by Ewan MacColl. Joan Li (...)
  • 25 See Élisabeth Angel-Perez, ‘Le renouveau théâtral (1900-1956) et l’entrée dans le modernisme’, Le t (...)

23Woolf’s resolve to perform the play is also linked to his desire to inform and educate the audience about the dangers of nationalist and political ideologies rather than solely to entertain, a characteristic of ‘committed drama’. As Georges Fournier explains ‘committed drama’ is a genre whose functions are ‘to tackle topical issues, provide unconventional and challenging viewpoints, educate the population and attempt to be experimental on stage and in the management of theatre companies’ (Fournier, 1). Joan Littlewood’s company known as Theatre of Action (1931–1935) occupied an important position in the committed drama of the 1930s.24 Littlewood’s aim was to bring theatre to the working class by performing on the streets and in factory forecourts.25 Her plays are best known for privileging political themes, caricatures or types and their engagement with the public. Littlewood’s aim was to inform the population on matters such as unemployment and the Spanish Civil War by means of a fictional treatment of current events. Such a journalistic approach to theatre allowed her work to take on an educational role and help disseminate news in a period when information and diverging viewpoints were not so easily accessible. Woolf’s play, written in the thirties, seems to have been influenced by Littlewood’s committed theatre. Furthermore, given the fact that The Hotel was written in a period when Woolf was actively engaged in politics via his journalistic activities, it seems relevant to read it as a form of alternative journalism. Rather than transmitting information via the traditional means of communication, Woolf turns to theatre as an interactive and communal medium whose scope and influence is far-reaching. Woolf’s insistence on having The Hotel staged can thus be interpreted as an emancipatory act seeking to encourage the spectator to engage in the action of world making, thus confronting them with the consequences of human actions in the real world.

24Located vaguely on the map of the world and hosting a large plethora of different characters, Woolf’s hotel bridges the gap between nations, the individual and the collective and depicts a singular picture of the cosmopolitan world. Woolf’s fascination with the hotel can be explained by his need to build a pluralistic space in which intercivilisational encounters are rendered possible. The Hotel articulates a prescient conception of modern relationships and raises awareness about the profound inter-implication of the personal and the political in a fast-moving age of communication. Indeed, Woolf’s play opens onto a specific experience of alterity that involves all characters caught up in a collaborative process. Woolf’s drama raises such important questions as the role of the individual and his responsibility as a citizen of the world, the importance of dialogue and negotiation as a means of resolving international problems as well as the ethical concerns surrounding the sale of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Woolf’s locational approach to politics should be considered as an attempt to bring people of different nationalities, ethnicities and ideologies together in order to raise awareness of the challenges that have to be addressed in a global space and help develop cooperative consciousness in relation to the world crisis.

25Woolf’s hotel is a symbolic world stage, upon which are acted contemporary human dramas. It grounds itself on a philosophical system, a theory of place. Its principal of unity is not a pre-established harmony but one that is in constant evolution and change. Eighty years after its first publication, the play still reflects the contemporary challenges of living in a global community, from migratory and humanitarian disasters to the Brexit crisis and the environmental challenges faced by humanity. Woolf’s play can thus be understood as a meeting-ground between philosophy and artistic creativity, literature and international politics. The Hotel is therefore a singular and timeless work of art mirroring the reality of his time and beyond.

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Bibliographie

Angel-Perez, Élisabeth, Le théâtre anglais, Paris: Hachette, 1997.

Brooker, Peter, ‘Key Words in Brecht’s Theory and Practice of Theatre’, The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, eds. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks, Cambridge: CUP, 209–224.

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Notes

1 As Victoria Glendinning mentions in Leonard Woolf: A Biography, ‘Both in Cambridge and London, Leonard felt as if he were acting in a play’ (Glendinning 115). See also Leonard Woolf’s Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911 to 1918: ‘I was born an introspective intellectual, and the man or woman who is by nature addicted to introspection gets into the habit, after the age of 15 or 16, of feeling himself, often intensely, as ‘I’ and yet at the same time of seeing himself out of the corner of his eye as a ‘not I’, a stranger acting a part upon a stage’ (Woolf 1964, 16–17).

2 Woolf was indeed very much concerned about the emergence of conflicting forces around the globe. In 1939, Leonard Woolf also published the second volume of After the Deluge as well as Barbarians at the Gate (in the U.S. Barbarians Within and Without) which reflected on the condition of Europe and the rise of capitalism, communism, and fascism.

3 In a diary entry dated March 1938, Virginia Woolf wrote ‘L. writing his play—the one he’s brewed these 10 years & more’ (V. Woolf 133). On October 13, she noted ‘we went to Tilton & read L’s play to the K.s. They gravely approved. M. as intent as a terrier. Very interesting. We like it very much. Suggest the Group Theatre’ (V. Woolf 180). There is evidence that Virginia Woolf liked the play as well and found it ‘rather good’. Virginia Glendinning notes that on October 13, 1938, ‘Leonard Woolf read The Hotel to Maynard and Lydia at Tilton. Maynard appeared impressed, Leonard was excited. Virginia was envious’ (Glendinning 298–299).

4 In a letter dated October 22, 1938, Stephen Spender judged the hotel as ‘tremendously funny’. In his view, Woolf ‘expressed the whole situation in a highly original and intelligent way’ (The Keep, SXMS-13, 1, L, 8).

5 In two distinct letters respectively dated November 21st, 1963 and March 12, 1965, Rev. Rawlings judged Woolf’s play as ‘first rate’ and ‘very relevant’ in regards to the political context of the time. (Woolf, SXMS-13, 1, L, 8)

6 The letter is dated 28th February, 1967 (Woolf, SXMS-13, 1, L, 8).

7 See Esslin’s letter of April 4th, 1967 about Leonard Woolf’s play (Woolf SXMS-13, 1, L, 8).

8 Martin Esslin is the author of the most influential theatrical text of the 1960s entitled The Theatre of the Absurd (1961).

9 Steven D. Putzel believes that several factors including the outbreak of the Second World War contributed to Leonard’s difficulty in having the play performed. According to him, the play’s sharp satirical treatment of religion and British and European politicians, its sad ending and Leonard’s own inexperience with play-writing are responsible for this failure (Putzel 225).

10 See Bert Cardullo, ‘Introduction’, Theories of the Avant-garde Theatre: A Casebook from Kleist to Camus, ed. Cardullo, Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2013, 1–40.

11 See Peter Brooker, ‘Key Words in Brecht’s Theory and Practice of Theatre’, The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, ed. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 209–224.

12 See Leonard Woolf’s book International Government (1916). Initially presented as a report for the Fabian research department the book rapidly became a reference in the area of International Relations, a field of study that did not exist in 1916. Many of Woolf’s ideas went into the foundation of the United Nations.

13 ‘I run this hotel on business principals, and this, as I have told you gentlemen before, is purely a little matter of business. I am no politician; I have no politics, I, Peter Vajoff. I leave that to you, gentlemen. These things do not concern me; they do not interest me. Your fascism, your Nazism, your communism, what are they to me? Dreams, like the dreams of my poor son, Chris—but bad dreams, pah! But that’s your concern’ (28).

14 If the spacing between the doors is small enough, the revolving door can be used as a security device and helps regulate the access to the building.

15 In the play, Madame Pichon describes the hotel as her home: ‘I have stayed in this hotel times out of number. How often have I come in and gone out of that door there, going to and fro on the earth walking up and down it, as the saying is? I came in a way to look upon this lounge almost as my home’ (91).

16 Once an obscure figure, the Japanese philosopher Kitarô Nishida (1870–1945) is now considered as one of the most prominent thinkers of the twentieth century. In his introduction to Last Writings: Nothingness and the Religious Worldview, David A. Dilworth considers Kitarô Nishida together with Husserl, Whitehead, Heidegger, Wittgenstein as one of the most original thinkers of his time (Dilworth 2). Mostly acknowledged for his contribution to the area of religious thought, he creatively developed the oriental philosophy of nothingness in dialogue with Western Philosophy (Aristotle, Heidegger, Husserl, etc.).

17 During his stay in Ceylon, Leonard Woolf was greatly influenced by Buddhism. In Growing (1961), his second volume of autobiography, the British writer qualifies Buddhism as ‘a civilized and a humane dream of considerable beauty’ (Woolf 1961, 159).

18 See Zhaoming Qian, ‘Introduction’, Modernism and the Orient, New Orleans, The U of New Orleans P, 2012, vxi. ‘A whole people, a whole civilisation, immeasurably strange to us seems to have been taken up into this imagination; and yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image’ (Yeats quoted in Zhaoming Qian xvi).

19 As Krummel explains in Nishida Kitarō’s Chiasmatic Chorology: Place of Dialectic, Dialectic of Place, Aristotle’s substantialism and Neo-Kantian dualism have formed two major trends in the history of Western philosophy. The dualism between epistemological subject and object raises the question of their relationship which is itself linked with the issue of object-centred thinking. The object-centred logic presumes the existence of two determinate things that have to be related to one another. For Aristotle, the object of cognition that can be transformed into a grammatical subject becomes the centre of attention. As for the neo-Kantian influence, it considers the epistemological link between subject and object in terms of hylo-morphic relations. For more explanation, see John W. M. Krummel, Nishida Kitarô’s Chiasmatic Chorology: Place of Dialectic, Dialectic of Place, Bloomington, Indiana UP, 2015, 15–26.

20 There are two hotels in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: the authentic Ritz on the Place de Vendôme in Paris and the fictive Grand Hôtel de la Plage at Balbec.

21 Nishida searches the root of logic in the structure of the world’s continual flux, what Heraclitus called logos.

22 The essay ‘Please, Sir, It was the Other Fellow’, is published in the collection of essays entitled Essays on Literature, History, Politics, etc.

23 It’s worth noting that for Nishida, the body is not a mere object at the service of human consciousness but an engaged actor of the world.

24 The company was initially called Theatre of Action and was founded in 1931 by Ewan MacColl. Joan Littlewood joined the company in 1934 and helped give birth to a singular ‘theatre of dialectic’ that placed struggles of inter-war Britain at the core of its activities. In 1935 the Theatre of Action became Theatre Union before changing its name to Theatre Workshop.

25 See Élisabeth Angel-Perez, ‘Le renouveau théâtral (1900-1956) et l’entrée dans le modernisme’, Le théâtre anglais, Paris: Hachette, 1997, 90–114. See also Roger Wooster, ‘Society, Theatre, Education and the First TIE Experiments 1965–6’, Theatre in Education in Britain: Origins, Development and Influence, London, Bloomsbury, 2016, 13–36.

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Leila Haghshenas, « Leonard Woolf’s The Hotel (1939): The Singular Art of Unifying Contraries »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 56 | 2019, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2019, consulté le 16 juin 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/6778 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.6778

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Leila Haghshenas

Leila Haghshenas is a doctoral student in English Literature at Paul-Valéry University, Montpellier 3. She is a member of EMMA (Etudes Montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone, EA 741) and her research explores the ethics of alterity in Leonard Woolf’s literary work. She is currently working as a lecturer (ATER) in English at the University of Lorraine.

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