Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Postmodern Artistic Re-Presentation

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Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Postmodern Artistic Re-Presentation

MARY JOE HUGHES

ow that Michael Cunningham's The Hours has been made into a film representing yet another echo of Woolf's Mrs. DaUo\va\\ it is worth investigating just how the later novel conceives its relation to its predecessor. Because The Hours directly lakes the role of literature as one of its subjects, it may provide a model for considering postmodern artistic representation more generally. Such re-telling or re-presentation of an earlier work of art is rife in postmodernity, and not just in fiction. Consider Stoppard's Rosemrcmtz and Guildenstem are Dead. Smiley's A Thousand Acres. Hwang's M. Bulleifly, Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, John Madden's Shakespeare in Love, the rock opera Rome and Jewels, or the gospel version of Messiah. Too Hot to Handel as a random sampling from a long list. Although this kind of postmodern re-presentation has been condemned as pastiche or ironic parody.' the practice is nothing new. The notion that art must be brand-new, a kind of large-scale urban renewal project forever starting lrt)m scratch is mostly drawn from modernism. Many earlier art forms acknowledged their predecessors and borrowed liberally from both the structure and content of earlier models. One has only to consider the various versions of Fausl or the models for Shakespeare's plays or Palladio's borrowing from classical forms or the later borrowing from Palladio or the habits of composers writing variations on earlier themes to acknowledge a venerable tradition of artistic repetition. In echoing this history, the arts of postmodernism suggest something more traditional than modernism, but they may be attempting something new as well, a departure as well as a return. But the "something new" is not easy (o characterize. It eludes our grasp. SUMMER 2004, VOL. 45, NO. 4 349

Much has been written about giving voice to the silences within the tradition, about opening it up to alternative perspectives, and certainly this is one of the effects of several of the postmodern works cited above, and of many more besides. The attempt to highlight the perspective of the "other" underscores the postmodern preoccupation with difference. But these gestures toward pluralism, however desirable and effective, reduce the postmodern aesthetic to a largely political or ethical purpose. It is worth considering what else is going on besides this opening to new voices. For example, what can we discover about the postmodern idea of art in works that echo and transform their predecessors? Cunningham's novel is a rich source for investigating this question because of its explicit focus on the role of literature and by extension the role of art or creativity more generally. I am not concerned here with the many ways in which The Hours both echoes and extends the narrative of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Let it suffice that the characters of the later novel recall those of the former: A woman named Clarissa plunges into the city to buy flowers for her party; a crazed poet who plunges to his death disturbs her party. Figures from the characters" pasts resurface in recollection and again in person on the day of the party, thereby breaking open the novel's temporal structure of a single day with myriad journeys into the past. In both works there is a luncheon party to which Clarissa is not invited, and in both works Clarissa worries about the questionable influence of a strident ideologue over her daughter. Although The Hours contains a similar cast of characters to those of Mrs. Dalloway and repeats the themes of love and death and time, Michael Cunningham does not simply ape the structure of Mrs. Dalloway and transpose it to New York in the late twentieth century. He takes an important but nonetheless minor theme in Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa's intense youthful passion for Sally Seton, and considerably expands it in the later novel. Clarissa and Sally are lovers and many of the...
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