Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a story of a man who turnes into a woman; who lives for over 350 years without getting old. It begins in 16th-century England and ends there in the early 20th century.
Christian Spuck

Prologue
16th century. Orlando is a charming, melancholic, aristocratic 16-year-old adolescent.

Young Orlando in his solitude. He loves nature, solitary places, and vast views. He wants ‘to feel himself for ever and ever and ever alone’. He writes and contemplates nature.

Scene 1
The young nobleman

Queen Elizabeth I is to visit Orlando’s castle. Orlando rushes home, puts on his best clothes and offers a bowl of rose water to the Queen.
The aged Queen loves the young nobleman: she loves his youth, his ‘heart of gold’, and ‘manly charm’, and ‘innocence’. She decorates him with an order upon him and names him her Treasurer and Steward.

Queen Elizabeth I implores Orlando to stay young forever and never grow old.

Scene 2
The love-story with Sasha

The Great Frost comes to London. People and animals freeze to death in odd postures. Ice-bound Thames becomes a place of a glorious festival. There Orlando meets Sasha, a Russian Princess, and falls in love with her. Orlando and Sasha become lovers.
They are the talk of the entire London's society.

***

Orlando is waiting by the Thames for Sasha to elope with her, but in vain: the Russian ship has sailed. Orlando is left alone.

Scene 3
The melancholiac and the poet

Orlando falls into a seven-day sleep. They try to wake him up by making all kinds of noise, but to no avail. Awoken, he has lost his memory.

***

Orlando has a vision of himself as a writer with roses growing between his lips. He buries himself in books and becomes obsessed with reading. Passionate reading results in a new passion, this time for writing. Orlando becomes a writer.

***

Orlando is visited by a self-indulgent, whimsical and irreverent poet Nicholas Greene. He admires Greene’s idiosyncratic lifestyle and shares his texts with him. Greene makes fun of Orlando’s writings and makes him a laughing-stock in the society.

***

Orlando thinks of the perception of life in its length and its brevity. ‘Altogether, the task of estimating the length of human life is beyond our capacity, for directly we say that it is ages long, we are reminded that it is briefer than the fall of a rose leaf to the ground.’

Orlando flees London.

Scene 4
Constantinople and transformation into a woman

17th century

Orlando is sent to Constantinople as the British Ambassador. The British King has made him a Duke. During a ceremony a riot breaks out. The city is plunged into chaos and violence. Constantinople is on fire.

Orlando falls into a seven-day sleep. Then he wakes – and he is a woman now.

He looks himself up and down in a looking-glass ‘without showing any signs of discomposure’. ‘But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex did nothing whatever to alter their identity.’ Another sex. Same person.

***

Orlando sets sail back to England.

Scene 5
A new life as a woman

18th century. Back to London

Orlando returns to his London home and enters society, as a woman this time. She learns what it is to be a woman in a man’s world: ‘All I can do is to pour out tea and ask my lords how they like it. D’you take sugar? D’you take cream?’

She perceives herself as a man and a woman at the same time and thinks of the self-evidence of people’s gender self-identification: ‘And here it would seem that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being, she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each.’

Orlando accepts her female role. ‘Better to leave the rule and discipline of the world to others; better be quit of martial ambition, the love of power, and all the other manly desires if so one can more fully enjoy the most exalted raptures known to the humane spirit, which are contemplation, solitude, love.'

***

Orlando reflects on human sexes and on the meaning of clothes: ‘Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.’

Scene 6
Victorian morality and the bride of Nature

19th century
A free spirit and a loner, Orlando is surrounded by couples. They are all buttoned up, their behaviour stiff, their thoughts strictly moral. Gender discrepancies become wider. Everyone is wearing wedding rings, even Orlando feels her ring finger tingling. She feels the pressure to surrender to the spirit of the age and to enter in a relationship.

***

Orlando frees into the wide open, to the moor, crows flying over her head. Ecstatic, she yearns to become one with Nature and believes that she has found a spouse – the moor! ‘I am nature's bride.’

Orlando runs, stumbles and breaks her ankle and is found by Marmaduke Bonthorp Shelmerdine. He says that he was a soldier and a seaman, that he has a ruined castle in the Hebrides where cormorants celebrate feasts in the banquet hall, and that he dreams of sailing round Cape Horn. Shelmerdine is an outsider, an adventurer, a restless ‘Flying Dutchman.’ Orlando recognizes a woman in Shel, he recognizes a man in her. ‘Eight or nine days’ they spend in the ferns of the forest, talking, fantasizing, making love. They get married. Then the wind rises. Shel gets restless: he has to sail round Cape Horn.

Scene 7
In the vortex of time

Early 20th century

Orlando has given birth to a son. The young mother is living a modern life.

***

Triggered by the speed of the new era, Orlando is pulled into the vortex of time. Memories from her centuries-long life arise, past events become real again.

Figures from her past life reappear.

‘And indeed, it cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people by the way, somehow contrive to synchronize the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system.’

‘For if there are seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not all having lodgment at one time or another in the human spirit?’


***

Orlando is left alone. A rose leaf falls from the sky.