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UCLA

The Mythology of Orlando

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By Zane Cassidy

Published Apr 1, 2020 8:00 AM


Playwright Sylvan Oswald on his response to Woolf’s trans hero.


Virginia Woolf. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images.

“I was looking for heroes and role models, and I needed more than what was out there, so I had to make my own,” says Sylvan Oswald, assistant professor and playwright at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

And that’s what he plans to do for his next writing project — backed by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s Guggenheim Fellowship. As a starting point, Oswald is using Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography to explore the trans experience and identity.

Famous for its exploration of how society might deal with evolving gender roles, the book is about an Elizabethan man who mysteriously becomes a seemingly immortal female poet and adventurer.

For Oswald, who grew up in Philadelphia in a working-class family that later became middle class, reading Woolf’s whimsical saga in college was tinged with notes of disenchantment. “I picked up that book and was like, ‘Wait, what? This isn’t helping me. In fact, this is annoying me! Who are all these rich people?’” he says.

But he plans to respond to the mythology that Woolf created, clarifying that she wasn’t writing about the trans experience. That wasn’t her life or a conversation of the time, says Oswald. However, she created a trans character for future generations to admire, deride and discuss.

“Even when [trans characters in literature] are problematic, it’s important that we keep having conversations about them,” Oswald says. “[We should be] thinking, ‘What did that do to our understanding of transness, and where does it fall short? Where do we see the conversation going?’”

For his project, Oswald imagines new approaches to visual story-telling and making sure the trans characters have the fullest possible expression of humanity.

“It probably feels burdensome for people to feel like ‘I need to educate myself [on gender-nonconforming issues].’ But if you think of it as ‘Oh, I can just consume different kinds of stories of other people,’ and have that be a steady part of your media diet, then you’re doing it.”

Oswald is still developing the story, but he does have a vision for his reimagined hero: “The character is struggling with feeling invisible, or feeling like who they are doesn’t match how they’re seen. And that’s disappointing. And it wakes you up in a sense, like ‘If people aren’t understanding me, what can I do to change that?’” We’ll have to wait and see how the hero responds.

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