Plot & Creation: The Hours
The Novel The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Inspired by Virginia Woolf's Novel Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway is a landmark of stream-of-consciousness prose, a hallmark of 20th-century avant-garde literature. Yet its well-earned status in the canon of Western literature can obscure just how (seemingly) simple the book’s content really is. Originally titled The Hours, the novel follows a single woman on a single day in June. The society wife Clarissa Dalloway wakes up, buys flowers, passes through a park, and returns home to prepare for a party that evening. Yet for novelist Michael Cunningham, it is the very mundanity of Clarissa Dalloway’s day that makes the novel so remarkable. “In Mrs. Dalloway,” Cunningham wrote in his introduction to the 2021 Vintage Classics edition of the book, “Woolf insists that a single, outwardly ordinary day in the life of a woman named Clarissa Dalloway, an outwardly rather ordinary person, contains just about everything one needs to know about human life, in more or less the way nearly every cell contains the entirety of an organism’s DNA.” And indeed, Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Hours (1998) dives even further into the depiction of several “ordinary” days. Here, the lives and relationships of three women slowly start to unravel, revealing the rich, and often tortured, nature of human experience contained in the apparently mundane.
Like Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours follows three women on a single day in June. Like Clarissa Dalloway, each woman prepares for a party to be held later in the day. And like Clarissa Dalloway, each woman could be said to be “outwardly ordinary.” First is Woolf herself, writing Mrs. Dalloway in a suburb beyond London. Second is Laura Brown, a restless housewife in California in the 1940s. And finally, we have Clarissa Vaughan, a member of New York’s intelligentsia around the turn of the 21st century. These three women will never meet one another. They live in three different decades, in three different cities, facing three very different sets of circumstances. On a deeper level, however, these women have everything in common. All three must respond to the major traumas of their generations: World War I, World War II, and the AIDS crisis. All three have been touched by depression and mental illness, and Mrs. Dalloway has been a driving force in every one of their lives. As Cunningham braids their stories together, we come to know each of these women deeply—and to discover just how extraordinary they really are.
A June day in New York City in the 1990s
Clarissa busily prepares a party to be thrown that evening in honor of her friend Richard, who has won an award for his poetry. Her partner, Sally, suggests that Richard, who is suffering from advanced AIDS, may not be well enough to attend. Clarissa is adamant that his health is improving, and that the party will leave him in good spirits.
Clarissa goes to buy flowers for Richard’s party. She stops to admire the beautiful June day in Washington Square, a large park in New York city with an iconic marble arch at its center. But try as she might, she cannot fully banish the thought of Richard’s recent declaration: “I’m getting a prize ‘cause I’m going to die.” Clarissa runs into a novelist, Walter, and invites him to the party. Walter replies that he may well be able to attend as his partner, Evan, has a new “cocktail” of AIDS medication that has helped him feel better and more energized.
Clarissa stops in the flower shop. Then, as she makes her way toward Richard's apartment, she remembers a summer from their youth: they had a love affair, even though he was already in a serious relationship with his boyfriend, Louis.
When Clarissa arrives at Richard’s, he greets her with the nickname “Mrs. Dalloway,” a reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel, since its heroine is named Clarissa. It soon becomes clear that Richard is, indeed, profoundly sick. He cannot sleep at night, and during the day he constantly hears voices. He even suggests to Clarissa that he has won an award simply because the committee felt sorry for him. She is hurt and frustrated by his constant pessimism.
Clarissa returns home, but she feels a strange urge to go back and check on Richard again. Something, she tells Sally, is simply not right.
A June day in Richmond, a suburb of London, in 1923
Virginia Woolf has just awakened from a dream in which the first line of her new novel, Mrs. Dalloway, came to her: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Her husband, Leonard, enters. He is concerned for Virginia’s health and asks if she has eaten. Virginia feels sorry that her husband has to put up with her depression. She is desperate to return to central London from this sleepy suburb where Leonard has brought her to regain her strength. Virginia knows that this return is predicated upon her not losing weight, but as she works, the characters in her story—Clarissa Dalloway and the traumatized war veteran Septimus Warren Smith—are slowly taking shape in her mind, and she hates to interrupt her work with such mundane trifles as food. As she envisions it, the novel will take place over the course of a single day, and it will end with one of the characters dying by suicide.
As Virginia works on her novel, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith appear onstage as dancers.
A June day in Los Angeles, in 1949
Laura is sitting in her bedroom. It is her husband Dan’s birthday, and Laura feels that she should be downstairs, taking care of him and her son, Richie, whom she affectionately calls Bug. She has just started reading Mrs. Dalloway, and she steals a few minutes for herself and her novel before she emerges from her bedroom to start the day.
When Laura finally goes into the kitchen, she finds that Dan and Richie have placed a bouquet of roses on the table for her. Dan says they wanted to let her sleep because she is pregnant, but Laura worries that he sees how depressed she is. When Dan leaves for work, Laura suggests that she and Richie bake a cake. As she and Richie assemble the dessert, Laura feels desperate, confused, and alone.
Laura’s neighbor Kitty arrives and reports that she must spend a few days in the hospital. Although Kitty puts on a brave face, it is clear that her diagnosis may be something serious. Kitty’s presence is the one thing that can pull Laura out of her gloom: on some level, Laura is already in love with Kitty.
After Kitty leaves, Laura feels desperate to get away. She drops Richie off with a babysitter, and then drives to a hotel in Pasadena.
Los Angeles, 1949
Laura sits alone in a hotel room reading Mrs. Dalloway. As she reads, she hears Virginia’s voice reciting the final lines of the book. She empties a bottle of pills onto the hotel bed but stops herself going any further. She suddenly feels selfish: there are people—Dan and Richie—who need her. Realizing this, she gathers her things and leaves the hotel.
When Laura picks up Richie, it is clear that he has been worried about her. She reassures him, and together they go home to celebrate Dan’s birthday.
Virginia finishes her novel. She feels strange to have already arrived at the end—not only of her book but also, she feels, at the end of her life. She wanders to a nearby river and fills her pockets with stones, but Leonard finds her in time to escort her home to safety.
When they arrive at their house, Virginia hears voices. She momentarily worries that it is a hallucination, but then she discovers that her sister, Vanessa, has arrived with her children. The children have found a dead bird and are preparing to give it a funeral. After the funeral, at dinner with Leonard, Vanessa, and her niece and nephews, Virginia asks when she might return to London. Leonard responds that she is not yet well enough. Virginia is crushed, but suddenly she brightens: she has thought of an ending for her novel.
The action jumps forward to 1941. Virginia has spent a lifetime oscillating between the joy of intellectual discovery and literary creation, and her bouts of intense depression. Now alone in Sussex, she fills her pockets with stones and walks into the river Ouse, choosing to die by suicide.
New York City, the end of the 20th century
Clarissa returns to Richard’s apartment and finds his former lover, Louis, standing outside, wondering whether or not to let Richard know he is there. The two discuss Richard’s new novel. Louis suggests that its main character is based on Clarissa, and then notes that the book ends with the narrator’s mother dying by suicide. They reminisce about the summer many years ago when they were both in love with Richard.
When Clarissa opens the door to Richard’s apartment, she is surprised by the sunlight that floods in: normally, Richard keeps the shades tightly drawn. Then, she sees Richard standing on a windowsill, leaning out over the street below. Terrified, Clarissa begs Richard to come down from the window. He is panicked and extremely anxious about what he will do with the infinite, empty hours that fill his days. As Clarissa looks on in horror, Richard steps off the window ledge to his death.
Virginia Woolf publishes Mrs. Dalloway. The earliest of Woolf’s well-known novels, it is a landmark work of modernist, stream-of-consciousness fiction.
Having struggled with mental illness for much of her life, Virginia Woolf dies by suicide on March 28, at the age of 59.
Michael Cunningham is born on November 6 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He will study English literature at Stanford University, before going on to train at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first novel, Golden States, will be published in 1984.
Kevin Puts is born on January 3 in St. Louis, Missouri. He studies at Yale University and the Eastman School of Music, where he receives his Doctor of Musical Arts degree. His early compositions include symphonies and concerti commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra and the California Symphony Orchestra.
Cunningham publishes The Hours, his fourth novel, which imagines a single day in June as Virginia Woolf writes her novel Mrs. Dalloway. This fictionalized account is interwoven with the stories of two other (fictional) women, separated in time and space but connected by Mrs. Dalloway. A critical triumph, the novel will win a Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner Award the following year.
Paramount Pictures releases The Hours, a cinematic adaptation of Cunningham’s novel directed by Stephen Daldry. The movie is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Music, and Best Picture. Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Virginia Woolf earns the Academy Award for Best Actress, and Meryl Streep (as Clarissa Vaughan) and Julianne Moore (as Laura Brown) receive Best Supporting Actress nominations.
Composer Kevin Puts’s first opera, Silent Night, premieres at Minnesota Opera to great critical acclaim. Based on the true story of a one-night ceasefire during World War I, when allied and German troops agreed to put down their weapons to celebrate Christmas Eve together, the work wins the Pulitzer Prize.
Lyricist Greg Pierce’s first musical, The Landing, premieres at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theater. The music is by John Kander, whose credits also include Cabaret, Chicago, and the song “New York, New York.”
Puts’s second opera, The Manchurian Candidate, premieres at Minnesota Opera. Greg Pierce joins forces with John Kander once again, for the musical Kid Victory.
In February, Pierce’s opera Fellow Travelers, written with composer Gregory Spears, premieres at Cincinnati Opera. Based on Thomas Mallon’s novel of the same name, it focuses on the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s. The opera has been developed by Opera Fusion, a partnership between Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music that will later prove instrumental in the creation of The Hours.
Puts writes Letters from Georgia, a song cycle based on the letters of Georgia O’Keeffe, for soprano superstar Renée Fleming. It premieres in November at the Eastman School of Music, Puts and Fleming’s alma mater.
Puts’s first chamber opera, Elizabeth Cree, premieres at Opera Philadelphia. Based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd and set in London in the 1880s, the plot mixes history and fiction, bounces back and forth in time, and weaves together several storylines—all narrative techniques that will later appear in The Hours.
Buoyed by the success of their song cycle, Puts and Fleming have been brainstorming possible subjects for an opera. Fleming suggests The Hours, and both Puts and the Met’s artistic and managerial teams enthusiastically embrace the idea.
By April, librettist Greg Pierce, soprano Kelli O’Hara, and mezzosoprano Joyce DiDonato are all on board, and by July, Pierce has started developing the libretto.
Pierce completes the libretto for The Hours in September and Puts starts composing. In November, Phelim McDermott—whose previous productions at the Met include Philip Glass’s operas Akhnaten and Satyagraha and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Così fan tutte—is hired to direct.
Work on the opera has been going well, Seattle Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra are on board to co-commission the work, and a workshop has been planned for November—until the Covid-19 pandemic forces the Met to close. The workshop is canceled, Seattle Opera has to pull out of hosting the work’s premiere, and Phelim McDermott, who is based in the United Kingdom, is unable to travel to the United States for rehearsals.
The Met reaches out to Opera Fusion about hosting a development workshop, and in March 2021, a small group of Met staff members travel to Cincinnati to take part. The singers must remain masked while performing behind individual plexiglass shields, and members of the creative team must sit at separate tables, but the workshop gives everyone their first chance to experience the opera live. A run-through is streamed to Met staff in New York and to Phelim McDermott in England.
Back on schedule, The Hours is heard for the first time by a live audience in a concert version in March. Performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and featuring Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara, and a number of other singers from the Met, the performance enjoys excellent reviews and enthusiastic applause from the audience. It also allows the creative team to make a few minor adjustments to both the libretto and score before the staged premiere in the autumn.
On November 22, The Hours premieres at the Met.