With respect to Field Marshal Paulus, who had done the "wrong" thing and surrendered to the Red Army at the close of the siege of Stalingrad, Adolf Hitler stated "What is life? Life is the Nation. The individual must die anyway. Beyond the life of the individual is the Nation." (Hitler, 2007) The question of whether an individual owes allegiance to something beyond themselves – their country or class or family or peer or political group – is a central question in ethics. It is also at the centre of Howard Barker's play Judith: A Parting From The Body, which is currently getting a welcome revival at the Cock Theatre. Judith posits that there is another force pulling at the individual, a force which may wrench them away from their allegiance to ideological forces and compel them to rebel; that force is desire.
Barker's subject is the assassination of the Babylonian general Holofernes by the Israelite widow Judith in his tent just before a battle which would have seen the nation of Israel massacred or enslaved. This is an Apocryphal subject, told in the Book of Judith, yet one which has been at the centre of European art and culture for centuries: Chaucer and Dante wrote of it, Caravaggio, Artemisia and Cranach painted it; Vivaldi composed an opera on the subject. In Barker's short play, Judith (accompanied by a servant) arrives at the tent of the general planning to kill him, only to have her plans thrown into doubt by a mutual desire which develops between the widow and the general. What does a person do when one's ideological commitments are at odds with one's desiring subjectivity?
Barker does not change the tale's end. Judith beheads Holofernes and so saves Israel. But there it also appears that in betraying her personal bodily desires for the body politic in this way, Judith has killed herself. She is paralysed after the act and only rises as a new being, one who announces that "Israel Is My Body!" (Barker, 1990) She stomps around declaring herself a god and wishing to massacre innocents. She is a walking talking price that has been paid for committing oneself ideologically against all personal considerations.
Barker does not indicate whether he thinks she has done the right or wrong thing. It is made clear, as in the original, that Holofernes death was absolutely necessary for the survival of Israel. Yet who could think that the being Judith becomes is admirable? Perhaps the choice is impossible and, one way or another, the only choice is between deaths.
The strength of Judith as a theatre event is that it shows, in one intense act and through the interaction of just three characters, the impossibility of the human situation at this extreme. Given the infinite calls of ideological commitment that pull at us all and the many times when we are expected to act against our own desiring agency's interest, Judith offers a microcosmic vision of a terrible, insurmountable moment in which we could all find (and lose) ourselves any time now.
Barker, H. (2011, 02 08). Judith: A Parting From The Body. (R. Winfield-Smith, Director, C. Cusack, E. Prior, & L. Smith, Performers) Cock Tavern Theatre, London, England, United Kingdom.
Barker, H. (1990). The Europeans / Judith. London: John Calder (Publishers) Ltd.
Hitler, A. (quoted at) (2007, 05 18). General Paulus Nazi Germany. Retrieved 02 12, 2011, from Sparticus International : http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/GERpaulus.htm