Saturday, 12 February 2011

Judith: A Parting From The Body

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 :


  1. A fascinating discussion. many thanks for this. I wonder how this would be further complicated by an understanding of desire not as subjective fulfillment or sexuality in the sense presented here, but rather as its opposite - divestiture. In this, Lacanian parable, the exemplary figure is Antigone who chooses to act outside the bounds of family, community and law and by burying her brother also buries her self (in the sense of dying to the law and to a normative life). Antigone's act is ethical because it is amoral (blind to community binding regulation), and because it stays true to a desire that, while exceeding any notion a shared good or a greater nation is also radically external to sexual yearning or any sense of a living bond - romantic or otherwise. If by choosing the nation Judith betrays a certain desiring subjectivity, then we might also want to consider the annihilatory dimension of desire itself - beyond the stop gap sexiness of any Holofernes. Stan

  2. Hi Stan, thanks for that. I think you're absolutely right about what I left out of the above consideration of the play, as you say "the annihilatory dimension of desire itself." From my reading of Barker's work from the early 1980s onwards, he often demonstrates how desire breaks down the self and creates new possibilities of being - it is, in fact, this breaking down of new possibilities that Judith betrays. Because it's not simply Holofernes as a physique that Judith desires - it is him as a philosophical and game-playing being who challenges her previous notions of The Other at the same time as pointing her in the direction of a radical new form of intimacy/life. Holofernes, in the Baudrillardian sense, seduces Judith. She, at a terrible price, steps away from that seduction...