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Women in Howard Barker’s Theatre: Object or Subject?

Les femmes dans le théâtre de Howard Barker: objet ou sujet?
Clare Finburgh


Selon l’Oxford English Dictionary, un objet est, entre autres, “la personne ou la chose sur laquelle on agit ou on opère”. Depuis l’Antiquité dans la culture européenne, la forme la plus utilisée en tant que symbole, icône ou image, est le corps féminin: Athénée comme emblème de la victoire militaire; Méduse comme figuration de l’horreur; Marie comme incarnation de la pureté. Cependant, ces figures féminines affirment de manière générale le Bien—ou le Mal—schématiques, plutôt que d’affirmer leur propre identité, spécificité, ou subjectivité. La forme féminine idéalisée—ou diabolisé—dans l’art et la culture devient “la personne ou la chose sur laquelle on agit ou on opère”; autrement dit, un objet. Dans cet essai, j’explore Judith, personnage éponyme de la pièce de Barker (1990). Je résume l’histoire de Judith selon la Bible et ensuite, je démontre comment les générations successives d’idéologies théologiques et morales ont agi sur son corps, son désir et sa sexualité, pour la transformer en objet. J’analyse la pièce de Barker et plusieurs mises-en-scène, pour proposer que l’auteurr permet à Judith d’affirmer fugitivement son statut comme sujet, avant que la mythologie la contraint de nouveau à être un objet de ses discours d’ordre et de pouvoir.

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1“You might wish me to be silent. You might wish to imagine me rather than to know me” (Barker 1996, 250). These words are uttered by the female protagonist Judith in Howard Barker’s play of the same name (1990). The most common definition of an object is “a material thing that can be seen or touched”. In addition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “the person or thing to which something is done, or on which something acts or operates”. Since classical antiquity, no form has been used as symbol, icon or image in European culture more than the female body: from Athena as emblem of military victory; to Medusa as figuration of horror, to Mary as incarnation of purity, to Marianne as embodiment of the republican égalité, liberté, fraternité, to Mother Teresa as personification of charity. However, these female figures have tended to affirm the general good—or bad—rather than to affirm their own identity, specificity or subjectivity. As Judith notes in my opening quotation, society has preferred to “imagine” women, rather than to know them. In Monuments and Maidens, a seminal text on the allegory of the female form, Marina Warner notes that behind the Athenian pantheon of goddesses, was hidden a society of unenfranchised women; behind the pervasive and loving celebration of the Madonna in Catholic culture, have persisted deep anxieties about, and disapproval of female emancipation; behind Marianne’s celebration of the French revolutionary democratic republic, lay a nation of women who were denied suffrage (Warner xx). According to Barker’s stage directions, when Judith first enters the stage, she remains silent, still and rigid, like a statue (Barker 1996, 243–244). She is a reified object onto which society, and the audience, project their fantasised ideologies, before she herself is able to speak. She, like the host of idealised or demonised female forms in art and culture, is “the person or thing to which something is done, or on which something acts or operates”; in other words, an object.

  • 1 I am grateful to Howard Barker for the generous time he has spent discussing and reading this piece

2Numerous female protagonists in Barker’s theatre contest objectification, transcending it with their subjectivity. For this discussion, I could have analysed Bradshaw from Victory (1983); Galactia from Scenes from an Execution (1985); practically the entire female cast from The Castle (1985); Katrin from The Europeans (1991); Tenna from Animals in Paradise (2000). . . I have elected to discuss, from the multitude of provocatively self-affirming female characters that populate Barker’s stages, Judith. In an interview with the theatre weekly La Terrasse, Barker states, “[Judith’s] triumph represents the tragic loss of her identity, destruction of her desire, renunciation of her sexuality. I seek therefore not to celebrate her act, but to pose questions about the property of bodies, of desire, of sex and of death” (Barker 2007).1 I begin by summarising briefly the story of Judith from the Book of Judith. I then trace the manner in which successive generations of theological and moral ideologies have acted upon Judith’s body, desire and sexuality, transforming her into a palimpsestic object. I finally suggest ways in which Barker enables Judith fleetingly to affirm her own status as subject, before mythology straitjackets her back into an object for its discourses of order and power.

3As the Book of Judith begins, Judith has mourned her husband for three years and four months. The precise duration is specified, emphasising the widow’s enduring devotion to her husband’s memory. Though young and renowned for her beauty, Judith remains faithful to her late husband, never leaving the marital house. And though wealthy, having been left “gold and silver, menservants and maidservants”, she wears simple sackcloth (Judith 8: 7–8). The town of Bethulia in Samaria, where she lives, comes under siege from the Assyrian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar’s general, Holofernes, attempts to starve the Samaritans into submission. Judith announces that she has a plan. She and her servant cross enemy lines, enter the Assyrian camp, and when challenged by guards, Judith claims she has defected, and wishes to speak to the General, to disclose to him valuable information. She enters his tent, falls to the ground, promises not to lie, and pledges herself to Nebuchadnezzar (Judith 11: 21). Three days and nights pass, after which Holofernes invites Judith to a banquet, an invitation she accepts (Barker’s narrative begins here). She arrives in all her finery, and soon Holofernes collapses on the bed in a drunken stupor. Judith tells her maid to leave, prays for strength, takes Holofernes’s scimitar from his bedpost, exclaims “make me strong today, Lord God of Israel!” (Judith 12:8), and cuts off his head. She puts it in the servant’s bag and transports it as a trophy back to Israel. When the Assyrian army sees Holofernes’s head raised on Bethulia’s battlements, it takes fright, and is pursued and massacred by the Samaritans.

4Judith is quick to proclaim her chastity, announcing upon her return to Bethulia, “My face seduced him, only to his own undoing; he committed no sin with me to shame me or disgrace me” (Judith 13: 16). Female sexuality in the Judeo- Christian tradition is associated with sin and weakness, since, as it is stated in Genesis Chapter Two, Eve was tempted by the serpent to take fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then offered it to Adam. God had forbidden them to eat from this tree. Eve’s act thus tainted her, Adam, and all of humanity, with inherent sin forever. Female sexuality is thus associated directly with evil. Judith’s body remains inviolate, so God rewards her moral rectitude “mak[ing] [her] strong” and enabling her to overpower the wicked adversary. She is accorded strength usually attributed to men and can wield a sword—classic phallic symbol—because she forsakes her female attributes.

  • 2 This, and subsequent translations are mine.

5In a scene from the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, a medieval illumination of the Bible, on the left-hand side Mary pierces the devil with a lance, while on the right, Judith beheads Holofernes.2 Both are paragons of virtue and innocence. In Donatello’s bronze of 1460, Judith is modestly swathed in clothing, contrasting starkly with Holofernes’s half-naked body. And in Mantegna’s Judith from 1495, the heroine abashedly averts her gaze as she lowers the bloodied head into the bag. In these depictions, Judith is perceived as ostensibly above suspicion. She is an object, more precisely, a vessel, in which the subversive powers of an untamed and demonic female sexuality are neutralised, so that dark female energies are transformed into a force for good.

6However, locating Judith’s sexuality at the core of the myth is dangerous. As Warner cautions, sexual virtue and sexual desire are far too volatile and fluid to be contained within a dialectic of good and evil (Warner 169). During the Renaissance, the same female sexuality that had been considered chaste, was inverted, to become brazen. The Bible story’s sensual ambiance—its wining, dining, seducing—became a source for Renaissance inspiration, in stark contrast with the medieval hermeneutic of abstention. Artists focused less on Judith’s virtue, and more on her capacity to deceive, seduce and destroy: she promised not to lie to Holofernes, pledged herself to Nebuchadnezzar, and subsequently murdered the former, and defeated the latter. The story hence became a warning against the destructive nature of female sexuality. In the Bible, Judith declares to Holofernes, “God has sent me to do things with you at which the world will be astonished”, and she orders her servant to leave the two on their own (Judith 11: 16). The potential sexual innuendo of Judith’s remark was exploited by Renaissance artists. During this period, Judith’s body is represented as voluptuous and wanton. In Conrad Meit’s sculpture (1510–1515), she is a nude, nakedness in European culture being the most potent visual sign that a body is available for sex. In numerous paintings, notably Cristofano Allori’s (1613), Judith looks boldly out to the viewer, rather than modestly averting her gaze. Judith is also associated with another biblical figure responsible for luring, only to castrate and kill, namely Salome. Herod entreats Salome to dance at his birthday banquet. She agrees, and in return, requests John the Baptist’s severed head. Thus, she fails to remain chaste, and the dark forces of her female sexuality destroy goodness and innocence. Gustav Klimt affords his Judith II (1909) the subtitle Salome. So, up until the twentieth century, Judith is cast as a classic femme fatale: in the Klimt painting, her hands clawing at her groin display her lack of sexual self control; Holofernes’s nearby head represents the terrible outcome of her abandonment (Kingsbury 183). First an object of virtue and justice, Judith has now become an object of ruinous sexual vice.

7It is thus apt that the painting of Judith which inspired Barker’s play, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620), sits uncomfortably within this brief history of Judith in European culture. At 17, shortly prior to depicting this scene, Gentileschi took her young painting teacher to court for having allegedly raped her. The theme of Judith in her case could be read not as a moral sermon on female licentiousness, but as a woman’s revenge on the man who violated her. Gentileschi’s Judith is not a typical femme fatale, a ravening female relishing her deed. As she holds the head at arm’s length, her facial expression displays her determination, yet her revulsion. She is not strictly a paragon of Christian virtue, since her body is not modestly veiled. She is, however, fully clothed, whilst Holofernes is naked under the loosely hanging rapes. The viewer’s gaze is certainly drawn towards her breasts, partially revealed by her décolleté dress, but it is drawn mainly to her solid forearms, not conventionally an object of male desire, but rather, a display of strength. At the court case, Artemisia’s father allegedly claimed that his “property” had been violated (Greer 193). In her painting, Gentileschi fills the object Judith, which for several millennia has been a property, an object, an icon inscribed with patriarchal and phallocentric fantasies and fears, with the subjectivity of her own specific story. It is pertinent, therefore, that this painting constitutes the basis for Barker’s own transformation of the story, where he enables Judith to infuse the biblical myth with her own specificity and desire.

8One of the central female protagonists in The Castle, Skinner, exclaims, “You do not lie down to the burden, you toss it off. The whine ‘I am made like that’ will not wash, will it?” (Barker 2006b, 35). Barker’s Judith, like many of his female characters, refuses to submit willingly to the normalising, essentialising discourses of “female nature”. Michel Foucault, one of the first poststructuralists to theorise the construction of human gender and sexuality, insists that bodies are not just “made like that”; they are encoded by processes of history, myth and morality, that construct them, and legitimise the hegemonic power of those processes (Foucault 105–106). Over several millennia, Judith’s body has been constructed into an object first of moral probity, and then of sexual terror. Barker’s Judith goes some way towards deconstructing this body-as-object.

  • 3 For a comprehensive analysis of the various representation of Judith, see Warner (1985, 160–176).
  • 4 See the photograph of Jerzy Klesyk’s 1998 production at the Théâtre des Songes, Paris (Hirschmüller (...)

9Apart from Judith mentioning that she spent “hours on this get-up. Like a bride”, and her Servant commenting on the “Lovely weave” of Holofernes’s clothing, Barker makes no reference, either in his stage directions or in the dialogue, to the sensuous luxury characteristic of the Biblical setting for the story (Barker 1996, 254; 249). The only item of set is a canvas army chair, and in the 1995 Wrestling School production directed by the author, a simple camp bed and a structure of black strings suggesting Holofernes’s tent, constituted the scenic design. The costumes were plain and modest: the Servant wore what resembled a nineteenth- century women’s army uniform, and Judith, a sleeved fitted white bodice and long white skirt. Nor does Barker’s Judith conform with the Renaissance archetype of the Jezebel temptress. When she first arrives in Holofernes’s tent, she is reluctant to remove her clothes, shaking her head and saying, “I cannot” (Barker 1996, 246). She refuses to be taken for a mere sex object. When she does undress, she removes only the upper part of her clothing (Barker 1996, 252).3 She therefore contrasts with Holofernes who, according to the stage directions, removes his clothes “item by item” as if in a striptease, and remains fully naked until his death (Barker 1996, 249). Barker’s Holofernes also breaks with biblical tradition, since he refuses the wine that Judith uncorks (Barker 1996, 243). Barker therefore implies that Holofernes is not drawn to Judith because of her scheming, corrupting and intoxicating powers. Barker’s Judith is far more complex than the stereotyped seductress. She tells Holofernes she has come to be “naked lovingly”, and declares, “all I wanted was to lie with you.” (Barker 1996, 246; Barker’s emphasis 251). Judith’s feelings towards Holofernes display a certain tenderness, even love. When the Servant entreats her to take the sword and murder him, she whispers, “Shh. . . (Pause) Listen, his breathing, like returning tides. . .” (Barker 1996, 256). In the event, she does kill Holofernes, thus conforming with the myth. However, like Gentileschi’s Judith, she does not relish her murder. Unlike in the Biblical version, it is the Servant who commits the gruesome act of sawing off the corpse’s head. The 1995 production also avoided portraying Judith as a blood-thirsty vamp: the beheading was symbolically suggested when the head of one of the busts flanking the general’s tent fell into the Servant’s basket (Zimmerman 217). Simultaneously, Judith poured red wine, symbolising blood, from a bottle into Holofernes’s bathtub (Barker 1998, 27). Both in the text, and in the production, distance is therefore created between the murder and Judith, in order that accusations of seduction and destruction be deferred away from her.4 Barker’s Judith does not use her sexuality to beguile, bewitch and bring down a mighty warrior. She is no object of temptation and terror.

10Barker’s Judith is no typical femme fatale, but nor does she deny her sexuality. She affirms her subjectivity via her sexuality, like many of Barker’s female—and male—protagonists. In one of the short plays in The Possibilities (1988) entitled “The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act”, Barker rewrites the Judith myth for a second time. Now, Judith has indeed had sex with Holofernes. When back in Bethulia, her Servant sympathises: “perhaps the greatest sacrifice a woman can . . . To sleep with a man against your will”. Judith contests in celebratory tones, “Even his breath I longed to breathe. And take him in me, head and shoulders also, if I could” (Barker 2006a, 203; 204–5). In another of the plays from The Possibilities, “She Sees the Argument but”, an Official asks a young typist who dresses provocatively, “And where is your responsibility towards the male who cannot contain the lust you stimulate in him?” To which the typist replies, “He should bear his suffering” (Barker 2006a, 198). Barker’s women are not apologetic about their sexuality, and Judith is no exception. In Judith, her declaration to Holofernes leaves little to the imagination: “All right, let’s fuck.” (Barker 1996, 252). In the event, Holofernes and Judith don’t “fuck”. Instead, they engage in a brief embrace, before he falls asleep in her arms.

11Barker’s Judith only veritably affirms her sexual desire after she assassinates Holofernes. “I want to fuck. . . . I can arouse him. He is still warm, so obviously I can arouse him. . . . It curls, . . . it moves like weed in the slow current of my gaze.”, she utters, as she lies over his decapitated corpse (Barker 1996, 259). Here, she evokes Salome, especially Oscar Wilde’s eponymous Salome (Barker 1996, 1892), who longs to kiss the lips of Jokanaan’s head that is delivered to her on a platter: “I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body . . . Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion” (Wilde 487). For Elisabeth Sakellaridou, Judith’s act represents a projection of the violent excesses Holofernes would have committed, had he lived (Sakellaridou 72). I propose an alternative reading. It is significant that Judith’s necrophilic act engages with Holofernes’s body, rather than his head. With respect to the visual representation of women in art, the dictate aut vultus aut vulva has applied since classical times: either the female figure’s face, or her vulva can be portrayed; not both. Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1886) is the most prominent example, where only the woman’s trunk, splayed thighs and vagina are visible. The female body is portrayed as an available object, devoid of any reason or intellect that might be emphasised, were her head or face included. In Barker’s Judith, this dehumanising formula is imposed upon a man since, significantly, Holofernes’s head is removed, and Judith mounts his body.

  • 5 Jerzy Klesyk describes how in his production, he rendered the death explicit and gory. For him, thi (...)

12In spite of affirming her sexuality, however, Judith finally concedes to millennia of mythology. She is transformed from body into icon, specificity into generality, subject into object. When Holofernes falls asleep in Judith’s arms, the Servant reminds her of her womanly duty as mother of her child, and civic duty as daughter of the Land of Israel, to slay the enemy: “Israel commands you. Israel which birthed you. Which nourished you. Israel insists. And your child sleeps” (Barker 1996, 257). Rather than being subsidiary, the Servant’s role in Barker’s play is central: she is the director who ensures that the myth of Judith is performed according to stage directions written by millennia of normalising discourses. When Judith takes the sword and is about to cast the fatal blow, the Servant is finally satisfied that Judith adheres her mythical status:5

Immaculate deliverer! Oh, excellent young woman
Oh, virgin
Oh, widow and mother!
Oh, everything! (Barker 1996, 258)

13Judith’s refound “immaculate” and “virginal” qualities accord her strength, and earn her “half-divine” status, in the words of the Servant (Barker 1996, 257). Judith is permitted to be a virgin, widow and mother, each category defining her in terms of her social duty as a woman, rather than in terms of herself. The Servant makes it clear that her adulation for Judith is based not on what or who Judith is as an individual, but on the object of virtue and justice that Judith is about to become. For this reason, presumably, Barker adds to the Servant’s name in the dramatis personae the epithet “An ideologist”:

Judith:   You are worshipping me.
             Aren’t you? Worshipping me?
             Why are you doing that?
Servant: Not for what you are.
Judith:    No?
Servant: For what you will be. (Barker 1996, 262)

14Judith’s very first line to Holofernes in Barker’s play is, “You are killing my property. . . . My property can’t breathe”, alluding to her Servant, that Holofernes throttles (Barker 1996, 244). By the end of the play, it is she that becomes property: property of the state, an object onto which it projects its ideologies of virtue and justice, her name meaning “Jewess”, which defines her as representative of a people, rather than as an individual.

15Judith does not submit willingly to the dictate of the myth, however. After she has committed the necrophilic act, she cannot raise herself off the floor. Christian Biet pertinently remarks that she is literally stuck between the will to fulfil her own desire, and her duty to history and society (Biet 49). She stands up, reassumes her role in the myth, and consequently, her sexuality and her humanity die. Barker subtitles the play A Parting from the Body. Judith exclaims at the end of the play:

My body is so
My body has no
Israel! Israel!
My body was but is no longer
Body! (Barker 1996, 265–6)

16Judith as icon becomes an empty cipher, a hollow object, devoid of love, sexuality, and subjectivity. As Barker states in my introduction, her military triumph is gained at the expense of her identity, body and desire. Her body is now commandeered by the wider body politic of the state. As the play ends, Judith abuses her Servant, ordering her to clean the bloodied sword with her hair, and then to hack off her tresses with the cleaned blade. “Real ecstasy must come of liquidating innocence, to punish in the absence of offence”, she proclaims (Barker 1996, 265). Society wanted a symbol, and now it has one. And like all embodiments of “justice”, Judith is now tyrannical and ruthless.

17Judith in “The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act” refuses to become an object of adoration. After killing Holofernes, she becomes a recluse in the countryside. An Israelite entreats her to come back to Jerusalem to be celebrated as a heroine, but Judith “draws a sword and slices off the preferred hand. A scream.” She says, “I cut the loving gesture! I hack the trusted gesture! I betray! I betray!” (Barker 2006a, 205). Judith in Barker’s full-length version is not so defiant. But her strength lies in her self-conscious exposure of the artificial myth-making inherent in the construction of her identity. Feminist theorist Judith Butler, who, since the 1990s, has become almost as iconic as Judith from the Apocrypha, notes the theatricality inherent in gender identity:

The abiding gendered self will then be shown to be structured by repeated acts that seek to approximate the ideal of a substantial ground of identity, but which, in their occasional discontinuity, reveal the temporal and contingent groundlessness of this “ground”. The possibilities of gender transformation are to be found precisely in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a failure to repeat, a de-formity, or a parodic repetition that exposes the phantasmatic effect of abiding identity as a politically tenuous construction. (Butler’s emphasis 141)

18Butler argues, echoing Foucault, that gender and sexuality are not “natural” or inalienable truths. Rather, they are “tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 140). They are socially arranged by myth, science, the arts, religion, politics. . . As the woman in “She Sees the Argument but” notes, humans are “slave[s] to some arbitrary gendering” (Barker 2006a, 200). The Servant herself says to Judith, as a desperate attempt to entreat her mistress to stand up and run away, “We do not come made. If we came made, how facile life would be, worm-like, crustacean, invertebrate. Facile and futile” (Barker 1996, 263). Her reiteration of pioneer feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s famous “One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman” is disingenuous, since she represents a society complicit in the “facile and futile” objectification of women. As this essay demonstrates, discourses of Judith’s virtue, strength, seductiveness and destructiveness are all fabrications that gain authenticity through their reiteration over time. However, as Butler suggests, the “discontinuity” of this repetition can reveal the groundlessness of the alleged authenticity. I have recounted Judith’s deviations from the script. Her “failure to repeat” the actions prescribed by Biblical and cultural myths exposes the “politically tenuous construction” of her gender and sexuality by three thousand years of patriarchal ideology. The very process of rewriting the myth provides a fleeting and tenuous space of liberty.

  • 6 For Charles Lamb, the Servant here “presents the perspective of ‘reality’” (Lamb 71). I feel, howev (...)

19So, in order to foreground the inauthenticity of the myth, Judith changes the script. And when she does adhere to the script, she makes it known that she is doing precisely that, and not following the natural instincts of her sex or sexuality. She is “well drilled” and recites after the Servant, “Oh, the barbaric and inferior vile inhuman bestial and bloodsoaked monster of depravity!” (Barker 1996, 257; 258). Butler describes gender as an “act” that is “rehearsed”, “performed” and “reproduced as reality” (Butler 1988, 524). Judith points out that Holofernes’s actions are, just like hers, a “performance” (Barker 1996, 252). Necessary to the performance of gender, sexuality and identity is the endorsement of the enactment by a spectator. In the Bible, Judith orders the servant to leave before the assassination. In Barker’s tale, Holofernes instructs the Servant to stay, and Judith orders, “Sit—and—watch” (Barker 1996, 248; 250). Barker ensures that the theatricality of the myth is foregrounded, by including the Servant as an audience. The Servant’s presence obliges Judith and Holofernes to perform certain social roles and in turn poses as a metaphor for the real audience and society at large, whose expectations dictate Judith’s words and actions.6 True to form, Judith and Holofernes perform for their audience, slipping in and out of their prescribed roles. Whilst the Biblical heroine conceals her lying, Judith actively exposes hers: “I am almost certainly lying now in fact. . . . So much is false when men and women are together, so much!. . . And you say—you confess—all is trickery, all is deception, façade and affectation! Excellent! . . . I intend to kill you, how is that for a lie? And that must mean I love you!” (Barker’s emphasis 254). And she entreats Holofernes, “Lie, do lie!” (Barker 1996, 254). He even admits, when Judith is about to kill him, “I’m not asleep. I’m only pretending” (Barker 1996, 257). Judith’s polysemic declaration “all I wanted was to lie with you” now takes on a whole new meaning. The authenticity of the two protagonists’ words is abolished, as they play-act a scene of pure artifice. This mise en abyme is reminiscent of Jean Genet’s The Maids, where two maids alternate between playing their mistress, playing each other, being themselves, and playing themselves. And like Genet, Barker indicates transitions between roles by inscribing into each character’s dialogue a range of tones and registers. Judith’s dialogue, which is notable for its poetic elegance before she kills Holofernes, afterwards becomes markedly vulgar: “I was a silly cunt there, wasn’t I? . . . Oh, fuck, yes, a proper slag and bint there—. . . Nearly poxed the job, the silly fucker I can be sometimes, a daft bitch and a cunt brained fuck arse (Barker 1996, 259). Whether poetic or profane, Barker’s language is never naturalistic. He describes it as “a speech as contrived as poetry, dislocated, sometimes lyrical, often coarse” (Barker 1998, 81). His use of caesura, repetition, alliteration, rhythmical cadence, pauses, agrammatical syntax, imagery and polysemy, examples of which can be seen in any of the quotations included in this essay, produces an overtly artificial speech, which emphasises further the fact that characters are self-consciously playing roles.

20Judith and Holofernes self-consciously play at being Biblical characters, the result being that gender and identity are perceived by the reader/spectator as performed and provisional. Judith exclaims, “The relief! (She laughs again) The relief of knowing you are simply an element in a fiction!” (Barker 1996, 254). By overtly pointing to her performance of the role of Judith, she parodies the myth, revealing it to be an ideological construction. Judith is thus not essentialised entirely into an object of society’s possession, since she affirms her subjectivity by registering her awareness of the performativity of myth and the theatricality of identity, thereby momentarily indicating that they could be enacted differently; that gender stereotypes could be transformed.

21This essay demonstrates how Howard Barker writes into his play Judith a space where the female protagonist can briefly affirm her subjectivity and autonomy outside the regulated norms of myth and ideology. Judith, like many other female protagonists in Barker’s theatre, rejects her status as an object of others’ fantasies and desires. She refuses to conform meekly to the norms dictated by categories such as woman, mother, virgin, vamp, femme fatale. In the words of Katrin from The Europeans, “the female nature” is “Deep as a pool. Or shallow as a puddle, arguably” (Barker 2006a, 128). Judith’s specificity transcends type, demonstrating how identity is protean, shifting and subjective.

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Barker, Howard, Judith (1990), in Howard Barker Collected Plays 3, London: Calder, 1996.

Barker, Howard, Arguments for a Theatre, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998.

Barker, Howard, “Entretien avec Howard Barker”, Alternatives théâtrales 57 (mai 1998): 24–29.

Barker, Howard, Barker: Plays One, London: Oberon, 2006a.

Barker, Howard, Barker: Plays Two, London: Oberon, 2006b.

Barker, Howard, Interview with Gwénola David, La Terrasse, 145 (Feb. 2007).

Biet, Christian, “Scène et cène: La parabole catastrophique ou l’appropriation des mythes chrétiens et bibliques chez Howard Barker”, Élisabeth Angel- Perez, Howard Barker et le théâtre de la Catastrophe, Paris: Éditions Théâtrales, 2006, 41–62.

Butler, Judith, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Criticism”, Theatre Journal, 40.4 (1988): 519-531.

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990.

Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (1976), trans. R. Hurley, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.

Greer, Germaine, The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and their Work, New York: Secker and Warburg, 1979.

Hirschmüller, Sarah, “Des événements réels qui appellent les mots”,

Hirschmüller, Sarah, Alternatives théâtrales 57 (May 1998): 73–74.

Lamb, Charles, Howard Barker’s Theatre of Seduction, Amsterdam: Harwood, 1997.

Kingsbury, Martha, “The Femme Fatale and Her Sisters”, ed. Thomas B. Hess and Linda Nochlin, Women as Sex Object: Studies in Erotic Art, 1730–1970 (1972), London: Allen Lane, 1973, 182–205.

Sakellridou, Elisabeth, “La qualité picturale des pièces récentes de Howard Barker”, Alternatives théâtrales 57 (May 1998): 69–72.

Warner, Marina, Monuments and Maidens (1985), London, Vintage, 1996.

Wilde, Oscar, Salome (1892), London: Collins, 2003.

Zimmerman, Heiner, “Images of Death in Howard Barker’s Theatre”, Karoline and Gritzner and David Ian Rabey, eds., Theatre of Catastrophe: New Essays on Howard Barker, London: Oberon, 2006, 211–230.

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1 I am grateful to Howard Barker for the generous time he has spent discussing and reading this piece.

2 This, and subsequent translations are mine.

3 For a comprehensive analysis of the various representation of Judith, see Warner (1985, 160–176).

4 See the photograph of Jerzy Klesyk’s 1998 production at the Théâtre des Songes, Paris (Hirschmüller 74).

5 Jerzy Klesyk describes how in his production, he rendered the death explicit and gory. For him, this emphasised Judith’s self-affirming transgressive qualities rather than her murderous tendencies (Hirschmüller 74).

6 For Charles Lamb, the Servant here “presents the perspective of ‘reality’” (Lamb 71). I feel, however, that the Servant reminds Judith of her duty precisely to the opposite of reality: myth.

I am grateful to Vanasay Khamphommala for this insight. In his production of Judith, the Servant was played by a man. This cross-casting served to underscore the fact that all gender and sexuality, including that of Judith and Holofernes, is play-acted.

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Clare Finburgh, « Women in Howard Barker’s Theatre: Object or Subject? »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2019, consulté le 29 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Clare Finburgh

University of Essex

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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