Arnold Bennett’s “Judith”

Arnold Bennett’s plays have not received a great deal of critical attention, though he wrote a large number of them. I found an interesting one (written just after the War) while hunting through online free files that I could read on the Kindle I was given for Christmas (I like the machine even more than I thought I would – very comfortable to read).

Judith was first performed in Eastbourne in 1919, with Lillah McCarthy (wife of Harley Granville-Barker in the title role.) It then came briefly to the Kingsway Theatre, but did not do very well. The only other thing I know about its theatrical history is that that in 1925 Eugene Goossens wrote a one-act opera called Judith, based on a libretto by Bennett – presumably an adaptation of the play.

Lillah McCarthy as Judith

It is based on the apocryphal Old Testament book of Judith. The Assyrians are besieging the city of Bethulia in Judea. They control access to the wells, so that the Bethulians will die of thirst unless relieved. Ozias, the governor is ready to surrender, despite his knowledge of what defeat will mean for the citizens, but is persuaded to delay by Judith, who volunteers to go across to the Assyrians on a mission of her own.

Her beauty and charm thrill Holofernes, the Assyrian general. She goes to his tent for the night, and murders him. The death of their general puts the invaders into disarray, and Bethulia is saved.

The play has lines that must have resonated in 1919 – such as this exchange about the vast number of casualties of the fighting:

CHABRIS. At any rate this will be the last war.

OZIAS. Why?

CHABRIS. Why! Because plainly war cannot continue on such a scale. Or if it does, mankind is destroyed. Nebuchadnezzar has rendered war ridiculous.

OZIAS  (laughs; then half to himself, sarcastically). What is heavier than lead, and what is the name thereof, but an aged fool?

There is also some debate about the ethics of pursuing a military victory by starving the enemy, a topical enough subject, since Germany’s collapse owed as much to starvation on the Home Front as it did to military defeat in France and Belgium.

The reason I read the play, however, was to see how Bennett deals with the key scene, Judith’s murder of Holofernes. Writers of fiction during the War had generally demarcated the gender lines quite strictly. Women in fiction were expected to loyally stand by their men, and in adventure stories were expected to be plucky if captured by the Hun. There was a large body of fiction, however, that criticised women who stepped beyond this subsidiary role and became proactive. Bennett himself had in 1914 written a story disapproving of women who handed out white feathers.

The freedom of a historical setting, however, gives Bennett the opportunity to present a heroine who is very proactive indeed. Judith slaughters Holofernes with full authorial approval (and with far less ambiguity in the presentation than in, for example, Kipling’s “Mary Postgate”); she comes through the experience to emerge as an independent woman, taking the husband that she has chosen for herself, not the governor that Bethulia expects her to marry.

The play is largely written in what was then often called the Wardour Street style (because Wardour Street was then London’s centre for second-hand furniture). It is full of archaisms, and sentences whose rhythm is clunkily reminiscent of the King James Bible. It is like Wilde’s Salome without the excesses.

Visually, McCarthy’s performance may have been excessive enough, though. In his journal,  Bennett described her costume in the seduction scene with undisguised enthusiasm:

Above a line drawn ½ inch or 1 inch about the “mont de Venus” she wore nothing except a 4 in band of black velvet round the body hiding the breasts and a similar perpendicular band of velvet starting from between the breasts and going down to the skirt and so hiding the navel… She looked a magnificent picture thus, and a police prosecution would not have surprised me at all.

Doubtless he was remembering the furore surrounding Maud Allen’s wartime performances as Salome.

The costume may have been sexy, but the language of the play is not. Bennett achieves neither Wilde’s heated decadence, nor the sharpness of wit that Shaw brought to his Cleopatra. Judith is not very credible. Bennett’s novels are full of individualised and independent women, in comparison with whom Judith is rather cardboard. Bennett’s best work is always anchored in observed reality, even when it takes off from there to explore other realms.

I wonder what made him want to write this play (in a hurry, in January 1919). Was it to get away from wartime Britain, which I think he had found it difficult to write about, though The Pretty Lady had been a success on most levels. Did he want to present a female warrior, and found it easier to do this within a Biblical story whose veracity none would dispute? Or had he rather enjoyed the mild scandal caused by The Pretty Lady‘s treatment of sexual themes, and was he trying for another kind of eroticism? If that is the case, he unfortunately did not go far enough. His audience may have been titillated, but the play’s treatment of sex stays on the level of conventional melodrama.

I was interested to note that at Eastbourne the part of Bagoas, chief eunuch among the Assyrians, was played by Ernest Thesiger, an actor who while a soldier had been notable for continuing with his hobby of embroidery while in the trenches, and for his (possibly apocryphal) reply when asked about the War: “My dear, the noise! And the people!”

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  1. […] George Simmer, Arnold Bennett’s “Judith”, Great War Fiction, January 8, 2011 (retrieved April 5, […]

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