137: Scenes from an Execution

5 Aug

Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution is another stunning play by this prolific playwright, this time about art, gender and power.

book and face

Galactia is the most talented artist in Venice in the 16th century and she has been commissioned to paint a giant representation of the Battle of Lepanto. But the Church (who hold the power in the state) want the painting to be a glorious celebration of the victory and Galactia wants to paint the brutality of war, the senseless loss of life and the cruelty of the victors.

GALACTIA: Dead men float with their arses in the air. Hating the living, they turn their buttocks up. I have this on authority. Their faces meanwhile peer into the seabed where their bones will lie. After the battle the waves were clotted with men’s bums, reproachful bums bobbing the breakers, shoals of matted buttocks, silent pathos in little bays at dawn.

I love the way that Barker, in writing a play about a rebellious female artist in the late 16th century, has managed to say so much about art, sexuality, criticism and competition. Rivera, a female critic, says: “it is very violent, criticism. A very bloody, knocking eyeballs thing. Knives out for slashing reputations, grasping the windpipe of expression. I try to look nice, though it’s murder I do for my cause.”

It’s not only the critics who have the knives out. Fellow artists are just as vicious.

LASAGNA: If it had been painted by a man it would have been an indictment of the war, but as it is, painted by the most promiscuous female within a hundred miles of the Lagoon, I think we are entitled to a different speculation. […]

SORDO: […] Because she is so desperate to prove she is not feminine, a flower-painter, an embroiderer, she goes to the extremes and becomes, not virile, but shrill.

This rings a bell for me with so much of the conversation and reportage about Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. When will we be able to discuss women’s achievements for their merit rather than fixating on the appearance, voice or fertility of the woman concerned?

In Scenes from an Execution, Galactia ends up being imprisoned for her art and has a hilarious conversation with the man in the next cell. She’s ranting about the dark and the stench and wailing about her fate while he yells at her to shut up. It’s a funny scene but then segues into something profound, which is one of things Barker is so good at doing.

MAN IN THE NEXT CELL: Be still, because you have such a long time to endure. Be still, and preserve yourself.


MAN IN THE NEXT CELL: Because if you scream and struggle you will wear down what you have, which is little enough in this bitterness. Be an animal in the straw. Be the toad.


MAN IN THE NEXT CELL: And slow your heart beat down.


MAN IN THE NEXT CELL: Lie, waiting. Hibernate the long winter of your offence.

Galactia is a wonderful role for a female actor and the play is rich and ribald. It was first produced as a radio play (there’s even a talking sketchbook, which describes Galactia’s sketches for the radio audience) but has since had many stage performances.

Publisher: John Calder (published with The Castle)

Cast: 6M, 4F (includes doubling)

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