Judith commands an audience

07 Apr

Yesterday, Judith was linked to the literary genre of Gothic Romance.  Today, Judith is back on the stage as a sexualized heroine of the First World War.

Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was an English writer, best known as a novelist but also a journalist and playwright. Well … actually he was not well-known as a playwright:  he had nine plays produced between 1919 and 1931, but only Mr. Prohack received moderate critical and popular acceptance. He wrote the three-act play Judith as a “star vehicle” for his friend Lillah McCarthy, but it was not a success — possibly because it relied too heavily on McCarthy’s physical attributes and possibly because it was not inspired writing.(1)

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.(2)

Hmmm … titilated.  Which brings me to the costumes.  The production employed  Charles de Sousy Ricketts (1866-1931) as costume designer — probably due to his success with Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1906).  I am a sucker for a good costume.  And here we have the vivid complementary colors of orange and blue that pop off the page … and this design is just for the attendant.



Charles de Sousy Ricketts (1866 – 1931), “Design for a theatre costume: Attendant on Holofernes in ‘Judith’ by Arnold Bennet,” 1919, 14.75 x 10.25 in, Victorian and Albert Museum, London, UK


But alas, there are no such watercolor of a costume for Judith in the V&A collection.  However, I was able to find an image online!


Charles de Sousy Ricketts (1866 – 1931), “Design for a theatre costume: Dress for Judith in ‘Judith’ by Arnold Bennet,” 1919, watercolor on paper, 51 x 35.5 cm, Petroz Fine Art Gallery, Geneva, CH


Arnold Bennett described the costume in his journal:

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.

And for an Edwardian audience, that was probably titilation enough to sell a few tickets.

See you at the V&A!


(1) Roy Terence Morgan, The Plays of Arnold Bennett, Thesis Submitted to the School of Graduate Studies, McMaster University, January 1983

(2) George Simmer, Arnold Bennett’s “Judith”, Great War Fiction, January 8, 2011 (retrieved April 5, 2015)

(3) Nicholas Frankel, Charles Ricketts, Everything for Art: Selected WritingsRivendale Press, 2014

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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Exploring


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