Judith, in ancient Israel, a widow young and without children, conceives a stratagem, in company with her Handmaiden, to repel invading Assyrians who threaten to annihilate the Jewish community. She pretends to defect from the Israelites and then entices the Assyrian commander, Holofenes, at a soiree. Holofernes is a strident demagogue-type. With the Handmaiden’s aid she gets Holofernes inebriated to senselessness, takes his sword, and decapitates him. The Assyrian invaders then flee. Judith has saved her country.
Judith: A beautiful, gifted young widow among the ancient Israelites
Handmaiden: Judith’s faithful servant, youthful, thoughtful, attractive
Holofernes: The brash, overbearing Commander-in-Chief of the Assyrian army
Chorus: An omniscient narrator and poetic voice, male, ambulatory on stage
Central Israel: the desert, hills, and opposing encampments at the Israelite fortress city of Bethulia, besieged by the Assyrian army.
Circa 500 B.C.E. Daytime.
A Judean desert setting. Characters in appropriate ancient garb (c. 500 B.C.E.).
A simple setting, is it not? A Middle-Eastern desert, arid plain, surrounded by arid uplands. Yet, oh so rich a field for our imagination, our history, and our heritage! Hear, good people, a tale apocryphal, and yet it’s true in its meaning, as much now as in ancient times. How Judith, a Jewess straight and true, rose from downtrodden state to grapple with fate and save her nation. [Chorus retreats, enter Judith]
I am Judith. I am Jew. I am woman. I am beauty, truth, goodness, sweetness and light, sugar and spice and everything nice. I am also smart, smarter than your average man, or even your above average man. Maybe I’m even smarter than your average woman, or your above average woman! As you see, I favor assertiveness over modesty! [enter Judith’s Handmaiden]
And I am Judith’s handmaid. I’ll say that I’m smart, too. All the women in this play are smart. All two of us! And all the men in this play are dumb! All one of them! (You haven’t seen him yet, lucky you!) Don’t mean Mr. Chorus. He’s just on deep background, a neutral sort of figure, necessary but a bit artificial, unlike Judith and me—we’re the real thing! [enter Chorus
Excuse me, ladies, I’m intruding my inconsequential self to provide some appropriate needed deep background, if you don’t mind.
How appropriate! [exit Judith and Handmaiden]
Before introducing our fourth and final character, our disgusting, grotesque, obnoxious villain, who unfortunately happens to be male (as I technically am also), we must set the scene for the action of our play so you can understand where these people are coming from and where they’re going. The place is ancient Israel, about 500 B.C.E., the arid landscape around the Israelite fortress city of Bethulia. The Israelites are being besieged by the aggressive Assyrians, who enslave any of those they do not kill. The Assyrians intend to conquer the known world. The Assyrian commander in chief is a charismatic buffoon named Holofernes. I don’t want to brag about him very much, so I’ll let him do that for himself. [exit Chorus, enter Holofernes]
Hello, you paltry people! I am Holofernes, number one Assyrian man! You remember Assyria, don’t you? We are the baddest dudes of the ancient Middle East! And we are on a roll. Conquered Mesopotamia and Chaldea and most of those other funny named places you’ve vaguely heard about. So now all I’ve got left to do is wipe out puny old Israel! A piece of cake! I’ll have my cake and eat it too! Dessert before breakfast. And everybody will be toast before I’m through. Maybe I’ll do it single handed, one hand behind my back. No problem! See you later! I’ve got mischief to attend to! [exit Holofernes, enter Chorus]
Sorry for that bit of obnoxious arrogance! Holofernes is one of those human paradoxes, a successful detestable. Looks like he’s on a path to conquer most of the known world. Only tiny Israel, the last bastion of the Middle East, stands in his way. And the focus is on just a tiny part of Israel, mountainous Bethulia, where Judith lives. [enter Judith]
Oh, pardon me, did someone call my name?