The drama of The Baa-Lamb’s Holiday is not military; it is familial, a grotesque battle for sovereignty and freedom, revealing that ordinary bourgeois life is redder in tooth and claw than nature could ever hope to be. Act One opens onto a scene much like the train car Carrington describes in Down Below, »a rather strange room with a bow window that looks out upon a savage and deserted range of hills.« Everything in the room is either in the middle of coming alive, or in the middle of dying – in Carrington’s fiction, distinguishing between life and death is as impossible as distinguishing humans from animals from objects. »The furniture stands about listlessly on spindle legs like a group of decrepit old ladies in rococo underwear.« »Most of the ornaments are horses in weird and tormented stages of evolution.« Here sits old Mrs. Carnis, devouring a foul-smelling prawn and bean salad, her face like »a dead pearl lying pale and precious« amidst her purple lace collar, her hands like »a pair of albino starfish with their curious knots and wrinkles«. A lascivious talking dog named Henry slips into the room, followed by sixteen-year-old Theodora, »tall and savage«, with »an immense mane of black hair«. The description recalls Carrington’s own dark haze of hair in her 1938 painting, Self-Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse). A child bride, Theodora is pursued by her much older husband, Mrs. Carnis’s son Philip, ill-tempered, vengeful, and drunk on ginger wine. We learn that his first wife, Elizabeth, had disappeared mysteriously, six years previously. Midway through the first act, she reappears, blinking at the others with eyes »as pale as water«, her hair hanging by her face »like the fins of a metal fish«.
Reading Carrington’s stage descriptions is enough to realise that something is terribly wrong with this family, even before anyone begins to speak. When they do, it is to snap and growl, to bare their teeth and trade insults that are as hateful as they are funny. »Your mouth tastes like a hyena’s cage«, Theodora tells Philip when he tries to kiss her – the hyena a recurrent figure of mischief in Carrington’s fiction, beginning with the first short story she wrote in 1935, The Debutante. Mrs. Carnis’s drawing room has all the sickly, claustrophobic intimacy of the slaughterhouse, even before we learn that someone has been murdering the family’s sheep. The news is delivered by a shepherd, who visits the house twice: first, near the beginning of the act, to warn the family that someone has been biting the heads off the sheep; then at its end, as a decapitated corpse, falling through the front door while cradling a headless lamb in his arms »like a strange sort of Madonna and child«, Carrington writes. The lamb, the Madonna and her child – one sees the icons of Carrington’s Catholic childhood start to arrange themselves before her audience, only now they have been denied the warm promise of God’s love, his salvation. The violent sacrifices demanded of women, children and animals in these godless environs are laid bare.
Although the scales are ripped from the audience’s eyes early in the play, the characters remain bewitched, wandering the stage in near-hysterical states of lust and anger, longing for liberation. In Act Two, we retreat with Theodora to the nursery, expecting to hear melodic rhymes about the purity and fidelity of sheep. Yet the nursery is no less decrepit than the drawing room. Amidst spiders’ webs and torn books and »the melancholy ghosts of sadistic children«, Theodora has been carrying on her affair with Philip’s brother Jeremy, a creature with a strapping, »luminously white« body, a huge wolf’s head, and a penchant for biting the heads off sheep and shepherds. »Children know something they can’t tell; they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!« wrote Djuna Barnes, in her modernist masterpiece Nightwood. This is a taboo that The Baa-Lamb’s Holiday violates, calling as witnesses to the love of girl and wolf all the gruesome spirits who haunt the nursery: »a blind canary, a drowned kitten, the skeleton of a rat, a pair of boiled goldfish, one or two wingless bluebottles«. Theodora, the only living creature there, is encouraged by Jeremy to kill herself. »You would make an exquisite corpse«, he tells her as they drink lamb’s blood. His cool, mirthful enthusiasm for her suicide, for her to be nothing more than an »exquisite corpse«, makes pointed reference to the 1925 collaborative drawing game created by André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert and Marcel Duchamp – a technique for unlocking the unconscious by having multiple artists take turns drawing body parts on a folded piece of paper, each blind to the others’ contributions. But it also recalls how Surrealists, including Carrington’s lover Ernst, depicted women as fragmented, ghostly objects, their heads, breasts and torsos supplying interchangeable parts for the male artist’s vision of aesthetic bliss. Indeed, Theodora learns that Philip’s former wife Elizabeth also had been Jeremy’s lover, and that she has returned to claim her rightful place in the house beside Philip and on the moors with Jeremy.
But what about the dying sheep? Are they as innocent as the play’s nursery rhymes and Christian iconography suggest? Far from it. They are grand Dionysian creatures, outrageously and hilariously sexed-up, lustily blaspheming against John the Baptist’s exclamation, »Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.« Act Three, set under a full moon on Christmas Eve, introduces us to an »enormously corpulent« ram, roaring with delight »over the thick smoke of his pipe« and ogling Mary, »black as jet«, »a beautiful young sheep, the only virgin in the flock«. »Her pelt is decorated with red flowers, her hooves are of gilt and sparkle like four new sovereigns«, Carrington writes. »She poses dramatically before the sudden hush, then beating her golden forefeet together like castanets she undulates into the midst to the tune of a yearning Waltz.« The Christmas pageant is transformed into a Spanish striptease, the meek little lamb into the black sheep of the family – a virgin yearning to become a »sinful woman«, as Mary Magdalene, Mary’s namesake, is described in the Gospel of Luke. Mary’s tableau is a dark inversion of the astonishing central panel of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, which shows the adoration of the mystic lamb, painted in pure white and showered with gold. Undaunted by the wound in his chest, he stands at the centre of a red altar and bleeds triumphantly into a chalice, while the apostles and the angels kneel before him. In The Baa-Lamb’s Holiday, this triumph portends a ghastly fall. Golden hooved Mary proves irresistible to Jeremy, who slays her and flees the scene of his crime, leaving Theodora standing in a pool of the virgin sheep’s blood. The sex and savagery of the moors are less an escape from the Carnis house than its double, shorn of all human pretence and politeness. »It must be amusing to kill sheep with the snow falling softly all around you and all the sounds of the world muffled into a deaf man’s language,« Theodora says.