Leonora Carrington | © Lee Miller

It is New Year’s Eve, 1940, and Surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington, newly released from a psychiatric institution near Santander and on a train to Madrid, has been held up in Ávila, the town of stones and saints. It is cold outside, bitterly cold, empty, and cheerless, and from a seat by a window, she can see a freight train across the tracks. Its trucks are dark, but something white and helpless trembles within; the trucks are filled with sheep, and the sheep are crying from the cold. »I’ll remember the suffering sheep to my dying day«, Carrington recalled nearly fifty years later, in the postscript to her memoir of her flight from Europe, Down Below¹. »It was like hell. We were held up, I don’t know why, for hours, listening to this absolutely hellish lament.«

»Sheep have no ghosts, for sheep have no souls«, Virginia Woolf wrote in Between the Acts², her 1941 novel about pastoral pageantry just before the war. In Carrington’s The Baa-Lamb’s Holiday³, a three-act play written around the same year, sheep are more soulful than human beings, those lonely, wretched creatures whose worldly desires – for sex, for money, for dominion – reared their heads with regular brutality and led to bloodshed. Fascism was one expression of mankind’s will to power, but it was hardly the only one. Family life was another, and, for Carrington, its indignities dated to 1917, the year of her birth in England. Hazelwood Hall, her family’s grimly gothic manor in Silverdale, Lancashire, was the seat of her father’s textile empire. Mercilessly, and with a keen sense of Roman Catholic piety, he ruled over his three factories and his only daughter; »Of the two, I was more afraid of my father than I was of Hitler«, Carrington would later claim. She was dark-haired, dark-eyed, elfin, and bright; possessed by an indelicate sense of fancy and a wicked sense of humour; a little girl despised by the nuns, who had failed to tame her at various convent schools, and an adolescent beloved by her nanny and mother Marion. When Marion enrolled her in art classes in London, Leonora met and fell in love with the German Surrealist painter Max Ernst, nineteen years older than her and already married. In 1936, they journeyed first to Paris, then to a small stone cottage in Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche, where they lived and painted until the Nazis descended and Ernst was interned by the French as a »degenerate artist«. Desperate, Carrington fled from France to Spain, where she had the breakdown that led to her confinement in Santander – »in a sanitorium full of nuns«, she wrote – and, once her freedom was secured, to the crying of the sheep on the train. 

Reading Carrington’s stage descriptions is enough to realise that something is terribly wrong with this family, even before anyone begins to speak Merve Emre

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.  

Like all of Carrington’s work, from her paintings to her short stories to her novel The Hearing Trumpet, comedy and cruelty usher in a powerful critique of how men exploit women, and human beings exploit the non-human world. Women and animals ought to be allies in a cosmic battle against men and their spectacular hubris, though they do not realise it. The trail of blood leads from the fallen figure of the Madonna to black-pelted Mary to the young women of the play, undutiful Theodora and Elizabeth, pitted against one another by the men they love. Unlike Mrs. Carnis, happy to be entombed forever in her decaying house, Theodora and Elizabeth stumble around the moors, blood trickling from the corners of their mouths. Their voices cry out in rage, and with the piercing hopelessness of the sheep Carrington once heard bleating on the train. When, in the play’s final scene, the ghost of Jeremy appears to Theodora, it is to stop her from leaving the house for good, from dying and following him to the afterlife, where her spirit might enjoy the same eternally reckless freedom as his. He speaks of her body with greed, chains her to it with a cunning mixture of flattery and threats. »You would be hideous all withered up with the cold. I wouldn’t love you anymore. I only love beautiful women,« he warns her. »When I am gone you must remember that I love you. You must accept no comfort and no consolations. You must be pale and beautiful … above all tragic. Wild and tragic … but never ugly. Remember that. I shall send you away if you are ugly when you come to me.«

It is difficult to find anything redemptive in the play’s final scene of Theodora’s agonised goodbye, her abandonment by the man for whom she has offered to sacrifice so much. Nothing good awaits her, not in this world at least. »The end. Plaintive music, weeping and clapping«, reads the last line of the stage directions. The sense of community that would give to Carrington’s later writing and painting their joyous, utopian feminism is missing from this frozen landscape, this house that »stinks of age and death«. »We shall understand each other before long … perhaps«, Elizabeth says to Theodora when the women first meet, yet this understanding extends only to the suffering they share at the hands of the Carnis brothers, not the will or the wherewithal to overcome it together. In The Baa-Lamb’s Holiday, critique never yields to an affirmative vision of how to create a different world, a livelier and more just one. In 1940, Carrington had yet to arrive in Mexico City, where she, along with Remedios Varo and Kati Horna, would forge a community of women artists in exile, stressing the importance of mutual care to the making of art. Most of the women she encountered during her youth in Europe, the ones who flit in and out of Down Below, presented themselves as sexual rivals or repressive caretakers. Chief among them was Frau Asegurado, a nurse at the institute in Santander, aid to Carrington’s sadistic doctor, Don Luis. She had told Carrington a story, about a young dead woman named Covadonga, whom Carrington understood to be her double, much like the relationship between Theodora and Elizabeth. »Frau Asegurado often spoke to me of Covadonga, surrounding her death with mystery; I believed that Don Luis had killed her through torture, to make her more perfect, as he had tortured me.« Along with the crying sheep, the story of Covadonga as Don Luis’s exquisite corpse may have seeded the plot of The Baa-Lamb’s Holiday.  

In composer Olga Neuwirth and her librettist, Elfriede Jelinek, Carrington has found herself another artistic community, one that transcends the constraints of time and space Merve Emre

To measure the distance between 1940 and the 1990s, between The Baa-Lamb’s Holiday and its operatic adaptation, Bählamms Fest (1992–98), is to allow a glimmer of hope to light the play’s bleak and oppressive atmosphere. In composer Olga Neuwirth and her librettist, Elfriede Jelinek, Carrington has found herself another artistic community, one that transcends the constraints of time and space; two kindred spirits who are as sharp and funny and imaginative as she once was. To listen to Bählamms Fest is to hear the hellish lament of the suffering sheep, to experience Carrington’s pale and desolate landscape as a series of sounds that echo from her past in our present. Consider the beginning: dark, perfect silence, then suddenly, a long, airy, plangent cry – is it a wind instrument or a woman’s voice? – accompanied by the rustle and creak of invisible spirits. The calm, imperious tone with which Mrs. Carnis opens Scene 1, ordering her servant about, is unsettled by Theodora in Scene 2; at one moment, her voice is brittle with anxiety, straining for the highest part of its range; at the next, she sings simple and pleasant nursery rhymes, presenting herself as childish and obedient. The electronic doubling of the violent voices of Philip and the Shepherd in Scene 3 gives one the sense of being enclosed by men; they are everywhere; their anger is inescapable, their power amplified by the industrial and technical tools they have at their disposal. When Elizabeth appears in Scene 4, her high-pitched, reproachful trills of homecoming – »Mein armer kleiner Philip, du siehst nicht gut aus« – recall the opera’s opening cry, as if the inanimate object that produced it has assumed human form and crept into the house. Neuwirth’s decision to cast Jeremy as a countertenor is an equally brilliant act of resurrection. It conjures first the ghosts of the castrati, whom classical composers used to voice otherworldly, queer creatures; then, through Neuwirth’s innovative use of electronic morphing technologies, the howl of a wolf.   

Refusing all pre-existing schemas of the voice as male or female, human or animal, naturally or artificially produced, Jeremy’s transcendent singing brings the comedy of the opera to the fore. »I find that one can merely laugh about the fact that one is a human being«, she writes in her 1998 notes to Bählamms Fest, believing, as Carrington did, that the human body is a hard, decorous shell, a ludicrous mechanism for covering and containing the many spirits raging within. Consider the other mechanisms that Neuwirth and Jelinek use to draw our attention to the artificial nature of bodies: the ghosts projected onto a canvas in Scene 5, created with puppets and screens; the video-game sheep that speak in »beeps, squeaks, and siren noises« during the bacchanal in Scene 8; the boombox that voices Jeremy’s lines when he and Theodora part in Scene 12. None of these devices aspires to represent the sounds or sights of nature faithfully. Rather, they draw our attention to how nature, as distinct and separable from culture, and the real, as distinct and separable from the unreal, are ideas manufactured by mankind for the purpose of controlling what kinds of alliances – between humans and animals, living and dead – can be imagined or aspired to. 

If these are the constructions on which men stake their power, they are very flimsy indeed, easier to shatter than we might imagine. Of Jeremy’s final appearance as a ghost, Jelinek writes: »His cheap mendacity and second-rate ghost-ness should be made painfully obvious.« In Bählamms Fest, there is no reason why Theodora and Elizabeth should not overcome him, though feminist revolution would have been too dogmatic and clumsy a revision of Carrington’s play. Instead, in the opera’s resplendent final scene, Theodora is given the opportunity to grow old, and to look back on her youth with painful knowledge. »This moment – that one can have an incisive experience at a young age, and with which one must continue to live – plays a decisive role in the end of this musical drama,« writes Neuwirth. »Theodora may have been forsaken, but perhaps she can draw conclusions from her experience, her pain, her love’s joy loss and begin anew consciously and with real hope and strength.« After all, that is precisely what Carrington did upon her release from captivity in 1940, and what so many ordinarily heartbroken, untragic creatures continue to do today.

DR. MERVE EMRE, born in Adana, Turkey, is Associate Professor of English at the University of Oxford and a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. She is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. In the latter, her article How Leonora Carrington Feminized Surrealism appeared in the issue of 28 December 2020.

¹Leonora Carrington, Down Below, from the French by Edmund Jacoby, Frankfurt 1994.
²Leonora Carrington, Between the Acts, London 1941.
³La Fête de l’agneau / The Baa-Lamb’s Holiday (German: Das Fest des Lamms), 1940.
⁴ Leonora Carrington, Das Hörrohr, translated by Tilman Sprengler, Frankfurt 1976.