In Scenes from an Execution, now playing as part of Potomac Theatre Project’s summer residency at Atlantic Stage 2, the idea of an artist “selling out” is not a new one. Playwright Howard Barker eschews contemporary artists and their struggle with commodification, focusing his dramatic lens on a Renaissance-era painter–and a middle-aged female one, at that.
Scenes from an Execution follows Galactia (Jan Maxwell) as she receives a commission from Urgentino, The Doge of Venice (Alex Draper), to depict a recent battle that Venice has won. Urgentino recognizes Galactia’s great talent, but he is concerned that she will be unable to defer to the requirements of the Admiral (Bill Army) or the Cardinal (Steven Dykes). While her lover, fellow painter Carpeta (David Barlow), and her daughter Supporta (Lana Meyer) warn Galactia to adhere to the Doge’s wishes, Galactia remains adamant. She wants to convey the violence and horror of war in her painting, and not even the threat of execution will stop her from realizing her vision.
Out of all of Barker’s plays that I have seen so far, Scenes from an Execution has been the most approachable. While there are no clear winners, there is an unexpected transfer of sympathies in the play. At first, Galactia’s relentless defense of her artistic integrity appears to be noble, while Venice and the Church seem to be unimaginative tyrants. As the play progresses, however, we see that Galactia’s stubbornness would make Ayn Rand proud… and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Galactia, no matter how noble her ideals are, has been hired to create something that edifies Venice. Moreover, when her loved ones, fellow colleagues, and employers inform Galactia of this repeatedly, she ignores them all for her sole mission. While Galactia’s creative desires should be expressed, they can be shown in another painting–a painting not made on the state’s dime.
At one point during the play, Galactia says, “I haven’t time to listen to your motives, and who cares about them anyway? If we all had to understand one another’s motives!” Still, I wish there was a point in the play where the audience could listen to her motivations. It is clear that Galactia thrives on creating works containing anger and violence, but there is little else that explains her connection to her art and why she wants to convey these dark messages. As a result, her willingness to become a martyr for her art devolves into shallow petulance. While Barker appears to understand the appeal of selling out, he leaves the artist’s quest for true expression a mystery.