While Oscar Wilde was known and loved for his smart-aleck flippancy, a quality that brought popularity to his humorous plays,
it also had the effect of mockery, and in a roundabout way may have contributed to his incarceration. But there was an opposite side of Wilde, too, that was
dead serious, and it is epitomized in this play. However, despite that, even this play brought about controversy. (Even if you are a fan of Wilde's writing,
one has to wonder if he was likable as a person. . .) In any case, he originally wrote Salome in French,
with Sarah Bernhardt already in rehearsal in London for the starring role,1892. However, the Lord Chamberlain's licensor of plays banned it because it depicted
a Biblical theme. It was translated into English in 1894, originally by Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was displeased with the translation, causing
a dispute, and ended up doing the translation himself, but giving Douglas the credit. It was not actually performed until 1896 in Paris, but by that time
Wilde was in prison.
It is unfortunate that all this nonsense surrounded this play. It is a miniature masterwork in one act— poetic, yet stark and abrupt. Several months prior, I had read the same story, although given much different treatment. Gustave Flaubert's Hérodias in his collection entitled Three Tales is the story of the beheading of John the Baptist by tetrarch Herod Antipas, urged by his wife, Hérodias. She hated John the Baptist, referred to in this play as Iokanaan because he shouted out her sins from the cistern in which he was imprisoned. Hérodias was married to Herod II, brother of Herod Antipas. She divorced her husband and Antipas divorced his wife so that they could marry. Some believe Iokanaan's condemnation of this act first prompted his imprisonment. Salome was the daughter of Hérodias and her first husband. Flaubert's treatment of the story is perhaps more Biblically correct—that Hérodias set her daughter up to request the head of Iokanaan in revenge.
However, Wilde's treatment of the subject is much more sexual, or sexually perverse, centering around Salome as the virgin seductress. The fascination with this play is in the poetic, almost song-like repetitious quality of the dialogue. The one act takes place on a terrace outside the banqueting hall, as the moon is shining. The Young Syrian, obsessed with the beauty of Salome, and the Page of Hérodias, obsessed with the moon are speaking:
The Young Syrian: How beautiful is the Princess Salome tonight!
The Page of Hérodias: Look at the moon. How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from the tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she is looking for dead things.
The Young Syrian: She has a strange look. She is like a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver. She is like a princess who has little white doves for feet. One might fancy she was dancing.
The Page of Hérodias: She is like a woman who is dead. She moves very slowly.
And so they continue—not so much a dialogue as two monologues going on
at the same time. Two soldiers converse, joined by other men. Then Iokanaan begins shouting from his prison in the cistern about the coming of Jesus. (In
Wilde's play, a soldier says that the first husband of Hérodias had been imprisoned in this same cistern, then after twelve years strangled to death. )
Salome joins them, leaving the banquet because Herod has been staring at her. She has her own comments on the moon:
Salome: How good to see the moon! She is like a little piece of money, a little silver flower. She is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin. She has the beauty of a virgin. Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men, like the other goddesses.
Salome wants to know who is shouting from the cistern, then begins to
ask questions. A slave urges her to return to the banquet at the tetrarch's request. She refuses, then demands to see the prophet Iokanaan. The others try
to discourage her, but she prevails. When he is revealed, she becomes sexually aroused by him, but he repeatedly scorns her, then returns to the cistern.
Meanwhile the Young Syrian stabs himself to death on the terrace.
Herod Antipas and Hérodias then join them on the terrace. Antipas steps in the blood, on the dead body and wants to know what happened. He is sad that the boy has died. He continues to stare at Salome, which angers her mother.
He tries to order Salome, but she refuses his every attempt. Here again, we have repetitious, song-like dialogue:
Herod: Pour me forth wine. [Wine is brought.] Salome, come drink a little wine with me. I have here a wine that is exquisite. Caesar himself gave it to me. Dip into it thy little red lips, that I may drain the cup.
Salome: I am not thirsty, Tetrarch.
He then comments to her mother how she disobeys, and she is glad. Then it continues:
Herod: Bring me ripe fruits. [Fruits are brought.] Salome, come and eat fruits with me. I love to see in a fruit the mark of thy little white teeth. Bite but a little of this fruit, that I may eat what is left.
Salome: I am not hungry, Tetrarch.
As you can observe, the theme played out most strongly by Wilde in his version of the story is sexual symbolism. Of course, it ends as Salome does agree to perform the dance of the seven veils, followed by the beheading of Iokanaan.
This is a very intriguing, fascinating retelling of the Biblical story. If you are familiar only with Wilde's satiric comedy, by all means read this one. It is very brief—only 45 pages in the Dover Thrift Edition, and will benefit by several readings and research.
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