Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review: Salomé by Oscar Wilde

Salomé is a one-act tragedy by Oscar Wilde, originally written in French and first published in 1891. The titular character and several other characters are taken from an Old Testament story in which King Herod promises Salomé anything she desires when she dances the dance of the seven veils for him. Salomé promptly asks for the head of John the Baptist, and Herod must oblige.

In Wilde's version, Salomé takes a peverse fancy to Jokanaan (John the Baptist) despite (or perhaps because of) the grim prophecies he has for her mother, Herodias, and stepfather, the Tetrarch (King Herod). It seems as if these prophecies, and the detestation both Herod and Herodias have for the prophet, are the reason for Salomé's sudden obsession--and possibly Jokanaan's immediate dislike of her. Wilde quickly establishes Salomé as a spoiled princess with little regard for human life and far too much awareness of her own beauty.

There are many parallels between Salomé and the moon in the text, often ominous and foreshadowing later events in the play:

The Page of Herodias: Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.

The Young Syrian: She is 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. You would fancy she is dancing.

Historically, the moon is said to be responsible for madness, or "lunacy", brought about by staring at it too long. During the course of the play several characters, including Herod, are taken over with lust for the princess, despite the urgings of others not to look at her:

The Page of Herodias: You must not look at her. You look too much at her.

And later:

Herodias: You are looking again at my daughter. You must not look at her. I have already said so.
The text is heavily repetitive and the effect on the reader is hypnotic. From the outset it is clear that several characters are doomed, and the constant pleas to look away from Salomé and Salomé's continual vow that she will kiss Jokanaan (the event that will bring about her downfall) raises the dramatic tension to an abrupt climax.

An illustration by Aubrey Beardsley from the 1894 edition of the play. Salomé with Jokanaan's head.

Several years ago I saw a production of this play in which all the characters wore B&D get-up. I have to say I wasn't impressed. The leather collars, whips and studs seemed cheap and nasty in comparison with Wilde's rich dialogue. While there's certainly plenty of lust in Salomé, there's very little about it that suggests dominant/submissive relationships. Salomé has Herod in the palm of her hand from the moment he promises her anything her heart desires, but her control is opportunistic rather than the premeditated fantasy of a dominatrix.

Salomé is a dark, richly worded play. It's a delight to read and I'm looking forward to one day seeing an adaptation that does it justice.


And on a more frivolous note, woohoo! 200 followers! You guys rock :D


  1. Congrats 200 followers.. I love Beardsley - so cool.

  2. I've never read this one, but I like Wilde, and I have always loved that Beardsley illustration. It's so forward for it's time, it must have been quite shocking.
    And congrats on 200! A part of me would like to unsubscribe just to screw with you, but a) I would never be so mean and b) that would be pretty silly, considering I just listed you as one of my faves.

  3. Congrats on the 200! love that shit.

  4. Fascinating review, Rhiannon. I've seen quite a few of Wilde's plays and read a lot of his work, but I haven't read or seen Salome. It sounds so much darker than the plays I've seen. If I get the chance to see a production of this I'll definitely take it.

    Congrats on the big 200 too. :)

  5. Thanks Shellie!

    Misty--I reckon you'd love Salome. And you'd never be that mean. Right? Right?? ;)

    Aimee--Thanks darls!

    Lauren--Do go and see a production. Hope the costumes are better than the one I saw though.

  6. "Salome" is certainly very dark - and for me inextricably interwoven with the Beardsley illustrations (I had a huge version of "The Peacock Skirt" up in my room as a teen and young man and only recently threw the by now very tatty copy away). See for the full set.

    I'd love to see someone realise the play as a movie using these illustrations as the stepping off point of the visualisation. Setting the play in a decadent, art deco world just seems so right!

  7. Oood - I mean art nouveau, not art deco!!

  8. NEW Testament, not Old!


  9. The 1923 movie version, produced by and starring Nazimova takes Beardsley as a starting point for its designs. The costumes are designed by Natasha Rambova the wife of Valintino. The whole film is on Youtube.

    SALOME is playing in an amazing production in Los Angeles at the Zombie Joe's Underground Theater in Noho. Saturday at 8:30 pm and Sunday at 3:00---info on Facebook.