The story of the princess Salome (pronounced ‘‘Sah-loh-may’’), stepdaughter of Herod, dates back to the book of Matthew in the Bible. In the original story, Salome dances for Herod's birthday feast, and he is so pleased with her dancing that he offers to give her anything she desires. Urged on by her mother, Salome requests the head of John the Baptist, and so she is responsible for the death of John. Since this first version of the story was written, many writers have retold the story of Salome. One of the most famous versions is the play Salome by Oscar Wilde.
Wilde wrote Salome in French in 1891, but the play was not produced for five years. In 1892, rehearsals for the play's first planned production began, but they were halted when the licenser of plays for the Lord Chamberlain, the British government official in charge of theater censorship, banned Salome, ostensibly because of an old law forbidding the depiction of Biblical characters onstage but probably also because of the play's focus on sexual passion. Wilde was so upset by Salome's censorship that he threatened to leave England and live in France, where he would be granted more artistic freedom.
Wilde remained in England, however, and in 1893, the play was published in French simultaneously in France and England with drawings by the artist Aubrey Beardsley, whose grotesque and even irrelevant illustrations for Salome have since become famous in their own right. Upon publication, the play was hailed by some as a work of genius but dismissed by many others as vulgar and unoriginal. Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's lover, translated the play for an English-language edition, but Wilde was so greatly dissatisfied with Douglas's work that he revised the translation extensively (the English translation is now generally considered the work of Wilde). In 1896, with Wilde already in prison, Salome was finally produced, but in France, not England. The play did not appear on the English stage until 1905, five years after Wilde's death.
Many critics believe Wilde's inspiration for his version of Salome may have been the play La Princesse Maleine, written in French by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. It is known that Wilde admired Maeterlinck's work; while he was in prison, Wilde asked his friends to bring copies of his work. Like Salome, La Princesse Maleine focuses on a strong young woman whose passion leads to her death. Maeterlinck's play is also similar to Wilde's stylistically. La Princesse Maleine makes use of the repetition of words and phrases, a method that gives Salome its poetic quality.
In the years since Wilde wrote Salome, the play has been used as the basis for further work. In 1905, Richard Strauss, retaining Wilde's text, turned the play into an opera, and there have been a number of film versions. In addition, the play itself has been revived many times and continues to be produced today. Once controversial and reviled by many critics, Salome is now considered an important symbolic work in modern drama.
As Salome begins, the Young Syrian, the Page of Herodias, the Cappadocian, the Nubian, and a number of soldiers stand on a great terrace in the palace of Herod. It is night, and the moon is shining. Towards the back of the set, there is a large cistern in which Jokanaan, the prophet is imprisoned. The Young Syrian repeatedly speaks to the Page of how beautiful Salome is, but the Page tells the Syrian that he should not look at Salome so much, that something terrible will happen.
The two also discuss the moon. To the Page, the moon seems like a dead woman. For the Syrian, the moon is a dancing princess. The Cappodocian, the Nubian, and the soldiers discuss various beliefs about the nature of God or the gods. The first soldier says that the Hebrews worship a God that cannot be seen, and the Cappadocian sees no sense in such a belief. In his country, there are no gods left. From the cistern, Jokanaan speaks of the coming of Christ, and there is some discussion of the nature of Jokanaan's prophecies, of whether the prophet is a holy man or is only ‘‘saying ridiculous things.’’
Salome enters, saying she can no longer stay in the banqueting hall with Herod and Herodias. To Salome, the moon is a virgin—‘‘She has never defiled herself.’’ Salome hears the voice of Jokanaan and says she must speak with him, that he must be taken out of the cistern. At first, all say that Jokanaan cannot be removed, but finally the Syrian is persuaded by the princess's charms to bring him forth. Jokanaan is released and begins to speak against Herodias, Salome's mother.
Salome is fascinated by the prophet. At first she tells him that his body is beautiful, but he insults her, calling her the Daughter of Babylon, telling her not to speak to him. She speaks further of his appearance, saying that his hair is terrible but that she desires his mouth. She tells him to let her kiss his mouth. He continues to insult her, and she repeatedly responds, ‘‘I will kiss thy mouth.’’ The Syrian begs Salome to stay away from Jokanaan, but she will not listen, and he finally kills himself in despair, falling between them. Jokanaan tells Salome to seek the Son of Man, but when she continues to tell him to let...
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