Oscar Wilde Drama Analysis
Oscar Wilde completed seven plays during his life, and for the purpose of discussion, these works can be divided into two groups: comedies and serious works. The four social comedies Wilde wrote for the commercial theater of his day, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest, brought him money and prestige but not artistic satisfaction. There were three plays intended as serious works of art: Vera, The Duchess of Padua, and Salomé. None of these three plays gained popular regard, critical acclaim, or theatrical success in Wilde’s lifetime. One can disregard the first two and lose little by the omission. Vera, published when Wilde was only twenty-five, is an apprentice piece that unsuccessfully mingles revolutionary Russian politics (particularly ill-timed, for Czar Alexander II had recently been assassinated, and the consort of his successor was sister to Alexandra, wife of the prince of Wales), improbable psychology, creaky melodrama, and what was already Wilde’s dramatic forte: witty, ironic speech. The Duchess of Padua is a derivative verse drama in the intricate, full-blown style that worked so well in the hands of the Jacobeans and has failed so dismally for their many and often talented imitators. When read, the play has its fine moments, but even at its best, it is nothing more than a good piece of imitation. In Salomé, however, Wilde offered the world a serious drama of unquestionable distinction, a work that further enriched Western culture by providing a libretto for Richard Strauss’s fine opera of the same title.
The English-speaking public, to whom Wilde’s four comedies are familiar enough, is less likely to have read or seen performed his Salomé, yet this biblical extrapolation, with its pervasive air of overripe sensuality, is of all of his plays the one most characteristic of its age and most important to the European cultural tradition. Wilde wrote his poetic drama in France, and in French, during the autumn of 1891. Wilde’s command of the French language was not idiomatic but fluent in the schoolroom style. This very limitation became an asset when he chose to cast his play in the stylized, ritualistic mold set by the Belgian playwright Maeterlinck, whose works relied heavily on repetition, parallelism, and chiming effect—verbal traits equally characteristic of a writer who thinks in English but translates into French. Like the language, the biblical source of the story is bent to Wilde’s purposes. In the New Testament accounts of the death of John the Baptist (or Jokanaan, as he is called in the play), Salomé, the eighteen-year-old princess of Judea, is not held responsible for John’s death; rather, blame for the prophet’s death is laid on Salomé’s mother, Herodias. Furthermore, as Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, and a number of other critics have observed, Wilde’s Herod is a synthesis of a handful of biblical Herods and tetrarchs. Although Wilde’s license with the language and sources of his play is sometimes deprecated, it should not be faulted. As a poetic dramatist, a verbal contriver of a symbolic ritual, his intention was not to transcribe but to transfigure.
The action of Wilde’s Salomé takes place by moonlight on a great terrace above King Herod’s banquet hall. The simple setting is deftly conceived to heighten dramatic effects. On this spare stage, all entrances—whether Salomé’s, and later Herod’s and Herodias’s by the great staircase of Jokanaan’s from the cistern where he has been imprisoned—are striking. In addition, the play’s ruling motifs, moonlight and the recurrent contrasts of white, black, and—with increasing frequency as the play moves toward its grisly climax—red, emerge clearly.
As the play begins, a cosmopolitan group of soldiers and pages attendant on the Judean royal house occupy the terrace. Their conversation on the beauty of the Princess Salomé, the strangeness of the...
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