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.