Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 795

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From its beginnings, Salome was a controversial play, criticized for its perceived immorality. In a sense, the earliest criticism of the play was in the censorship of its first planned production. Rehearsals had begun in June, 1892, at the Palace Theatre in London but were terminated when the government-appointed censor of theatrical productions banned Salome from the stage, officially because of an obscure British law forbidding the onstage depiction of Biblical characters—though it is speculated that the play's focus on blatantly sexual issues was another reason. The general public was not exposed to Salome until 1892, when the manuscript was published in book form in both London and Paris.

Early critics of the text version of Salome were primarily concerned with its perceived immorality. Reflecting widely-held moral ideals of the Victorian period, an anonymous reviewer for the London Times, quoted in Karl Beckson' s book Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, called the play "an arrangement in blood and ferocity, morbid, bizarre, repulsive, and very offensive in its adaptation of scriptural phraseology to situations the reverse of sacred.’’ Another anonymous reviewer quoted by Beckson, this one working for the Pall Mall Gazette, also argued that the play was offensive, saying of the banning of Salome from the British stage,"it would be hard to see how the Examiner of Plays could have acted otherwise'' and further noting that"the creeds of an Empire are not toys to be trifled with by any seeker after notoriety.''

The reviewer's primary focus, however, was not on the supposed immorality of the play but what he believed to be Wilde's lack of originality. According to this reviewer, Salome relies too heavily on the works of other writers. "She is the daughter of too many fathers,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Her bones want strength, her flesh wants vitality, her blood is polluted. There is no pulse of passion in her.’’ Wilde, according to this reviewer, ‘‘has shown, not for the first time, that he can mimic, where he might have shown—for the first time—that he could create.''

In contrast, critic William Archer, also quoted by Beckson, argued that the censorship of Salome ‘‘was perfectly ridiculous’’ and also stated that Wilde's play was superior to those of the writers he was accused of mimicking. ‘‘There is far more depth in Mr. Wilde's work,’’ Archer wrote. ‘‘His characters are men and women, not filmy shapes of mist and moonshine. . . . His palette ... is infinitely richer.’’

Salome was not actually produced in England until 1905, five years after Wilde's death. Even then, accusations of immorality continued to dog the play. Of a 1918 production, G. E. Morrison, writing for the Morning Post (and quoted by Philip Hoare in Oscar Wilde's Last Stand) called Salome ‘‘a bizarre melodrama of disease,’’ and added, ‘‘One may admit its atmosphere though it is an atmosphere people who are healthy and desire to remain so would do well to keep out of.’’ Also quoted by Hoare, Bernard Weller, writing for the Stage, described the play as "a very impure work'' and said that Salome's atmosphere was ‘‘charged with a sickly voluptuousness.’’ For Weller, the play's supposed immorality could not be separated from its art: ‘‘this kind of stuff has no relationship to art." "It is animalism, or worse; for animals have their decencies.'' But even as art, Weller considered the play a failure and used the review as an opportunity to fault Wilde in general, stating that "the late Oscar Wilde, though an adroit writer of showy, insincere comedies of modern society, had no perception of tragedy.''

As moral standards changed in the twentieth century, Salome's "purity" became less of an issue, though some scribes have found the play problematic for other reasons. After discussing the lyrical nature of Salome, critic Peter Raby, in his 1988 book Oscar Wilde, called Salome ‘‘a work which attracted vilification, and which almost invites ridicule.’’ The play, according to Raby, is not easy to stage successfully: "It demands a particular style of speech and movement, and an exquisite sensitivity of design.’’ But Raby still considered the play an achievement, especially when one considers the time period in which it was written. "It is remarkable,’’ the critic wrote,"that Wilde... could create a truly modern symbolist drama within a theatrical and social context of such pronounced hostility.’’ In a sense, the play was greeted with such harsh criticism because Wilde was a man ahead of his time.

Katherine Worth, in her 1983 book Oscar Wilde, seemed to concur, calling Salome "the first triumphant demonstration of the symbolist doctrine of total theatre.’’ Like Raby, she saw Wilde as ahead of his time, anticipating a direction that modern theater would take. Many would agree with Worth, who noted that Salome ‘‘remains Wilde's master work in the symbolic mode.’’


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