Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"When I looked on thee, I heard a strange music." A Look at Salome by Oscar Wilde


"If thou hadst seen me thou wouldst have loved me. I, I saw thee, Jokanaan and I loved thee. Oh, how I loved thee." --Salome, Oscar Wilde

The macabre tale of Salome and John the Baptist has become something of an urban legend—if a story out of the New Testament can really be called an urban legend. As it says in Matthew’s Gospel, King Herod imprisoned John for badmouthing his new bride (and former sister-in-law) Queen Herodias. It didn’t help, of course, that John’s baptisms were drawing an uneasy amount of attention to his cousin from Galilee but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s been supposed that Herod feared (or believed in?) John too much to put him to death so John lived for awhile as Herod’s prophet-in-residence albeit under lock and key. This was cold comfort to Herodias however, who still had to endure John’s insults—John was as well-known for his tactlessness and disdain of women as he was for his prophecies. According to Matthew, all this came to a head (woops) when Herodias’ teenage daughter, Princess Salome, agreed to dance for Herod in exchange for a special gift. After completing the now-infamous Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome (working her mother’s will, many believe) asked for John’s head on a silver platter. And never the type to welch on a deal, Herod delivered.

I’ve read Biblical commentary that says the whole Salome episode never happened, that Herod’s decision to finally kill John the Baptist was purely political, but who really knows? In popular culture, the name Salome (pronounced Sa-lo-may), like the name Lolita, has become synonymous with sexually precocious and/or manipulative girls. However, in the Bible she comes across as little more than her mother’s airheaded minion, a cipher who either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the gravity of her deadly request. This was the image of her I had in my head when I sat down to read Oscar Wilde’s version—which I hungrily devoured in one sitting (it’s only 60 pages long). Written in French in 1891, translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas in 1894, and banned from the British stage until 1931, this one-act play has gone on to inspire an opera, a Ken Russell movie, a pivotal plot device in the classic film Sunset Boulevard and countless other works. It’s no wonder. Wilde’s Salome is a fascinating, complex anti-hero, as cold-blooded as she is painfully sympathetic, and anything but a minion.

Set on an eerie moonlit night outside Herod’s palace, the play opens on a Greek chorus of guards, soldiers, and pages who gossip about both the prophet and the princess. The men present who aren’t besotted with Salome, regard her with suspicion and fear and John the Baptist (called Jokanaan here) makes everybody nervous. Princess Salome shortly joins them after fleeing the palace to get away from Herod. Salome recognizes her ethereal beauty as a potential weapon and isn’t above using it as such, but she also sees it as a curse, especially since her stepfather’s lascivious gaze follows her everywhere. It’s then that she first hears a thunderous voice coming from Herod’s prison. It belongs to the half-crazed holy man and it intoxicates Salome immediately. But once she has Jokanaan at her disposal, she finds he isn’t as receptive as her average suitor. He spurns her and preaches at her and yet, he arouses her more than any man she’s ever known. For the first time, she finds herself actually in love. The two engage in a lyrical battle of wills—she tries to crack his resistance while he tries to reform her—and together, they inch toward a doomed conclusion.

I loved Salome. It was one of the most bewildering, thought-provoking and emotionally satisfying reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. As soon as I finished it, I skimmed through the scant 60 pages, scribbling down favorite passages in my notebook, eager to keep them with me for further inspection. One week later, it still has a hold on me. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read by Oscar Wilde. Yes, the language is poetic and sensual (sometimes to a fault) and it has its sharp, witty moments, but more than anything else, the sense of forboding at the heart of the work makes it come alive. His Salome is at once the victim of a seriously dysfunctional family, a gleeful murderer and a young girl heartbroken over her first love. She experiences a passionate awakening, as unapologetically sexual as it is emotional, but it’s mingled with morbidity. From the start, Death is never far away. The harbingers abound. To my delight, Salome also has a fairy tale quality to it. She is a princess in love, after all and once again, True Love’s Kiss, ever the transformer, is the objective. In the world of this play as in the world of fairy tales, things happen in threes, there’s a great deal of repetition, and morality thrives albeit in a deeply twisted way. Also John the Baptist curiously has Snow White’s coloring—white skin, black hair, red lips—and much is made of this. Much, much, much. In fact if I can fault this play at all, it’s that the descriptions, similes, and metaphors go on a long time almost to the point of implausibility, but they do suit the piece by reflecting the decadence of the world at hand. However, pretty language aside, like many fairy tales, this is, at heart, a grisly story. Just think about why Salome might want John the Baptist’s head. Is it pure punishment or is something else on her mind? And holy man or no, it’s hard to feel sorry for him. He has the sexist, arrogant attitude of a Chosen One and while his message is sincere, his rejection is cruel. Whether or not you think Salome’s own cruelty outweighs or complements her pain and her passion is up to you.

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