Salomé by Oscar Wilde.

Detail of Salome Dancing Before Herod
by Gustave Moreau (1876)
Salomé is a play by Oscar Wilde first published in French in 1891, then in English in 1893. It's a tragedy and very much within the Decadent movement, I feel. All the while I read it I was reminded of Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans, which is appropriate as it turns out: in J.-K. Huysmans' 1884 novel there is a description of Salomé (a lengthy quote to follow, but worth quoting in full I thought):
Des Esseintes had acquired his two masterpieces and, at night, used to sink into revery before one of them—a representation of Salomé, conceived in this fashion:
A throne, resembling the high altar of a cathedral, reared itself beneath innumerable vaults leaping from heavy Romanesque pillars, studded with polychromatic bricks, set with mosaics, incrusted with lapis lazuli and sardonyx, in a palace that, like a basilica, was at once Mohammedan and Byzantine in design. 
In the centre of the tabernacle, surmounting an altar approached by semi-circular steps, sat Herod the Tetrarch, a tiara upon his head, his legs pressed closely together, his hands resting upon his knees. 
His face was the color of yellow parchment; it was furrowed with wrinkles, ravaged with age. His long beard floated like a white cloud upon the star-like clusters of jewels constellating the orphrey robe fitting tightly over his breast. 
Around this form, frozen into the immobile, sacerdotal, hieratic pose of a Hindoo god, burned perfumes wafting aloft clouds of incense which were perforated, like phosphorescent eyes of beasts, by the fiery rays of the stones set in the throne. Then the vapor rolled up, diffusing itself beneath arcades where the blue smoke mingled with the gold powder of the long sunbeams falling from the domes. 
In the perverse odor of the perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of the temple, Salomé, her left arm outstretched in a gesture of command, her right arm drawn back and holding a large lotus on a level with her face, slowly advances on her toes, to the rhythm of a stringed instrument played by a woman seated on the ground. 
Her face is meditative, solemn, almost august, as she commences the lascivious dance that will awaken the slumbering senses of old Herod. Diamonds scintillate against her glistening skin. Her bracelets, her girdles, her rings flash. On her triumphal robe, seamed with pearls, flowered with silver and laminated with gold, the breastplate of jewels, each link of which is a precious stone, flashes serpents of fire against the pallid flesh, delicate as a tea-rose: its jewels like splendid insects with dazzling elytra, veined with carmine, dotted with yellow gold, diapered with blue steel, speckled with peacock green. 
With a tense concentration, with the fixed gaze of a somnambulist, she beholds neither the trembling Tetrarch, nor her mother, the fierce Herodias who watches her, nor the hermaphrodite, nor the eunuch who sits, sword in hand, at the foot of the throne—a terrible figure, veiled to his eyes, whose breasts droop like gourds under his orange-checkered tunic. 
This conception of Salomé, so haunting to artists and poets, had obsessed Des Esseintes for years. How often had he read in the old Bible of Pierre Variquet, translated by the theological doctors of the University of Louvain, the Gospel of Saint Matthew who, in brief and ingenuous phrases, recounts the beheading of the Baptist! How often had he fallen into revery, as he read these lines: 
Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.
And she, being before instructed of her mother, said: Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger.
And the king was sorry: nevertheless, for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.
And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.
And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.
But neither Saint Matthew, nor Saint Mark, nor Saint Luke, nor the other Evangelists had emphasized the maddening charms and depravities of the dancer. She remained vague and hidden, mysterious and swooning in the far-off mist of the centuries, not to be grasped by vulgar and materialistic minds, accessible only to disordered and volcanic intellects made visionaries by their neuroticism; rebellious to painters of the flesh, to Rubens who disguised her as a butcher's wife of Flanders; a mystery to all the writers who had never succeeded in portraying the disquieting exaltation of this dancer, the refined grandeur of this murderess. 
In Gustave Moreau's work, conceived independently of the Testament themes, Des Esseintes as last saw realized the superhuman and exotic Salomé of his dreams. She was no longer the mere performer who wrests a cry of desire and of passion from an old man by a perverted twisting of her loins; who destroys the energy and breaks the will of a king by trembling breasts and quivering belly. She became, in a sense, the symbolic deity of indestructible lust, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, of accursed Beauty, distinguished from all others by the catalepsy which stiffens her flesh and hardens her muscles; the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, baneful, like the Helen of antiquity, fatal to all who approach her, all who behold her, all whom she touches. 
Thus understood, she was associated with the theogonies of the Far East. She no longer sprang from biblical traditions, could no longer even be assimilated with the living image of Babylon, the royal Prostitute of the Apocalypse, garbed like her in jewels and purple, and painted like her; for she was not hurled by a fatidical power, by a supreme force, into the alluring vileness of debauchery. 
The painter, moreover, seems to have wished to affirm his desire of remaining outside the centuries, scorning to designate the origin, nation and epoch, by placing his Salomé in this extraordinary palace with its confused and imposing style, in clothing her with sumptuous and chimerical robes, in crowning her with a fantastic mitre shaped like a Phœnician tower, such as Salammbô bore, and placing in her hand the sceptre of Isis, the tall lotus, sacred flower of Egypt and India.
But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.
Salomé dansant devant Hérode
by Gustave Moreau (1876).
It's said this may have been one of the inspirations for Wilde's Salomé, his play about Salome, the daughter of Herod II (the son of Herod who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, Matthew 2: 16 - 18) and Herodias. She appears unnamed in the Bible, Matthew 14: 3 - 11:
[3] For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife. [4] For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. [5] And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. [6] But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. [7] Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. [8] And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger. [9] And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. [10] And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. [11] And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. 
In Wilde's one act play he writes of how Salome asked for the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) as a reward for dancing for Herod after Jokanaan refused to kiss her. The play begins with the Young Syrian and the Page of Herodias talking of Salomé and the moon -
Tʜᴇ Yᴏᴜɴɢ Sʏʀɪᴀɴ: How beautiful is the Princess Salomé to-night!
Tʜᴇ Pᴀɢᴇ ᴏғ Hᴇʀᴏᴅɪᴀs: Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.
Tʜᴇ Yᴏᴜɴɢ Sʏʀɪᴀɴ: She has a strange look. She is like a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver. She is like a princess who has little white doves for feet. You would fancy she was dancing.
Tʜᴇ Pᴀɢᴇ ᴏғ Hᴇʀᴏᴅɪᴀs: She is like a woman who is dead. She moves very slowly.
They hear the voice of Jokanaan; a soldier explains how he is a prophet and came from the desert. Salomé then arrives, then Jokanaan, and the two meet. She demands a kiss from him and no matter how much he refuses and no matter what he says she replies "I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan". The Young Syrian begs her to stop and even kills himself, his body falling between the two. Later Herod slips in his blood:
Ah! I have slipped! I have slipped in blood! It is an ill omen. It is a very evil omen. Wherefore is there blood here?... and this body, what does this body here? Think you I am like the King of Egypt, who gives no feast to his guests but that he shows them a corpse? Whose is it? I will not look on it.
The soldiers deny any knowledge; this is followed by an argument between Herod, Herodias, and Jokanaan, then a feast during which they toast Caesar. Herod then asks for Salomé to dance for him and she refuses until he makes her a promise -
Dance for me, Salomé, I beseech you. If you dance for me you may ask of me what you will, and I will give it you, even unto the half of my kingdom.
L'Apparition by Gustave Moreau (1876).
She consents and dances the dance of the seven veils, the moon turns read, and Salomé makes her demand:
Sᴀʟᴏᴍé: [Kneeling] I would that they presently bring me in a silver charger....
Hᴇʀᴏᴅ: [Laughing.] In a silver charger? Surely yes, in a silver charger. She is charming, is she not? What is it you would have in a silver charger, O sweet and fair Salomé, you who are fairer than all the daughters of Judæa? What would you have them bring thee in a silver charger? Tell me. Whatsoever it may be, they shall give it you. My treasures belong to thee. What is it, Salomé?
Sᴀʟᴏᴍé: [Rising] The head of Jokanaan.
Herod, like Ovid's Phoebus (Book I of Metamorphoses), is horrified and begs her to reconsider, offering her anything else, emeralds, even peacocks:
Salomé, you know my white peacocks, my beautiful white peacocks, that walk in the garden between the myrtles and the tall cypress trees. Their beaks are gilded with gold, and the grains that they eat are gilded with gold also, and their feet are stained with purple. When they cry out the rain comes, and the moon shows herself in the heavens when they spread their tails. Two by two they walk between the cypress trees and the black myrtles, and each has a slave to tend it. Sometimes they fly across the trees, and anon they crouch in the grass, and round the lake. There are not in all the world birds so wonderful. There is no king in all the world who possesses such wonderful birds. I am sure that Cæsar himself has no birds so fair as my birds. I will give you fifty of my peacocks. They will follow you whithersoever you go, and in the midst of them you will be like the moon in the midst of a great white cloud.... I will give them all to you. I have but a hundred, and in the whole world there is no king who has peacocks like unto my peacocks. But I will give them all to you. Only you must loose me from my oath, and must not ask of me that which you have asked of me.
She repeats, however, her demand: "Give me the head of Jokanaan." And so the head is brought, and Salomé kisses Jokanaan's mouth, complaining that it is bitter. Herod panics.
... Surely some terrible thing will befall. Manasseh, Issachar, Ozias, put out the torches. I will not look at things, I will not suffer things to look at me. Put out the torches! Hide the moon! Hide the stars! Let us hide ourselves in our palace, Herodias. I begin to be afraid.
[The slaves put out the torches. The stars disappear. A great black cloud crosses the moon and conceals it completely. The stage becomes very dark. The Tetrarch begins to climb the staircase.]
Tʜᴇ Vᴏɪᴄᴇ ᴏғ Sᴀʟᴏᴍé: Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood?... But perchance it is the taste of love.... They say that love hath a bitter taste.... But what of that? what of that? I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan.
[A moonbeam falls on Salomé covering her with light.]
Hᴇʀᴏᴅ: [Turning round and seeing Salomé.] Kill that woman!
[The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salomé, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judæa.]
There the play ends.

It is a great play, darkly beautiful, full of mysticism and vanity. What I especially loved was the dreamlike quality of it, the musings on the moon and the beauty of Salomé which slowly turns into a nightmare: Salomé becomes a monster, Herod fears her, she must be killed. This is quite possibly my favourite Wilde play, though of course very unlike his comedies of the 1890s!

And that was the 33rd title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week, another Wilde! - The Importance of Being Earnest.

Comments

  1. scary and a bit upsetting... strange, occasionally, the ways of artistic endeavor... the excerpt from Huysmans is a bit reminiscent of the opening chapters of "The Worm Ouroboros" by E.R. Eddison with it's lush and detailed description of the hall and palace in the land of Zimiamvia...

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    1. Oh good heavens, there's "The Worm" again! It keeps popping up --- the first time I saw it was in connection with C.S. Lewis. Perhaps after I finish The Well at the World's End, that can be my next read!

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    2. I've never actually come across "The Worm" - I'll have to check that one out!

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  2. May I confess, I wasn't fussed with The Importance of Being Earnest, so I've avoided other plays by Wilde. But this one sounds fascinating! Thanks for the great review and for reminding me to be more open-minded when it comes to his plays. I do need to try another one!

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    1. It is fascinating, a great play but as Mudpuddle said it's quite disturbing too.

      I like Wilde's comedies so I'm looking forward to The Importance of Being Earnest, probably will read it in the next few days - I'll let you know what I make of it :)

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