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Here's a Salomé in a nutshell, served up on a (gulp) silver platter: girl meets boy, girl has the hots for boy, boy rejects girl, girl dances for her sleazy stepdad, girl has stepdad behead boy, girl makes out with boy's severed head.
No. We're not joking. We kind of wish we were.
Salomé, written in 1891 by Oscar Wilde, is a one-act play based on the Biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist. As in the Biblical versions of the story, which appear in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Salomé dances for her creepy-as-anything stepfather, Herod, and requests the head of John the Baptist (called Jokanaan in the play, after the Hebrew pronunciation of his name) in return.
Yup. We're still not joking.
Wilde originally wrote the play in French because "[t]here was another instrument I had listened to all my life [the French language], and I wanted once to touch this new instrument to see whether I could make any beautiful thing out of it" (Ellmann 373). Yes. This is a beautiful play about an ugly, ugly, ugly thing.
In 1893, two years after its writing, it was finally set to debut on the London stage starring the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt. At that time, English theater was regulated by the Lord Chamberlain, who had the job as censor. The play was, in fact banned (no shocker there). The play finally premiered in Paris in 1896, while Wilde was in prison for "gross indecency"…which means that he was locked up for being gay. The first British production of the play occurred a whopping thirty-five years later, in 1931.
Since 1891, Salomé has been adapted in countless ways. The English artist Aubrey Beardsley contributed illustrations (yikes!) to the English translation of the play, and a number of television and film versions have been produced. The most famous reinterpretation of the material, though, is Richard Strauss's 1905 opera, also called Salomé.
Why does this play endure? Shucks. You try forgetting this play after you've read it. It's impossible.
We're going to give you the short answer, followed by the long answer. The short answer? Because it's a seriously freakin' fearless work of art, and manages to make something super-gross (making out with a severed head!) into something beautiful.
The long answer? We'll pass the mic to our man Oscar Wilde real quick:
All that I desire to point out is the general principle
that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel
sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is
true. Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some
strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact
what has been dreamed in fiction.
Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying (Works 1085)
Wilde—the dude who wrote such hilarious plays as The Importance of Being Earnest—was more than simply a funny guy. He was a philosopher too. He was the poster child for Aestheticism, an artistic movement with a simple but powerful slogan: Art for Art's Sake. These guys believed that art didn't have to have a message or a moral, and it didn't need to be based on reality. It simply needed to be beautiful.
With Salomé, Wilde takes that basic principle and applies it to the story of Salomé and John the Baptist. In his hands, a Biblical account becomes a meditation on death, desire and human beauty. Salomé only exists as a piece of art because Wilde was bold (super bold: this play was heavily censored) enough to radically remake a sacred text.
The fact that his elaborations have no factual basis (and, in the case of many of the flowing, sensuous, physical descriptions, have no purpose)— well, that's the point. Oscar W. found the Biblical Salomé to be too passive, too boring, so he made a new Salomé in his own image.
Wilde's Salomé is a seeker after beauty, a woman tireless in her quest for physical satisfaction (bow chicka bow bow). She's super lustful…so lustful that she knows no morality.
It's this crazy audacity that sets Salomé apart. Wilde takes a few lines of sacred text and subverts the heck out of it. He creates something totally new, something artificial and uninhibited, and makes it both beautiful and horrifying at the same time. By crossing over the boundaries of morality—and, sure, good taste—he makes Art, and Art alone.
Read It And Weep
A free online version of this creeptastic play.
Gustave Moreau's Salomés
This page, which is part of site about chopping people's heads off, features a number of Gustave Moreau's Salomé paintings. Icky.
In this silent version of the Salomé story Wilde gets a writer's credit. The title role is played by the Russian actress Nazimova.
Salomé's Last Dance (1988)
This is a bit of an odd one. Yes, it features a performance of Salomé…but the performance is in a brothel…and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas are in the audience. Its tagline? "NOTORIOUS, SCANDALOUS, WILDE!"
A Version of the Dance of the Seven Veils
This one's from the 1954 flick Salome—not based on the play—and features Rita Hayworth in the title role.
Another Take On the Dance of the Seven Veils
This one's from a German production of Strauss' Salomé.