Salome Study Guide

Oscar Wilde's one-act play, Salome, is a loose interpretation of the account of the beheading of St. John the Baptist in the 1st century A.D. as recorded in the New Testament (Gospel of Mark 6:15-29 and Gospel of Matthew 14:1-12). While Salome is in fact a minor character in the biblical tale, she was the focus of fascination for many late 19th-century artists, who found in her character a unique vehicle for exploring the shifting significance of female sexuality. Wilde's treatment of Salome extends this focus, portraying the Judaic princess as the main reason for the beheading of John the Baptist. While the New Testament depicts Salome as a pawn of her mother's plan to eliminate the prophet, Wilde re-imagines John's execution as the direct and deliberate result of Salome's unrequited sexual desire for him.

Written in French toward the end of Wilde's career, the ornate prose of Salome marks the play as a transition in Wilde's writing away from the epigrammatic, comic wit of Wildean aestheticism toward a dense, abstracted style most commonly associated with the French Symbolist poetry of Rimbaud, Mallarme, and Baudelaire.

Wilde composed Salome while living in Paris during the fall of 1891. Accounts of the writing process vary, but it is likely that the English writer was responding to at least some of the many visual and literary interpretations of the biblical story that abounded in the late 19th century. Works by Gustave Flaubert, J.K. Huysmans, Stephane Mallarme, and, in particular, Gustave Moreau--whose paintings of Salome were hugely influential for the expressionist art movement to come--were among the rich treatments of Salome that were available to Wilde as he researched and composed his script.

With the help of a few friends from the Parisian literary scene, including Pierre Louys, to whom he dedicated the first edition, Wilde successfully completed the French manuscript. By June 1892, rehearsals for Salome were underway at London's Palace Theatre for a production that boasted some of the biggest names in theater, including set designer Charles Ricketts, novelist Reggie Turner (as a producer), and the French-born theatre superstar Sarah Bernhardt in the play's title role. While Wilde had long worshipped Bernhardt, the two soon clashed at the actress's increasingly demanding behavior on set (for example, her insistence on choosing her own costume and makeup design). Wilde's problems with Bernhardt, however, became quickly irrelevant when the Examiner of Plays, Edward Pigott, refused to license the performance and Salome was suspended indefinitely. Many suspected that the play's erotic (if not homoerotic) subtext was at issue, but at least nominally, Salome was banned according to a longstanding policy against representing biblical characters on the English stage.

With the stage performance of Salome out of production, Wilde focused on publishing both the original script and an English translation. The French manuscript was published in 1893, and the publishers Elkin and Lane made arrangements for the translated edition. The process of completing the English-language manuscript was a famously frustrating one for Wilde. The flighty Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's long-time lover, was hired to translate Wilde's nuanced prose, a decision that resulted in a falling out between the two when the playwright objected to Douglas's awkward, error-filled translation. While Wilde and Douglas later reconciled as friends and lovers, Wilde refused to officially credit Douglas as translator, merely dedicating the English-language edition of Salome to "my friend, Lord Alfred Douglas, the translator of my play." Wilde also struggled with his dissatisfaction over the manuscript's accompanying illustrations by upstart young artist Aubrey Beardsley, which were, he felt, "too Japanese while my play was Byzantine."

The scandal surrounding Wilde's arrest in 1895 seemed to herald the end of Salome, but partly as a show of support for the persecuted writer, the Parisian Theatre de l'Oevre staged a production of Salome in 1896. While the critical reviews were mixed, the Paris production is now legendary for the bold statement it made in favor of Wilde's sexual freedom and artistic licence. The premiere was attended by many important figures from the Parisian literary and intellectual elite, and it featured programs designed by Toulouse-Lautrec. Semi-private productions of Salome were staged in Berlin in 1903 and then in Dresden, London, and New York in 1905. Due to the ongoing controversy around its author, however, Salome was not performed publicly in London until 1931.

In the 20th century, Wilde's Salome has enjoyed a long life both on and off the stage. The most famous adaptation of the script is Richard Strauss's 1905 opera. The opera's lush eroticism and strikingly modern musical score made Strauss almost as notorious a composer as Wilde was a writer. Shortly thereafter, Salome was adapted for several films, including American, French, and Russian versions of Wilde's play. The 1918 Hollywood production of Salome, starring the vampish starlet Theda Bara, remains a cult favorite of the silent era.

Most remarkable, however, is Salome's still-growing importance to contemporary literary criticism and history. While earlier criticism on Wilde focused on his comic plays, modern scholars are revisiting Salome as a unique distillation of the provocative sexual politics of the decadent era. Feminist critics have been particularly intrigued by Wilde's treatment of Salome as a sexually desiring heroine, while others have pointed out the homoerotic desire through which some of the play's action unfolds. Beardsley's accompanying images, a radical departure from typical late-Victorian illustration, are often cited as one of the first and greatest examples of Art Deco design.